I re-read Little Women last year and was surprised to find that my memories of the story had been unduly influenced by the wonderful Winona Ryder-Kirsten Dunst-Claire Danes film version I watched as a child; in comparison to the film, half the book appeared to be missing, and I wondered why the filmmakers had taken such liberties in extending the story so far beyond Louisa May Alcott’s imagination! It was then that I realised the film had depicted not just Little Women, but its sequel, (one of three sequels, actually) Good Wives, too, and so off I set to find myself a copy of the latter. I found a gorgeous early 20th century edition that matches my copy of Little Women shortly afterwards, but as usual, it was left to gather dust for a few months before I got around to reading it. I never change! Last week I was finally in the mood for a bit more Louisa May Alcott and so out came Good Wives, and I was enchanted all over again by the world of the March girls.
Good Wives takes off about three years after where Little Women left off. Meg is about to get married, Jo is attempting to launch a literary career, Beth has sadly never recovered from her scarlet fever and is now virtually housebound, and little Amy is maturing fast, and about to go off travelling with a wealthy aunt. Each girl is struggling with her own problems; for Meg, she must learn to be a good wife and mother, and juggle the demands of the two; Jo must learn how to maintain her morals in a corrupt business, and rein in her headstrong and often selfish nature; Beth has to come to terms with the fact that she may never grow old, and learn to enjoy the time she has left without dwelling on what may come, and Amy must learn to put others first, and understand that money and fine things are nothing in comparison to a good heart and unconditional love. As they make their way from childhood to womanhood, each of the four March girls has her own path to tread, and though there is much joy to be found along their way, there is also much sorrow, heartache and lessons to be learned. In all things, they look to the quiet strength and wisdom of their mother, whose gentle reprimands and loving encouragement sees all of them through their trials and helps them to greater appreciate their blessings.
Louisa May Alcott is very much a Victorian writer, in that her stories are all about girls being obedient, self governing, faithful to God and developing characters and hearts that reflect the great virtues of patience, love, and charity, so that they can be a blessing to all around them, and bring perpetual sunshine to their homes. Little Women and Good Wives are a thinly disguised Pilgrim’s Progress, the March girl’s favourite book, and I can understand that the didactic and religious overtones can be a little too much for the modern reader. However, I absolutely adored this book and it gave me a lot to think about, as I dripped tears onto the pages, laughed, and gave satisfied sighs at these delightful girls’ various antics. These books have both made me search my soul and promise myself I will be a better person. More patient, more kind, more compassionate, more considerate, more tactful, more loving…and then I continue to get REALLY ANGRY AT EVERYONE on the tube and fight with my brother and tut loudly behind SLOW people and open my big mouth where it’s not wanted and think evil thoughts about people who take the last seat on the train even though I was clearly waiting ten minutes longer than them…but still, the willingness is there, I suppose, which is a start.
I think any story that makes you want to be the best person you can be has got to be worth reading, and when I closed this book, in the midst of Mrs March smiling at her girls and grandchildren and saying this, this is happiness, and nothing more, it was like a little ray of light beaming into my soul, reminding me that it is the simple things in life, like family, and friends, and sunny days, and walking barefoot on grass, that are important, and not the rest of it that we stress ourselves out about on a daily basis. It might be cheesy, and it might be old fashioned, and the characters might be a little bit too good to be true, but it works for me.
Little Women and Good Wives will always be amongst my favourite books, because they are not concerned with being flashy or different or clever, but about inspiring and encouraging their readers to grow, and change, and love, and dream, and live, and to never give up, because no matter what, life is worth it. What could be better, and truer, than that? I urge you to read them; they’re not just for children, and I promise you’ll close the pages with a smile.
Want to read some Alcott? Join Margot at Joyfully Retired in her All Things Alcott Challenge!