Long before there was Carrie Bradshaw and company, Hannah Horvath and friends, or the sassy Miamians from The Golden Girls, there was the original feminist foursome: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The March sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s revolutionary novel Little Women have been inspiring generations of readers, young and old, for 150 years. Set during the Civil War and published over 50 years before women were given the right to vote–thank you 19th Amendment!–Little Women helped to legitimize themes of “‘domesticity,”’ including sisterhood, family, love, and motherhood, proving them worthy of the literary canon. Like other classic works, Little Women lives on because the characters speak to essential human characteristics we see in ourselves and those we love. Some of us seek tradition, like Meg, or status and romance, like Amy. Others are quiet caretakers, like Beth, and some are courageous dreamers, like Jo.
Little Women also lives on thanks to multiple cinematic adaptations, including a 1917 silent film, a 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, and the first colorized version from 1949, with a young Elizabeth Taylor playing Amy. One of my favorite movies remains the 1994 version, starring Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as the loving and intrepid Marmie. I love the costumes, the Christmas songs they sing, the many small moments that show the family’s love for one another and steadfast morals–remember the family’s generosity to the Hummels and Meg’s conspicuous and defiant lack of a silk dress because the mills used children for labor. Hollywood continues to keep the March sisters fresh. Last year, the BBC released a television movie, and filming is underway for a 2019 big screen adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, and Saoirse Ronan, adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig. The images that have recently began circulating online and are now on the new film’s IMDB page remind me of my beloved Winona Ryder version and give me hope that it will do the story justice.
Discovering (or rediscovering) Little Women is the perfect task to tack on your holiday to-do list. Its warm messages of family and fortitude will especially resonate during this special time of the year. To continue the story, you will want to read Little Men and Jo’s Boys. For a different take on the story, pick up Geraldine Brooks’ March, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner that considers things from Mr. March’s perspective. Wait, there’s still more to read! You might be interested in Anne Boyd Rioux’s new book Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters. Rioux is also quoted in this great New York Times article, “‘Little Women’ Marches on: Fans Celebrate the Novel’s 150th Anniversary.” Finally, your experience will not be complete until you take this PBS quiz to discover which March sister you really are (apparently, I’m Beth).