After the somehow heavy and oppressive narrative of Burmese Days, I felt the need for something cheerful and while browsing through my to-read pile, came upon this little classic by Louisa May Alcott and decided it would make for a nice change.
The book tells the story of the March family, with a focus on the four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The setting is New England, Massachusetts, during the Civil War. The March household is a happy one, in spite of the privations they have to endure, as the father is away at war and the mother tries to make sure the girls are taken care of and raised the “proper” way on modest means. The sisters have different temperaments and artistic pursuits: Jo writes, Amy draws, Beth loves music and Meg, oh well, she just wants to be rich.
The story follows the sisters as they are growing up, from their childhood games of improvised theater plays at home (another nod to Charles Dickens – his Pickwick Papers come to attention once again, reminding me of my wish to read more of his work) and to their daily tasks of keeping the house in order, as the family is not rich and they only have one servant, Hannah.
After the first hundred pages or so I thought this book was so nice and proper and sweet it made my mind ache and my motivation to keep reading waned considerably but I kept going and hoped for a little improvement. I gave the book the name The Good Girl’s Bible because it’s full of advice on different subjects, from being good and “loving thy neighbor” to keeping a family happy and helping each other in good times as well as bad. Even the little family “skirmishes” appeared too good natured to be true and I kept hoping for something to liven things up a bit. There was tragedy and heartache but even that did not feel real – it was just too perfect for my taste.
And finally, I got my happy ending.
I knew next to nothing about the author so I read the preface, which was mercifully short, and to my surprise found that Louisa May Alcott did not particularly enjoy writing Little Women, which sprang from a publisher’s suggestion that she write a “girl’s book”. Isn’t it ironic when a writer’s most famous book is one they didn’t write because they wanted to but rather because it was more in accordance with the times…. Alcott had loosely based the story on her own family, and considered Jo to be more like herself, abrupt, speaking her mind, always reading or writing, running around and not caring much about social obligations and refusing to be forced into what society deemed “proper” for a girl.
I did enjoy reading the letters, as I’m discovering more and more that the epistolary form appeals to me because it gives the story a very personal touch and I like that in a book. Amy writes them from her trip abroad, and Jo does the same and it was easier to read them than the rest of the book – somehow it lent a nice touch of credibility to the story.
In the end I can’t say I disliked this novel, I guess I’m somehow on neutral ground; what I can safely say is that it’s a nice book and it made for a good respite from the tragic atmosphere of Burmese Days.
*read in June 2011