Warm by the Fire
By Sarah Reeves
The domestic sweetness of Little Women is itself a reflection of the love and loyalty that prompted Alcott to write.
The four March sisters sit around a fire and complain, knitting away busily. This in and of itself isn’t out of the ordinary—fires are nice and cozy, and sisters (I assume, having none of my own) will occasionally complain. Complaining comes naturally to us humans, more so than praise. We see some defect in the world and want to make someone, anyone, aware of our suffering. Yet, as the dialogue continues, with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy each listing out their individual plights, the conversation turns selfless. The sisters take turns teasing each other as they knit. They conspiratorially decide to purchase Christmas presents for their mother. The mood lightens substantially. And here, in this little picture of domestic tranquility, we see the author herself manifested in the pages.
Alcott and her three sisters probably found themselves in a similar situation compared to the March girls. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was an idealistic wanna-be member of Boston’s intelligentsia who never held down a steady job. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, while prestigious, did little to add to the family bank account, leaving Bronson to accumulate large debts as he pursued one fruitless project after another. The Alcott family was left in such dire financial straits that they lived like nomads, moving from place to place at the mercy of benevolent relatives and friends.
Bronson is often credited as being Louisa’s inspiration to write. Yes, he did expose his daughter to New England’s best and brightest, providing her with a slapped-together education that somehow worked, but it is clear he had little influence in her writing other than being the material cause behind it. The Alcott family’s financial plight, and their mother’s inability to work due to her illnesses, forced Louisa to act as her family’s primary breadwinner starting at the age of fifteen. Over the course of several years, Louisa found work as a teacher, a maid, and a seamstress. None of these jobs provided sufficient income for her family. Writing, which she enjoyed, provided comparatively easy money. After publishing her first book in 1854, she relied almost wholly on writing to provide for her family. Without steady financial support from her father, she was essentially forced to write.
Alcott initially wrote dark, violent tales designed to appeal to the editors of cheap magazines known colloquially as “penny dreadfuls,” a popular form of entertainment in the mid-19th century, who paid good money for her stories. As such, Alcott’s early works bear minimal resemblance to Little Women (graphic gothic tales do not tend to share plots with coming-of-age stories). However, she did quickly establish her tell-tale characteristic of writing stories focused on independent, feisty heroines. She would utilize this type of heroine most clearly in Little Women, where Jo March sets herself apart from her sisters as a literarily-minded tomboy.
Alcott first gained significant public recognition for her novel Hospital Sketches, which she wrote after serving as a nurse at a Union hospital in Washington, D.C. This book provided some fame, though not enough that Alcott could stop writing for “penny dreadfuls” under various pseudonyms for quick money. After publishing Hospital Sketches, Alcott transitioned to writing children’s novels after noticing the new market’s profitability.
Alcott began writing children’s fiction due to financial hardship. Before the publication of Little Women, children’s fiction consisted primarily of morality tales with insipid characters, and Alcott likely sensed that younger readers wanted more out of their novels; her response was to write the semi-autobiographical Little Women. Unsurprisingly, audiences ate Little Women up. The book sold through its initial run in record time. Readers wrote to Alcott endlessly, inquiring after the fates of their favorite characters. At the request of her publisher, Alcott published a follow-up novel, entitled Good Wives.
Alcott would go on to write several sequels to Little Women, including a collection of short stories. Towards the end of her life she turned to writing adult novels, but wrote much less frequently compared to the beginning of her career. After the publication of Little Women, Alcott was finally financially stable, and also the most widely recognized author in America, being paid more than her male contemporaries due to the popularity of her books.
Even after her death in 1888, Little Women (though not its sequels) remained immensely popular, having inspired multiple Hollywood films and television shows. Perhaps the reason for its lasting success is the same reason that the book initially became popular with audiences: Little Women’s realism remains a breath of fresh air. Little Women is touching not because it paints a perfect picture of girlhood, or idealizes the uneasy transition from girlhood to womanhood, but because Alcott tackles difficult subjects such as poverty, social status, and war over the course of the book in a way that is neither improperly explicit nor overly gentle. By providing readers with characters who face realistic struggles, Alcott gave young women characters with whom they could identify, which remains truly powerful.
Sarah Reeves is a transplant to Northern VA from outside Chicago. She enjoys visiting museums, reading non-fiction, and spending time with her husband and their two cats. When she isn’t reading, Sarah can be found on her quest to find the world’s best Reuben sandwich; she hasn’t found it yet, so suggestions are welcome.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this profile, take a look at some of our others, like this one on St. Catherine of Siena, this one on Blaise Pascal, or this one on Georg W. F. Hegel. You might also enjoy our “Great Conversation” series, or our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored.
Note: This author was included in a previous version of the Author Bank, but is not present on the current edition (though passages from her work may still appear on CLT exams). A discussion of the latest revisions to the Bank, courtesy of Dr. Angel Adams Parham, can be found here.