Introduced by Jane Gardam
Illustrated by Rebecca Green
Alcott's unforgettable tale, with eye-catching illustrations by Rebecca Green.
‘“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.’ This famous opening line sets the scene for the beloved coming-of-age story of four sisters growing up in a quiet New England town. Their father is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War and money is scarce, but the girls invent their own amusements: they act plays, write stories and – most importantly – learn to lead good and financially independent lives.
Louisa May Alcott had written mostly sensational stories for adults when, in 1867, she was asked to write a book for girls. Despite her self-doubts, Little Women was published a year later to instant acclaim; it has remained in print ever since. It eschewed the didactic, evangelical tone of previous children’s books, and instead captured the squabbles and fun of real family life. Scenes such as Amy bringing contraband sweets to school, or Meg hankering for the fine clothes and indulgences enjoyed by her friends seem oddly contemporary. Alcott based the March girls on herself and her three sisters, and many of the events in the book are drawn from their lives. Generations of girls around the world have identified with ladylike Meg, shy Beth, frivolous Amy and, above all, tomboyish Jo, Alcott’s fictional alter ego. Readers have also fallen in love with Laurie, the charming boy next door. With its refreshing mixture of idealism and realism, Little Women paved the way for later stories such as What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables.
This edition includes vibrant illustrations by Rebecca Green, an American artist who brings a fresh, modern slant to this period story. The acclaimed novelist Jane Gardam has contributed a new preface, in which she describes how the book was treasured and passed down within her own family, and finds the key to its enduring success in its distinctively American emphasis on happy independence. ‘Embodying, as they do, the high ideals and hopes of Lincoln’s America, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are still our great friends.’
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in just a few weeks, after Thomas Niles, editor at Roberts Brothers of Boston, noticed a gap in the market for entertaining stories for girls. It was published in America on 1 October 1868, and a sequel was rushed to press by January for the ‘clamouring’ girls who wanted more. Despite being closely based on Alcott’s own family life, its appeal was very broad: writer Frank Preston Stearns in 1895 recalled merchants and lawyers discussing the book on the street, and its being read by ‘the clerks in my office … the civil engineer, and the boy in the elevator’.
The publisher was overwhelmed with demand for Little Women, and both parts were reprinted almost monthly for four years. In 1880 the text was fully revised for a new single-volume edition. The slang vernacular of the first edition, to which some educationalists had objected, was mostly formalised. Some editorial changes affected the subtleties of character: Laurie’s ‘long nose’ became ‘handsome’, while he grew from being ‘as tall as’ Jo to ‘taller’. Marmee, meanwhile, became ‘tall and motherly’ instead of ‘stout’. It is uncertain whether these changes were made by Alcott, or introduced by Niles in order to establish English copyright: as earlier editions were in copyright only in America, the text had been widely pirated by European publishers. Even after 1880, the text of the first edition, sometimes in anglicised versions, was commonly found in England, where the novel’s two parts were usually separated, the second variably called Good Wives, Young Wives or Little Women Married. The text of the Folio edition follows the first American printing of both parts of Little Women, restoring the vivid language that has secured the novel’s enduring popularity.
In 2014 all is not over with Little Women. It is sometimes an embarrassment. The book is quaint. It sets impossibly high standards for girls growing to be women with little to do but be good. But the four Miss Marches—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—capture our hearts. They are no saints (well, Beth almost is!), nor are they fools. They are cheerful, intelligent, and young. They laugh a lot. They lark about. They sing and act and write their own plays. Passion and sex are not mentioned at all but they are waiting deliciously at corners of the stairs. Meg, the eldest, has the worst of the hard times, for she can remember the good times, when the March family were well off and had servants (not just the faithful Hannah, who of course has no ‘life’ of her own) and rich friends. Beth is saintly, and a worry, for she seems to be sickly and fading. Amy, the youngest, is at an age when she conforms to the silliest standards among her peers. And Jo wants only to be a boy. Mrs March has her hands full.
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Review by anon on 29th Dec 2016
"The Folio Society gives the classic story 'Little Women' a fun treatment with bright illustrations that have something of a contemporary edge. Whatever it is, it works. The volume's spine is also very..." [read more]