Every few years, I feel the need to re-read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I discover something fresh in its pages each time I do, and without fail come away sorry to have finished it, but better for having read it. I cannot think of any work of fiction that has had the same lasting effect on me, spanning now several decades. As I have re-read it this winter, I have been struck anew at all of the depth and practical wisdom it offers.
Like countless other girls from every corner of the globe, I grew up with a copy of the beloved tome on my bookshelf. My edition was from the Illustrated Junior Classics series. The pictures held wonder and old fashioned magic, bringing the March family to life for me. I adored it as a tween, but I am quite certain that I have benefitted more from its richness as an adult.
“It was a comfortable old room, though the carpet was faded and the furniture very plain; for a good picture or two hung on the walls, books filled the recesses, chrysanthemums and Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasant atmosphere of home peace pervaded it.”
As a child I longed for the same kind of homey intimacy that the March family shared in their quaint little brown house. Although I am the youngest of four girls, the similarities in my circumstances growing up would seem to stop there, for we were a thoroughly modern family in a good-sized fashionable city. Our home was elegant and impeccably decorated, and I confess that I never felt completely at ease in those surroundings.
Naturally, my adult eyes can see all that was being offered to me while growing up. We may not have lived with the external simplicity of the March family, yet a plethora of critical life lessons were taught at home. Much of my character formation occurred through interaction with the amazing women in my very own family.
My mother gave us the idea that creativity was a natural part of daily life through her easy gift of making the mundane beautiful. Holidays were truly special for us growing up. I am so grateful to have caught some of her celebratory spirit and hope that I am passing it on to my own children. She treated others with a warm affability, making them feel welcome quickly. From her I learned the value of hard work and independence.
My aunts each made me feel special in different ways, showing real interest in the details of my daily life, silly though the minutiae might be. One aunt in particular has been a true source of encouragement to me throughout my life. My big sisters were (and still are) possibly the best that have ever drawn breath, setting good examples, trying to help me correct my faults, and generally putting up with me. Their influence on me is broader than they (or I, for that matter) can likely grasp.
The woman whom I owe so much to for her gracious modeling of goodness is my grandmother, Cissy. We were truly fortunate that my grandparents lived minutes away from us and we saw them frequently. It was Cissy who introduced me to the enchantment of Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and numerous other wonderful female literary characters by taking me regularly to our neighborhood public library. I cannot remember her nightstand ever being without a book on it.
This matriarch of our family quietly taught all of us without ever being didactic. From Cissy I learned invaluable lessons, such as how to talk to grown-ups, caring for a sick child or adult, preparing simple but nourishing food, and the inestimable value of consistency. How many times she must have set aside her own agenda to simply be present for me or one of her other grandchildren.
“I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.” (Jo)
Like most young readers, I was strongly attracted to the fearlessness and independence of Jo. Primarily, though, it was her absolute determination to be a writer that drew me to her so strongly. I followed my love of words as an English major in college and spent my senior year in New York working as a nanny, much like Jo’s stint there as a governess. My plan was to get an entry level job at a newspaper or magazine after graduation and work my way up to the “big time.”
But after a year away from my home state, I was homesick and returned. I wish I could say that I had pursued writing in other ways, or at least followed Jo’s example and married the right person. I did neither. I did not listen to my beloved mother and sisters, made an unwise match, and lived to sorely regret it. How blessed I was to have my family to support and encourage me in carving out a new life at the right time. I could not have done it without them.
“I only did as I’d be done by. You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentlewoman in mind and manners, and I try to do it as far as I know how. I can’t explain exactly, but I want to be above the little meannesses and follies and faults that spoil so many women. I’m far from it now, but I do my best, and hope in time to be what Mother is.” (Amy March)
These days, the character in Little Women that I am finding most intriguing is Marmee. Her mothering contains a rhythm and balance that I covet, and am continually working toward. Although gentle in nature, she is often found standing up firmly for her principles. Removing Amy from the local school as a statement against corporal punishment, caring for the underserved in her own community, or teaching and modeling the power of forgiveness to her girls are but a few examples of her convictions in action.
“You may try your experiment for a week and see how you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.”
Marmee understands that life’s lessons are best learned through experience — sometimes through heart to heart talks, and at times merely by allowing her girls to fail when necessary. I too, want to do my best parenting by setting a benchmark for my children to aim for, rather than with fruitless lectures. I wish to let them benefit from less than perfect choices as they become young adults and be there to mentor and advise without interfering with their growth. I confess that at times I have erred too heavily on one side (too much interference) or the other, (not enough guidance), both with less-than-stellar results.
I believe that Little Women has much to offer to both genders, although as yet I have not been successful in garnering either of my sons’ interest in the book. However, they have humored me by sitting through some read aloud passages. My eldest son has expressed several times since “leaving the nest” this year his new understanding of lessons learned at home. So although I often fall short of the “Marmee” test, I know I have done some things well.
My prayer is that my when my daughter is old enough, she will love and learn from this timeless book with its many inspirational illustrations: the wisdom of Marmee, the kindness and compassion of Meg, the independence and literary accomplishments of Jo, the love of animals and the underdog displayed by Beth, and the artistic grace of Amy.
But more importantly, I pray that all three of my children will have eyes to see the love and richness so deeply rooted in their own family tree. And may they learn to glean from its branches true nourishment and happiness.
“Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility, – ‘O, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”
Mary Ellen VanMarter has spent most of her career as a Montessori educator, but has benefitted greatly from Waldorf wisdom, both as a teacher and a parent. Additionally, she is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project and holds an MA in Reading and Literacy. She lives with her wonderful husband and children in North Carolina. You can find her in her space.