My edition of March and my edition of Little Women
One of my favourite chapters in Little Women comes near the very end. After Beth’s death and her other sisters’ marriages, Jo is at home alone caring for her parents and the household, and she’s utterly miserable: ‘Jo… was learning to do her duty and to feel unhappy if she did not, but to do it cheerfully – ah, that was another thing! She had often said she wanted to do something splendid, no matter how hard, and now she had her wish, for what could be more beautiful than to devote her life to Father and Mother, trying to make home as happy to them as they had to her? And if difficulties were necessary to increase the splendour of the effort, what could be harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own hopes, plans and desires and cheerfully live for others?’ Jo’s struggles mirror her mother’s. In a more famous scene earlier in the text, which is also one of my favourites, Marmee admits to Jo: ‘I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it.’
Like it or not, this ethos of self-sacrifice is at the heart of Little Women. To a modern reader, Jo and Marmee’s efforts towards self-abnegation may feel horrifying, demonstrating the internalised misogyny of the mid-nineteenth century (although I’d say that Mr March preaches and tries to practice the same ideas). This essay on Marmee hits the nail on the head about her role in the book: ‘The prospect of becoming a Marmee, “Little Women” tells us, is simultaneously an aspiration and a threat. Marmee is at once far more interesting than many readers may recognize and also a major narrative problem.’ Viewing Marmee as simply a cautionary tale of the fate that awaits Jo if she can’t break free, however, is just as reductive as viewing her as an ideal woman and cozy maternal figure. Jo herself recognises this, I think, though she doesn’t say it in so many words. Marmee is clearly the person she most admires in the world, and not because of traditional ideas about being a ‘good wife’ and mother but because of the moral example Marmee sets. Jo has always had scarily high standards for herself and others, and it’s Marmee who both introduced her to those standards and comforts her when she falls short.
Although we may not agree with Marmee, Jo, and Mr March about the way they see duty, Little Women loses a lot of its power if we don’t understand how emotionally important this philosophy of living is to them, and how far Marmee and Mr March have been changed by trying to live in this way. And here, we come to Geraldine Brooks’s March. Much of this novel retells the story of Little Women from Mr March’s point of view, as he works as a chaplain during the American Civil War, ending up teaching basic literacy to newly freed black men, women and children on a southern plantation that has been captured by Union forces. And during this section of the novel, Brooks beautifully inhabits the mindset and moral world of Little Women. The voice she develops for Mr March is spot-on. As he struggles with the tension between preaching the right thing to do and doing it yourself, between taking action and knowing when to stand back, his internal difficulties have the same kind of resonance for modern readers that Jo’s struggles did in Little Women, even though we ask ourselves different questions.
The first two-thirds of the novel also feature Marmee. Mr March flashes back to when he first met Marmee as a young woman and how taken aback he was by her temper. During one of her outbursts at dinner during their courtship, two other women ‘standing one on either side… half patted, half held her, as one would both soothe and restrain a lunging, growling dog.’ Although Marmee is often quite right in what she says, I really enjoyed how ugly Brooks makes her in these moments of rage. It would have been easy to present her as righteously angry from a modern perspective, but Brooks gets us to see how shocking her behaviour is in the nineteenth-century context, and to recoil slightly from her ourselves. And once Marmee and Mr March marry, we see how they work together to live their lives in the service of their principles, providing a safe house as part of the Underground Railroad (these scenes gave me pause, especially a sentimental encounter between a young, formerly enslaved woman and Beth; it feels very white-saviour, but then again, that is the point of the book, that Mr March sees himself and his family as white saviours, and so he’s obviously going to tell us these kind of stories).
It’s all the more disappointing, then, when Brooks decides to give us Marmee’s point of view in the last few chapters of the story, and all this careful work crashes down. She never wanted her husband to go to war, Marmee tells us, but ‘one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in the long list of things that a woman must not say… I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces.’ This Thousand Ships-style authorial intervention just feels utterly alien to everything Marmee was in Little Women, and everything that makes her such an interesting character. Brooks’ Marmee wouldn’t make efforts to govern her temper, and she certainly wouldn’t tell Jo to do so. Her whole life has been a miserable kind of pretence, so she doesn’t have any wisdom to pass on. She’s a figure to be pitied, not admired or emulated. Ironically, in ‘giving Marmee a voice’, Brooks diminishes her as a character.
I so wanted to love this novel and for the first two-thirds or so, I did. But I wish Brooks had held back and allowed us to make up our own minds about how we feel about Marmee and Mr March. For me, the contradictions at the heart of Little Women, as with so many nineteenth-century novels, especially those about younger women (What Katy Did, The Mill on the Floss, the Emily of New Moon novels) are what gives it such power today. Answering its questions so boldly does it no favours.
If you want even more of my thoughts on Little Women, check out this post where I compare the 2017 and 2019 adaptations of the novel and pontificate about the characters.