Publisher Harriet Sanders Confesses That She Still Wants to be Part of the March Family
As a new adaptation is set to be broadcast this Christmas, Publisher of the Macmillan Collectors Library, Harriet Sanders, revisits Little Women and finds in it much to appreciate and admire.
Little Women is coming to our TV screens this Christmas with a 3 part series on the BBC and I for one can’t wait. Little Women is one of the most endearing children’s classics ever written and I’m sure this latest adaptation will be a hit. News of the television series led me to reread a book which I, like many fans, first read at the age of 10. Would it still entertain many years later?
As young children we accept it as a gripping and enchanting family story; what would my reaction be, though, decades later? Is there still enough of the child in me to enjoy it?
I’m happy to admit that I still want to be part of the March family. I enjoyed the orderliness of the set up; Louisa May Alcott neatly defines each sister’s character – Jo the tomboy, Meg the beautiful one, Amy the one with airs and graces and the saintly Beth. It’s the same reason Downton Abbey appeals; every character has their clearly defined role and place in the story, and maybe that’s reassuring in the chaotic and uncertain world we live in now. And throughout the book, the March family strive to be in harmony with each other. Again this resonated with me when all around us is division and conflict.
Something I appreciate more as an adult is the very real hardship that the family suffer both materially and emotionally, and I have a lot more sympathy for Marmee. Her husband is away at war so Mrs March is left to bring up four children on her own and, as she admits to Jo, she is angry every single day. When I read this as a child I’m sure that it’s a line that I missed completely but now, having raised my own children, it resonated with me as quite an admission. As parents, the deal is that we must be selfless and that’s the side that we hope our children see. And then there’s the material deprivation with that famous opening line 'Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.' So much of the book is about money, poverty, wealth, the haves and the have nots - all concerns that are no less prevalent in our world today.
So these very real privations for me give a backbone to what is, let’s face it, a hugely sentimental book. So much of children’s writing was the same at that era – from Pollyanna to Katie – these were girls who had to call on their Christian faith to keep going through adversity. By today’s standards it’s very, very saccharine. The March sisters and their mother are Christian soldiers, marching through adversity and making sacrifices all the way – the two oldest volunteer to work instead of having an education, Mrs March encourages the children to give up their Christmas meal to an impoverished family, and so it goes on.
But what saves the book from being intolerably pious is that here is one of the best-told stories and that’s something we can appreciate at any age. Right from the first page, at the age of ten or forty, you’re hooked. Louise May Alcott invites us in to be with a warm, funny family full of life and chat. She builds tension with incredible skill – (spoiler alert) will Beth pull through before Christmas? Will Jo get her story published? Will Meg say yes to Mr Brooke? Of course the answer is yes to all three but you really can’t put this book down.
In a straw poll of my colleagues I asked some of them, when they first read it and which sister did they want to be? My goodness there are some fans of the book at Pan Macmillan! Most of course wanted to be boisterous, bookish Jo. A couple admitted to an affinity with the saintly Beth, one went against popular opinion to be a fan of Amy who, aged 12, she thought was ‘really cool’ and another sided with Meg so that she could dream of marrying Laurie.
So whether like me you’re rereading after a number of years I’m not going to quantify, or you’re coming to this classic for the first time it really is the perfect read to curl up with over Christmas.
Still from the series © Patrick Redmond for BBC/Playground