Millions of readers will be eternally grateful that Lousia May Alcott chose to spend one New England spring writing “a story for girls.” Little Women was based on her own family, and she churned out the first volume in a matter of weeks, falling into the same writers’ vortex that she would send Jo into during the course of the novel.
It’s surprisingly difficult to put your finger on what makes Little Women so endearing, as I discovered when I re-read the book this year.
Perhaps it’s because Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are so realistic and undeniably human. The first chapter, when they complain about poverty and chores, makes it obvious that they aren’t perfect little women. But we love them for their faults, because we see ourselves in them. And as they mature and develop, we resonate with their ambition, their romance, their mistakes and triumphs, because although we live in very different time periods we live the same things.
If you and I were friends in real life, we could savour tea and a comfortable conversation about why we love this book. (Thank goodness for the comments section, at least!) I’m sure talking about Little Women would lead us to discussions of An Old Fashioned Girl, and maybe on to other literary heroines like Anne of Green Gables. I would point out to you that these books are more than just excellent stories. They’re our textbooks for life.
And I think you’d probably agree with me. The stories we internalize as children come back to teach us as adults.
When I read Little Women again as an adult, I paid attention. What did these women have to teach me about life and love, making a home and pursuing my dreams? Because all of these things are their reality and mine, too.
Alas, for more time to delve into the lessons of Little Women (can we please get together for tea?)! For this post, I’ll be content to share
5 Lessons on Homemaking from Little Women
1. Keep things simple
There are several funny incidents in Little Women where the girls attempt what today we might call “Pinterest perfect” parties, despite Marmee’s advice to keep things low-key. On one occasion, Jo, a notoriously bad cook, decides to make an elaborate meal for the family, and invites Laurie to join them. Unfortunately, another neighbour shows up as well, and the feast of underdone potatoes, overdone asparagus, burnt bread, and strawberries with salt instead of sugar becomes a standing joke.
“Suppose you learn plain cooking;” Marmee tells Jo afterwards. “That’s a useful accomplishment, which no woman should be without.”
Years later, when Amy wants to impress her rich friends with a lavish party, Marmee again suggests a simple approach: “Don’t you think, dear, that as these girls are used to such things, and the best we can do will be nothing new, that some simpler plan would be pleasanter to them, as a change if nothing more, and much better for us than buying or borrowing what we don’t need, and attempting a style not in keeping with our circumstances?”
Of course Amy doesn’t listen, but discovers, as Mrs. March suspected, that experience is the best teacher.
2. Have regular hours for work and play
It’s a wise homemaker who knows that too much work and no play breeds resentment. But shirking your duty derails the household just as much. After the girls give themselves a vacation from housework for a week to do whatever they feel like, they discover that they all need to do their part.
Marmee admonishes them to respect a balanced routine, telling them to “Have regular hours for work and play, make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well.”
3. Make room for others around your table
The four March sisters and their parents are a tight-knit family, but they’re willing to open up their circle to others. They welcome Laurie and his grandfather into their lives, and when Meg and Jo get married, their husbands receive the same hospitality and loyalty. (Well, Jo wasn’t too happy at first about John stealing away her sister, but she thaws to the idea eventually!)
4. Let your partner have a hand in making the home
Although most of us women see homemaking as our domain, we shouldn’t forget that if we’re married we’re making a home with our husbands. Meg learns this all too well when she leaves John out of the loop of household affairs and raising the twins. Her marriage and homemaking begin to suffer as a result, and equilibrium isn’t restored until she learns to respect John’s methods and input.
5. Be a sunshine maker
Often we don’t realise what a powerful influence our attitudes have over our families. As Marmee says to Meg “you are the sunshine-maker of the family, and if you get dismal there is no fair weather.”
Fill your home with music like Beth does for her family. Create simple pleasures for your family as Marmee does, and let your children develop their imaginations and feel that home is the happiest and safest haven to grow up in.
I still have a lot to learn about homemaking, and I’m just beginning the stage that the March sisters are when the book ends: motherhood. But the lessons in Little Women are ageless, and I know I’ll return to them again and again, no matter the season I’m in.
Now that I’ve re-read the book, I’ll have to re-watch the movie. We can do that after we drink our tea.(:
Movie versions of Little Women
Probably the most popular movie adaptation is the 1994 film by Gillian Armstrong. The casting is excellent and it captures the story beautifully, even though it necessarily leaves scenes out and rearranges the timeline somewhat. There is also a 1933 adaptation staring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, and a 1949 version that is supposed to be especially close to the book (although for some reason it switches the birth order of Beth and Amy!).
For a beautiful keepsake edition of the book, take a look at this Puffin in Bloom hardcover!
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