Little Women: ‘Moral pap for the young’?

by Jennifer Bryce

Why have so many movies been made of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? The latest, directed by Greta Gerwig, was released in Melbourne cinemas on 1st January. I haven’t seen all of the other four movies: the first was made in 1918 and has, unfortunately, been ‘lost’. There was one, directed by George Cukor, released in 1933 and I think as a child I was taken to the 1949 movie, billed as ‘The world’s greatest love story’ — which would surely make Louisa May Alcott writhe in her grave. Another version was made in 1994.

Little Women 1949 the world's greatest love story

Little Women is closely autobiographical and it is fascinating to ponder how Louisa May Alcott’s feminism in the 1860s still resonates with issues faced by women today. But why not tell Louisa May Alcott’s story — minus all that wholesome do-gooding that presumably helped to sell the book in the mid nineteenth century?  Louisa May Alcott seems to have seen the book as geared for the contemporary public appetite and is said to have described the book as ‘moral pap for the young’.

Jo is recognised as Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego. In the 2019 movie much is made of Jo being told by her publisher that, for the book to be published, the heroine must either marry or die at the end of the story. Hence, the rather implausible marriage of Jo at the very end, although Louisa May Alcott never married. According to a wikipedia entry she once said: ‘I am more than half persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body… because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man’.

Louisa May Alcott

Some great actresses have played Jo. As a child when I saw June Allyson as Jo I thought of her as rather ‘boyish’ and was surprised that she was so upset about cutting her hair, which she did to raise money to help with finances when her father was wounded in the Civil War. (Elizabeth Taylor was Amy.) The various ‘Jos’ reflect the contemporary conception of an 1860s feminist.

In 1918 it was Dorothy Bernard:

Jo Little women 1918 Dorothy Bernard

In 1933 Katharine Hepburn was a fine choice for Jo, although she looks more ‘feminine’ than in some of her later roles:

Katharine Hepburn as Jo in 1933 Little Women

Then, as mentioned, in 1949 Jo was played by June Allyson who, perhaps ironically, was pregnant at the time:

June Allyson as Jo in Little Women (2)

In the 1994 movie Jo was played by Winoma Ryder:

Denise Di Novi as Jo Little Women 1994


In the latest movie, Jo is played by Saoirse Ronan:

Saoirse Ronan as Jo Little Women 2019


There does seem to be a progression from 1918 to 2019 towards a Jo who is freer from feminine constraints. But do we now know more about 1860s feminism than we did in 1994? Excellent acting. Maybe greater emphasis on Jo’s mission to be a writer: the 2019 movie starts in the middle of the story with Jo visiting a prospective publisher. (Another big name actor is Meryl Streep, in the role of Aunt March.) I did find the skipping around with chronology a little challenging — the scenes are so short,one hardly has time to orient oneself before we’ve gone back (or forward) in time.

Little Women 2019 1

I’d like to know more about the life of Louisa May Alcott. She died in 1888 — a time when what I had thought of as a first wave of feminism was emerging: women threw themselves in front of horses, burnt letters in pillar boxes and went on hunger strikes to assert the need for their independence to be recognised. But Louisa May Alcott was asserting her own independence at least 20 years earlier.


Her family moved about a great deal when she was young: 22 moves in 30 years. Her father sounds like an idealist — hoping to establish a utopian community, setting up an experimental school — nothing that brought in money. So Louisa and her sisters worked to support the family — at times Louisa was a teacher, a seamstress, a governess, a domestic worker and, ultimately, a writer. She wrote a lot of pieces for magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly. She was determined not to be poor (Jo expresses similar views). Louisa was the first woman to register to vote (in a school board election) in Concord Massachusetts. Through Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography, Louisa found parallels between her life and Charlotte Bronte’s.

When the American Civil War broke out Louisa served as a nurse and contracted Typhoid, from which she recovered, although it may have contributed to her early death at the age of 55. During her illness she wrote about the mismanagement of hospitals using humour through a character, Tribulation Periwinkle. Her father wrote a poem that warmly expressed his pride in her.

Apart from Little Women and associated books, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott wrote twelve novels under her own name, three more as A.M. Barnard, one anonymous and many other short story collections and ‘novelettes’. What a fascinating life!

Little Women 2019 2