Not much serious reading done in the last couple of weeks because of new grandchild and trips backwards and forwards to London but am trying to get back on track at the moment with my reading. I hope all publishers who are kind enough to send me books will bear with me as my brain is a bit scrambled and full of thoughts of feeding and sleeping and how marvellous my two lovely granddaughters are to the exclusion of everything else.
Last week I received a copy of Good Wives which I had purchased on the internet. It was a particular edition which I had been seeking for some time, my childhood copy which I had kept for years disappearing somewhere in a move and never to be seen again. I have the other March stories in this particular set so wanted to complete it and was delighted when it dropped through my letter box. I was back home from a tiring few days, delightful and lovely, but exhausting and opened the first page and that was it - I was off. I have always loved LIttle Women, the opening line 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents' surely being one of the most famous in all literature and when I had finished my first reading of this, which must have been when I was about eleven, thought that was it - a happy ending - Father safe home, Meg becoming engaged to John Brooke, Beth recovered from the scarlet fever and alls well. It was not for a few years that I discovered Good Wives and that there were more adventures to come from the March family.
Good WIves is, as one would suppose, the story of the four sisters and the next stage in their lives. The book starts with Meg and John Brooke marrying. I have always found Meg the least interesting of the four sisters and was not particularly eager to find out about her married life, what I really wanted to know was Jo going to marry Laurie? Surely this was a match made in heaven but oh my goodness me how angry I was with Jo when she turned him down flat. I simply could not believe it and I remember being upset for days. I was still indignant when I re-read it last week and still don't think that Amy, another less interesting sister, was right for him but if an author makes up her mind there is not a lot one can do about it. I thought it was rather perverse for LM Alcott to marry Jo off to Professor Bhaer, a jolly bearded German gentleman with spectacles and yes, I know he loves her dearly and is a warm hearted generous man but even so it took me years to recover from the shock of this marriage. I had to read Little Men before I finally admitted that I was wrong and Louisa May was right.
Of course we have to come to Beth and this is the part of Good Wives that never fails to reduce me to floods of tears and so it did last week. I cried buckets as a young girl reading this, cried even more when read as a grown up and a mother and now I am a grandmother, it seemed to set me off even more. Beth manages to be sweet and humble and lovable without being a saintly bore which is always a danger and her death is quite heartrending. Looking after her younger sister brings out the best in the sharp tongued abrupt Jo whose edges are softened by the tender care she bestows upon Beth. I read the pages through a haze of tears and found myself sobbing out loud at the following paragraph:
"I don't know how to express myself and shouldn't try to anyone but you, because I can't speak out, except to my Jo. I only mean to say that I have a feeling it was never intended I should live long. I'm not like the rest of you; I never made any plans about what I'd do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn't seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away and the hard part now is the leaving you all. I'm not afraid but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven'.
I have a lump in my throat again and am tearing up as I write this.
Little Women is based on the author's life and that of her own sisters and a couple of years ago I read an excellent biography of Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen reviewed here. So much of what is in the books about the March family are taken from life though the portrait of Mr March, based on Bronson Alcott, resembles that obnoxious man only vaguely for which I give thanks. Please do read my review if you want to see what I think of the author's father.
The whole March family saga remains an enduring delight. Yes it can seem overly preachy at times and the characters are noble and self sacrificing but at the same time we know they enjoyed themselves, they had fun and games together and were a solid family unit. An idealised version of her own family life by Louisa and oh how she must have wished for the happy ending which she gave her characters but which was denied her.
Back in the nineties I used to watch the American Sitcom Friends, and there was one episode I have never forgotten in which Rachel, trying to wean the rather intellectually challenged Joey from his reading of awful pulp fiction, gives him a copy of Good Wives. Next day he bursts into the apartment in floods of tears 'You never told me Beth dies! That is just NOT fair!' I thought that was a simply delightful touch by the producers and obviously there was somebody lurking in the scriptwriting department who loved these books as much as I.
These childhood books, once loved, never leave you and I am pretty sure I will be reading them again when I am clutching my zimmer frame...