The Little Women I’ve Been Waiting For
It’s very possible that Louisa May Alcott is as much my mother as anyone. I hesitated to go see Little Women in the theater. I’m not sure why. I think I was afraid that it would absolutely destroy what remained of my hope that someday someone would finally create a film version of this dearly loved book that managed to touch the root of my feelings of sacredness for the four sisters, Marmee, and Alcott herself. Now here I am eighteen minutes into the film, already with tears of joy streaming down my face. I can’t even take a breath, and wait until the end of the film to start writing. I am so excited, and so in love with these characters all over again.
I watch Marmee cooking scones late in the night, and insisting Laurie be pulled into the action of the family scene, and it dawns on me. This is my mother image. This is how I became the mother that I am. Louisa taught me manners, and loving, and the appropriate way to attend a party. And I love this most because she herself was raised like I was, not fully knowing the proper way. An outsider in her own time. Louisa May Alcott was a transcendentalist child attempting to be an American woman. How much more at home could I find myself, a child who was raised in the American counterculture of the 70s? She and I share so many peculiar values, and ways of wishing to heal our odd childhoods. So many funny confusions having one foot in American culture, and one foot in an idealistic utopian dream presented by bohemian egg-heads, wanting to reach for the best in human kind.
I realize that Louisa even taught me what I need to exist within this current pandemic, when I am forced to sit very still and isolate. When I was eleven I had major surgery at the beginning of the summer and had to remain in bed for several months. I was alone in the woods, isolated, unable to leave my bed past going to the toilet and back. I had a small black and white TV that got two channels. I could barely move, and had to sleep in a particular position with my arm strapped to me chest. My parents worked in town and I was left alone to entertain myself, in my own head. Alcott’s book Jack and Jill was a solace and a sort of therapy. In it, Jill breaks her back and must remain in bed for many months, unable to move. Unlike Beth who is sweet tempered and uncomplaining, Jill was a more fiery personality like me, and her initial impatience addressed my extreme frustration with being stuck unmoving, in bed. Alcott provided me with an emotional mirror that normalized my experience, and helped me to find a kind of peace within my own inner world.
It is this sort of personal, emotionally connected, three dimensional female character that marks the heroines of Alcott’s books as girls and women that have provided so many American girls the possibility of being understood. Unlike Anne of Green Gables who eventually compromises her vision as educator, to the role of wife and mother only, or Jane Austin, whose characters must remain a part of the overall wedding market, with the goal of partnering, Alcott’s characters emotionally develop. We feel them grow into more self aware and thoughtful humans. This is a revolutionary experience.
For years Little Women has depicted and re-depicted as a sort of Hallmark Card version of the story. The characters play out like an episode of Little House on the Prairie, with a kind of shlock emotional cadence that never touches the truly vivid characters of Alcott’s actual books. This new film of Little Women by Greta Gerwig, finally provides what Alcott fans have understood for 150 years. To watch women’s hopes and dreams presented without agenda, simply as they unfold, three-dimensional characters from a three dimensional creator, is a balm to the soul.
How often outside of our minds while reading books written by women, have we ever actually witnessed these women depicted? Joyful women? Driven women? Women of flesh and blood: depicted as whole, with dreams and purpose? Yes, we have seen the sad oppressed images of the women from important feminist films. We have seen the disheartened women fighting for justice. We have even seen successful freedom fighting women, as long as they were attractive enough and mostly talking to male characters. Alcott’s women, as finally depicted by Gerwig, are not simply those women meant to show us the morality of sorrows she must endure. These are finally depictions of actual young women and girls, in all their three dimensionality, with real depth, hopes and troubles, battles and blessings.
The honesty of real character development is so satisfying to enfold into. I feel touched by Mother Alcott’s hand. I feel understood and loved just the way a good mother embraces her child. Marmee sitting with Joe sharing that she has been working to be in control of her temper still, all these years later, owns “There are some natures too noble to curb and to lofty to bend.” I feel like I am getting emotional literacy from a real woman who wants me to know that all of me is acceptable.
The film does the sweetest job of not ruining the original story, by following it slavishly. Instead it imagines the spaces we all imagined. The in-betweens that any true loving fan of this book has often stopped mid paragraph to wonder over, day-dream about. And then in the moment when you are certain that your heart will break, between the inevitable loss of Beth we always must endure even though we don’t want to, and the bitter sweet final letting go of Laurie as potential husband for our girl Joe, right then and there the movie does the most generous thing of all. It imagines and displays the creative process of a woman feverishly writing her great novel!
Oh the beauty!
Oh the glorious joy!
The lonely brilliance of watching Joe, who we also imagine is Louisa, writing down the story for her sisters, Marmee coming upstairs with sustenance just when it is needed, and calmly, lovingly supporting her girl in her genius. This is a gift unimaginable.
How many times have we been given filmic displays of men creating their Work. How many times have we had to stand in the visual footsteps, pretending our own selves into skin that wasn’t wholly us, but in the creative process was as close to us as we women creators were going to get. The false mirror of an incomplete vision. And here we are, dropped into the full reality of that which was always there.
This is a fine era for women. A moment in time when we are given display of parts of ourselves we have always known but rarely seen. Parts we have written coded messages about, in letters and novels to each other. Now public, on display and achingly long awaited.
The letter of fear and humility sent with the manuscript, marks our history of so many centuries of women’s stories being little noticed, and even less valued. The punctuation of acknowledgment of the long slow march women have walked, while attempting to be allowed to exist just as they are. Gerwig did a great act of creative soul retrieval for the history of American Women.