Little Women

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I thoroughly enjoyed this.  I wouldn’t say it was as good as the critics are making out, purely because it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and anyone who hasn’t read both Good Wives and Little Women several times is probably going to be completely confused.  However, if you are familiar with them, then it’s great – excellent performances from the entire cast, and gorgeous shots of beautiful New England.  It’s a very 21st century interpretation – religion is out, politics are in, and feminism and humour are played up.  Obviously not everything in the books can be fitted into a film, but pretty much all the iconic scenes are there … just in a very strange order.

Religion out!  None of the Pilgrim’s Progress stuff is mentioned – which is a wise move, because it doesn’t really work on screen.  More importantly, the preachy stuff is out.  Meg is not, apart from a bit of moaning from Laurie, made to feel guilty about borrowing a friend’s dress and getting dolled up for a party.  Mr March does not make patronising remarks about Jo’s behaviour.  And, hooray, no canaries die!  So Marmee is a much more appealing character than she is in the books.  I still wish she’d got Jo a new party frock, though.  If the Marches could afford to employ a servant, send Amy to a posh school and give food away to the Hummels, then surely they could have run to a length of poplin.  Failing that, didn’t Marmee have an old dress of her own that could have been made over to fit Jo? Ma Ingalls would never in a million years have let Laura go to a dance in a damaged frock.

Politics and feminism are in.  I think everyone assumes that the Marches are Abolitionists, but it’s never actually spelt out in the books.  It is in the film.  Quite strongly, too.  Marmee tells a black friend that she’s “ashamed of her country”.   And Professor Bhaer talks about going to California because they’re more tolerant of immigrants there.  That’s interesting.  We’re in the 1870s, so before the big waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe that get the denizens of Beacon Hill calling for immigration restrictions, but there were issues even before then, especially from the Hungry Forties onwards.  I’m not sure what Chinese-Americans are going to make of the idea that California was some kind of great melting pot, though.

We also get Jo arguing with her publisher over his insistence that fictional female characters be married, and Amy making a powerful speech to Laurie about how married women have no rights to their own property or even to their children.  The idea of Jo wanting to be a boy/the man of the house whilst Father’s away is very much toned down, in favour of Jo wanting women to have more choices.  Aunt March, on the other hand, is shown as being obsessed with the idea of the girls marrying well – which doesn’t really come out in the books, except when she says she doesn’t want Meg to marry John Brooke, and that’s there more as a way of making Meg realise how she feels than anything else.  That scene’s missing from the film.  So is the scene with Laurie and Amy getting engaged in a boat.  They have a snog at a chateau instead!  There’s a lot of kissing and hugging, perhaps more than there should be in the 1860s/1870s.

Aunt March is given a bigger role generally.  She’s the one who takes Amy to Europe: the rather pointless Carrol relations are missed out.  Mr Laurence only has a bit part, but he’s more appealing than he is in the books, and there’s a nice scene with Jo comforting him after Beth’s death – in the books, he seems to be forgotten when Beth dies.  A lot of older books have storylines in which an adult develops a close relationship with a child who’s not a relative, in a very nice, innocent way, but I’m not sure authors feel able to write those sorts of storylines any more, which is understandable but sad.

And, as I said, pretty much all the iconic scenes are in.  The only one I really missed was Meg struggling to make jam!  And there are some really, really famous scenes.  Jo having her hair cut, Amy burning Jo’s book, Amy falling through the ice … .

I thought Beth’s death could have been “done” a bit better, though.  And I didn’t like the way they showed Amy and Laurie’s return.  In the books, the Marches know that Amy and Laurie have got engaged, just not that they’ve actually got married, and Jo’s said even before then that they’re well-suited.  In this, it comes as a complete shock, with Jo assuming that Laurie’s coming home to propose to her again, and being ready to accept.  Amy even says that she’s been worried about how Jo will react.  I just wasn’t keen on that, because it upsets me that a lot of people vilify Amy as someone who commits the ultimate betrayal, stealing her sister’s man, and it isn’t like that at all.  Jo has turned Laurie down, and therefore he’s quite entitled to marry anyone else he likes.  Amy does generally come across very well in this, though, and I’m glad of that.  I wish fans wouldn’t give her such a hard time!

And the humour is played up, which is good.  OK, the jam scene’s missing, but there’s a lovely ensemble scene in which the rest of the family suss that Jo and Professor Bhaer (played by a French actor whose German accent sounds very Gallic, but never mind) are keen on each other, and persuade Jo to go after him.  The theatricals are nicely done, as well – enough to get the point across, but not too much.  And there isn’t one weak performance.

The jumping about is very confusing, though, especially as the characters aren’t introduced: it’s just assumed that you’ll know who they are, and what’s going on.  It also gives the game away: it means that you know from the start that Meg marries John and that Jo turns Laurie down.  I’d be interested to know what anyone who’s seen the film without having read the books made of it.  But, as long as you do know what’s going on, it’s a very entertaining couple of hours’ viewing.

 

 

 

 

 

Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!