The year 2018 will always be the one when I changed my mind about Amy March. I have this friend who was always on Amy’s side, one of our biggest disagreements. “She was a brat!” I’d say, and my friend, who is far kinder and more rational than me, would say, “No, she was just misunderstood.”

Has ever a character been more misaligned than Amy March? When we meet her, she’s struggling with small vanities – her sisters have decided that since it’s going to be a poor Christmas for all of them, they will sacrifice presents for one another and spend all their money on presents for their mother instead. Amy declares – humanly and fairly, remember she is only twelve at this point – that if she buys her mother a small bottle of cologne instead of a big one, she will still have money over for her art supplies. Later, she watches as her sisters stack their presents into a pile and she runs back to the shop to exchange her little gift for the big bottle of cologne after all – her first lesson in self-abnegation, and one that will continue to be a theme through Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Thoroughly modern Marches

Even though the book was published in 1868 – 2018 marks its 150th anniversary – the language remains so fresh, that as Joan Aiken said in an afterword to one of Alcott’s other novels Eight Cousins, “The truth is that Alcott’s style is so free, breezy and modern, that is comes as a shock to remember Eight Cousins was written over a hundred years ago.” The same is true of Little Women. The very first sentence pulls you in: “Christmas isn’t Christmas without any presents.” And boom – suddenly you’re in the middle of the March family living room, where four very different girls sit brooding over their poverty, and talking about growing up.

Sacrifice is key to being a lady, and it appears that only two of the little women learn it; Meg and Amy. Meg learns to let go of a slight resentment that her husband will never earn enough money for them to be able to afford both a new silk dress and a new coat in the same year, and to keep her temper, because otherwise he will lose his, and that is worse for the household.

Jo also has to learn to keep her temper, but only after a life-and-death situation. Amy, having destroyed Jo’s manuscript, decides to follow Jo and Laurie to go ice-skating. Jo decides not to tell Amy that the ice is thin, Amy falls through it and nearly drowns.

The reader is given a vivid picture of Jo’s anguish as she watches Amy recover, and laments to her mother about how she lost her temper. And yet, if temper tantrums are rated, surely Jo’s was worse than Amy’s? Amy destroyed Jo’s manuscript, but Jo almost killed Amy. Jo is given a lecture about equanimity, but Amy is nearly drowned. She probably would have died, had Laurie not been nearby and helped to rescue her. As for Jo, we are told: “She tried to call Laurie, but her voice was gone. She tried to rush forward, but her feet seemed to have no strength in them, and for a second, she could only stand motionless, staring with a terror-stricken face at the little blue hood above the black water.”

Of love and betrayal

In her later years, Jo learns to get along with Amy, but this is just because they happen to be sisters. Had they met at a party, for example, Jo would dismiss Amy as far too pretentious, Amy would dismiss Jo as too mannish and harum-scarum, and there the matter would end. Jo’s biggest tragedy is losing Beth, the sister she was closest to. Once Beth dies, Jo must endure a world where no one completely understands her – not her remaining two sisters, not her mother, not even her best friend, who marries the sister Jo scorns.

If we talk about Amy’s betrayal in marrying Laurie, what about Laurie’s own betrayal? He loves Jo, who turns him down, so he has every right to pick another woman. But must that woman be Amy? He could have selected any of the young women he is acquainted with, but he chooses Jo’s least favourite sister, the one with whom she battles with the most. Don’t tell me that’s not Laurie seeking revenge for being turned down.

Image courtesy Library of Congress

In fact, as much as loyal young readers saw Professor Bhaer, the portly German gent who Jo eventually marries, as a punishment of some kind for Jo, it is only he who truly understands her. He is an extraordinarily forward thinking husband for that time, allowing his wife’s ambition to go further than his own. Remember, it is Jo’s dream, not Bhaer’s, to run a school for boys, Jo’s dream to be a writer.

Bhaer rumbles along, teaching at the school, raising his own small sons in a tender and careful way, while Jo has her finger in many pies. In order to be as successful a writer as Jo is meant to be in Jo’s Boys, there would have been much behind-the-scene help from her husband, taking away housework and parenting chores from her so she could concentrate on her writing.

“Little” women

Meanwhile, Amy has put her art second to raising her daughter and running the mansion that she married into, and Meg was never allowed any ambition at all, except a brief moment where she was revealed to be a really good actor. Both the other little women are turned into “little” women in every sense of that phrase, they are invisible, yet essential to their households, while Jo is living the life of her dreams.

Consider when Amy “stole” Jo’s Europe trip (which was not really stealing, just offering a grateful face versus a sullen one to the benefactors who were taking them there). Had Amy not gone to Europe, Jo would have not gone to New York, where she met Bhaer and fell in love with him. Had Amy not gone to Europe, Jo would have also missed being close to Beth in her last days. But even when Amy returns from Europe, newly married and happy, Jo sits in her room, talking to Laurie and has to be summoned downstairs by Amy before she goes to say hello.

There is no child named for Amy in the later books – Meg’s daughter are Daisy for herself and Josie for Jo, and we don’t see much of her except as a sort of Lady Bountiful, who offers advice on how to dress nicely and behave oneself, or as an overprotective mother about her blonde, beautiful daughter. While the first two books – Little Women and Good Wives – talk about all four sisters, the latter two are just about Jo’s life, even as Meg and Amy’s children join Jo’s school. The children are given more space than the adults, and it is very clear that once a woman is happily married and has her babies, there is no more room in a story for her, unless she manages to do something out of the ordinary.

One hundred and fifty years later, and we’re still talking about Jo and Amy and Meg and Beth. Maybe if I re-read the book twenty years from now, I’ll have a completely different point of view, and start to look at Meg as the heroine of the story. Maybe I’ll even forgive Laurie the next time, but it’s unlikely. After all, everyone needs a nice satisfactory grudge to bear.