Is Joey in “Friends” Qualified to Review a Book on Alcott’s Little Women?

Clark The Afterlife of Little Women k2-_e2c95994-a61e-4453-afed-e85121e2cf8f.v1In the Feb. 6 issue of the TLS, there is a review of Beverly Lyon Clark’s new book, The Afterlife of Little Women (Johns Hopkins University Press), a history and analysis of the reception of Louisa May Alcott’s novel from 1868 to the present.

Clark, a feminist critic and an English professor at Wheaton College, is an Alcott scholar and an expert on children’s literature.  She was also a co-editor of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays.

It sounds fascinating.

And then I read the review in the TLS.

Samantha Ellis, the reviewer, is not a fan of Little Women.

I am a fan of the TLS, but I have a question.

How did Samantha Ellis, an English playwright who mocks and misreads Little Women, land a plum assignment to review a book about the reception of an American classic? There are surely many Alcott scholars, among them Susan Cheever, author of Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography and American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, and editor of the second volume of Alcott’s works for the Library of America, who are much better qualified to review this.

How can we trust Ellis on the effectiveness of a book on a book she does not esteem?

The editors must have deemed Ellis an expert on children’s literature because she is the author of a new book that The Guardian calls “a warm-hearted biblioautobiography,” How to Be a Heroine.

Ellis blithely denies that Little Women is a feminist novel. She says that Clark’s reading is “unusual.”

As for [Clark’s] own response to the book, she writes that, growing up int the 1950s, Little Women allowed her to “dream of having it all—family and career.” This is a very unusual reading. Notoriously, none of the four heroines grows up to have it all. Meg (who doesn’t want a career, marries and devotes herself to family life, Beth (who has no ambitions for career or family) dies, Amy marries Laurie, who is fabulously rich, and decides that instead of being an artist she wants to be a lady philanthropist—and there’s Jo. Like most of Alcott’s readers, Clark identifies most with Jo, the misfit who wants to write. But, again, her response is singular; she did want Jo to marry Laurie, “but not passionately so.”

Heavens, the reviewer’s response to Little Women is extremely eccentric.   Jo does have a family and career.  What is this bit about “notoriously” none of the characters “have it all?”  “Have it all” is an expression that none of us takes literally.

Women raised on Alcott, as I have always maintained, are different.  We value our creative talents from an early age, believe in the equality between men and women (Marmee and Father are equals), understand the importance of charity and social justice, and that there is no shame in working at honest if unprestigious jobs since most of us women need an income.

The four girls in Little Women are clearly role models.  They are not only creative but help support their poor family at jobs they dislike:  Jo works  a companion for Aunt March, and Meg as a governess.  With the exception of Meg, the March girls are artistic.  Jo loves to write and later sells her stories to help support the family.  In the sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, she and her husband run an experimental school for indigent boys.  (Ellis thinks the school, founded by Jo and her husband with a legacy from Aunt March, is a comedown for a writer, but many of us value education.) Amy sketches and paints.  Beth is musical, an excellent pianist.  Meg is domestic, and what is wrong with that?

Little Women is not only realistic, but extremely entertaining.

And, yes, Alcott wrote this autobiographical novel for money, but that does not preclude its brilliance.

By the way, did you ever see the episode of Friends in which Joey hears that Beth dies?  He and Rachel swap favorite books and quarrel over spoilers for  Little Women (Rachel’s favorite book) and The Shining (Joey’s favorite).

Perhaps Joey could review The Afterlife of “Little Women”!

Here is the clip from Youtube.

The Amazon sample from Clark’s The Afterlife of “Little Women” is beautifully-written.  In the introduction Clark writes:

I hold my childhood copy of Little Women.  A solid, tangible object.  Unchanging, it would seem, except for the yellowing of its pages and the peeling of its laminated cover.  Unchanged, I assumed when I first read it, from what Louisa May Alcott had originally written–or at least I had assumed a kind of authenticity.  Yet what appears to be solid and unchanged is not.

For what I read was abridged–“A Modern Abridged Edition,” it says on the title page.  But back then I didn’t scrutinize title pages.

Little Women il_570xN.150449237I had that same abridged edition (albeit with a different cover).  Later, I spent my allowance on a nicer Grosset and Dunlap edition (unabridged).

The Grosset and Dunlap edition.

The Grosset and Dunlap edition.

Now I have the Library of America edition.

little women library of america 1931082731.1.zoomI am willing to take a chance on Clark’s The Afterlife of Little Women.

The great thing about the TLS is that one learns about books that haven’t been reviewed in the more popular papers.

But whether Clark’s book is good is good or bad, it was a mistake to assign it to Ellis.  I have seldom read a lazier, more superficial review.

8 thoughts on “Is Joey in “Friends” Qualified to Review a Book on Alcott’s Little Women?

  1. Sometimes the press just want to do a hatchet job, and I suspect that there is an element of snobbery here – books by Alcott, Wilder and Montgomery are regarded as outdated and American. However, I’m surprised that a woman reviewer would take this kind of angle because these books all feature strong girls or women and they *are* good role models – at least, I thought so reading them when I grew up. However, I suspect like you I had an abridged version, because when I was given a beautiful modern Penguin copy a few years back there was an awful lot that was unfamiliar…. !

    • Karen, yes, perhaps she wanted attention! I am reading Clark’s books and loving it: at is a very scholarly, though lively, book, and perhaps Ellis wasn’t up to it. And, yes, Ellis seems to be snobbish without a right to snobbishness. Most of her observations in the review are about Clark’s introduction!

  2. I feel strongly about this issue. I recently taught a course which included Alcott and Little Women and I have written about the feminist issue at this and other blogs: https://silverseason.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/little-women-feminist-novel/.

    Little Women is a richer book that some critics will admit. In it, Alcott reflects much of the reality of family life. Girls growing up get mixed messages about what they should be and what futures to aspire to. (So do boys, for that matter.) So what is so bad about that! Life rarely permits us to be and do everything, to have it all. Jo models what can be achieved within very real limits.

    Jo wrote for money and Alcott wrote for money, to support their families. Would any man be criticized for doing that?

    Susan at her blog has a series of appreciative posts about the Clark book: http://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/2015/01/22/nuggets-from-the-afterlife-of-little-women-everybodys-aunt-1868-1900/.

    • Nancy, thank you for the links! I have read your posts on Alcott and they are wonderful. It was so frustrating to read this review and sense that she understood so little about Alcott and American culture. It is a real disservice to this scholarly but readable book. I am reading it now, and it is fascinating.

  3. I find Little Women a great book because of its ambiguities – yes, one might argue that it’s unfair that the clever bookish girl doesn’t get the young rich handsome man who adores her, but ends up with a poor, older man – or one could say that Jo has a lucky escape from selfish, vain Laurie and a lucky find in Prof. Bauer, who values her for her mind and not her family, who pushes her to become a better writer, and who offers her a life of love and care for others. I’m going to have to read Clark’s book – but think I’ll skip Ellis’!

    • Catherine. I am reading Clark’s books and admire it very much indeed! I agree–I accepted it that Jo didn’t marry Laurie, and you are right: the life he offered would not have suited her. Alcott never married, and it makes sense she wouldn’t have settled for romance for Jo.

  4. Whether Little Women is feminist or not seems to me beside the point: who gives a book to review whose source the reviewer despises?

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