‘The Most Beautiful Things in All the World’? Families in Little Women

  • Elizabeth Lennox Keyser
Part of the Insights book series (ISI)


‘I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!’ exults Jo March at the end of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–9).1 Many readers have interpreted the novel as an argument, more or less convincing, for Jo’s assertion. And if their own families have been less than beautiful, they may have responded wistfully as did Jean Muir, the heroine of Alcott’s sensation story Behind a Mask (1866), on assuming her position as governess: ‘Something in the atmosphere of this happy home has made me wish I was anything but what I am.’2 Jo, however, utters her exclamation while ‘in an unusually uplifted frame of mind’ (p. 595), and Jean goes on in her next breath to declare ‘Bah! how I hate sentiment!’ (p. 99) Alcott’s conflicted, problematical relationship with her own family, which she idealised in Little Women but satirised in Transcendental Wild Oats (1873), as well as her choice to remain single, suggest that she viewed the Victorian family realistically, if not sceptically. Further, Jean’s uncharacteristic wish points to the danger of sentimentalising home and family, especially for women: it serves to make them dissatisfied with what they are and severely limits what they can become.


Journal Entry Genial Fire Lunatic Asylum Family Circle Female Artist 
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  1. 1.
    All references will be to M. Bedell (ed.), Little Women (New York: Modern Library, 1983).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    J. Myerson, D. Shealy, and M. Stern (eds), The Journals of Louisa May Alcott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989), p. 166.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See M. Saxton, Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott (New York: Avon, 1978)Google Scholar
  4. M. Bedell, The Alcotts: Biography of a Family (New York: Clarkson M. Potter, 1980).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    For a review of Little Women scholarship, see A. B. Murphy, ‘The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women’, Signs 15 (1990), 562–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    In a 1877 journal entry, Alcott confessed to ‘being tired of providing moral pap for the young’ (204). For a convincing argument that Alcott, like Jean Muir, merely adopts a little womanly persona, see J. Fetterley, ‘Impersonating “Little Women”: The Radicalism of Alcott’s Behind a Mask’, Women’s Studies 10 (1983), 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 8.
    Although at first reluctant to undertake the task of writing Little Women, Alcott was actually well prepared to do so. As the editor of the children’s magazine Merry’s Museum and as a writer of occasional verse and fairy tales for children, she was familiar with the juvenile literary market. Her May 1868 journal entry reads: ‘Father saw Mr. Niles about a fairy book. Mr. N. wants a girls’ story, and I begin “Little Women.” Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it’ (pp. 165-6). M. Stern in ‘Louisa Alcott, Trouper: Experiences in Theatricals, 1848–1880’, New England Quarterly 16 (1943), 175–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    A Modern Cinderella’, Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869), p. 286.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    For extended discussions of the theatre in Alcott’s life and art see M. Stern’s ‘Louisa Alcott, Trouper’, N. Auerbach’s ‘Afterward’ to Little Women (Toronto: Bantam, 1983)Google Scholar
  10. K. Halttunen, ‘The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott’, Feminist Studies 10 (1984), 233–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 14.
    V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, n.d.), pp. 48-52. Alcott’s contemporary, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, has her heroine wonder, ‘Was that what the work of women lacked? — high stimulant, rough virtues, strong vices, all the great peril and power of exuberant, exposed life?’ See The Story of Avis, ed. C. F. Kessler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985), p. 79.Google Scholar

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© Dennis Butts and Editorial Board, Lumière (Co-operative) Press Ltd 1992

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  • Elizabeth Lennox Keyser

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