In the early, 1860s, Louisa May Alcott was working on her latest masterpiece. That’s right, Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, a sordid little tale of revenge and romance. Here’s the glorious first paragraph:
To and fro, like a wild creature in its cage, paced that handsome woman, with bent head, locked hands, and restless steps. Some mental storm, swift and sudden as a tempest of the tropics, had swept over her and left its marks behind. As if in anger at the beauty now proved powerless, all ornaments had been flung away, yet still it shone undimmed, and filled her with a passionate regret. A jewel glittered at her feet, leaving the lace rent to shreds on the indignant bosom that had worn it; the wreaths of hair that had crowned her with a woman’s most womanly adornment fell disordered upon shoulders that gleamed the fairer for the scarlet of the pomegranate flowers clinging to the bright meshes that had imprisoned them an hour ago; and over the face, once so affluent in youthful bloom, a stern pallor had fallen like a blight, for pride was slowly conquering passion, and despair had murdered hope.
Here are some helpful reviews from Goodreads:
“I love several of Louisa May Alcott’s other works. Pauline’s Passion, unfortunately, is not one of them.”
“Definitely not my favorite Alcott book. I couldn’t stand to give her a two star rating, though.”
“I found I did not like Pauline at all, and she certainly deserves punishment.”
We’re a long way from Little Women.
Little Women, in fact, hadn’t been written yet. Mostly because Louisa May Alcott didn’t want to write it. She knew that most of her work to date was “rubbish,” but still, when her publisher proposed that she give up writing pulp and devote her skills to the March family, she considered it a moral tale lacking in artistry. I believe the exact quote is, “moral pap for the young.”
Once started, though, she fell in love with the novel – or, at least, it appears that she fell in love with Jo, who is hesitant to marry and appears to share Alcott’s taste for pulp fiction – and worked on the story day and night, completing it in a mere ten weeks. This was typical behavior for Alcott, who probably suffered from mental illness. She would refer to her episodes as a descent of the “horrors,” and they often had her swinging into manic periods of intense creativity before plunging into suicidal thoughts.
A lot of other people liked Little Women, too, because it sold quickly and made Alcott rich and famous. It has been made several times into films, including this 1980 anime version, and the latest remake is now playing over at PBS, This one stars Lea Thompson and I’ve read that it takes liberties with the text, but sometimes it’s quite interesting to watch what choices the writers and actors make in that regard.
I suppose what’s so fascinating about Little Women is that it has a veneer of a simple, moral tale, but the illusion only holds at the surface. I remember reading it when I was about nine years old and it seemed easy enough to comprehend even for a child at that age, but underneath the polished writing and sentimentality swirls a vortex of feminism, madness, and uncertainty. As she’s speaking with Laurie, Amy pulls back the curtain for a moment: “I don’t pretend to be wise, but I am observing, and I see a great deal more than you’d imagine.”
Little Women endures not because it is a straightforward coming-of-age tale, those are a dime-a-dozen, but it endures because it’s deceptively complex in a way that defies us at first read to take it all in. This, I suspect is why remakes continue to be made and the story is so adaptable. As Alcott writes, it is full of “good strong words that mean something.”