Some Penguin Classics, as noted, represent matches made in Heaven, and surely one of those is the 1989 edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in which the publisher got the mighty Elaine Showalter to do the editing-and-introducing.

Alcott’s 1868 runaway bestseller – the story of the young March sisters Amy, Meg, Beth, and Jo – would once upon a time have seemed an unthinkable addition to the Penguin canon – it was a book for children, or worse, an “improving” book for girls, and certainly didn’t belong in the same company as the books by those great men who knew Louisa May Alcott when she was growing up, stalwart Penguin canon-members like Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. Alcott herself had no illusions about the literary merits of her work – she filled it with robust regionalisms, kept its plots decidedly small-scale and domestic, and, at the behest of her imperious father and her imploring publisher, tacked on an ending that wrapped everything up in a patriarchal package. “I will do something by-and-by,” she wrote. “Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I did, see if I won’t!” But the success of Little Women semi-trapped her into writing similar stuff more often than not, for a reading public that couldn’t get enough of it. The author of Little Women could write “Never liked girls,” but she stuck to writing about them, at least when she was writing under her own name.

Re-reading Little Women, however, is a perpetual surprise. It’s easy to see what would attract a critic of Showalter’s power and insight to the book: there’s so much going on in these pages, such unbounded vigor coming at the reader from all directions. Even the tossed-off vignettes are still funny 150 years later:

“Sit down and rest while I put these things away; then I want to consult you about a very serious matter,” said Amy, when she had shown her splendor and driven Polly into a corner. “That bird is the trial of my life,” she continued, removing the pink mountain from her head, while Laurie seated himself astride of a chair. “Yesterday, when aunt was asleep, and I was trying to be as still as a mouse, Polly began to squall and flap about in his cage; so I went to let him out, and found a big spider there. I poked it out, and it ran under the book-case; Polly marched straight after it, stooped down and peeped under the book-case, saying, in his funny way, with a cock of his eye, ‘Come out and take a walk, my dear.’ I couldn’t help laughing, which made Polly swear, and aunt woke up and scolded us both.”

Showalter – whose 2009 book A Jury of Her Peers should be read by every serious student of literature – tells the whole story of Little Women‘s gestation and birth in he densely-packed Introduction and comes down squarely on its side as a text that belongs in that canon:

In my view, Little Women has survived because it is both convincing and inspiring. Alcott’s novel of female development dramatizes the Transcendentalist dream of sexually egalitarian lives of love and work. Seen in this context, Jo’s literary and emotional career is a happy one, even if it does not conform to our contemporary feminist model of a woman’s artistic needs. Furthermore, despite the haste with which it was written, Little Women is more tightly constructed and more stylistically controlled than any of Alcott’s other books. … In Little Women, she managed to do what she had never achieved in the sensation-stories; create vivid, credible, and enduring characters, and write about them in a memorably American and personal voice …

In the end, the combination of the world’s most popular ‘girls book’ and the world’s best feminist literary critic is unbeatable. Showalter defiantly picks the original 1868 text of the novel rather than the subtly but tellingly different 1880 revision Alcott undertook on her publishers’ advice – the original version has angles and oddities aplenty and is by far the better reading experience, and here it is, in all the glory of a Penguin Classic. And Showalter should have the last word:

Through all the Jos of the future who will continue to read their own lives in the story of Alcott’s Little Women, the independent Jo lives and writes, not as the unattainable genius, Shakespeare’s sister, but as a sister of our own.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue