Writing, Little Women’s Romance

Why do we need yet another movie of Little Women? There are now five surviving feature film versions, an average of one every twenty years for the last century. Arguably, after the quintessential casting of queer icon Katharine Hepburn as Jo in 1933, it would have been fine for Hollywood to call it a day and rest on its Little Women laurels forever. Now, three movie versions and more than ten TV versions later, what more is there left to do or say? Is there really any romantic juice left to be squeezed out of the implausible rivalry between Team Laurie (he’s young, hot, rich, charming, and half-Italian!) vs Team Friedrich (he’s older, awkward, poor, negging, and 100% German!)? Do we even care which March sister we are anymore? Couldn’t we see a movie about some different women, for once? Alcott is one of my favorite authors, and even I felt a little tired.

I went to see Greta Gerwig’s Little Women because how could I not, but with a heart full of post-Lady Bird skepticism. (Gerwig exasperatingly sent Lady Bird to debt-disaster NYU when any March girl would have chosen perfectly-good UC Davis, except maybe Amy. What could Gerwig know about March family values?) But, as I discovered while I was sitting in a dark theater drenched in the tears that started flowing gently a few minutes in and never entirely stopped, it turns out Little Women has been reincarnated once more as a story with abiding life.

In her bold reimagining of the novel, Gerwig has created something unprecedented in the history of Little Women adaptations, and perhaps unprecedented in American cinema—something I didn’t know I needed. She has filmed Little Women as a love story between a woman and her work, displacing the hetero love triangle and even, to a certain extent, the nuclear family plot in order to give full weight to Jo’s passionate embodied love for her first book and for the artistic community she ultimately creates at Plumfield. Gerwig has made a joyous, romantic, social, cinematic woman’s Künstlerroman—a subgenre so rare I can’t think offhand of another example of it (if there are more, please tell me so I can watch them!).

In doing so, she has reminded me of one of Little Women’s great historic purposes. Little Women makes women writers. Little Women made me a writer. Little Women is a whole MFA.

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Like many women writers of the past century and a half, I don’t have much of a pre-Little Women self. I first read it when I was six, and I read it over and over thereafter, checking it out again and again from the library. The library copy was an unwieldy Bible-sized centennial edition jacketed in unchildlike black, but its heavy, tome-like quality just made it seem more sacred. Alphabetically, it was at the beginning of the children’s section on the topmost shelf, still too high for me to reach on my own for the first few years, but I managed with the help of a step stool. I had dreams of reading the entire library—I had heard of people who did this—but instead I made a home for myself in the Alcott section, with periodic forays into other authors.

Just as the March girls used Pilgrim’s Progress to bring transcendent meaning to their unglamorous lives, I used Alcott’s books to bring meaning to mine. By age eight I was already worried that I had run out of new Alcotts, so when my mom found a rare first edition of Pansies and Waterlilies at the Goodwill and gave it to me as a get-well present, inscribing it “For Briallen Hopper on the occasion of her bout with Chicken Pox,” my world was reenchanted. In the midst of my pox, I felt as if I were living a scene from Little Women, my annoying childhood illness elevated into a “bout,” my familiar everyday mother turned into a magical Marmee who bestowed beautiful books like the crimson, green, dove-colored, and blue Testaments that were hidden under the girls’ pillows on Christmas morning. This was what writing could do.

The materiality of Alcott’s books always mattered to me, and the possession of them. As soon as I could earn money by babysitting I started collecting volumes of the matched brown and gold set of Little, Brown Alcotts that sold for $7.50 each at the used bookstore downtown, illustrated with frontispieces of Orchard House, the Alcotts’ home in Concord, where much of Little Women was lived and written and eventually filmed. I taught myself Spencerian script so I could write my name on the flyleaves in a time-traveling hand.

Tucked in my copy of Jo’s Boys is a watercolor I did of Plumfield when I was seven, with various generations of Marches and their friends gathered under sheltering trees, some sitting on the grass and leaning against the tree trunks, some standing together like sisters or muses, one holding a platter of refreshing lemonade. The trees bookend the painting like sturdy columns, and the glass pitcher and three full tumblers are painted with precision. Plumfield is a utopian vision of creativity, communal life, education, hospitality, and original and chosen family that has apparently lived in my mind for almost 35 years. Everything that matters to me today is in that painting.

Alcott’s vision has sustained me during my lifelong attempts to read and write myself into a world I want to live in. I was raised in the religious right in the Reagan era, and I went to evangelical schools. Like Amy, I had teachers who hit me, so I needed a book that told me that this was shocking and wrong. In my church community, girls were expected to be submissive and sweet and to aspire to wifehood and motherhood and nothing else, so I needed the insistent, relentless gender nonconformity of Jo, her loudness, her swagger, her restlessness, her ambition. Alcott not only taught me (from the age of six!) what a spinster was; she taught me that a spinster was someone you might want to be.

Above all, Alcott initiated me into the romance of writing. In “Castles in the Air,” the chapter devoted to daydreaming, Jo’s expansive authorial fantasies combine muscle and magic and magnificence and money: “I’d have a stable full of Arabian steeds, rooms piled with books, and I’d write out of a magic inkstand. … I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so it is my favorite dream.” But, in typical Alcott fashion, Little Women builds quotidian, material foundations under Jo’s castle in the air. I was formed by Alcott’s multi-sensory evocations of compulsive, habitual, ecstatic, agonizing writing life—of gnawing on garret apples while pet rats nibble your paper and drink your ink; of spreading snowdrifts of paper on top of old trunks; of walking around in public with a blotted nose and ink-stained hands; of putting on your “scribbling suit” and “falling into a vortex”; of hastily wiping your pen on your pinafore in midst of a draft, or throwing it down in triumph at the end; of tying up your manuscripts with red ribbon and love, and vowing revenge as they go up in flames. When Jo first sees her name in print, in a newspaper above a story she wrote, she laughs until she has tears in her eyes. Then, absurdly, she wraps the newspaper around her head, and soaks it with her tears.

Laughing and crying and read all over: What else would you ever want to be?

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More than any other adaptation, Gerwig’s dramatizes Little Women’s romance of writing life and its faith in the material magic of books. The movie itself is bookish, contained between two covers—the red and gold binding of Alcott’s book serves as its title card, and the red and gold binding of Jo’s as its happy ending. Like a book, it begins with an epigraph: “‘I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.’ – Louisa May Alcott.” Alcott’s words prompt us to experience the story we are about to see as a product of a writing process.

Gerwig’s own much-discussed re-writing of the story as a series of flashbacks and flashforwards turns the sister stories and men stories into subplots of the primary story of Jo’s vocational coming of age. At the beginning and end of the film we see Jo in her publisher’s office, and in a way everything that happens in between is an explanation of how she became the author she was meant to be—how she changed from a woman unready to identify herself as the author of her work and unwilling to put her name on it, a precarious freelancer who is helpless in the face of extreme edits and lets an editor pay her 25% to 33% below the standard rate, into a confident writer who knows her own value, knows what she is and isn’t willing to compromise, and knows that she has written the book of her heart and she’s keeping the copyright. Amy burned her manuscript, and Beth helped her write a new one; Laurie was her fan, and Friedrich her critic. Together, every relationship of her life was part of her writer’s progress.

To me, the most extraordinary aspect of the film was the way that it turns the act of writing into something dramatic and aesthetically breathtaking, against all odds. What could be less compelling than watching someone hunch over paper? But it is riveting to see Jo, driven by grief and oceanic loneliness, find her way back to her desk. There is a pause when she lights the first candle at the beginning of her first writing session—she hesitates for a moment like a diver on the edge of a board. Then we watch her light candle after candle, hear the rasp of match after match, see her shift her pen from one aching hand to another, see her face tinge blue or gold in the changing light, see the pages of her book spread out slowly over the floor as inexorable as a flood …

Alcott tells us that Jo reveled in pens and ink. This is a movie that revels with her.

The long concluding sequence of Jo watching her book getting printed is just as sensuous and sumptuous. We can almost feel the cold metal weight of the moveable type, the slick of the ink, the compression of the press, the prick of the needle, the slide of the thread, the once-living (almost-alive) smoothness of the leather, the precious feathery flakes of extra gilding that scatter in the slight wind of breath. These images of bookmaking are interspersed with golden glimpses of creative life at Plumfield—people of different ages and races making paintings and making music—a utopian vision that connects Jo’s individual authorial accomplishment with an expanding family and a wider world.

Plumfield is one of several happy endings that the movie gives us, with greatly varying levels of conviction. In a hotly debated meta-moment, Gerwig interrupts the flow of Jo’s love story with Friedrich by returning to the publisher’s office and turning it into a subject of disagreement between Jo the writer and her publisher: Why doesn’t Jo marry the neighbor? Who is she going to marry instead? Can’t she stay a spinster? But spinsters don’t sell! Jo the writer agrees to let Jo the character marry in order for Jo the spinster writer’s book to get published. Thus Jo’s subsequent rom-com-esque rush to the train station and embrace with Friedrich under the umbrella are filmed through a filter of fantasy. Their arms are around each other, but it isn’t meant to feel real.

But this is real. This book, this material product of grief and ambition and genius and negotiation and leather and pulp and glue and machinery: this book happened. Jo can hold it in her hands, and so can we. She can hold her miraculous present, her imagined future, her lost past; she can hold all her sisters, living and dead. This is the final embrace of the film.

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Watching a movie about young love from the vantage of middle age is both a pleasure and an ache. It simultaneously stirs up memories of youthful desire and measures the distance traveled from it. As a professional writer who is in it for the long haul, my writing life these days is more about pushing myself to meet frequent freelance deadlines than it is about the passionate promise of whole-souled, candle-lit writing vortexes. When I held my own first book at age forty I was deeply happy and I admired its jacket design, but I was far too old and jaded to experience apotheosis.

Like any happily-ever-after love story, the youthful romance of a woman and her work is a sustaining myth, and a necessary one, but one that gains poignancy in relation to other kinds of stories. Though Alcott and Gerwig were both 36 when their respective Little Womens appeared, they came to the book shaped by their very different artistic trajectories: Gerwig had experienced dazzling professional success in her youth, and Alcott had not. Gerwig created her version of Jo the writer by blending material from the novel with biographical facts from Alcott’s life, but in order to keep things rhapsodic and romantic, there were many facts she had to leave out.

When I stepped out the theater and back into my life, it was meaningful to me to remember that Little Women was not Alcott’s first book, but her fourth; that it was not the book of her heart, commissioned by her sister, but a book she didn’t want to write, suggested by her publisher; and that her long and varied writing career was a source of chronic ambivalence and exhaustion as well as satisfaction and success. In books such as An Old-Fashioned Girl and Work, Alcott wrote memorably about the slog of work as well as its magic. But despite her own mixed professional experiences, or because of them, she needed to write about writing joy.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women does justice to that joy. In a world that too often overlooks women authors and auteurs, it is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, by an artist who is a young woman. And it is a movie about writing that has the power to move.

Briallen Hopper: Raised by well-intentioned wolves.