The story of the four March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s coming of age classic, Little Women has been loved by generations from 1868 to now.
The novels were an immediate success following the lives of Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy in all their sisterly, romantic and family drama, and the feminist gusto of Jo – a young woman trying to buck strict, Victorian societal standards still rings true today.
However, the reality behind the novels, which were loosely autobiographical in nature, was less charming.
Listen: Laura Brodnik and Brittany Stewart explain the real story behind Little Women, and what the latest adaption got so wrong.
Alcott herself grew up in Concord, Massachusetts and had three sisters who lived in near poverty as a result of her ‘intellectual’, transcendentalist father, who was never able to provide for them financially. As a result, the daughters worked as governesses, seamstresses, writers, and domestic helpers from a young age.
Here are some of the other real life, darker stories that the wholesome, bonnet pretty much drama glossed over.
Louisa May Alcott never wanted to write Little Women.
Originally it was an editor by the name of Thomas Niles from Roberts Brothers Publishing that approached Alcott to write a book for young girls, however Alcott didn’t want anything to do with it.
Instead she called it “moral pap for the young.”
However, she was ultimately forced into writing Little Women after Niles also offered a publishing deal to her struggling father Bronson Alcott, under the joint condition that she would write her “girls story” as well.
Never the less, she managed to finish Little Women in only 10 weeks, skipping food and sleep to do so and the book was published four months later in 1868.
The Alcott family lived in poverty for the majority of their early life.
Although Alcott’s situation changed after the run-away success of Little Women, the Alcott’s lived in near poverty for much of their younger lives.
Due to her father’s idealistic politics and transcendentism – the intellectualised, spiritual hippie movement of the 1820s – he refused to work, wasn’t successful at the work he did and wasn’t able to support his family. His beliefs also meant he once nearly starved his family on a vegan commune… standard.
While this might have made the sisters more close-knit – as seen in the book and in later film adaptations – Beth’s character was a victim to this.
The tragic story of how Beth’s life came to an end was based off of Alcott’s sister Lizzie who died of scarlet fever at 23, a disease which she contracted from a poor family their mother was helping.
Laurie might have been based off a real person.
Although this hasn't been confirmed, it's been surmised by many that Laurie's real life counterpart was Polish musician Ladislas Wisniewski that Alcott met in 1865 in Europe, three years before Little Women was published.
According to biographer Harriet Reisen who wrote, Louisa May Alcott, they spent two weeks together in Paris alone (practically a Victorian scandal,) and she even nicknamed him Laddie.
Laddie / Laurie........conincidence? We think not.
While this has never been discussed by Alcott in public, after her death biographers found a very telling sign in her diary. The section that mentioned her romance with Laurie had been crossed out with the very telling line, "couldn't be."
Alcott's refusal to marry Jo to Laurie might have been personal.
Alcott was a staunch feminist, and like Jo, wanted to experience a world greater than what the 1800s could afford to her as a working class woman with little social standing.
Although she was under a lot of pressure from fans who wanted to see the doting Laurie and headstrong Jo live happily ever after, she downright refused.
Instead she wrote in her diary: “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”
It seemed that Alcott herself didn't marry, and she didn't want her literary counterpart to do so either. Instead, she spited (or was it a compromise?) her audience by paring Jo with the ever-so-drab Professor Bhaer.
Alcott tried to change the end of the Little Women saga up until her death bed.
Dying on her deathbed from mercury poisoning - as a result of the typhoid medication she took when she worked as an army nurse in 1862, none the less - Alcott tried to rectify the awkward union of Jo and Professor Bhaer in the Jo's Boys.
LISTEN: Laura Brodnik and Brittany Stewart discuss all the facts you never knew about Little Women and what the new version of the beloved book got so wrong.
While she admitted to a friend that she made a " funny match for [Jo]," in the fourth instalment, Alcott made a specific note of all the feminist authors Jo read and the fact she had been writing the stories of the March sisters all along. This was Alcott's way of bringing back the feminist discourse that attracted so many to Jo's daring, tomboy character.
For fans of the original Little Women book and series, remakes like the most recent BBC adaptation, available in Australia on Stan, give us an nostalgic re-hashing of a story we loved and grew up with.