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.