On Revisiting Little Women and Parallels to the Penderwicks
Discovering a Classic
I recently reread Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. When I first read this book two years ago, in February 2018, I immediately added it to my list of treasured favorite novels. I couldn’t put the book down once I started it, and I found the same to be true even in rereading. There’s something so compelling about this age-old classic, something that has clearly transcended the decades and continues to delight generations of readers.
When I first read the book, it was like flinging open a newly-discovered door of possibilities. After I picked it up and devoured it whole (reading the entire 180k+ word book in a week), I rushed to read its sequels (Little Men and Jo’s Boys) and found them entertaining (but not nearly as incredible as their predecessor). I hurried to watch the 1994 film, a modern classic in its own right, directed by Gillian Armstrong and full of lush sets, gorgeous costumes, and a beautiful soundtrack. I hastened to read Invincible Louisa, the 1934 Newbery medal-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott. Since then I’ve also listened to a BBC radio adaptation (which I highly recommend)!
Going back to the beginning, I tried to read Little Women when I was nearly eleven years old, and bogged down somewhere around the time that Meg goes to “Vanity Fair.” The lengthy descriptions were too long for me to get through. I wanted to love Little Women—it was such a thick, substantial volume with lovely illustrations—but it was a bit too difficult.
Fast forward to 2018, and I decided to give it another chance. I was curious to read the book because I had just read Edward Eager’s The Time Garden, a witty story in which the contemporary characters time-travel to the world of Alcott’s characters in 1860s Concord. (I appreciated the allusions in fuller context after I’d read Little Women.)
I also had just finished reading Jack and Jill, which I also enjoyed immensely. (Little Women was not my first introduction to Alcott’s work—a heartwarming collection of Christmas short stories, gifted to me by my grandmother in 2016, was the first book of hers I ever read, followed by An Old-Fashioned Girl.)
Books like Little Women don’t come along every day, and I am endlessly glad now that I didn’t read it until I was old enough to truly appreciate the story.
Connections to Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks series
The main reason that I gave the book another try is because the finale of the five-volume Penderwicks series was releasing in May 2018. “The idea of the original four Penderwick sisters came from Little Women,” Jeanne Birdsall, the author of the series, wrote on her website. I was tremendously curious to find out if Jeffrey was going to marry Skye (the Jo character) or Batty (the [possibly] Amy character—more on this later). Hoping to find clues in Little Women to the outcome of my beloved series, I began reading.
I was already fairly convinced that Jeffrey would fall in love with Batty. The careful foreshadowing in the first books in the series strongly indicated this conclusion, and seemed to echo the wrap-up of Little Women. But although I liked Jeffrey and Batty as a couple, I braced myself to dislike the Laurie/Amy pairing, since everybody did. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn’t mind that ending. Of course I would have preferred Jo to “relent and marry Laurie,” as author Maud Hart Lovelace put it so aptly, but because I knew the ending beforehand, I was able to appreciate the subtleties of Laurie and Amy’s relationship and their whirlwind European romance. I was less impressed by Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer, but I also wondered if that outcome—the Jo character marrying an older man—meant that her Penderwicks counterpart Skye would eventually marry the “older man” character of Nick Geiger. The fact that Nick showed up all of a sudden in the fourth book and staked his claim as a major character made me wonder if he would play a significant role in the series finale.
Well, I was correct about Jeffrey and Batty, but wrong about Skye and Nick. (Nick hardly appeared in The Penderwicks At Last). I recently read someone else’s theory online, suggesting that Skye’s marriage to a student from the Czech Republic was actually an even more pointed parallel to Professor Bhaer. I loved this theory, and wish that this had been explored and expanded so that we could come to know Skye’s husband as well as we know the professor. I also wish that he could have had more lines (and at least one in English).
But is it true that Skye equals Jo, and Batty equals Amy? Obviously Jeffrey is Laurie, having been cast in the role of the next door neighbor boy who is accepted into the family. Skye resembles Jo because of her status as the second-oldest sister in the family, her feisty temper, and the fact that she has the one tomboyish name in the quartet (Skye being a much different name than Rosalind, Jane, or Elizabeth [which is Batty’s full name]). Readers have pointed out that Jane is the writer in the family, the aspiring authoress with all the wild ideas and imagination, while Skye is prosaic to a fault. But it is Skye, not Jane, who rejects Jeffrey’s attentions and has issues with her youngest sister Batty—which mirror Jo’s rebuff of Laurie’s proposal and arguments with Amy.
So does this mean that Batty is Amy? I’m more inclined to link Batty to Beth—both are sweet, quiet pianists who love animals. Batty has little common with Amy, save being the youngest of four sisters and eventually winding up with the Jeffrey/Laurie character. (Also notice the fact that Batty and Beth share an initial.)
More credence can be given to the Batty/Beth theory if you consider the section in Little Women when Jo mistakenly thinks that Beth has fallen in love with Laurie. I was surprised by this scene when I read the book, because it’s such an interesting addition to the story. It is partly because Jo is hoping that Laurie will forget about her and focus on Beth that she leaves for New York, where she meets Professor Bhaer. Fascinatingly, you can compare this sequence of events directly to the Penderwicks series: Skye leaves her family (and Jeffrey) behind when she heads off to her California college, where she meets the intellectual foreign man whom she ends up marrying. Skye also harbors hopes that Jeffrey will end up caring for Batty instead of her.
I had a major revelation during my reread of the book. A highly important order of events in Little Women were shifted for the ’94 film, influencing my own reaction to the story. In the book, Jo goes to New York, meets Professor Bhaer, and—upon her return—rejects Laurie’s proposal of marriage. In the film, the order is reversed (to the story’s detriment, in my opinion). I think the Jo’s coming-of-age character arc is much stronger in the book, leaving you with a better opinion of her marriage choice.
As much as I love the film, it still doesn’t quite capture the nuances of the story and characters that I love best. The March sisters are extraordinarily multidimensional, a fact that tends to get lost in adaptations that have to compress the story to adhere to a shorter length.
Here’s a Twitter thread that I created during my reread, with more notes that I took:
1 – There’s an interesting subplot in which Jo thinks Beth is in love with Laurie. What might have happened if this was true, and if Beth had lived and told Laurie about her feelings?
2 – In the second half of the book, the chapters about Meg feel disconnected from the rest of plot. Jo’s, Beth’s, and Amy’s stories weave seamlessly together, but Meg’s do not. I wish Meg’s subplots had been more vital to the overall plot.
3 – As soon as Professor Bhaer is introduced, it’s immediately clear that Jo will end up marrying him. What if there had been a third possible love interest thrown into the mix? Perhaps one of her editors? That might have been fascinating.
4 – Although Jo and Amy have a difficult time getting along throughout the novel, they are the sisters who are most alike. Both are highly independent and determined, and even Amy has some tomboyish aspects to her character. In personality, Beth and Meg are similar as well.
Not long ago, I read a review of Little Women in which the reviewer felt that the characters didn’t seem real to her…I was a little shocked. The Alcott sisters seem like some of the most realistic and relatable girls I’ve ever read about (and not surprisingly, since they were closely based on the author’s own family). The humor of their family life and foibles, particularly in the first half of the book, is so spot-on. For me, rereading the book was like reuniting with old friends—and I think many other readers feel the same way.
There is a new film version of the book out now—it premiered last Christmas. I have yet to see it, but I am looking forward to comparing it to the 1994 movie and to the novel itself. I have read about director Greta Gerwig’s careful attention to detail, her array of inspirations, and the unusual story structure that she chose for telling the story in a new way. I am curious to see how the new cast interprets the characters.
In my mind, films and radio dramas and audiobooks and illustrations—and yes, even sequels—are complementary aspects to the books themselves. They enhance and allow you to look at the story in a new way. But they can never take the place of the story itself. This story is one of the finest, and therefore, one of the hardest to improve upon.
 The Betsy-Tacy Companion by Sharla Scannell Whalen, Portalington Press 1995, pg. 97