4.16.2009

We bare our souls and tell the most appalling secrets

I must confess a truth: I've never read Little Women. I've seen three different film versions of it (with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, 1933; with June Allyson as Jo, 1949; and with Winona Ryder as Jo, 1994) and one made-for-tv version (with Susan Dey as Jo, 1978), and two of the films I've seen more than once, so I think I have the basic story down pretty well. But I've never read the book.

My least favorite film version (I'm in the minority, I know).
Doesn't it look like Meg, Jo and Beth are severely disappointed with Amy

because she has been careless about using contraceptives?

Here's a better picture, except Beth (Jean Parker, far right)
looks like she's already dead.

My favorite version for a long time (I'm in the minority, I know).
It has that great sobbing contest between Margaret O'Brien and June Allyson.


This one kind of replaced the 1949 one as my favorite.

I also really liked this one.

By saying I've never read the book, I don't mean to advocate film adaptations as substitutes for reading the original books. In fact, I am generally against such practices, especially when the educational process is involved. Once, a long time ago when I was a student teacher in a high school English class, I gave a student a failing grade on a book report she did on The Swiss Family Robinson because there were a number of things that didn't seem quite right, and I concluded that she had not really read the book. She was shocked and dismayed at her grade, and so were her parents, who subsequently requested a parent-teacher conference. The mother, who was very angry (and was probably thinking "Stupid student teacher, ruining my child's chances at a good grade!" - a sentiment I myself have felt on occasion), went on and on in the meeting about how I was being completely unfair, and how her husband and daughter had spent many an evening in the past week reading the book together, trying to get it finished by the deadline.

"Well," said I, not disputing the veracity of her claim of quality father-daughter time spent, "the main reason I thought she had not read the book is that, in her report, she keeps talking about the three boys doing this, that, and the other. In the Disney film version, there are indeed three sons, but in the actual book there are four."

As the mother cast some unreadable glances at her now-silent husband, I offered to ignore the grade on The Swiss Family Robinson and to let the student do a makeup book report. This solution seemed to please everyone, more or less, and the parents left, mollified. After they had gone, my master teacher said to me in a confidential tone: "I don't think she read the book. I think her father is lying."

Well, maybe. Or maybe they got through some of the book and then watched the film to finish. Or maybe they read the entire book and then watched the film for fun, and the poor little student got mixed up on how many boys there actually were in the family. It happens. Anyway, she turned in another book report, I gave her a well-deserved A, and she went from hating me to thinking I was a fair teacher with a good sense of humor.

And I do have a copy of Little Women, and I do intend to read it. One of these days.

My purpose in bringing up my lack of familiarity with the written works of 19th century American women authors in general and Louisa May Alcott in particular is that, in our RS book group this week, the book under discussion was Alcott's A Long, Fatal Love Chase. I didn't read that book, either - not beyond the first five or six pages and the last two, anyhow. And yet I feel I did pretty well in the discussion. In fact, if I may be so bold, I would venture to say that, if I had been in my former student's position, I could've written a report on Love Chase worthy of an A or B without reading the entire thing, and I wouldn't have made any silly errors about the number of children in the family or anything really obvious like that. (By the way, I've never read Swiss Family Robinson, either, but I have seen the film three or four times. I had a big crush on Kevin Corcoran way back in the day.)


If our discussion leader had asked "Did you read the book?" I would've answered "No." As it was, she didn't ask, and I had done enough research (reading not only the first part of the first chapter and the last part of the last chapter, but a handful of reviews as well) that I was able to be fairly conversant about the book. I even made a point of comparison between Love Chase and Little Women. And for good measure I tossed in a few references to Jane Eyre and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Good enough for high school level work. (Of course, if I had both the time and the inclination, I would recount how this method did not work for me in my college courses.)

The main reason I didn't want to read A Long, Fatal Love Chase is that, in spite of all the feminist applause from Alcott's 20th and 21st century critics, Alcott still followed the basic pattern she was familiar with from her reading of 18th and 19th century literature, and that is: if a heroine is going to be so foolish as to disgrace herself by falling in love with (or merely allowing herself to be seduced by) a cad/rake/roué/profligate/bounder, she should then have sense enough to make up for her extreme silliness by being dead at the end of the book, if not sooner. And Alcott's heroine obligingly died, even though she wasn't half as much of a literary twit as Tess Durbeyfield. Tess gets involved with a libertine (error #1), has a baby out of wedlock (error #2 - although the baby does its expected part and dies right away), marries the man she loves (who hypocritically abandons her) and then becomes the mistress of the aforementioned libertine (error #3), then murders him (error #4), for which she is executed, thus paying for her appalling lack of judgement. Rosamond didn't do any of that. True, she ran off with Tempest, whom she knew to be not such a nice guy, but at least she though she was marrying him. When she found out the ceremony was bogus, and that Tempest was incorrigible, she tried to get away from him. She did everything she could to make a new life for herself. But this guy was so obsessed with Rosamond that he kept following after her and following after her, and finally he killed her. Well, in that sense, Alcott was perhaps ahead of her time. In a way, that's a very 20th century story, one we see played out in the news with depressing frequency.

But that's not my point. My point is how refreshing it would have been if Rosamond had escaped once and for all from Tempest, like by telling the police what he'd done to his first wife. Oh, wait. The law back then was on the side of the husband. Okay, she could've at least stopped using silly aliases that have the same initials as her real name that made her easier to find, and she could've...she could've...oh, forget it. There's no getting away from an obsessed, evil man if your author doesn't want you getting away from him.

So anyhow, at the end of the discussion, I told the group members if they wanted to read another 19th century author who wrote about women in a realistic and sympathetic manner, they should try Anthony Trollope - at which point most of them rolled their eyes and snorted and made motions of falling asleep from boredom. I should tell them The Barchester Chronicles is available on dvd.

5 comments:

Baxter Bugs said...

It's available on DVD?!

Well in that case...give me a weekend and I'll have read it too.

Jared said...

I've actually been thinking about trying Anthony Trollope... do you have any extra books?? This will not help me finish reading all the books I own. But I don't really care, cause I'm almost done (finally!) with The Work and The Glory series and after that I'll *really* be out of fiction. Oh, except for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I'm not ready for Tolkien's writing yet.

Jared said...

oh bla. Jared's always signed in. This is actually Megan. Ha... imagine Jared thinking about trying Anthony Trollope.

Janeite42 said...

Yes, I was quite surprised to see his request! I've loaned out my 'Barchester Towers' at present, which book I think is the best way to start off with Trollope. I can bring you the first two Mistborn books if you like.

Shannon said...

Wow. Okay, I've never read anything by Louisa but I do remember trying to watch the a version on TV a long time ago and the cable went out. But I had no idea she wrote that kind of book! Hm.
As for book reports and not having read the book...I did that with Emma once. Well, I read about 2/3 of it, but my report was pretty much on the last third, which I got from the movie I'd seen so many times. My teacher liked it and gave me an A but I still felt guilty...