The Little Women Letters



by Gabrielle Donnelly

Published 2010

Do you ever read a book that you can’t decide whether or not you like?  Well, this was one of those for me.

Basically, the premise of this book is that if the March sisters, from Little Women, were real, then they would have great-great-great-great grandchildren alive today.  And Emma, Lulu, and Sophie are three of those great (etc) granddaughters, living in modern London (their mother is from Boston).
Emma, the oldest sister, is a lot like Meg (I’m going to assume that you are all familiar with Little Women; if you aren’t, YOU SHOULD BE; go read that book now)–organized and mature and responsible and marrying the perfect gentleman, but still lovable and sweet and fun, despite her perfection.
Lulu, the middle sister (and more or less the main character, although the author bounces freely between all three sisters), relates to Jo–she’s unsure what she wants to do with her life; despite the fact that she’s graduated from University, she hasn’t really found an “grown up” job that appeals to her.  She’s not very good with people, is a bit too blunt to be good at flirting, and frequently gets exasperated with her sisters.
Sophie is Amy, of course–dramatic (she’s an actress) and vivacious and beautiful and funny, and just a wee bit selfish.
So here we have these three sisters in their 20’s, trying to understand life.  And actually, it’s a lovely story, because these three sisters really love each other, and they love their parents, and they love Lulu’s best friend, Charlie (Lulu and Sophie and Charlie all share a flat; Charlie’s a girl, by the way).  Emma is very happily engaged and planning her wedding, and her fiancee was one of my favorite characters.  And these women are all actual friends; this book does a wonderful job of cherishing friendship (instead of insisting that every single relationship on the planet is filled with sexual tension), and showing the beauty that can arise from the strength of good friends.
Negatives can basically be expressed in one word:  feminism.  B O R I N G stereotypical feminism.  Mom’s speeches frequently sound like they were lifted from a pamphlet on how to be a Modern Supportive Mother; she’s constantly going on about how women have to continue to fight for their equality, blah blah blah.  And to me, it just detracts from the story, not the part where these young women are learning to be independent and unique parts of society, but the part where the speeches just sound so canned, as though the whole book as been written around them.
And I think that the reason that it is so distracting is because it just doesn’t fit with the flow of the story, or the lives that these young women are living.  Because yes, they’re independent and intelligent and all of that, but they also are essentially feminine in their attitudes (in a good way).  They love their family and all three want to be in loving, secure, happy relationships with a special person.  All three of the girls learn lessons about the importance of self-sacrifice, not because “you’re a woman so you have to make sacrifices for your man” but because “you love someone, and sometimes that means gladly sacrificing something you want so they can have what they want.”  But instead of letting their actions tell that story–which they do–the author insists on inserting these random speeches from Mom that grate on my nerves the same way that sermonettes do in ‘Christian’ fiction.
Ironically, I would say that many women probably would be irritated by this book and it’s rather weak feminist message; marriage is treated with strong respect and importance, and home-making skills are considered valuable and useful.  I guess that was part of the confusing part of the book. The mom was constantly going off on these spleels but the overall message was not as annoying as she was.  It was almost like the author believed one thing, but felt that in order to appeal to ‘the modern woman’ she had to say something different.
Throughout the  book, Lulu is reading letters, which she has found in the attic, written by Jo March.  The letters are the part I was the most nervous about, but they were excellent, capturing, I believe, Jo’s essence beautifully.  However, Lulu was not reading them in any kind of chronological order, which made things a bit complicated at times; I found myself flipping back to earlier letters to compare dates, trying to figure out if Jo was writing before or after certain events.
Sometimes, the letters would be at the beginning of the chapter, and they would usually be Jo’s version of a story from Little Women, and then the chapter would go on to have a more-or-less modern version of the story.  For instance, there was a letter from Jo to Meg, commending Meg for selling some expensive silk she had bought (if you don’t remember the story–shortly after Meg and John were married, Meg impulsively purchased material she couldn’t afford for a dress; eventually, Meg sells the material to her friend, having realized that while there is a time for indulgences, they must be balanced with practicality).  Then, the chapter focuses on Emma, usually so practical, who is greatly tempted by a pair of very expensive shoes.  The twist (mild spoiler here) is that Emma ends up buying the shoes, and her mother’s advice (for Emma immediately feels guilty) is that Emma needs to understand that women always do more work than men (?) and the way that things even is out is by women treating themselves to indulgences.  Not really sure that is life advice to which I would cling, but she does at least balance it by recommending that Emma consult with her soon-to-be husband before making major purchases.  (See what I mean about confusing values?)
So even though the story loosely refers to various adventures of the March sisters, it lacks the wholesome, practical values that Little Women so easily possess and shares.  The Little Women Letters is a fine book, and one that I enjoyed, mainly because, as I said, it ended perfectly (another mild spoiler–I was afraid throughout the book that the author was going to end strongly feministic by insisting that Lulu, rather than finding true love, would find herself to be a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man, but instead she found the perfect man and that was lovely).  I think that, overall, this ends up as a 3/5.  I’m glad I read it, and it was a fine (and at times, enjoyable) read, but overall I don’t ever see myself picking it up again, or particularly recommending it to anyone else.

‘Heaven to Betsy’ and ‘Betsy in Spite of Herself’



by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1945, 1946

In 1945, Lovelace published a new Betsy story.  For the first four books, Betsy’s stories were illustrated by Lois Lenski, who captured the innocence and delight of these tales perfectly.  But when Betsy entered high school in Heaven to Betsy, the story was illustrated by Vera Neville (who continued to illustrate the rest of the series).  And somehow, that emphasizes the evolution of Betsy from a little girl to a young adult.  Lenski’s illustrations were round and childish, while Neville’s are sophisticated somehow.

These books continue to delight me.  The next four books each cover one year of high school, and watching Betsy grow and mature is wonderful.  Despite the old-fashioned background (Betsy graduates with the class of 1910), Betsy’s struggles and life-lessons are surprisingly relevant, as Betsy learns to balance her life, to be true to herself, and that happiness is found through selflessness.  

There is a perfect passage in Betsy in Spite of Herself.  Throughout the book, Betsy has tried to take on a new persona, and has, to some degree, succeeded, and the handsomest boy in her class has been her steady beau for several months.  When things end with him, Betsy goes for a walk and does some soul-searching.

“It couldn’t have lasted.”  [she said to herself] “It wasn’t true from the beginning.  It wasn’t the real me that [he] liked.  No particular compliment in having him crazy about somebody who wasn’t even me.”

I love that, the realization that if people like you when you’re pretending to be someone who isn’t you–well, what’s the point in that?  Why would you want people to only like you when you pretend?  Then you have to spend your whole life pretending instead of living.

Originally, I fell in love with these books because of their whimsical sweetness, but as Betsy grows to adulthood, I am loving them for the insight that Lovelace slowly grants to Betsy.  These are wonderful, wonderful books.  I wish that I had read them years ago.