Americans recently added Little Women by Louisa May Alcott to their top 10 favorite books. To welcome it to the list, here are some facts about this beloved children’s classic.
1. Louisa May Alcott didn’t want to write Little Women.
Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”
When it became clear Louisa was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Emerson and Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.
2. Little Women took only ten weeks to write.
Alcott began the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.
3. The book as we know it was originally published in two parts.
The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It too only took a few months to write.
4. Meg, Beth, and Amy were based on Alcott’s real sisters.
Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly like Anna’s actual wedding.
Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.
Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.
Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.
5. Like the March family, the Alcotts knew poverty.
Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.
When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.
6. Alcott refused to marry Jo to Laurie.
Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. Alcott wrote in her journal, “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.”
As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.
7. So who was Laurie based on?
People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, who Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.
How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”
8. You can still visit Orchard House, where Alcott wrote Little Women.
Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.
9. Little Women has been adapted many times.
In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into seven movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder.
10. You can watch the Japanese anime version of Little Women online.
In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.
All illustrations by Frank T. Merrill, public domain, courtesy of The Project Gutenberg.