Which was your favourite as a child – Meg, Jo, Beth or Amy?
If you're instantly thinking: 'Jo, the tomboy, of course', or 'sweet-hearted Beth who loves music', isn't it amazing how deeply the four heroines of Little Women stay with you over the years?
Amy, the youngest sister, was my own favourite, with her self-importance and her 12-year-old's wish to be beautiful (remember how she sleeps with a clothes peg on her nose?) Reading the novel today, I think I identify most with the eldest sister Meg, who, at 17, longs for just a few more luxuries and a bit less work.
To me, this novel is more realistic than The Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables. That's not to say it doesn't have a high-minded message - Christian values of doing for others are what Marmee teaches her girls, and there's the famous scene where they give up their Christmas dinner for a poor family. To a modern reader, Marmee's constant moralising in the book can seem a little pious and old-fashioned.
But beyond that, it's a surprisingly unstuffy, candid read, and most of all, the characters of the four girls still ring true. Different kinds of teenage girlhood are represented here – from the unladylike, unruly behaviour of Jo to the shyness of Beth and the conventional vanities of Meg and Amy.
This is a classic American novel which teaches us about the domestic happiness and strength of a close family and the importance of love over material concerns. There's a lot for the modern reader to learn here on how siblings can help one another through thick and thin, and how good parenting can guide teenagers to be their best.
Louisa May Alcott was a feminist, opposed slavery and never married. She based Little Women, published in 1868, on her own impoverished and hardworking, intellectual upbringing with her three sisters in Concord, Massachusetts (Jo, the literary sister, is a self-portrait). You can still visit the house where Little Women is set.
Little Women was followed by Good Wives, Little Men and Jo's Boys, which tell what happens when the sisters grow up (tragically, they don't all make it).
To modern readers the sequels are much less well-known, and I never read them as a child, but I'm certainly going to seek them out now I've rediscovered Little Women.
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