Pride and Prejudice vs. Little Women

Pride and Prejudice vs. Little Women

The holiday time often causes me to reflect on the books I’ve read. From high school to college, December and January were my main reading months aside from the summer. I’d finish finals and dive into a book. Not that I didn’t read during the school year, but most of those books were required reading.

This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I have a ten-year-old daughter, and I think I read Little Women for the first time when I was ten or eleven from a library copy. It was a big deal in my family. My grandma gave me a gorgeously printed and illustrated volume for my 12th birthday. My mom collected the Madam Alexander Little Women dolls. We watched the movies. Unfortunately for my sister I think she had to read my hand-me-down Little Women Book instead of getting her own version because my grandma was frugal—but frugality was definitely a theme of Little Women too.

Sadly, I’m the oldest now in the direct matrilineal line for my daughters, so I’ve been trying to decide if I should pass on my version my grandma gave me or, since I have two daughters, buy each their own copy.

During my musings, my thoughts strayed to Pride and Prejudice, another favorite book between my sister and I. It struck me that while Little Women was popular through my college years, I hardly ever see it mentioned in pop culture now. On the other hand, Pride and Prejudice has experienced an explosion of fame. We not only have movies like Bridgette Jones’ Diary that take the plot directly from P&P, we have movies that take people out of our time and send them into the book to become Elizabeth, every woman’s dream. We have lots of authors mucking with the P&P world and musing what Elizabeth and Darcy’s children would be like, and we have some authors bringing in supernatural creatures to the world. Where are the Little Women zombies?

I realize the books are a century and a country apart, but they’re both books about women pushing back at the social spheres they were born into; they’re both about sisters; they’re both about love.

If you haven’t read these books and you think you might, beware: spoilers ahead.

At first I wanted to blame Wynona Ryder for killing interest in Little Women, but that hardly seemed fair. I like her as an actress, but she never embodied Jo March to me. She’s too much of a waif. She starred in the last Hollywood version of Little Women in 1994, and I really didn’t like it. It seemed to leave out a lot, and the casting was weird. Individually, the actors were good, just put in the wrong parts. I felt the same way about Kyra Knightley being cast as Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. The ultimate Little Women movie is with Katherine Hepburn as Jo March in 1933. The ultimate Pride and Prejudice is the A&E version in 1995.

So if it’s not Hollywood’s fault that Little Women is no longer in vogue, what is it about the plots that has propelled one to almost fairy tale status and made the other gather dust on the classic book shelf? I think it comes down to seriousness in tone. Pride and Prejudice has the romantic ending for the correct partners while skewering society with wit. Little Women has more realistic turns in the lives of the characters and a moral compass that might turn off today’s audience.

There are five Bennet sisters and four March sisters. Kitty and Lydia Bennet are basically the same and are the silly, vain younger sisters. Amy March is the youngest and while vain and pretty, I never thought of her as silly. Jane as the oldest Bennet is comparable to Meg March. I think most people consider Elizabeth Bennet to be based on Jane Austen, and it’s always said that Jo March is roughly Louisa May Alcott. That leaves Kitty Bennet and Beth March. Both Kitty and Beth are portrayed as the serious sisters, but poor Kitty gets nothing but grief from her sisters for taking to books and music rather than social pursuits. The reader gets the impression that Kitty brings it on herself by her holier than thou attitude. Beth, however, is adored by her sisters. She’s serious, but kind—always putting others ahead of herself. Beth’s downfall is taking care of a baby with scarlet fever, falling ill and dying. Beth’s death was my first heart moving experience as a reader: so poignant and sad. Death never visits the Bennets, leaving Kitty to be rather a pathetic character you forget about because everything interesting is happening to the other sisters. While Beth wins out being the better character than Kitty, I think Pride and Prejudice wins out in today’s society for keeping death out of the story.

But even if Beth lived, I think there is a much more egregious error in the Little Women plot for readers today: the romance between Jo and Laurie. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is a rat bastard who changes to a good person who’s sort of always been a good person but the reader didn’t know it until the end. The reader is always rooting for Elizabeth and Darcy to end together, and they do. In Little Women, Laurie is a great guy who turns out to be a rat bastard ¾ of the way through the book. Okay, he’s not truly a rat bastard, but readers want Jo and Laurie to be together. There’s a lot of mistiming. Laurie loves Jo but she doesn’t love him, but then Jo loves Laurie and the bastard is now in love with Amy March. What? Amy and Laurie even get married and dare to live happily ever after. They aren’t supposed to do that. He’s supposed to patiently wait for Jo to realize she loves him. Instead, he dares to do the mature thing and move on. Moving on to a different romantic partner in a story is not rewarded nowadays. We prefer our romances to be stalkerish and dysfunctional by nature. The worst part is Jo moves on too and finds a different man to marry rather than dying of a broken heart.

Both books are dear to me. But while I love that Elizabeth and Darcy end up together, I wish there were more stories like Little Women where the first person you love isn’t the person you marry. Or stories where one love ends and another begins. While Pride and Prejudice and Little Women are both about sisters trying to break out of their families, I see Little Women as slightly more realistic and frank in tone, and although that’s what I like about it, I think that’s why we don’t have Little Women Zombies.

What’s a book you think should get more press these days?

7 thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice vs. Little Women

  1. Although they are considered children’s literature, well, maybe Little Women is, too, I always loved the Anne of Green Gable books. The series with Megan Follows (who is now in Reign) was quite good, also. I loved Anne for her spunk, her tenacity and her fearlessness. Like Jo, she’s a character who becomes an author. I always love that angle.

    • Yes, Anne of Green Gables is great and the series follows Anne all the way through adulthood with many children of her own. The Megan Follows mini series is so good–I adore the soundtrack–I wonder if people are afraid to remake it :)

  2. Little Women zombies….isn’t that The Stepfiord Wives?

    Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, still relevant in so many ways today.