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Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy gathered around Marmee: painting by Jessie Willcox Smith

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

Spoiler alert! Beth dies. (Also: Darth Vader is Luke’s father; Elizabeth Bennet marries Darcy; and It Was His Sled.)

Now that that’s out of the way . . .

The lack of antibiotics was not the only difference between then and now. Today, sibling rivalry means trying to outdo each other on report cards and sports teams, and maybe some casual backstabbing when you can get away with it. In Little Women, a younger sister destroys an older sister’s life work—for real, for keeps, no backups:

Amy’s bonfire had consumed the loving work of several years.

There’s not the least hint that this willful destruction leads to any kind of punish­ment. So it’s no surprise when the older sister retaliates in a way that very nearly results in the younger sister’s death. Again there is no suggestion of punish­ment, just a lecture on keeping one’s temper.

It was a different time.

Part First

Part Second

Lists of Illustrations

Publisher’s Advertising

The Words

The text is from the first edition, Roberts Brothers, 1868-69, which has some quirks compared to the later, more polished versions. Although it’s the first edition, the copy I used was clearly not the first printing. Among other clues, the end of the first volume says explicitly that the second volume is already available.

About that Second Volume

Remember the flap when the American edition of the first Harry Potter book was renamed “. . . and the Sorceror’s Stone”? (If you believe, incidentally, that the average English school­child knows any more about the Philo­sopher’s Stone than an American of the same age, I’ve got a bridge you might be interested in.) British and American publishers have a long history of slapping new titles on each other’s books: here a Sorceror’s Stone, there a Black Athena, over there a . . . drumroll . . . Good Wives.

I don’t know how L. M. Alcott reacted when she learned that, in England, the second half of Little Women had been stuck with this title. But this is the writer who managed to get the word “damn” into a children’s book (Jo’s Boys, the last installment of the Little Women franchise):

“They are a peaceful tribe, and need help awfully; hundreds have died of starvation because they don’t get their share. . . . I call that a damned shame!”

Dan stopped short as the oath slipped out, but his eyes flashed, and he went on quickly:

“It is just that, and I won’t beg pardon.”

So I’m pretty confident Alcott’s response to “Good Wives” was unprintable.

The Pictures
Little, Brown publisher’s logo in 1915

I admit I went to town on the illustrations. Who wouldn’t?

In the beginning was the author’s sister, May Alcott (“Amy March”), who provided four full-page line drawings for the first volume. They are, frankly, not very good. Look at her frontispiece (below), where the entire March family have turned into china dolls, everyone’s head is the wrong size, and twelve-year-old Amy is hardly bigger than a toddler. In real life, “Amy” was almost eight years younger than “Jo”; did she simply not read the book before bringing out the pencils?

For the second volume—presumably after seeing the profits from the first—the publishers splurged on an established illus­trator, Hammatt Billings, who again made four full-page drawings. Alcott must have held Billings to a higher standard than her sister; reportedly she hated the second volume’s fronti­spiece (Laurie and Amy in Europe) and demanded heavy revisions.

Before too long, May Alcott and Billings were both superseded by Frank Thayler Merrill. These, too, were line drawings—over 200 of them, ranging from vignettes and tailpieces to full-page plates and decora­tive chapter titles. My source for these is the single-volume 1896 Little, Brown edition (logo below), though Merrill’s drawings were done consi­derably earlier, around 1880. I don’t know if his illus­trations coincided with Little, Brown acquiring the rights to Little Women. Eventually they were to take over the whole Roberts Brothers catalogue, but this title seems to have come earlier.

Later still, Little, Brown tried a version with quality over quantity: eight gorgeous full-color paintings by Jessie Willcox Smith. I don’t know when these were originally done; my source is the 1915 edition (logo above), again a single volume.

In general I’ve kept the pictures close to their original location, or to the text that they illus­trate (see the various Lists of Illustrations). If more than one edition had the same picture in the same place—as with the three frontis­pieces, or the two versions of Jo and Beth at the seaside—something obviously had to move. In some chapters of the Merrill edition, an end-of-chapter tailpiece was immediately followed by a beginning-of-chapter illus­tration. This doesn’t work as nicely in an ebook as in a printed volume, so some pictures may be shifted by a few paragraphs. Plates with captions are from the first edition (Alcott or Billings); the others are Merrill. You will not need help identi­fying the J. W. Smith paintings.

Changes and Corrections
Little, Brown publisher’s logo in 1896

I’ve corrected obvious errors if the Little, Brown editions (1896 and 1915) had the expected form. But not everything is unambi­guous:

I’ve pointed out changes when I happened to notice them, but I didn’t make a systematic list. Somewhere out there, there is probably a dissertation on Linguistic Changes in the Late-Nineteenth-Century American Novel.

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy gathered around Marmee: drawing by May Alcott