Let Pickled Limes Lie: A Review of Masterpiece's Little Women
Bronson Alcott notoriously didn't translate well onto the page. In life, he was lauded as charming, a conversationalist that could hold his audience rapt for long lectures, but his books were slow and poorly-received. His sparkle never made its way into his pen. His good friend Emerson would tell you this about him. Even lament it, for Bronson's sake.
Yet Dylan Baker, who plays Mr. March in the new adaptation of Little Women from Masterpiece that aired on PBS over the past two weeks, brings Bronson back to life. He is, surprisingly, funny. Take that little scene where he is clipping flowers in front of the house, wearing a straw hat. He looks like the classic image of Bronson, set out in front of Orchard House to ponder. Jo gets the mail and then approaches her father, and asks, "Father, may I speak with you?"
"Is it about Meg's wedding?" he asks, noticeably weary.
"No, Father, it is not," she says, smiling.
"In which case, you may speak with me 'til your heart's content," he answers, and launches into a series of complaints about veils and bonnets. We can tell immediately that he is unconcerned with the worldly, just as we imagine Bronson Alcott could often be, when philosophizing on his lofty ideals.
We often remark that, of all the characters in Little Women, Mr. March is the most noticeable departure from his real-life counterpart. Whereas most of the other characters bear strong resemblance to the members of the Alcott family, Bronson Alcott, known for his unusual undertakings and his controversial conversation topics, is made two-dimensional in Mr. March. In fact, some people have said that Mr. Bhaer is a closer example to the charisma and character of Mr. Alcott, or that perhaps Louisa found Bronson too difficult for her audience to consider rendering him in writing at all.
Yet this is what I love in the newest adaptation of Little Women; there is a soft blending of biographical details of the Alcott's lives into the adaptation. It can be subtle, such as the title Transcendental Wild Oats appearing in an artsy interlude on the cover of a book, but it can also be a bit more overt, such as in the adaptation of Mr. March's character to represent the gentle, bumbling philosopher as I've always imagined Mr. Alcott.
The likeness to Bronson Alcott becomes particularly acute in the scene in Mr. March's study, when Jo approaches her father about the forthcoming publication of her novel. He encourages her not to sacrifice her beliefs in her work, and he shuffles his own writing on his desk. He says that he has worked on his book for more than twenty years, and the contrast of his indecisive action emphasizes Jo's firm resolve to live here in the moment, to work hard and for practical purposes. She mentions earlier earnings from her writing that paid to repair the rug.
Her determination to publish shows Jo as a Real Writer in control of her reputation, as Louisa May Alcott was in life. There is a moment in the garret when Laurie wants Jo to set her writing aside, and she refuses: "Writing isn't like that. You can't keep it anywhere. It passes through you, and you have to catch it and get it on the page," she says. It's clearer in this version more than any other that Jo was not content to be a conduit for talent. She consistently and diligently put pen to paper, was ready to catch the story when the time came. She created not only her written works but the image and idea of herself as an authoress, and her earnings spoke to this deliberate work. Unlike her father, she never had the luxury of dreaming or dawdling for twenty years over her book. These are not necessarily explicit details from Little Women, but a heightened awareness of the biography of the Alcotts brought into the new adaptation that give it depth and interest.
For this long-time student of the Alcotts' lives, I can hardly imagine anything more gratifying than to see it rendered so fully and with so much care. The details of the film are grittier; the scenes with the Hummels are more devastating and realistic views of poverty that were faced by Mrs. Alcott as a social worker in Boston. Many of the members of the Orchard House staff have remarked in conversation that they are pleased with the inclusion of Marmee's line: "I'm angry nearly every day of my life," which is taken directly from the novel and captures a part of her spirit we are not often meant to see. Mrs. Alcott's journals were all destroyed, at her request, leaving us with a less complete view of Marmee's interior life than the other Alcotts. Yet she is a model of strength for her daughters and for generations of readers of Little Women. She is a living, breathing woman, and we love her all the more for her honesty and for her anger.
Beth's death, however heart-wrenching, is also true; I almost felt that I was watching Madelon Bedell's difficult interpretation of it from Alcotts: Biography of a Family come to life, and many viewers have remarked upon the mist, mentioned in Louisa's journal, that rises as Beth's spirit leaves her, is included in the film. In that heartbreaking scene where Marmee sits on the bed and sobs, in the background we can see the familiar, softening, hopeful painting of the little owl above the fireplace.
It's the same little owl that we see inside Orchard House above the fireplace in Louisa's room. It was painted by the youngest Alcott sister, May.
Which brings us, then, to the problem of Amy March. In a promotional interview for the new adaptation, John Matteson--whose beloved Eden's Outcasts has become our authoritative biography in recent years--calls Amy "pretty much a dead ringer for May Alcott." And perhaps, in the novel, this is true. Or perhaps it was true for Louisa in a certain period of her life. Yet the new adaptation fails both Amy and May because it does not account for the autobiographical details as subtly and importantly as it does for the other characters.
May Alcott Nieriker's life will astound you; I know because I have watched it happen, firsthand, to hundreds of people on the tours I gave at Orchard House over the years. You had no idea that she was so interesting, that she had so much depth. You gasp at every little corner of her story as it twists and turns. Inside Orchard House, May is more charming, more likable, more touchable even than Louisa. She covered the walls with her drawings; she fell into Walden Pond that day and walked home with Julian Hawthorne all covered in mud and caused whispers all over Concord. She even rode up on her horse to the French household and sat on the lawn carving vegetables with little Daniel, who would one day grow up to sculpt the Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial.
Yet the glimpses we see of May Alcott Nieriker in the new adaptation are superficial: asking for blue dye for her shoes from Europe, for example. After all this time, I think part of the reason we have so little complete scholarship about May's life is because we continue to equate her with Amy March. We hold on to our bias; we don't let her grow up.
We already know how much people love to hate Amy March, with her damn pickled limes and her pretty blonde curls. Yes, she is annoying when she whines about her flat nose when we all know the Marches have greater burdens to bear, but Kathryn Newton's portrayal of Amy is at times a "dead ringer" (to use Matteson's phrase) for Amanda Seyfriend as Karen in the classic film Mean Girls. Or worse, Regina George. I wanted for Amy what everyone else seemed to warrant: to be allowed to be complex. To be more. Why do we have to go on hating Amy March? Is it because Little Women otherwise lacks a villain, a foil for Jo March?
I tend not to think so. The point was always that the girls were different and there were many ways forward. In the novel, Amy tells Jo plainly:
"You don't care to make people like you, to go into good society, and cultivate your manners and tastes. I do, and I mean to make the most of every chance that comes. You can go through the world with your elbows out and your nose in the air, and call it independence, if you like. That's not my way."
In the film, Amy says: "If you're going to be in a contrary fit [exasperated sigh], you'll drive me distracted before the day is out."
The two women had two different means to similar ends. Yes, in America we love Jo's good story of independence, of bootstraps and making her own way, but Amy March found her own footing--outside of a plaster cast. And her way had its virtues. After all, she was the one who was chosen to go to Europe. She had opportunities to study her art and travel abroad.
In real life, May Alcott chose to have a family as well as to pursue her career as an artist in Paris. She is just one of so many women who was denied the chance to create art because of her ability to create life; she died from an infection just a few weeks after giving birth in 1879. This isn't a part of Little Women, but it is part of her story and part of our collective, cultural story. And I believe that if we're going to start blending in the biographical details, we might as well consider what we can learn from May Alcott Nieriker's life, what parts of a young Amy March bear the beginnings of the strong woman she will one day become.
I loved and appreciated the decision to transform Mr. March into a more Bronson-esque version of himself. Despite everything, despite Fruitlands and debt and poverty and losing his jacket on that conversation tour, we are content to excuse Bronson as flighty or flaky, even to let him be funny. We now let Marmee come into the fullness of her character; we allow her the full range of her emotions. But somehow we continue to deny Amy March the same benefit. If the filmmakers' intent was to make me feel something, then they mostly succeeded. Yet even beyond anger or dislike of the character, my primary feeling was disappointment. It's time that we see her own strength and the path she forged, distinctly from Louisa's own, without all the resentment, and let May Alcott Nieriker shine through.
It's time to grow up. Let's let pickled limes lie.