Scene from the movie Little Women (2018).
Scene from the movie Little Women (2018).

Revisiting Little Women during the COVID crisis

Recently, someone who worked at the cinema told me how few of his fellow men had come to see Greta Gerwig’s excellent movie Little Women, the umpteenth adaptation of Louise May Alcott’s novel.

“I guess they think it’s too girly,” he said.

“It’s just about girls sitting around the parlour talking about clothes and boyfriends, isn’t it?”

Well, I wonder how he and his fellows feel now they too have been forced indoors, stripped of the sense of identity which comes with paid work, and the freedom to roam society at will?

One of the first scenes to depict Jo’s transgressive spirit is when she lifts up her petticoats and hares down a crowded street; good luck trying that today without copping a fine!

Alcott’s 1868 novel might seem all kittens and calico to someone who’s accustomed to a life without strictures – to shop, go to the pub or take a drive down the beach.

Will there be a new wave of empathy for the March girls come out of this generation who are in virtual lockdown as the world as they knew it has been pummelled by a force beyond their control?

Marmee made the ultimate middle-class girls’ mistake of “marrying poor” in the late 1800s and now her husband’s broke, he’s gone to war as a pastor among the soldiers who fight for the emancipation of slaves in the South.

It’s unclear whether Hannah the housekeeper is drawing wages at the moment but she’s the virtual engine of the house who micromanages every scrap of food and labour. Her presence serves as a reminder just how truly manual and muscular was housework before electrical appliances came along (and how the middle class relied on poorer people to do the work for them).

(It’s interesting to hear how many garden centres are selling out of seeds during the coronavirus pandemic as if all the SUV-driving suburbanites are suddenly going to subsist on their own homegrown kale.)

There are four March daughters, wildly different in temperament, who eke out a living of civic virtue in an era which hadn’t conceived of credit cards, Centrelink or cell phones.

For them, “coming out” in society is a highly formalised and expensive ritual, meaning the younger girls don’t receive as many invitations to visit and catch up on local goss.

And with most the horses requisitioned by the army, how are they going to get there anyhow? Talk about social distancing!

Like her mother, Meg “marries down” and struggles at first with preserving her food and sticking to a budget. In her determination to become a financially independent artist, Jo tramples all over societal expectations and – spoiler alert – really only comes into her own when she’s left a family inheritance. Amy comes across as a brat who wants the finer things in life as her family slides into penury. (Although Gerwig’s casting of the extraordinary Florence Pugh may ameliorate that perception for ever).

And Beth, the frailest and most socially anxious of creatures to begin with, faces the ultimate price for stepping into a germ-laden environment without a medical-grade mask.

So it’s time to brush off the tired old objections about novels by Alcott, the Brontes, Austen and co being irrelevant to the privileged people who don’t have to sit around the house all day, scrimping for every last scrap of food, afraid how society will judge them if they go outside or whether they’ll get sick.

As Jo puts it, “I’ve got the key to my castle in the air but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.”

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