Between Death and Marriage: The Female Author’s Insidious Compromise

Louisa May Alcott was one of the many female authors battling a strict market of readers in her time. Her best-selling novel is a surprising reflection of that.

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March sisters from Greta Gerwig's Little Women

After 154 years, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women continues to touch the hearts of many readers worldwide. Alcott’s tale of sisterly bonds and welcoming fate speaks to a modern audience in its sympathy toward these two subjects. However, while she enjoyed her literary pursuits, Little Women was not written with the intention of being Alcott’s prime work of self-expression. It was, in its sincerest form, a cash grab.

Louisa May Alcott, a name that conjures images of domestic tranquility and sisterly love in the minds of readers, may not have been as enamored with her most famous work, Little Women, as one might assume. Her lack of passion for Little Women is symptomatic of the compromises female authors often had to make in a 19th-century literary landscape dominated by the expectation of romance. In most cases, it would be challenging to find a book from this period where even the boldest and most unconventional of women in literature didn’t wind up married or dead by the end of the book.

Little Women 1868 book cover

Louisa May Alcott, born in 1832, was a woman ahead of her time. A staunch advocate for women’s rights and independence, Alcott was also a prolific writer. However, the tension between her personal beliefs and societal expectations often found its way into Little Women, her most notable work. While the novel is a classic of American literature, Alcott herself had mixed feelings about it, referring to it as a “moral pap for the young” in Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals.

Ednah Dow Cheney book with Louisa May Alcott journals and letters

The pressure to write marketable stories with a romantic component was required for success during Alcott’s time. Female authors were expected to cater to the prevailing tastes of their predominantly female readership, which often meant incorporating romantic elements into their narratives. Of course, if these protagonists did not marry, they wound up dead (since that was seemingly more acceptable than winding up by themselves).

This expectation was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it ensured the financial success of their works, but on the other hand, it constrained their creative freedom and sometimes led to works that did not fully reflect the author’s passions or beliefs. In Alcott’s case, the financial incentive was getting the money needed to provide for her family.

Louisa May Alcott reading book

Alcott was truly interested in writing horror and suspense stories. Of course, at the dawn of Victorian society, a woman writing about such things was a social taboo. This led to most of Alcott’s early gothic tales being published anonymously. She wrote these novels under the pen name A.M. Bernard. Such stories included dark tales like The Abbot’s Ghost, which is a tale of curses and redemption. These stories also featured liberated women following sensational passions across the high seas and in glamorous locales. She wrote dozens of these stories for women’s magazines but earned only a small amount.

Louisa May Alcott novel The Abbott's Ghost cover

As most readers now know, Little Women hints at Alcott’s own struggles with balancing her personal convictions with the demands of the market. The novel is not devoid of romance; it contains romantic subplots involving the March sisters. However, it is important to note that these romantic elements were added at the urging of her publisher, who believed that the inclusion of such storylines would boost sales. In her letters and journal entries, Alcott expressed her reluctance to write these romantic scenes, often referring to them as “mush” and “lovey stuff.”

Soairse Ronan and Emma Watson Little Women 2019

The character of Jo March, one of the novel’s heroines, is particularly significant in understanding Alcott’s ambivalence. Jo is independent, headstrong, and fiercely individualistic, qualities that mirror Alcott’s own beliefs. Alcott herself aspired to pursue a “spinster” lifestyle, free to write whatever she pleased without the constraints of marriage.

Jo’s rejection of conventional femininity and her pursuit of a career as a writer rather than marriage was a revolutionary choice in a time when marriage was often seen as the ultimate goal for women. However, under pressure from her publisher and societal expectations, Alcott eventually made Jo marry Professor Bhaer, a decision she made begrudgingly. This is where Alcott and her creation must diverge, as Alcott herself never married or had kids.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet in Little Women 2019

While the request for romance deeply irritated Alcott, she might have had the last laugh. With her audience being mostly young girls, many of her requests for a marketable ending were to have Jo marry her friend Laurie. In her journal, Alcott noted, “Girls write to ask who the little women marry as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” Of course, Jo does still marry, but not to Laurie, who many readers favored. Alcott wrote to a friend, “out of perversity” she “made a funny match” for Jo in the sequel. She would be paired with, not the smooth, polished Laurie, but the old and slightly awkward Professor Bhaer.

Louis Garrel as Professor Bhaer in Little Women 2019

While Alcott may not have treasured Little Women like most of the readers in her target audience, one could argue that it presents a soft rebellion to the expectations of the time. At a time when female authors were forced to navigate a narrow path between their own creative integrity and market expectations, Alcott presented a protagonist who wanted to push beyond societal limitations.

The true romance present was a female author’s forbidden love for freely weaving together intricate stories with complex protagonists. This novel was not her favorite creation, but it was one that many readers could relate to, including herself. Some readers may even reflect on the novel’s more subliminal message of being forced to compromise one’s own wishes for the road that is expected of them as they approach adulthood. Like Jo March, Alcott craved not the confines of marriage and kids at that time, but rather freedom and independence.

For some insightful quotes from Louisa May Alcott, click here!