By Trix Wilkins
A hint of mystery surrounds references to books within books. They are like a code, a shorthand, a glimpse into separate yet connected worlds within the world of the novel – full of their own histories and personalities, brimming with obstacles to be surmounted and triumphs to be relished.
From the centuries-old Christian classic Pilgrim’s Progress, the romantic nineteenth century novels of Maria Edgeworth, Sir Walter Scott & Elizabeth Wetherell, to the calls of conscience in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the winsome humor of The Pickwick Papers… Little Women is replete with passing mentions of the books that came before, those that lent ballast to its pages. These are the books the March sisters read.
Note: Titles are listed in order of their appearance in Little Women.
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
“Go then, my little Book…
Tell them of Mercy; she is one
Who early hath her pilgrimage begun.
Yea, let young damsels learn of her to prize
The word which is to come, and so be wise;
For little tripping maids may follow God
Along the ways which saintly feet have trod.”
Sometimes books demand the reading of another book first, and the Pilgrim’s Progress is one of these. One can easily read Little Women without reading Pilgrim’s Progress, but one can’t make sense of Pilgrim’s Progress without reading the Bible – or at least, not the ‘adult version.’
I first read Pilgrim’s Progress about twenty years ago and don’t remember it being so long and in parts quite violent. Now having read the unabridged text, I see this is not a moralistic children’s fairy tale. It’s an incredibly confronting allegory of what is seen and unseen of life – enjoyable in parts, distressing in others, but always intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. And little wonder. It was written by Bunyan while he was in prison for preaching and leading a church separate to that of the Church of England. It wasn’t meant for children, but for an adult audience familiar with the Bible and thus the context of the references throughout.
(I would thus recommend reading at least the Gospels – the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible – before attempting the unabridged version, as Pilgrim’s Progress would be rather baffling otherwise. Even perusing a brief overview of the Bible would help to make sense of seemingly cryptic passages such as, “God be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ, for I see that if His righteousness had not been, or if I have not faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away…Show Thy grace in the salvation of my soul, through Thy Son Jesus Christ.”)
There are two parts to the Pilgrim’s Progress. In the first, a man called Christian goes alone on pilgrimage; in the second, his wife and children, after his passing, attempt to undertake the same journey. Mercy, as referred to in the preface to Little Women, appears in the second part as a companion to Christian’s family. They have a great many adventures that do not neatly correspond to the Little Women narrative, but certainly help illuminate the worldview of the March family.
“Better, though difficult, the right way to go; than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.” This is in essence what Mrs March consistently teaches her girls – that there is sweetness in doing right, though it might seem unnoticed and unrewarded.
“You must own Religion in his rags, as well as when in his silver slippers; and stand by him too, when bound in irons, as well as when he walketh the streets with applause.” I am reminded of Mr March upon reading this – we’re told that at some point in the past, the Marches had been wealthy. Mr March seems to have kept his faith throughout plenty and want.
“I do these things that I may be rich in good works, laying up in store for myself a good foundation, against the time to come, that I may lay hold of eternal life.” Oh, who else would come to mind here but Beth! She who tirelessly gave herself to the service of others, who had in mind another home “that could neither by length of days nor decays of nature be destroyed.”
“Unless I could obtain the righteousness of a Man that never had sinned, neither mine own nor all the righteousness of the world could save me.” I cannot help but think of Jo when I read this, her struggles with her tempestuous temper and quick tongue (I can relate…), feelings of doubt and inadequacy, and yet her resolve to have the virtue for which she longs.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare (first performed in 1606)
“I don’t see how you can write and act such splendid things, Jo. You’re a regular Shakespeare!” exclaimed Beth, who firmly believed that her sisters were gifted with wonderful genius in all things.
“Not quite,” replied Jo modestly. “I do think The Witches Curse, an Operatic Tragedy is rather a nice thing, but I’d like to try Macbeth, if we only had a trapdoor for Banquo. I always wanted to do the killing part. ‘Is that a dagger that I see before me?” The girls practice their Christmas play, Playing Pilgrims
It would have been quite a sight to see Jo act out a scene involving a blade of some sort and waxing dramatic the life-or-death soliloquys! (I wonder whether there’s such a scene in one of the dramatizations of the novel…) Other than that I much prefer Shakespeare’s comedies, and will leave analysis of this classic play to others more passionate about the subject.
Book of Kells (illuminated Gospels in Latin), Canon Table, circa 800
“Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning…she remembered her mother’s promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey.” A Merry Christmas
There remains debate as to whether this reference alludes to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the New Testament of the Bible or the entire Bible. I’m inclined to think it refers to the Bible as a whole. Samuel Joseph May, Louisa’s beloved uncle who had a profound influence on her life, was known to refer to Jesus using similar language to her eloquently yet simply expressed, “the best life ever lived.” Both the Old and New Testaments are full of references if not direct narrative or poetry relating to the life of Jesus, particularly in the books of Isaiah, Matthew, Luke, Mark and John – hence my thinking the “little crimson-covered book” given by Marmee to each of her girls contained the whole text.
Essays, Philosophical, Historical, and Literary by William Belsham (1789-91)
The dim, dusty room, with the busts staring down from the tall book cases, the cosy chairs, the globes, and best of all, the wilderness of books, in which she could wander where she liked, made the library a region of bliss to [Jo]…As sure as she had reached the heart of the story, the sweetest verse of the song, or the most perilous adventure of her traveller, a shrill voice called, ‘Josy-phine! Josy-phine!’ and she had to leave her paradise to wind yarn, wash the poodle, or read Belsham’s essays, by the hour together. Of Jo’s work with Aunt March, Burdens
Written by an English political writer and historian who was opposed to war, this collection was Aunt March’s avowed favorite reading material – or at least, what she would instruct Jo to read aloud to her as part of her work as her companion.
An excerpt from one of Belsham’s essays On liberty and necessity, articulates ideas that appear throughout Little Women, particularly in relation to the sisters’ work and ‘burdens.’
“In the multifarious and eventual business of life it perpetually happens, that the mind is agitated and perplexed by a conflict of opposite and contending motives; and we too frequently find virtue and reason ranged on one side, passion and inclination on the other.
In this unhappy situation what is to be done? Are men quietly and passively to submit to the strong and violent impulse of passion, and refuse to listen to the still and feeble call of reason? No; they must exert their own inherent power of self-determination, and form their resolutions in spite of the superior force of those inclinations which they know to be highly culpable and unworthy.”
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1766)
“The minute her (Aunt March) cap began to bob, like a top-heavy dahlia, I whipped the Vicar of Wakefield out of my pocket, and read away, with one eye on him, and one on aunt. I’d just got to where they all tumbled into the water, when I forgot, and laughed out loud.” Jo, recounting the day’s work with Aunt March to her sisters, Burdens.
A compelling story, at turns hilarious, scandalous and moralistic. There are nobles disguised as commoners, commoners disguised as nobles, mistaken identities, pride and prejudice, faithfulness and perseverance, betrayal and reconciliation. Shakespearean in its dialogue and dramatic irony – even the retorts and barbs are poetic. “Would you have me applaud to the world what my heart must internally condemn?”
And finally, Austenesque in its happy ending – those who mean well end well, those who are content to look to their heavenly prize nevertheless find the rewards of a just and generous God even in this world. No wonder Jo eagerly reads this book in her spare moments, even though it’s a hundred years old by the time she gets to it!
(If Laurie had ever gotten hold of a copy of the Vicar, I can imagine his quoting this to Jo during a bout of sentimentality, “What is genius or courage without a heart?” whilst professing he would not quail in his devotion “whether vanquished or victorious.”)
Quotes from the novel that really remind me of the Marches…
Jo: “This is not neatness, but frippery.” “I armed her against the censures of the world, showed her that books were sweet, irreproachable companions to the miserable, and that if they could not bring us to enjoy life, they would at least teach us to endure it.”
Beth: “The separation of friends and families is, perhaps, one of the most distressful circumstances attendant on penury.”
Meg: “Surely that must be an excellent market, where we are told what we want, and supplied with it when wanting.”
Amy: “Adulation ever follows the ambitious.”
Laurie: “Although we seldom followed advice, we were all ready to ask it.”
Meg & John Brooke: “He praised her taste, and she commended his understanding; an age could not have made them better acquainted.”
Jo & Laurie: “…by amusing the imagination, contributed to ease the heart.”
Mrs March: “That virtue which requires to be ever guarded is scarcely worth the sentinel.”
Mr March: “The heart that is buried in a dungeon is as precious as that seated upon a throne.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
“We needed that lesson, and we won’t forget it. If we do, you just say to us as Old Chloe did in Uncle Tom, ‘Tink ob yar marcies, chillen, tink o byer marcies,’” added Jo, who could not for the life of her help getting a morsel of fun out of the little sermon, though she took it to heart as much as any of them. Of Mrs March’s advising her daughters to enjoy their blessings, Burdens.
Although Little Women is set in the midst of the civil war – during which the issue of abolition was no small matter – there is little said about the actual subject. This is perhaps the one place where slavery is alluded to; it is not surprising that it is Jo who does so.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin traces the journey of a Christian slave, Tom, who becomes separated from his family upon being sold to another to pay his master’s debts. Despite this, Tom continues to live by his faith at great personal cost. The novel presents a sobering picture of the lives of “the lowly,” the difficulty of being a slave while attempting to live by one’s conscience and not simply another’s will.
Previously published in short instalments in an abolitionist periodical, Uncle Tom’s Cabin went on to become the best-selling book in the United States in the nineteenth century next to the Bible.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (1820)
“What in the world are you going to do now, Jo?” asked Meg, one snowy afternoon…
“Going out for exercise,” answered Jo, with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes…
Meg went back to toast her feet and read Ivanhoe, and Jo began to dig paths with great energy. The day Jo went to visit Laurie, Being Neighborly
I fell in love with the language of this novel. The prose is simply exquisite – the epic battle scene of Torquilstone, the anguish of Rebecca before the Templars, the inner struggles of Brian Bois-Guilbert, the appearances of Richard the Lionheart…
Love is written of passionately, “But I will tear this folly from my heart, though every fibre bleed as I rend it away!” Reproofs are given elegantly, “If thou readest the Scripture and the lives of the saints, only to justify thine own licence and profligacy, thy crime is like that of him who extracts poison from the most healthful and necessary herbs.” Even injustice is described poetically, “The finest and fattest is for their board, the loveliest is for their couch, the best and bravest supply their foreign masters with soldiers, and whiten distant lands with their bones.”
Ivanhoe is actually less about Ivanhoe and more about the travails of Rebecca. I felt it was she who actually shone as the hero of the piece, the character with whom one could connect and sympathize with (maybe a male reader would judge differently!).
One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Brian approaches Rebecca and tells her that he will save her from certain death if she would give herself to him. He would give up the Order of the Templars, the certainty of holding the office of Grand Master, if she would run away with him, “This greatness I will sacrifice, this fame will I renounce, this power I will forego, even now when it is half within my grasp, if thou wilt say, ‘Bois-Guilbert, I receive thee for my lover.’”
How I admire her eventual reply! “Be a man, be a Christian! If indeed thy faith recommends that mercy which rather your tongue than your actions pretend, save me from this dreadful death, without seeking a requital which would change thy magnanimity into base barter…Put not a price on my deliverance, Sir Knight – sell not a deed of generosity – protect the oppressed for the sake of charity, and not for a selfish advantage.”
What challenging words, yet how humbly, gently, and respectfully spoken! I thought, if he does not yield to such an appeal, he will yield to none. There is a palpable tension and struggle throughout the novel between good and evil, courage and cowardice, wisdom and foolishness, generosity and selfishness – only one can be chosen and once it is, the other must give way.
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1837)*
As secret societies were the fashion, it was thought proper to have one; and, as all of the girls admired Dickens, they called themselves the Pickwick Club…And the weekly newspaper, called The Pickwick Portfolio, to which all contributed something while Jo, who revelled in pens and ink, was the editor…Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick; Jo, being of a literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass; Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman; and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle…No one ever regretted the admittance of Sam Weller, for a more devoted, well-behaved and jovial member no club could have. The PC and PO
I used to wonder why this chapter appears at all in Little Women and who on earth Pickwick and his crew were. Years after that first reading I realized that the entire chapter is a tribute to Charles Dickens’ first novel, the Pickwick Papers – and that this seminal work of the young Dickens is the source of familiar phrases still in use today such as, “Capital, capital!”
The Pickwickians aren’t much like the Marches in terms of character – but that is exactly the appeal of adopting such alter-egos! It is simply hilarious to read of these four middle-aged gentlemen having ridiculous ‘adventures,’ and imagining the sensible March sisters acting out such roles during the lifetime of their secret society. (I suspect Louisa May Alcott had great satisfaction writing this section in what was meant to be ‘a novel for girls’!)
The Wide Wide World by Susan Bogert Warner, aka Elizabeth Wetherell (1852)
Jo spent the morning on the river, with Laurie, and the afternoon reading and crying over The Wide Wide World up in the apple-tree. The first day of ‘all play,’ Experiments
What sort of book could possibly make Jo March cry, she who said so defiantly that she never cried unless for some great affliction? The Wide Wide World is credited with being the United States’ first bestseller, and for that reason alone it is no surprise that someone of Jo’s literary turn would have picked it up sometime, if only to see what everybody else seemed to be reading. Her response to it is telling. This is the only book we see Jo having such an emotional reaction to (and by extension I wonder if it had affected Louisa May Alcott in a similar way).
I like my novels with just endings, my favorite characters travelling with admirable friends, and a book diverging too far from this pattern would probably not find favor. This novel certainly promises both – men and women of integrity living faithful lives, tending to the needs of the forgotten, befriending the lonely. But the story also features those who are the opposite – once beloved family, trusted, privileged, who ought to have been the most loving and generous, yet are the most neglectful and abusive. I haven’t yet turned a page, and already I could cry.
The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (first performed 1775)
“If one could have a fine house, full of nice girls, or go travelling, the summer would be delightful; but to stay at home with three selfish sisters, and a grown up boy, was enough to try the patience of a Boaz,” complained Miss Malaprop, after several days devoted to pleasure fretting, and ennui. Of Amy’s experiences during the ‘all play and no work,’ Experiments
This reference to Mrs Malaprop in relation to Amy… I now cannot read this section in Little Women without smirking at this sisterly jest. In this eighteenth century play, Mrs Malaprop is aunt to the wealthy Lydia Languish. She keeps her niece under house arrest after discovering Lydia consented to elope with the penniless Ensign Beverley (or so they all think).
Like Amy’s misadventures with spelling and grammar, Mrs Malaprop “has an amazing propensity for garbling the English language.” She instructs her love-struck niece to “illiterate” Beverley from her thoughts (who called Mrs Malaprop “a weather-beaten she-dragon” in what was meant to be a secret letter to Lydia, which did not exactly raise him in her graces), not knowing he is actually a captain, son to the titled Sir Anthony, and the very same young man Mrs Malaprop had described as “the very pineapple of politeness.”
In a second reference to Mrs Malaprop, Jo attends a masquerade on New Year’s Eve dressed as this intelligent amiable lady and proceeds to stun everyone with her acting behind a mask (did Louisa May Alcott ever do the same? That would have been quite a party…).
The Sea Lions by James Fenimore Cooper (1849)
“Let’s give it to him,” whispered Laurie to Jo, who nodded, and asked at once, “Didn’t you cheat at croquet?”
“Well, yes, a little bit.”
“Good! Didn’t you take your story out of The Sea Lion?” said Laurie.
“Rather.” Jo and Laurie grill Fred Vaughn during the game of Truth, Camp Laurence
I couldn’t find another novel exactly titled The Sea Lion and have assumed Laurie was referring to this nineteenth century novel. It is essentially about two sealers who are stranded in the Antarctic, and may have been inspired by Charles Wilkes’s Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition of the Years 1838-1842. I wasn’t particularly scintillated by Fred’s apparent excerpt of the story and so haven’t read this, but it may appeal to those who enjoy turbulent nautical adventures.
Evelina by Frances Burney (1778)
“Tell us about it.” “When did it come?” “How much did you get for it?” What will father say?” “Won’t Laurie laugh?” cried the family, all in one breath, as they clustered about Jo; for these foolish, affectionate people made a jubilee of every little household joy.
“Stop jabbering, girls, and I’ll tell you everything,” said Jo, wondering if Miss Burney felt any grander over her Evelina than she did over her Rival Painters. Upon the successful publication of Jo’s first story in a newspaper, Secrets.
This is a love story in the line of Jane Austen. Evelina is raised in “the country” until she is seventeen – the daughter of an English aristocrat, but as this fact is unacknowledged her prospects for marriage are not high. As she is also quite ignorant of city social etiquette, her visit to London inevitably results in a series of comical faux pax. Nevertheless, she manages to attract a couple of titled men – the handsome Lord Orville, a “pattern-card of modest, becoming behaviour,” and Sir Clement Willoughby, “a baronet with duplicitous intentions.”
Evelina prefers Lord Orville, but feels their difference in status is too great to hope for him (especially when her embarrassing relatives arrive); Lord Orville doesn’t think this an issue, but does think that Evelina’s apparent affection for the poet Mr Macartney is; and Sir Willoughby (is it coincidence that Jane Austen names her knave from Sense in Sensibility Willoughby…?) attempts to disengage Evelina’s affections for Sir Orville with an untruthful letter disparaging his rival. All’s well that ends well in a series of weddings – but not without a whole lot of misunderstanding, mistaken identities, and romantic angst.
Patronage by Maria Edgeworth (1814)
Portrait of Maria Edgeworth by Adam Buck (1790)
“I only said I was too young to do anything about it yet; that I didn’t wish to have secrets from you, and he must speak to father. I was very grateful for his kindness, and would be his friend, but nothing more, for a long while.”
Mrs March smiled, as if well pleased, and Jo clapped her hands, exclaiming, with a laugh, “You are almost equal to Caroline Percy, who was a pattern of prudence!” Meg tells her mother and Jo about the exchange of letters, Laurie Makes Mischief
Published a year after Pride and Prejudice, Patronage’s “sprawling narrative offers plenty of scope for Colin Firth to turn up in a wet shirt and beget an Edgeworth revival.” (I love this description by Helen Zaltzman of The Guardian. Is there a phrase better calculated to prompt female readers to look more closely into a four volume two hundred year old novel?)
This is a novel similar in theme and morality to the Vicar of Wakefield in many respects, with the Percy family being afflicted by a series of unfortunate events in rapid succession – shipwreck, fire, and eviction from their home (the sort of suffering that can only be inflicted by an exploitative and unscrupulous relation). Their cousins the Falconers are shown to be rather devious and scheming, a contrast to the Percys’ stalwart moral fiber.
Everyone is attempting to secure suitable partners (who of course must possess that desirable combination of character, beauty and wealth), and through these pursuits, Edgeworth explores the various aspects of patronage. Despite all the complications, exploitations and injustice, like in the Vicar, “there’s that satisfying feeling that by the end, no ends will be left untied, and right will reign.”
This reference is one of my favorites because I suspect Louisa May Alcott had a bit of a kindred spirit in Maria Edgeworth. Both seem to have had romances with men to whom they had an astounding intellectual and emotional connection which ended for reasons lost to history; both went on to successful writing careers.
Edgeworth wrote of the proposal of poet and inventor Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz (who developed a telegraph system twice as fast as the French), “a Swedish gentleman…of superior understanding and mild manners: he came to offer me his hand and heart!” She refused, ostensibly because “nothing could tempt me to leave my own dear friends and my own country to live in Sweden.”
It has been speculated that Caroline Percy’s attempts to control her love for Count Altenberg in Patronage corresponds to Edgeworth’s personal resolve to conquer her enduring affection for Edelcrantz. (Caroline does reject quite a number of proposals in the novel, and even refuses a lord out of love for Altenberg.) In contrast to Caroline and Altenberg’s eventual marriage, Maria remained single – though she did form a lasting friendship with fellow writer Sir Walter Scott.
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)
“It’s only me, sir, come to return a book,” [Jo] said blandly, as she entered.
“Want any more?” asked the old gentleman, looking grim and vexed, but trying not to show it.
“Yes, please, I like old Sam so well, I think I’ll try the second volume,” returned Jo, hoping to propitiate him by accepting a second dose of Boswell’s Johnson, as he had recommended that lively work. Jo restores the peace, Laurie Makes Mischief.
I confess I had assumed from this excerpt that this book would be composed of dry essays by a cleric or military official James Laurence might have admired as a youth. But ‘Boswell’s Johnson’ is actually about the life of writer, editor, lexicographer and moralist Samuel Johnson, who published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 after dedicating nine years to the work.
A precursor to modern biography and one of the first works of its kind, The Life of Samuel Johnson has become “perhaps the most famous biography in English literature.” Johnson met the 22-year-old Boswell for the first time in a friend’s bookshop, and thus began a long friendship. The latter kept detailed journals and wrote such copious notes that Johnson once joked, “One would think the man had been hired to spy upon me.”
Nevertheless, despite the literary value of this book, it is not Jo’s usual fare; when Aunt March falls asleep and Jo curls up to read, it is “poetry, romance, history, travels, and pictures” that she devours. She seems to have started reading the book at least partially out of her esteem for James Laurence – and then to finish it partially to help restore his relationship with his grandson.
The Complete Poems by John Keats (1817)
Keats-Shelley house from the Spanish steps, Rome
“Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” [Jo] said stoutly, “and I’ve got the joke on my side, after all, for the parts that were taken straight out of real life are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes that I made up out of my own silly head are pronounced ‘charmingly natural, tender, and true’. So I’ll comfort myself with that, and when I’m ready, I’ll up again and take another.” On the mixed reception of Jo’s first published novel, Literary Lessons.
Part of the genius of Keats was that he was not only a writer, but a doctor – he enrolled as a medical student, got promoted, undertook expensive medical training to become a surgeon… Then, to the disappointment of his family, abandoned this lucrative profession to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to poetry.
The other part of his genius was his sheer perseverance at his craft, which I suspect is at the heart of what Jo is referring to here – and which Louisa May Alcott rewards in the course of the narrative, as Jo goes on to continue writing and win eventual fame like her hero. After much trial and rejection, including his collection of poems containing the famous Eve of St Agnes, Keats lived to see their publication in 1820 – and their recognition as one of the most important poetic works ever published.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (play first performed 1605)
“Yes, you did, it was a bargain between us. I was to finish the crayon of Beth for you, and you were to go properly with me, and return our neighbors’ visits.”
“If it was fair, that was in the bond, and I stand to the letter of my bond, Shylock. There is a pile of clouds in the east, it’s not fair, and I don’t go.”
Amy attempts to persuade Jo to visit their family and friends, Calls.
Shylock being one of the most notorious characters in the world of Shakespeare, this is quite a sharp indictment on Jo’s part to call Amy such a name. For tied up in the name of Shylock are connotations of at best jealousy and competition, at worst revenge and exploitation.
At first this reference seems rather out of place. Perhaps it is foreshadowing what’s to come later in the chapter – Jo finds many of the words that fall from her lips are either somewhat untimely or ungracious, and she rues the unruliness of her tongue for the loss of the trip to Europe. What might have been, had it been otherwise!
If you happen to find references to other books/novels within Little Women, please mention them in the comments, I’d love to hear about them!
Trix Wilkins is the author of The Courtship of Jo March: a variation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, available from Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Angus & Robertson.