I wanted to write a eulogy for my mother. I've been wanting to for this past month and a half, feeling that I could at least do that, surely - if I couldn't adequately express in any other medium what I need to express around this, then I could at least write it. Because writing and reading are my basic activities - the things I can always do. This turned out to be half right: I can always read. So, the day after the day after my mother died, I started reading Little Women, this time to read the whole thing, something I'd somehow never done. My mother had read it at least a dozen times, and now I needed to feel close to her, to continue to get to know her, to prove to myself that our relationship was not over.
There were so many elements that to my twenty-six-year-old mind clashed with the atmosphere I was expecting from the novel, based on my mother's enthusiasm and, honestly, based on its continued success with girls. I read the Penguin Threads edition, with Jane Smiley's introduction, and she pointed out that girls continue to find their way to the book on their own. And I agree, from living in the same world with the book, that this always seemed important to most readers' interaction with the book. I've never heard of its being included in a school curriculum. And yet, I've only ever been able to admit with some shame to not having finished it.
And of course, I know what it is to read a nineteenth-century novel as a teenage girl, though Hardy was my main pick (or rather my mom's pick for me: she said one day, "I think you'd like Thomas Hardy - he wrote moody novels about the English moors"). I also knew that Pilgrim's Progress played a major role in Little Women, and for that matter, I knew the essentials of the story, so really, I don't know what I was expecting. But I was surprised imagining my mother, as a little girl or teenager, responding to the moralizing and the primness of the narrative.
Of course, though I've read it now, in many ways, I see that I missed the book. For me, the emotional outbursts, the trials and disappointments that the March girls experienced were just another feature of the landscape, whereas the primary function of the narrative seemed to be a lecture on a certain moral worldview. But if I had read that book at an age when I could have responded personally to the girls' responses, I would have found myself in the narrative, and that would have been a different story (excuse the pun).
Then, there's the fact that my mother read the book at least a dozen times. At that point, your mind wears grooves even in the text. She could have - I'm sure she did - grazed lightly over the comments about occupations appropriate to a woman, outlining and reinforcing mentally whatever she found more useful or beautiful. I imagine the picnic at the end would have burrowed in until it shone brightly out, always available to mentally revisit.
And of course, each reading would be different, or she wouldn't have kept reading it. So one time, she might have been attracted to the Europe where Amy and Laurie found themselves - found one another. And I'm sure that many times she struggled with Jo, admiring, but also frustrated. And my sisters and I know from the way that she talked about Beth that she was one of those characters who never will stay in a book once you've read it: she hung around in the real world, a ghostly friend. Even my sisters and I, never having read the book, came to know her. All of them, really - my mother talked about them much like childhood friends.
And one more thing about that moralizing. As I read the book in a time of extreme pain (people would tell me "I don't know how you can read right now," and I would say, "It's the only thing I know how to do right now"), the strong moral structure of the March parents and its iterations in the mouths of their children (Laurie included) was in fact helpful. I tried out Mrs. March's theory that work is the best way to get through the discomforts of life, and that was in great part the way that I relearned how to live. I made lists of tasks, put myself to work. I sorted through messes, I washed dishes once I was back in my own house, I did laundry. And, just as Mrs. March promised, it helped.
So maybe I missed something - I'm sure I missed a great deal - by not reading the book as an adolescent. But I gained a great deal by reading it now, and that counts for something.