“Beyond sat a pair of humble lovers, artlessly holding each other by the hand, a somber spinster eating peppermints out of a paper bag, and an old gentleman taking his preparatory nap behind a yellow bandanna. On her right, her only neighbor was a studious looking lad absorbed in a newspaper.”
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)
I don’t personally know any academics who study Louisa May Alcott. I mean, I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never met one. I’ve also never seen an Alcott novel on a standard undergraduate American literature survey syllabus: she wasn’t covered in any of the courses I took. In the shadow of her contemporaries (e.g. Hawthorn, Melville, Poe, Twain, James), Alcott’s sensational stores and domestic novels often escape serious scholarly notice, maligned for being light on substance and overwrought with stuffy morality (though it’s certainly worth arguing that the novel works to subvert those strictures by highlighting the repression endured by women in nineteenth century).
At any rate, Alcott’s first published novel, Little Women; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (originally published in two parts, the second called Good Wives) met immediate popular success and is now one of the bestselling books of all time. I poured through Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys when I was in my teens; never had I until then – and not since, perhaps – identified with a literary heroine as much as I did with Jo March, the sharp-tongued, quick-tempered, second-to-oldest of the March sisters. I gaped in horror when Amy threw Jo’s manuscript in the fire, nodded with approval when she cast off Laurie’s affections, and felt a sense of genuine triumph when the bound copy of her first novel arrived at the March family home. My academic brain wants to pick apart the class and gender dynamics that play out in the novel (particularly the multiples scenes of humiliation and feelings of resentment experienced by the girls, the consideration of taste and value, and… I’ll stop). My reader heart thumps nostalgically and wonders if after graduate school I’ll regain the ability to simply fall in love with a story and its characters.
Jo is said to be based on Alcott herself; Meg, Beth, and Amy are supposedly loose models of the author’s own sisters. The March home is a literary replica of Alcott’s family home in Concord, Massachusetts. Amos Alcott, Louisa May’s father, was a teacher, abolitionist, and member of the Transcendental Club, roles that put his young daughter in frequent contact with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. Later in life, Louisa May advocated for the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage; she became the first woman to register to vote in Concord. The facts of her death are of some dispute, the favorite version being that she contacted typhoid fever while serving as a nurse during the American Civil War and died from the treatment (large doses of a compound that contained mercury). Recent biographies dispute these claims and suggest that the red-cheeked portraits taken in her last years belie the symptoms of lupus.
Little Women opens on the eve of Christmas in the March household; indeed, the season is in full swing in our own. We would have worked our way through a century of literature if I had posted about all the treats coming out of our kitchen. I had to share this recipe, though: while not the prettiest dessert I’ve made, it may be one of the most delicious. I used David Lebovitz’ Chocolate Biscotti Recipe but switched out the almonds and almond extract for white-chocolate peppermint candy and peppermint extract, and drizzled the biscotti with melted peppermint chocolate rather than spreading them with Lebovitz’ ganache (I’m sure the original recipe is amazing, but I just love the combination of chocolate and peppermint around the holidays). I wrote about biscotti more extensively in this post, but today I’ll merely echo Lebovitz’ instance that “since biscotti refers to being twice-baked in Italian, you can’t have biscotti unless they are, indeed-twice baked.” Biscotti are meant to be crunchy and the appropriate texture requires them to be baked in a log, cut, and then re-baked to dry.
Happy holidays, Novelbite readers! Thank you for following, commenting, and be so overwhelmingly supportive. I look forward to toasting and posting in the new year!