Looking back; looking forward

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It has become a bit of a tradition with me that I start the new year with some form of comment, often grumpy, occasionally laudatory, about the one of the historically-based or costume dramas that has been shown on British television over Christmas. (I am including Sherlock in the ‘historically-based’ category here as, despite the modern setting, the raison d’etre of the series is its connection to its literary inspiration.)  This year is going to be a grumpy one, and my subject is, I am sorry to say, the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Little Women (BBC1).

I was really looking forward this programme. Emily Watson (who plays Marmee) is one of my favourite actresses, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March was an inspired bit of casting, and I always enjoy Call the Midwife (BBC1) created by adaptor Heidi Thomas. Above all, the original novels, Little Women (1868) and Good Wives (1869), were an enormous part of intellectual and cultural development as a child and young women and I continue to re-read them on a fairly regular basis. As with many other women raised in the Anglophone tradition, these novels, like those of L.M. Montgomery, E. Nesbit and Frances Hodgeson Burnett have, for better or worse, shaped the woman I am today.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of screen adaptation of Alcott’s classic novel, of which there have been a remarkable number (two silent versions, released in 1917 and 1918, three major Hollywood productions in 1933, 1949 and 1994, plus a 1978 television mini-series featuring William Shatner as Frederic Bhaer). In those that I have seen, the tendency has been to focus on the sentimentality of the novels (and Beth’s death in particular) at the expense of the acute reflections on Civil War-era New England society (and the gendering of that society) that forms the heart of the novels themselves.

To be fair, this is not something that this latest adaptation can be accused of. There are lingering shots of dying Civil War soldiers; the poverty of the Hummell children is depicted as deeply shocking, and Hannah, the Marches’ Irish maid is one of the more well-rounded characters in the drama. And yet these attempts at social realism seemed to miss so much of the complex social reality that Alcott was not merely depicting but actively critiquing in her novels.

Two things, I think, were at play here. The first was the attempt to fit as many of the multiple events that form the novel as possible into three hour-long episodes, rather than simply eliminating extraneous ones. As a result, some key episodes are seriously truncated, while others have their chronology muddled. Both adaptive strategies eliminate much of the subtext that Alcott inserts (not always subtly) into each of her stories within stories. Setting Amy’s valley of humiliation with the pickled limes after the departure of Marmee for the South to nurse her husband puts Jo in the role of the outraged maternal figure, rejecting corporal punishment, rather than Marmee, so that the episode no longer reflects on the polemical ideas about the appropriate way to raise and school young women that are so evident in the text.  The shortening of the ‘Camp Laurence’ episode, meanwhile, to Miss Vaughan’s snubbing of Meg and Beth’s self-sacrifice in talking to one of the twins (who is portrayed as temporarily incapacitated rather than crippled, as in the book), reduces a wider message about American self-reliance in comparison to European class consciousness to a caricature, while failing to fully capture the heroism of Beth’s actions. Most noticeably, the relationship between Beth, Jo and old peppery old Mr Lawrence is so underwritten as to have the emotion removed from it entirely, again reducing Beth’s characterization to a cypher, while criminally under-using Michael Gambon in the role of Mr Lawrence.

It is, of course, impossible to fit everything into a mini-series of this length, but these strategies, combined with shortening the overall trajectory from five years to less than three means that character development is seriously compromised. Amy and Beth are, as usual, cast far too old to begin with (they are 12 and 13 in the book), and all Beth’s ‘rosiness’ is eliminated in favour of portraying her as a permanently frail introvert. And this points to the second reason for my disappointment with this adaptation, namely the modernization of the characters to deliver a message about female agency which results in what felt like a series of mis-characterizations.  Jo’s independence becomes something to be celebrated rather than schooled; Marmee becomes a frustrated house-wife; even Aunt March gets an anachronistic feminist speech of regret in the final episode. Yet this, for me, misses the great joy of the book, which tackles head on the complexity of white womanhood, young and old, in mid-nineteenth century England. The process by which Jo goes from immaturity to adulthood, the challenges that Marmee faces in raising her children in a society increasingly defined by consumption, Meg’s failures at domesticity and the consequent negotiation of marital relations, Beth’s courage in facing loss of health and ultimately death, Amy’s search for a purpose that uses her skills but does not require genius, Aunt March’s loneliness and social isolation – all these plots have contemporary echoes which this programme, in its rush to tell so much about the limits of nineteenth century society for women, missed.

For me, the emblematic scene thus became the final one, with Marmee sitting surrounded by her surviving daughters in the orchard at Plumfield. The camera cuts to their menfolk – Mr March, John Brooke, Laurie and Professor Bhaer. In the book, this scene is one of mutual affection and endeavor, the statement of Alcott’s view that a successful life involves the mutual aid of family, with men and women both having roles, rather than personal independence.  Yet in the programme, the men have been so reduced (with Professor Bhaer in particular barely allowed time to develop at all, as well as being far too young), that the message appears to be that they have been sidelined in a manner that is profoundly a-historical. Misrepresenting historical reality in this way in a work of fiction is not in itself problematic, but this, for me, misrepresents the source text in ways that undermine the whole adaptation.

Alcott, it is worth noting, was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator, philosopher, reformer and member of the Transcendentalists. Her father’s progressive ideas about education and the raising of children are reflected in many of her novels, not only Little Women, but also Eight Cousins (1875), which articulates the case for women’s dress reform, its sequel, Rose in Bloom (1876) and An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870). These latter two, along with the sequels to Little Women, Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1876), are explicit in their exploration of the desirability for women’s independent labour outside the home, and the tensions that this raises with many women’s desires for marriage and family. The novels all end, in good sentimental Victorian tradition, with weddings. However, the portrayal of Jo’s ultimate success as a writer occurring well after her marriage in Jo’s Boys and the insistence on Rose Campbell’s independent philanthropy in Rose in Bloom and Polly Mason’s self-reliance even in face of her lover’s poverty, points to Alcott’s refusal to see women’s work and the achievement of domesticity as mutually exclusive.

The window into the past that Alcott’s work offers, therefore, is one that exhibits a nuanced and complex reality, a past populated by women and men attempting to negotiate tensions and contradictions and, more often than not, succeeding. Little Women draws its loyal readers back again and again not only because of its overt sentimentality (as comforting as that can, upon occasion be) or because we see ourselves reflected in it (although, as the commentary around the television programme demonstrated, many women do identify strongly with the four sisters, and Jo in particular), but also because it shows us a world at once very different from ours but nonetheless asking many familiar questions of women seeking find their own way in a world and suggesting that we may, in fact, be able to find it, but not without cost. In seeking to impose a narrative of frustrated modernity, rather than exploring how the March sisters successfully negotiated these oh-so-familiar challenges, this latest adaptation, as visually beautiful and beautifully acted as it was, was ultimately a missed opportunity.

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