IF AT first you don’t succeed, propose to one of the other sisters. This was the main lesson I took from the latest film version of Little Women. It being Christmas, and having encouraged my ten-year-old daughter to read the book, I trotted on down to the cinema, with grandparents and daughter, to see what all the fuss was about.
It is true that the latest Little Women breaks all my film-going rules. It has nearly an all-female cast, it is made after 2000 and the reviews told me it was a ‘feminist remake’, but despite this I enjoyed it.
There really is only so much damage they can do to a classic set during the American Civil War, and I thought I should see this film before some bright spark has the idea of making Little Trans Women, or Little Women and the City and have them romping with different men every night of the week. I was pleasantly surprised. It was beautifully made, the acting was convincing and moving and I cried at all the parts normal people should cry at.
However, I did ask myself the usual question. If Jo was never going to marry Laurie, why does she spend most of her teenage years leading him on, at a time when spending inordinate amounts of time with a young man did indeed mean you would marry him? Why does she lead this chap on when she believes in her heart of hearts that should they get married that it would be a disaster and ‘they would wish they had never done it’? (A very similar response was used, if memory serves, by Anne of Green Gables when she first rejects Gilbert Blythe.)
The same goes for young Amy, who spends months in Paris not only trying to become the best painter there ever was but also trying to secure a marriage proposal from the very wealthy Fred Vaughn, about whom we learn next to nothing in the film (perhaps more is said of him in the novel).
Laurie, smarting from being rejected by Jo, advises Amy not to marry Vaughn because she doesn’t love him. Mmmm, I thought to myself, I would like to see the research on the number of marriage proposals rejected by young women when made by very wealthy men. This, dear reader, is indeed a work of fiction.
Luckily for Amy, however, after she rejects the rich dude, Laurie suddenly realises he is quite in love with her, and although not quite as wealthy as Fred, he is still rich enough for Amy. He proposes and secures her hand in marriage.
Meg, in a previous feminist speech to Laurie, had said she was not ashamed to marry for money, as marriage is always an economic proposition for women. It is not clear if this same calculus also applies to the wealthy Laurie or if we are to forget about this because Amy always had a crush on him. Perhaps Amy is just lucky enough to be able to have her cake and eat it. Amy marries the man she loves who just happens to be wealthy. How convenient!
So there we have it. It is still an acceptable literary arc for a woman to lead a man on for months, perhaps years, and then when he finally proposes, she is entitled to say, Actually mate, I don’t know what you were thinking. Yes, I took up all your time, energy and devotion but it turns out I am a fickle creature and I don’t fancy you. I mean I like you, or I might love you, but I’m not in love with you, so thanks but no thanks.
At least Anne of Green Gables went on to marry Gilbert Blythe, although only after he came close to death. It also took Darcy two proposals to win Elizabeth’s hand in Pride and Prejudice. But the two little women in Little Women along with that other Irish lass in Brooklyn are the stuff of every mother’s nightmare when it comes to securing her son’s happiness.
How true this is to life, I have my doubts. I certainly know if the gender roles were reversed the man would be considered a cad but when a woman does it, oh, she was just following her heart and if she shatters his to a million little pieces, then so be it.
Little Women: good film, just keep them away from your sons.