See(k)ing Little Women

Guest post by Beverly Lyon Clark

When I detoured from another project to work on The Afterlife of “Little Women”I didn’t realize how long it would take—or how much fun I’d have. (Thank you, Louisa May Alcott—and happy almost-birthday!)

It’s been a treasure hunt, first of all. Consider the lost 1919 film version of the novel. No, I didn’t find a copy in some musty vault. But the film had left a paper trail in scores of newspapers and magazines. Not to mention the lobby cards advertised on eBay and the photograph in the archives of the Academy of Motion Pictures. My favorite newspaper notice focused on the love triangle between Jo March, her neighbor Laurie, and Professor Bhaer—who comes upon Jo “in the arms of another” but “wasn’t a quitter,” thanks to his “collegiate experience” . . . Doesn’t exactly sound like Alcott’s novel. Whether or not the ad speaks to the film or just to the interests of a small-town exhibitor, it says something about how Little Women was perceived a century ago (even now, many still read it as a love story gone wrong) and also about the marketing of early motion pictures, when publicists weren’t sure whether to stress the classic status of the novel on which the film was based or to situate it as a melodramatic “problem” film.

Beyond the thrills of the treasure hunt, I hadn’t realized how many different areas of study I’d be exploring.  What I’d vaguely expected might be a compact reception study necessarily reached out to adaptation studies, illustration studies, cultural studies, and more.

Take illustration studies. A number of critics have theorized about picture books, but less work has been done on the illustrations in illustrated books: books with images on occasional pages, not every page turn.

At least a hundred different illustrators have created images for English-language editions of Little Women (I estimate another hundred for editions in other languages), such as the Reader’s Digest 1967 condensed version. When I first looked at Mark English’s images, I put them aside. That’s not how the house looked, I found myself thinking, too ready to buy into the conflation of the fictional Marches and the historical Alcotts and to expect an image of the Alcotts’ Orchard House. But English’s images haunted me. I kept coming back to them. And looking at them pushed me to think beyond the ways I’d been unthinkingly subordinating images to the words of the text—as I go on to explore in The Afterlife of “Little Women.”

At one point I happened upon a listing for an edition of Little Women illustrated by Jessie T. Mitchell—not an edition I’d known of before. The copy I purchased doesn’t include a publication date, but it does have an inscription, to Bessie from her cousin Jimmie, dated Oct. 1st 1899. A nineteenth-century edition!? And published by the London Sunday School Union? A check of the London Bookseller suggested that the edition was published in 1897.

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).

I haven’t been able to find out much about Mitchell, but since the name Jessie was more common for females than for males, I’ll use the feminine pronoun. Her illustrations are not particularly distinguished artistically. But look at the frontispiece, reproduced above. Many editions have frontispieces featuring a cluster of the four March sisters, with or without their mother, starting with May Alcott’s much-criticized one for the 1868 edition (reproduced below). In Mitchell’s image the sisters overlap and look at one another, but the loose clustering allows each some independence and grants Jo some authority via placement. The caption, “Your sister!”, reminds us of their family relationship but also reveals the author of the story that Jo has been reading them—a metaphor for the author of the book, the title page of which three sisters are looking toward.

I’m going to sketch some more of what I see—or rather ask questions that replicate some of my thought process—and I’d welcome comments on what others see. Does it matter that Beth, the second from the left, seems to be striking a histrionic pose, as if she’d just stepped off the stage of a Victorian melodrama? Does the book on the stand (unlike Meg’s knitting and the sewing basket near Amy’s feet) signal women’s access to reading and not just to domestic accomplishments? Or, given that copies of this edition were likely to be distributed at Sunday schools, are we to take the depicted book as religious or moralizing, and thus possibly constraining the sisters rather than inviting their imaginations to take independent flight? Does it matter that the sisters’ muttonchop sleeves date from the 1890s, when this edition was published, rather than the 1860s, when the events of the novel take place? And what is that dark object in the bottom right? Surely not a chamber pot? What else then? Furthermore, given that Jo is turned partly away from us, the only one whose face isn’t shown from the front, are we almost looking over her shoulder, almost taking on her perspective, as we often do in the novel? Or is such a claim too much of a stretch, as it were? And is the following claim too much of a stretch, too: Given that I know of no other frontispiece that alludes to Jo’s writing, and given that Mitchell’s image also invokes family togetherness, does the artist effectively offer an interpretation of the text that endorses both the domesticity that the text was coming to embody and that would dominate twentieth-century illustrations and the creativity and independence that readers now often celebrate in Little Women? Or is that too much of a grand claim? . . . What do you see?


Illustration by May Alcott for Little Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868). Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Illustration by May Alcott for Little Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868). Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University


clarkBeverly Lyon Clark is a professor of English and women’s studies at Wheaton College. She is the author of The Afterlife of “Little Women” and Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America, also published by Johns Hopkins. Clark is the editor of Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews, and the coeditor of “Little Women” and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays.

An interview with Beverly Lyon Clark can be found here.