Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—more than 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's recent small-screen adaptation and an upcoming film from director Greta Gerwig. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.
1. Louisa May Alcott didn't want to write Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”
When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved into the pressure.
2. Little Women took just 10 weeks to write.
Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant bestseller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.
3. Meg, Beth, and Amy were based on Alcott's sisters.
Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.
Beth was based on Lizzie, who contracted scarlet fever in 1856. Though she recovered, the disease permanently weakened her; Lizzie passed away in her sleep from a “wasting condition” on March 14, 1858—just shy of her 23rd birthday. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.
Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe and whose paintings were displayed in the Paris Salon.
Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.
4. The book as we know it was originally published in two parts.
The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.
5. Alcott refused to have Jo marry Laurie.
Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”
As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.
6. There are lots of theories about who Laurie was based on.
People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.
How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”
7. You can still visit Orchard House, where Alcott wrote Little Women.
Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.
8. Like the March Family, the Alcotts knew poverty.
Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.
When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.
9. Little Women has been adapted a number of times.
In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently in 2018 for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas. Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig’s version of the story, which will star Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, will arrive in theaters on Christmas Day 2019.
10. In the 1980s, a Japanese anime version of Little Women was released.
In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes.