Little Women Historical Connections

Niina Pekantytär

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At times Louisa May Alcott´s novels have been criticised for her protagonists always falling for older men. Louisa´s teenage crush towards family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson is fairly well documented. Emerson was 29 years older than Louisa and as we have established earlier, the love of Louisa´s life, Henry Thoreau was 16 years older than her.

In the 19th century, marriages between younger women and older men were very common and in general, women married much younger than these days. Often there is uncertainty around the topic, same with older women dating younger men which are usually considered more shocking. Many read Little Women when they are children and they are horrified when Jo marries an older man. When they are adults and read the book again Fritz being almost forty suddenly doesn´t seem that odd anymore, and the reader finds out that Laurie was quite childish and Fritz was perfect for Jo. This phenomenon is known as the Little Women passage to adulthood ritual.

In Little Women, all marriages have age gaps. John Brooke is 9 years older than Meg. Laurie in the book is 4 years older than Amy.

In reality, Anna Alcott was 2 years older than John Pratt. Meg is 21 when she gets married, Anna was 28, which at the time was a very late age for a woman to get married. Anna, Louisa and May were all off-the-shelf so to speak. Most women of the time were much younger when they married. Louisa was very much against women marrying too young.

In Little Women, Mr and Mrs March are quite strict that girls need to be over 21 when they marry. May Alcott Nieriker was 38 when she married and her husband was 22-year old at the time. Amy in the book was 24 when she married Laurie. Jo was 28 when she married Fritz.

In Little Women, all the couples spent a fair amount of time getting to know each other before marrying. John and Meg were engaged for three years. Laurie and Amy spent about a year in Europe together (but they already knew each other). After their time in New York, Jo and Fritz spent 2–3 years writing letters to each other. Louisa seems to be encouraging young girls to marry someone they know well.

Nowadays Louisa´s fascination with relationships with age gaps can seem creepy or weird but during the time there was a trend among female authors to write about relationships with age gaps. This is a very common theme in Jane Austen´s works; Colonel Brandon and Marianne, age difference 19 years. The age difference between Emma and Mr Knightley is 15 years. Charlotte Bronte´s Jane Eyre is 18 years younger than Rochester.

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Bettina Von Armin

​In her youth, Louisa adored the writings of Bettina Von Armin. She was a German romantic writer and social activist. Exactly the type of person Louisa admired. Bettina´s most popular novel “Goethe´s correspondence with a child” was very popular during Louisa´s time, especially among female writers. I have read this book and it is strange, to say the least. Bettina writes love letters to her idol Goethe, but Bettina is not in love with Goethe. She is in love with the idea of love. She doesn´t want an actual relationship with Goethe but a way to vent her emotions. Goethe only occasionally responded to these letters, with minimal brevity. In her letters Bettina does not ask any questions, letters are not about Goethe, they are all about Bettina. Bettina´s hero-worship affected whole generations of female writers and it was seen as something romantic. Our modern view is the opposite. Bettina´s actions would qualify as harassment.

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Friedrich as Goethe

​Louisa adored Goethe. She was born the same year Goethe passed away. Her father´s library included Goethe´s biography that was translated by Margaret Fuller and later in life Louisa collected all Goethe´s published works. Goethe was a highly respected writer in transcendentalist circles. During his lifetime Goethe was a spoke-person of self-reliance which was something that Louisa practised in her personal life.

A Lot´s of research has been made between Louisa´s writings and Goethe´s works. Long Fatal Love Chase and Modern Mephistopheles have similarities with Goethe´s Faust. Less research has been made on Goethe´s influence on Little Women. There are some striking similarities between Goethe and Friedrich. Friedrich embodies a great deal of Goethe´s philosophical ideas. Goethe was not from Berlin, he was from Weimar. Berlin and Weimar are about 100 miles away from each other in the same region in Germany. Friedrich is from eastern Germany and grew up in the intellectual environment where Goethe set the cultural benchmark for educated Germans. If Friedrich is about forty years old at the close of the Civil War, then he would have been born around the time when Germans began to revere Goethe and his works.

Friedrich´s and Goethe´s personalities are very much alike. A contemporary biography written by George Henry Calvert (who had met Goethe) records Goethe’s friend, Jung Stilling, as saying that it was a “pity that so few are acquainted with this nobleman in respect of his heart.”For example, when Goethe’s friend Moritz broke his arm on a trip to Rome, Goethe nursed him back to health. Similarly, Goethe was described by Herder as being a “great child” all of his life, eager to learn and willing to give “whatever he had” to make others happy. Friedrich is willing and able to comment on every subject, just as Goethe was highly sought after by members of his society. Calvert observes that there was so much life in Goethe that he “awakened and attracted life. He was a centre about which congenial men liked to move.

There has been speculation if Louisa wrote Friedrich to be her own ideal man. Teutonic heroes seem to be those who she favoured. Goethe and Friedrich look a lot alike. Both are tall, solidly build men with brown hair. There were times when Goethe also had a beard. This is how Friedrich Schiller describes Goethe:

“The expression of his countenance is serious, at the same time that it is benevolent and kind. He has brown hair and appears older than I should say he really is. His voice is exceedingly pleasing, and his conversation flowing, lively, and amusing. It is a pleasure to listen to him” (Armknecht)

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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