Wide Angle

Little Women and Dickinson Are Less Interested in Love Than Money

Instead of investing in romance, these 19th-century women count on themselves.

Side-by-side of promotional stills of the two Louisa May Alcotts.
Saoirse Ronan in Little Women and Zosia Mamet in Dickinson, both as Louisa May Alcott. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sony Pictures andApple TV+.

Crying, sitting next to my crying mom, and watching Greta Gerwig’s wonderful Little Women over the holidays, I couldn’t stop thinking about Zosia Mamet’s cameo as Louisa May Alcott on Apple TV+’s Dickinson. Mamet gives us Alcott as a brash young author who turns up for Christmas dinner at the Dickinson house, irritating the daintier friend who brought her along by trumpeting the $35 she just earned for her first book. Hearing that Emily is also a writer, Alcott takes her for a jog across the fields before dinner (the real Alcott, who was full of fiery energy, often ran for pleasure), and gets right down to brass tacks. To support yourself as an author, Mamet’s Alcott advises, you should go straight for the sensational material. Don’t ever get married; don’t fret over your family’s disapproval; and whatever you do, don’t be a poet.

Little Women’s central character, Jo March, has always been identified with Alcott, but Gerwig’s version makes the link explicit, climaxing with Saoirse Ronan’s intrepid Jo writing a book called … Little Women. Gerwig’s Jo isn’t quite so mercenary as Mamet’s Alcott, and over the course of the film she finds there are limits to what she’ll write for cash, but her financial motive for writing in the first place is never in doubt.

In one year, we got two portraits of a wholly unsentimental Louisa May: not “duty’s child,” the family’s sole support, as her father Amos Bronson Alcott called her; not the moralizing “children’s friend,” teaching lessons of duty and piety to the young, as 19th- and early 20th-century biographers described her; not even exactly the feminist icon “going her own way” presented in the many children’s biographies of the author that have been published since second-wave feminism made “strong women” into a kids’ book category of its own. Dickinson’s Alcott and Gerwig’s Jo have this in common: They are all about that money.

Gerwig described the decision to foreground finances in her movie on an episode of the Ringer’s Big Picture podcast. “When I reread the book as an adult, money was all over it. … So much of what the book was about was the kind of underlying economic question of how, because they didn’t have ability to earn money, hold property, vote, women had no way to really make art.” This, Gerwig said, is why the movie opens and closes with Jo’s editor, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). “We did a close-up of her hand handing Mr. Dashwood the story, and his hand handing the money back, because to me that exchange is at the core of what the book is about,” Gerwig said. “ ‘I’m going to give you my art and you will give me money.’ And we even, in the sound editing, heightened the sound of [paper changing hands] to highlight subconsciously that this was what was going on.”

Underlining the connection between her adaptation’s protagonist and the novel’s author, Gerwig worked lines from Alcott’s own letters into her script, like “I can’t afford to starve on praise,” which Alcott wrote after Henry James panned her 1864 novel Moods. “He was like, ‘This is trash,’ and she was like, ‘Not all of us are trust fund kids, baby,’ ” Gerwig told the Ringer. “She outsold him by a factor of like 20 to 1.”

This new Jo, eyes on the money, is a true creature of our time. The story of Little Women and the life of its author—always intertwined in the public mind, despite the novel’s many departures from Alcott’s real life—both center the financial plight of 19th-century women, but previous adaptations have emphasized other themes. Anne Hollander, writing after the release of the 1994 Gillian Armstrong adaptation in the New York Times, argued that the 1933 George Cukor version, catering to Great Depression–era escapism, obscured the March family’s genteel poverty with the “comfortable glow of nostalgia, which gave a heartening strength to the film’s vision of courage in the face of want.” The 1949 version, she added, “visually plays down” the March family’s “makeshift amusements and threadbare arrangements” because “postwar Americans would not find signs of want entertaining.” Little Women, for decades of filmgoers, has been a classic American story about girls who lived happily, despite some deprivation, because they had each other.

That may have been some part of the truth of Alcott’s childhood in a close family of daughters, but the author also knew from an early age that her future happiness—and that of her sisters and mother—depended on her finding something lucrative to do. Alcott softened her real-life family’s circumstances in order to create the March household; her own life was marked from childhood by brutal poverty. In Eden’s Outcasts, a dual biography of Louisa and her father Bronson, who was a transcendentalist and reformer, John Matteson shows how his persistent optimism and idealism (and, possibly, his untreated mental illness) condemned his wife and four daughters to lives of deprivation. In Little Women, the Marches, led by Marmee and Beth, are do-gooders who give their breakfasts to impoverished neighbors the Hummels and speak constantly of their duty to the poor. But in real life, writes Anne Trubek, “the Alcott family, from Louisa’s birth to death, was, to most of middle-class mainstream America, a bunch of weirdo radicals, who supported John Brown, progressive education, and women’s rights.” And the children paid dearly for their parents’ beliefs.

The Alcotts were friends with some of the most interesting and prominent writers of the time, but they never had enough to support themselves, and the women worked and worried while Bronson tried and failed again and again to find ways to make money that would also further his causes. Matteson calls Louisa’s childhood and youth “an almost impossibly dissonant combination of superior intellectual opportunities and frightful worldly deprivation.” Louisa spoke about books with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and received instruction in nature study from Henry David Thoreau, but went home to food insecurity and a mother who fretted constantly about debt. The family moved constantly. “Louisa’s life was in one sense lavishly wealthy,” Matteson writes. “In another, it was perilously poor.”

As young as age 10, when the family was living (and starving) at her father’s experimental utopian farm Fruitlands, Louisa wrote in her diary on her mother’s birthday, “I wish I was rich, I wish I was good, and we were all a happy family.” Matteson observes that it was especially forbidden, within Bronson Alcott’s belief system, to covet money. From our 21st-century perches, we Jo fans identify most often with Jo’s tomboyish tendencies. But Louisa’s firm commitment to finding financial security for her family was another thing that marked her as different from the more spiritually minded people that surrounded her. Because religion and belief are usually stripped from contemporary adaptations of Little Women (including Gerwig’s), it’s hard to get a glimpse of the spiritual struggle that Louisa’s deep need for more money created for this daughter of a dreamer. In 2020, we understand striving, if nothing else.

Jo’s twin fixations on writing and money interact in the novel Little Women in interesting ways. If, in some parts of the story, Jo fits the romantic picture of an author driven only by the muse—garret, special writing cap, candle, “writing vortex” that lasts all night—in other parts, she just wants to get paid. There is an apparently glad ending for Jo’s writing life in the book. Jo abandons the sensation stories she writes in New York, the ones that paid so well. She then tries her hand at moral tales, which don’t suit her either, and finally— prompted by Marmee’s suggestion to write something that’s just for her family—settles on authenticity. That commitment to the “true” thing generates the domestic stories that are the fictional analog to Little Women. Happy medium, right? The girl gets the money by writing the things that feel right to write. (Then she sets down her pen—at least for the time being—in favor of marriage and running a school.)

The genius of Gerwig’s adaptation is that she spins the book’s ending, when Jo gets “rescued” from the undesirable fate of spinsterism by the sudden appearance of (the far-too-handsome-on-purpose) Professor Bhaer, as another bit of fiction. The movie makes it clear (or clear-ish) that this is a romantic turn Jo has inserted into the story to please her publishers. In the “true” ending of the movie, which Gerwig has described as “girl gets book,” Jo watches a copy of Little Women being produced, savoring each part of the binding of her book, and finally, with it in her hands, sighs in happiness.

Gerwig can be pardoned for wanting some kind of closure—literary, if not romantic. But in real life, that closure never came. Alcott found the prospect of writing Little Women to be somewhat unappealing (“Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters”) and described herself as “plodding away” on the work of writing it. Nor did finishing the book help her find her “voice.” When all was said and done, Alcott’s career, writes Susan Naomi Bernstein, was full of fits and starts: random efforts in different directions, sometimes motivated by art and sometimes by money. Alcott wrote juvenile fiction, autobiographical adult fiction, an experimental adult novel, a sentimental adult novel, sensation stories, and a gothic novel—that last one was published anonymously as late as 1877, after the Little Women money had already gotten the family out of debt.

Even once she was safe, Louisa could not stop writing for money. The fixation exacerbated a chronic illness that latter-day analysts think may have been lupus. She wrote so much—ironically putting in 14-hour days on her 1871 novel about women and the problem of employment, Work: A Story of Experience—that she caused permanent paralytic nerve damage to one of her hands. On the day she died, as Sarah Lahey points out in an assessment of Alcott’s compulsive work habits, this wealthy author was still writing down every single expense in her diary—a habit for decades. “Her characteristic state of mind,” Matteson writes, “had in it a sense of constant insufficiency that she seemed powerless to eradicate.”

Contrast this with Bronson Alcott’s insistence on writing the most idealistic, purest possible work. At one point, the elder Alcott published a series of pompous “Orphic Sayings” in the transcendentalist magazine the Dial. These were met with complete derision from critics. Despite the universal laughter, he kept turning out these Sayings and insisted on attaching his name to them. “They stand as an incarnation of transcendentalism at its most ebullient and its most fatuous,” Matteson writes. “They so severely damaged Alcott’s reputation as a writer that no editor went near another important piece of his writing for a quarter century.”

What would it have felt like, as a young person, to watch your father stick so strongly to his beliefs, even while you saw your mother suffer? It might sharpen your feminism. It might make you into a workhorse of an author, willing to write anything for pay. It might make you Louisa May Alcott.