Marie Phillips was born in London in 1976 and has lived there ever since. Her first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, will be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in August 2007, and will be released in a country and a language near yours soon after that. Marie blogs at Struggling Author. Here she discusses Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.
Marie Phillips on Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The most important book I have ever read is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was the one that turned me into a reader and ultimately, I believe, a writer.
I read it for the first time when I was about nine years old. I had, of course, read other books before (one of my earliest memories is discussing Sam Pig Went to Market with a heavily-armed African solider who had flagged a lift with my family as we drove through Botswana - I was six). I had identified, in a shallow way, with other characters (the illustrations for Milly Molly Mandy looked a lot like me). But Little Women was the first time I truly saw myself reflected in a book.
Little Women is the tale of the March family, four sisters growing up during the American Civil War, who were based on Alcott's own family. Jo, Louisa's alter ego, is the clear heroine: an author in the making, she is intelligent, outspoken, rebellious, fearless, reckless, bold. I didn't identify with her in the least. What nine-year-old sees herself as intelligent, outspoken, rebellious, fearless, reckless, bold? I'm not sure I was any of those things. Intelligent, maybe. Fortunately, there were three other sisters to choose from. The oldest was the sensible but faintly patronizing Meg; next in line from Jo was saintly, doomed Beth. (As an aside, my mother's French copy of Good Wives is a very loose translation indeed, in which Beth survives - which is like having Romeo and Juliet riding off into the sunset.) Neither of these would do. Amy, though: pretty, selfish, vain, attention-seeking, ambitious, ridiculed by her older sisters but desperate to be taken seriously, and in a huge hurry to grow up. Here I was.
For perhaps two years I read Little Women endlessly, finishing it and turning immediately back to page one. As I read, I was Amy; I saw the whole book through her eyes, experienced all of her emotions as if they were my own, smarted at her injustices, relished her triumphs. Occasionally, I did experiment with 'being' other characters, but none fitted me so well as Amy. When I wasn't reading the book, my best friend and I would watch the film on video (the underrated 1949 version, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Amy); later, we acquired the playscript and acted it out. (She took on the role of Meg. Neither of us touched Jo.)
We loved it and we lived it. Above all, we imagined it, using the book as a springboard for our own creative interpretation in that way that only a novel can inspire you, by taking you half way into a story and leaving you to imagine the rest. And the March sisters themselves were nothing if not imaginative: here we were playing at being them, and in the book, they were playing at being characters from Dickens, or from the plays that Jo wrote. Little Women was a passionate plea for the power of imaginative, interpretative thought, and it awoke and inspired me.
For the first time, I had truly found myself in literature, and for the first time I experienced what it means to live through a book, how the life you discover from reading can become more real than the life around you, how truth can be found in fiction and then, as you emerge with what you've learnt, rediscovered in reality. It is something I have been trying to recapture ever since, as a reader and, latterly, as a writer.
I can't remember why I stopped reading Little Women. I must have wanted to explore other novels, experience being other characters. I developed a similar relationship with the character of Laura in Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical Little House on the Prairie series, and throughout my life (though with increasing rarity) I have occasionally lost myself in the same way, becoming Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, or Michael 'Mouse', the gay male hero of Tales of the City. More usually now, though, I lose myself in the characters I create as a writer, and I think this is one of the main reasons that I write. It is such a pleasure, such a relief, such a freedom to become somebody else. Little Women taught me that, and for that reason, I will always love it.