- Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott
This new edition of Little Women is handsomely appointed. The meticulously restored 1868 and 1869 texts of the original two volumes of the novel are interspersed with gorgeous color illustrations; photographs of Alcott’s home, community, family, and friends; and two different types of annotations. The first of these offers support to readers unfamiliar with Alcott’s allusions and diction; the second (and, to my mind, more important) provides a running commentary on various historical and critical interpretations of Alcott’s life and greatest work.
Shealy bases his decision to rely on the original 1868–69 version on several factors, but most notably on the fact that no record exists of Alcott being involved in the decisions that went into the 1880 and 1881 revisions of her novel. Given that Alcott’s correspondence with her publishers is readily available to scholars, Shealy’s deduction that she was not involved seems well justified. Moreover, he notes that many of the changes Roberts Brothers made to the later editions involved shifting cultural anxieties about the relationship between national identity and language: “In altering Alcott’s language, Roberts Brothers was ultimately making political decisions about what constituted appropriate language for children” (xi). Shealy believes that the later changes contradict some of Alcott’s original motivations for writing the novel: “Little Women: An Annotated Edition reproduces the 1868–69 texts since later changes made by Roberts Brothers clearly work against the spirit of the novel: the 1868–69 texts reveal a writer attempting to capture the realistic speech and language of nineteenth-century American youth” (xi). Throughout, Shealy provides explanations of those passages that have been most changed by editors’ revisions, including the bowdlerization of slang and standardization of grammar. In an elegantly written introduction, he recounts the history of the novel’s composition, reception, and subsequent adaptations; the final sections of his book include thorough lists of the textual variants, bibliography, and illustrations used throughout the text.
The annotations that address Alcott’s allusions and diction serve as a welcome bridge to readers in the twenty-first century who may not always find themselves comfortable with her references. As a young reader, I, for one, would have loved to know the background on Undine and [End Page 156] Sintram that Jo longs to buy herself for Christmas in chapter one (38); I would have found helpful explanations about what type of fabric poplin is (69), what type of dance a redowa is (78), what type of piano a cabinet piano is (109), and what type of medicine camphor is (240). I confess to feeling intellectually sated now that I finally know how pickled limes are made (112)! It is lovely to learn that the first use of the term “lap of luxury” occurred in Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 Moral Tales (81) and that “what the dickens” dates from the late sixteenth century and is no allusion to Charles Dickens (101). Indeed, the contextualizations of Alcott’s many intertextual references to Dickens are helpful, as are the lengthy explanations of The Pilgrim’s Progress and its relationship to Little Women.
Since 2004, scholars have had access to explanations of many of the allusions and much of the language in Alcott’s novel thanks to Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein’s critical edition, which Shealy generously acknowledges and praises (see 353 and throughout). What was lacking until now, however, was the ongoing critical commentary that Shealy provides, documenting scholarly opinions about Little Women and its historical context as the narrative progresses. Michelle Abate, for example, is quoted to good effect about the role of the tomboy in the Civil War (39). Anne K. Phillips is presented as definitively putting to rest the question of whether the March sisters receive New Testaments or The Pilgrim’s Progress on Christmas morning; she makes clear that it is the former, not the latter (55). Shealy cites Nina Auerbach’s reminder to readers of the possibility that Beth’s death represents “the waning of childhood...