“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighs Meg, the eldest of the March sisters, at the opening of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women. Originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, Little Women follows the four sisters of the March family as they navigate the territory between childhood and adulthood. The novel is largely autobiographical, based on the lives of Alcott, her three sisters, and her parents, Bronson Alcott, the controversial education reformer, and Abigail, a suffragist and abolitionist. Alcott, writing of the novel, said, “We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it.”
Alcott was prompted to write Little Women largely because of her family’s extreme poverty, much of which is captured in the book. Though she had been trying to publish a collection of short stories, her editor urged her to write something with a broader popular appeal, which could quickly make her money. Alcott did not believe she could do it, but quickly wrote the first portion of Little Women, setting the novel at Orchard House, her family’s home in Concord.
By that time in her life, however, she was no longer rough-and-tumble Jo. Like her narrator, Alcott had grown up wild and boyish, directing plays and walking through the countryside with Henry David Thoreau. Alcott’s father, however, had invested in several failed projects—a utopian commune called Fruitlands and a controversial Boston school—and the family had little money. The Alcotts were forced to leave Concord, moving into the house at 20 Pinckney Street (Louisa May’s room was on the third floor). There, Alcott wrote and published her first book, Flower Fables, which saw moderate success, launching her writing career.
Though the family eventually returned to Concord, Alcott stayed on in Boston. Much as in Little Women, however, the death of one sister and the marriage of another forced her back to the family home, where she began her most well-known work. The novel saw immediate and unprecedented success, and Alcott wrote several sequels. Alcott’s health was never good, however, and the family began to change rapidly. Her mother died in 1877, and May (Amy in Little Women) followed in 1879; Bronson and Louisa May died two days apart in 1888.