Meg, Jo, Elinor, Marianne
Like all American girls, I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and when I shared it with my daughter many years after my first reading, I was delighted to see that it held up beautifully – not just a good book for children but a great American Victorian novel. But it wasn’t until I saw Greta Gerwig’s new movie adaptation – which is one of the year’s best films, in my not-so-humble opinion – that I noticed the Jane Austen reference.
I had completely forgotten that the newspaper publisher to whom the fledgling writer Jo March takes her sensational stories is named Mr. Dashwood. Indeed, I had forgotten that detail so completely that when it turned up in Gerwig’s movie, I assumed it was a gentle Austen homage by Gerwig herself.
But no! It’s right there in Alcott’s chapter 34: Jo “told no one, but concocted a ‘thrilling tale,’ and boldly carried it herself to Mr. Dashwood, editor of the ‘Weekly Volcano.’ ”
As far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong, Alcott scholars), we have no direct evidence that Alcott read Austen – nothing like the documented Austen-hatred of Charlotte Brontë, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain or the loud Austen-appreciation of E.M. Forster, William Dean Howells, and Virginia Woolf. Alcott certainly could have read Austen, however: Little Women was written in 1868-9, more than fifty years after Austen’s death. And Austen’s themes – family life, women’s choices, the impact of money and class – are Alcott’s too, although where Austen is cool and ironic, Alcott tends to the moralizing and sentimental, in the Victorian mode.
But I think it’s Alcott’s choice of “Dashwood,” specifically, as the name for her minor character that seals the Austenian deal. Sure, she might have been thinking of the notorious eighteenth-century rake Sir Francis Dashwood, whose Hellfire Club was known for its sensationally immoral activities, when she created a character named Dashwood whose Volcano – figurative spewer of hellfire and brimstone -- is known for publishing stories with sensationally immoral plots.
But surely it’s no accident that Alcott chose this last name, indelibly associated with a story about sisters who take divergent approaches to romantic love and social obligations, for her own story of the relationships among a group of very different sisters. With the deliberate echo, she’s inviting us to remember Elinor and Marianne, and perhaps to ask ourselves which March sisters embody sense and which sensibility.