Sifting through the Guardian website in my lunch break at work I found a compilation of the top 10 literary villainesses from author and actress Emerald Fennell. As I cast my eyes down the list I nodded along to familiar embodiments of malevolent feminine wiles such as Dolores Umbridge and the White Witch, felt culturally embarrassed about the ones I didn’t know and then felt childhood-old indignation at the last name on the list. Amy March, of Little Women fame.
Little Amy March, with her blonde curls and habit of wearing a peg on her nose a villain? Outrageous! Little Women is a trusty stalwart on my bookshelves and I have an affection for all the characters, but while every girl seems to love Jo for her feisty feminine ways, Amy has always been a favourite with me and I would argue, she too is perhaps just as appropriate a feminist role model if not more than big sister Jo in this modern age.
To prove her villainy Fennell cites the incident where Amy threw Jo’s writings into the fire, in a fit of jealousy that she didn’t get to go to a concert with her bigger sisters and Laurie. Well, give the girl a break, who hasn’t done something a bit naughty when they were that young to spite an older sibling? Foolish and mean but let’s face it, self-control at that age when you feel the world has wronged you is rarely great. Unless you are Beth, but she’s just a bit boring, hell she even admits she’s boring when she does the whole bird analogy for all her sisters and herself (and you will know you are a true Little Women fan if you understand what I’m referencing).
Amy is also accused of being vain and spoiled. And, yes, Amy is a bit vain, she worries about her nose and she wants fancy things, but again, we’ve all fretted about our looks and we all long for nice things. Even Jo cries when she cuts her hair because she’s worried she has no attractive features left. These moments of self-consciousness make both of them human. As for Amy being spoiled, the March sisters didn’t really have the most affluent background and are pretty strict with Amy (Meg giving her money for limes aside).
In fact, Amy only seems to accumulate really nice things once she starts becoming older and more thoughtful (which is hopefully what the majority of human beings do). Amy gets to go on the foreign tour with her aunt, and treated to nice gifts, because she behaves more politely around others while Jo doesn’t. Amy also as is noted in later books in the series very good at re-using materials to make beautiful dresses – so she clearly develops a thrifty mindset in terms of clothes.
As for being the equivalent of the White Witch who turns cute animals to stone because she marries a man her sister refused, it’s frankly laughable. And I suspect (hopefully) Fennell was being tongue in cheek.
Yet, on a more serious note, it is interesting to observe how the characters Alcott clearly intends for us to admire the most are Jo and Beth. Both of these sisters, who are each other’s favourites, embody the spirit of, shall we say, more misogynistic times. Beth is devout, sweet, a caring daughter and helpful in the home, who leaves the world (presumably) a virgin. Beth is the perfect woman.
Jo hates clothes and thinking about her appearance (mostly) and likes books and being rough and tumble and has no desire for the emotional implications of a relationship. Jo is a tomboy, essentially a man in female form to 19th century eyes. ‘Unfeminine’ women were frowned upon in Alcott’s time so Jo would not have been an acceptable form of womanhood but, in creating her ideal feminist icon, Alcott has created her society’s ideal of a man. The characters of Jo and Beth practically scream the message men or docile women are the best forms of human being. Jo’s choice to make Plumstead a school for boys instead of girls, is a not-so subtle message that boys are just better than girls.
Amy and Meg, on the other hand tread an inbetween territory. They have those silly feminine interests in their appearances and finding a man alongside more acceptable feminine traits of being good mothers and wives. They even have some of the more ‘manly’ traits of having talents they long to turn into professions (Amy more so than Meg, who just enjoys acting). Yet they seem to get more punishment under Alcott’s pen with chapters about their silly behaviour. They appear to be punished for not being definitely a Beth or a Jo.
And they are not alone in literature for that – take Ruby Gillis in the Anne of Green Gables series – being pretty and liking boys just leads to consumption and death for golden Ruby. While conversely Susan Pevensie escapes death in the Chronicles of Narnia, unlike her less appearance and sex focused siblings, and so doesn’t get eternal life in what appears to be a giant onion of Narnia worlds.
Basically, being a normal human female and being a mix or personality traits just doesn’t make for a happy life in the literary world of the late 19th, early 20th century. Nevertheless, Amy March, I salute you for daring to be imperfect, like a real woman. You’ll always be my favourite March sister.