Comment Opinion & Features

The new Little Women would shock Louisa May Alcott

A scene from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

The latest film version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, has been a critical and popular success. It has a feminist message, surely, but an element of female empowerment was there, in the text. Jo March always was a strong female character, active and boyish – even masculine.

In the book, Jo describes herself as “the man of the family”.

The movie is unusually pretty to look at – one reviewer described the cinematographer (the Frenchman Yorick Le Saux) as having raided the paintbox of the Impressionists for colour. It’s altogether an engaging story, as it always was, acted with verve and warmth. Sometimes too much warmth – a lot of showbiz hugging and kissing is not really typical of New England Puritans of the 1860s.

Classic stories are always revised with a contemporary slant, so the Little Women of today omits the spirit of Protestant virtue that pervades the book. Alcott’s writing is quite moralistic, and these female characters were embedded in their religious way of life – their father is a pastor, which only emerges peripherally in the movie version.

Patrick Young, a blogger who specialises in Civil War history, has pointed out that Louisa May Alcott held strong prejudices against Irish immigrants, and endorsed the common practice of “No Irish Need Apply” notices. Alcott wrote about the latter, approvingly, in an 1870s newspaper. She had fired her Irish maid, whom she called Biddy, for having “the faults of her race”. She urged her readers not to employ Irish women.

So it’s an irony of history that an Irishwoman, Saoirse Ronan, is today the leading star of Little Women.

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During the recent general election, the problems of the National Health Service were a focal point of political debate: all sides seemed to agree that the NHS was under terrific pressure and lamentably underfunded.

But to be honest, one reason for the problems of the NHS emerges in my everyday encounters and experiences: conversations with those of my generation concerning our age.

Our age – the baby boomer generation born after 1945 – means that most of us have now passed the biblical span of three score years and ten. And we’ve got the aches and pains to prove it.

Most friends and neighbours I know in my age group are availing themselves of some essential medication, medical attention or ongoing care.

Sometimes it’s the knees, as in “I’ve had one operation on my knee, but now I need another.” Hip replacements are, of course, so commonplace that a trendy survivor of the 1960s talked about “putting the hip in hip replacement”.

Other times it’s the heart (“must be careful at airports with my pacemaker”) or the onset of diabetes in late middle age. Bronchial, kidney and intestinal problems arise after the wear and tear of life.

Shoulders creak. Hearing declines.

Eyes need cataract operations. Joints grow arthritic. The doctor’s surgery and the pharmacist’s waiting area are filled with oldies getting their prescriptions for this, that or the other.

We have constant recourse to the NHS, for which, indeed, we are deeply grateful. Many conditions that were fatal only a few decades ago are now successfully addressed: I know a woman who has had three bouts of cancer, and thankfully she’s recovered each time.

I’m not a great supporter of the body-obsessive cult of “wellness” which always starts up in January – “clean” diets, more exercise, no sugar or alcohol, and certainly no cigarettes. It can be over-puritanical and narcissistic. But perhaps we oldies do have a moral duty to keep ourselves as well as we possibly can, since we are benefiting from the privilege of extra time on earth.

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Ethical veganism has now been declared, in a British court, to be a philosophical belief entitled to the protection of the law. The case involved one Jordi Casamitjana, an ethical vegan, who claims to have been sacked from his job (at the League against Cruel Sports, which campaigns against hunting animals) because of his veganism.

Some consider the judgment daft and Mr Casamitjana something of an extremist – he’s afraid of crushing an insect, even inadvertently, since he respects “all sentient life”. But could this be good news for the unborn infant? A sentient life, surely.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4