Some years ago my younger sister gave me a beautiful Christmas card with the opening lines from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women written in lovely calligraphy. I continue to display the card, now flaking with age, in front of my computer keyboard every year.
These opening lines are so famous that one year they showed up in a Dr. Who episode: Tom Baker is seen wandering among the first pages of some famous books, including Little Women.
But I digress. Here’s a little activity for you. Read those first lines (reprinted below), and write down everything they tell you about the characters. Don’t include anything you already know about Little Women! Stick to the sentences in green.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.
Here’s my list:
- It’s just before Christmas in the home of a poor family on a cold day
- Four sisters are facing a bleak holiday: Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy
- Past Christmases were happier
- The family has had a change in fortune recently
- Jo isn’t afraid to be unladylike
- The girls live with their parents, but their father is away at war and in danger
- The girls’ mother probably isn’t in earshot
- Beth is less materialistic than her three sisters
- Amy is the youngest
- The girls miss their father
Not bad for only 121 words!
There’s a reason why people continue to read Little Women, first published in 1868 (the girls were missing their father because he was a chaplain in the Civil War). This is good writing. Every word counts. In a few lines you’re drawn into the story, introduced to no fewer than six characters, and shown how to sort out their personalities and the challenges they’re facing.
What can you learn from reading classics like Little Women? A lot. Maybe those four girls couldn’t look forward to any Christmas presents that year, but Alcott left plenty of gifts for the rest of us, 151 years later.
One more thing: you might be wondering whether I’m planning to see the new filmed version of Little Women that’s opening this week. Yes. Can’t wait!