I was nine years old when I first read Little Women and it was not a good time in my life. My fourth brother had just been born, which everyone else in the family seemed to consider cause for celebration, but which for me, the sole sister, meant mostly at the time that I would now be outnumbered by four noisy boys instead of only the three. It was London in the 1960s when everything was hard-edged and shiny and new: hair and skirts were short and practical; food came either from a tin and tasted of metal or from a frozen box and tasted of nothing; daily life in our particular household was governed by the timetable of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. It was the only world I knew, and it certainly could have been a very great deal worse; on the other hand I can confidently state that, had Fate thought to consult me in the matter, it would not have been one I would have clamored to join.
One afternoon after school, I opened a book and discovered a different world. A world where not a football was thrown or a living room overturned to make a cowboy fort, not a treasured possession carelessly trampled on or a nine-year-old girl teased to bitter and angry tears. A world where firelight flickered and confidences were exchanged, and whole sentences not only could be delivered without interruption, but also were listened and even - imagine it! - responded to. A world where girls ruled, not loud and rough and rowdy boys, and, oh, boy, was I ready to relocate there.
Evening after evening, after the nightly Armageddon known as supper had ground to a halt, while my father and brothers settled to yet another football match or cop show on the television in the living room and my mother sat, catatonic with exhaustion, over a cup of tea in the kitchen, I would creep to my bedroom, where I would turn off the overhead light and turn on the bedside lamp so that the shadows grew long and mysterious. I would slip into my one romantic garment, a misty blue nightdress which reached to my ankles (it was made of brushed nylon, but you can't have everything); "I've had the fever," I would explain politely (and shamelessly falsely, in my sturdy little body fortified with the full range of modern vaccines) to the imaginary adult who wondered about my outlandishly short hair; then I would open Little Women ...and for the long and glorious hours till bedtime I would become a March sister.
Now that I am an adult, I know that the real lives of the Alcott sisters were by no means as rosy as those of the Marches. I know that the real Beth's death was not peaceful at all but full of anguish and the fury of a life cut short too soon; that the girls' real father was not a sweet-natured pussycat but an eccentric and difficult, if brilliant, man whom Louisa struggled throughout her life to please; that the poverty the real family faced was grim, terrifying, and, until Louisa made it big with her bestseller,
relentless. But none of that showed in Little Women. It provided for me then, and continues to provide today, both for me and for countless women across the globe and down the generations, a place to return to again and again that is always safe and warm, a place where the lamps are lit, where faults are forgiven and laughter found in adversity and families stick together no matter what, a place where there is always, always, a welcome.
Louisa May Alcott, I thank you and salute you.