What writer wouldn’t want to say their book has never been out of print? That their book captivates generation after generation, and continues to inspire countless retellings, radio shows, movies, plays, and cartoons?
Two women writers share these distinctions and their works are celebrating birthday milestones.
In 1816, Mary Shelley, then 18, spent a summer with her poet husband, Percy Shelley and other literary luminaries in a large manor house along Italy’s Lake Como. Having exhausted the manor’s supply of ghost stories that the guests read aloud each evening, they decided to write their own. The story Mary Shelley wrote became the bones of the classic, Frankenstein, that she polished and published two years later as a novel.
Nearly 50 years later, in 1867, in Concord, Massachusetts, then 35-year-old Louisa May Alcott received a request from her publisher that would change her life. He wanted her to write a “girls’ book,” an assignment she shunned. But she needed the money to support her family – and modeled the famous Marches after her own siblings and parents. She wrote over 400 pages in 10 weeks leading to Little Women being published in 1868. A print run of 2,000 books sold out quickly, sending Louisa May back to her desk to write what became the second part of the same novel.
Both books have never gone out of print. Considered classics, they are read by all ages, have been translated into more than 50 languages, and continue to be interpreted for their roles in literature, and their relationships to social and political issues over different time periods.
Two new books addressing the books’ place in the 21st century compliment the birthday celebrations. For Frankenstein’s 200th, there’s Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sidney Perkowitz and Eddy von Mueller; and for Little Women’s 150th there’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters, by Anne Boyd Rioux.
I’d read quite a few articles about Rioux’s book; and then stumbled upon the other while browsing the new bookshelf at my library. Both are fascinating reads.
I came to Frankenstein probably first via the 1931 Boris Karloff movie and later read the novel after seeing a stage adaptation several years ago. Perkowitz and von Mueller have edited essays by various Frankenstein scholars to discuss the novel’s eternal themes as relevant today as 200 years ago.
At its core, the novel addresses man’s desire to defeat death. In this case, a scientist creates life from death. The novel takes on the ubiquitous question of science versus ethics. As genetic manipulation becomes more mainstream, the issue of how much is too much becomes pertinent. Should science be used to produce superior human beings? Who decides?
Furthermore, the creature conjured in Victor Frankenstein’s lab represents the outsider who is immediately feared and harassed. It shows xenophobia at its worst. In Shelley’s writing, she didn’t explicitly describe the creature’s appearance; instead she portrayed him through how other characters saw him. Who is the monster?
A case can be made that the monster is Victor Frankenstein; a wealthy, privileged man who used his entitlement to dabble in science with no regard to the consequences, abusing power and ethics.
I read Little Women as a child, and like many girls, fell in love with the book and wanted to be Jo. I loved her independence and her desire to be a writer. I loved the antics of the March sisters, and of course, the idea of romance. I’ve seen a few movie versions, especially the 1994 adaptation with Winona Ryder as Jo and a young, handsome Christian Bale as Laurie. I wasn’t alone in my love affair with the book and my yearning to emulate Jo. According to Rioux’s book, Little Women, and Jo, in particular, gave girls, and the women they became, permission to become writers. The book validated the idea of a girl expressing her own opinions, earning a living writing, and that their lives mattered. By giving voices to a gender accustomed to being silenced, Little Women served as a precursor to the modern memoir. Some writers who claim inspiration from Louisa May Alcott include: Anna Quindlen, Jane Smiley, Nora and Delia Ephron, Barbara Kingsolver, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gloria Steinem.
Yet why has it survived?
Rioux contends Little Women transcends time and place, presents a realistic portrait of home and family, and has allowed its readers to adapt its themes to the times. In the 1940’s the book served as a reminder to soldiers that this was the America they were fighting to preserve. By the 1970’s, with the rise of feminism, the book was analyzed for its relationships between women and the development of women’s identities. Little Women challenges readers to consider the many different ways girls can become women.
I wonder what the next 150 and 200 years will bring for these powerful novels.