Meg’s Frock Shock

“Little Women was about the best book I ever read.” So began my fourth-grade book report, in 1981. Clear, if uninspired. After one-and-a-half double-spaced pages of cursive rhapsodizing in support of this daring claim, I concluded with the lazy feint of an already overburdened critic: “I would like to go on and on with this report but it would be longer than the book, so if you want to find the rest out my opinion is to read it.”

I hadn’t remembered this foray into criticism when I rediscovered it recently, at the bottom of an old wooden box in my childhood home. What I had remembered was the report’s cover art—I’d never been more proud of anything I’d made—and my mother’s irritation that I’d spent more time drawing it than I did writing about the book. Gingerly, I lifted the papers from the box and carried them to the sofa, astonished that thirty-seven years later this humble homework assignment still existed, curious to see what I’d been so worked up about.

Before I go on, I should note that though I’d loved Little Women as a child, I never thought about it as an adult. I cringe to admit how thoroughly I’d absorbed our culture’s hypocrisy toward motherhood, but for most of my life I regarded Louisa May Alcott as matronly, and therefore dull. This flagrant misconception was based entirely on the world I’d found in that book, which was so snugly familiar, both physically and emotionally, that I simply took it for granted, the way I did my own mother. Our small town on the North Shore of Massachusetts in the late 1900s—especially during a snowstorm—didn’t seem that different from Alcott’s 1800s Concord, only forty- five miles south. Even the March family’s puritanical streak ran through my own.

As I neared forty, my opinion changed. I was living alone in Brooklyn, working as a freelance writer, when I learned that in her thirties Alcott had lived on her own in Boston, doing the same thing. She never married or had children. She considered the social roles of “wife” and “husband” grievously prescriptive, and marriage akin to slavery, so long as women were kept economically and politically inferior to men. In February 1868, several months before she moved back home to help her parents, and started Little Women, she wrote an essay in praise of the single life, called “Happy Women.” As she noted in her diary, on Valentine’s Day no less, she had written it to celebrate “all the busy, useful, independent spinsters I know, for liberty is a better husband than love to many of us.”

Celebrating independent spinsters was exactly what I’d been working to do at the time, in my first book. Upon further digging, I learned that Alcott didn’t always feel so sanguine about her status; she was a passionate person, with strong maternal feeling, and up until her death regretted that the conventions of her era required women to sacrifice sex and motherhood if they also wanted to work. To know that she, too, grappled with the competing desires for autonomy and intimacy fascinated me, and I decided to return to Little Women to see how this ambivalent spinster had treated Meg’s marriage. Even so, I allowed several more years to pass before I actually made time for it, little knowing how much more was in store.

As when I was nine, I couldn’t put the book down.

Sinking into the story, I recalled the experience of being new to reading, the capacity to completely surrender myself to fiction. I saw, too, how this particular book had marked a departure from that habit of heedless abandon, when a mental image I’d long puzzled over arose: my nine-year-old self posing on the front stoop of our house, bare feet drawn up before me, Little Women open on my knees. When my friends arrived, they would find me like this, apparently so absorbed in my reading that I wouldn’t hear their approach. So I had fantasized many times, anyway, I now realized.

Before Little Women, reading was just something I did, constantly and everywhere, at breakfast, during recess, stretched out in the backyard after school, by the fire with my parents, in bed before sleep. After reading about the March sisters’ own reading, and about how much reading meant to them, I decided that reading was a romantic act, something to be proud of—even displayed. I’d had no idea Alcott played such an active role in the shaping of my self-identity. What else had I been missing?

What luck: that old book report cover contained a clue.

With colored pencils, I’d carefully drawn a giant oval and put the March family inside it, like a miniature tableau inside a sugar Easter egg. At center in a high-backed green armchair is Jo, wearing a long lavender dress, slippered feet drawn up before her, book open on her knees, gazing straight at the viewer. Her parents stand behind the chair—authoritatively, protectively—and on the wall behind them hangs a framed portrait of Laurie, in profile. The other sisters are all in profile as well: Beth and Amy on the floor to Jo’s left, with their customary paraphernalia—one with needle and thread, the other with pad and paintbrush—and to her right, Meg in a rocking chair, embroidering, red dress bright as a Baldwin apple, long curls so lustrous they tumble out of the cameo frame. The depiction is as faithful to the novel as my report had been.

The author's Little Women book report.
The author’s Little Women book report.

The closer I looked,however, the more I saw. Jo is the obvious protagonist of this portrait, and Meg a tantalizing lure. Even more intriguing, I’d taken creative license with the details: though Jo is famously indifferent to clothing, hers is the only dress that’s embellished with a hem of delicate pink roses, and poufed up, princess-style, with not one but two frilly lace underskirts. In comparison, Meg’s flat, unadorned frock is a nun’s habit.

I suddenly remembered how, after the first time I read Little Women, I began drawing pictures of girls in nineteenth-century fashions—hoop skirts and petticoats, aprons and cloaks, little lace-up boots with their intricate hooks and eyes. Constantly. It was a curious pastime for me. I had never been a girly-girl. The word “tomboy” fits, but imperfectly; it’s not that I wanted to be a boy, or do only boyish things, but rather that my liberal-minded parents allowed me to inhabit a gender-less space, and I looked the part. That summer, on my ninth birthday, in his consciously unsentimental “family diary,” my father described me as being “of aver- age height, slim but not skinny. Long, light brown hair, sort of lank, which is usually messy, and tends to need washing. For some reason she resists taking baths. Horrible teeth.” School photos show I didn’t yet know to be embarrassed of my comically pronounced overbite and snaggletooth grin. Like Alcott herself, I enjoyed challenging the boys to footraces.

For Halloween that year I told my mother I wanted to be an “old-fashioned lady.” She cobbled a costume from the attic and from church sales: long black dress, long white gloves, ivory fur capelet, white fur muff, black low-heeled pumps, and a broad-brimmed velvet hat spangled with a rhinestone brooch.

I have a snapshot from that night framed on my mantel. Four children standing on a doorstep, my little brother a tiny vampire, all of them looking everywhere but at the camera, while I, the oldest, regal in my finery—the Meg of this ragtag gang—gaze steadily at the lens, my expression serene, even confident. My mouth is clamped closed to conceal my crooked teeth.

Excerpted fom “Meg’s Frock Shock” by Kate Bolick, from March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley. Published August 27, 2019, in hardcover and eBook by Library of America. Used by permission.