A new screen version of Little Women has just been released, and so much of it (as also Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) still feels relevant to girls and women in India, even in 2020.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ was one of the novels we had as part of our Literature course in our final year of college. The entire class got so involved with the Bennet sisters that for the presentation component of our exams, we adapted the novel into a three hour play. Yes, we rewrote the entire book into a script, memorised the pre-Victorian lines, stitched gowns and suits, and invited the department to come and watch us, instead of just our professor.
This novel was published in 1813, yet from the beginning of it, we felt like Jane Austen could have been writing about our lives. We were just stepping into our twenties and already, in many of our homes, we were being told that we should start thinking about getting married. Mrs Bennet is obsessed with marriage and is forever worrying about whether her daughters will find a suitable match. The daughters, too, feel the constant pressure and their biggest dilemma is if they should marry for money or for love. The law in Britain at the time allowed property to be passed along only in the male line and since the Bennet girls had no brothers, they were in danger of being homeless if they didn’t marry well.
Elizabeth Bennet, who is the heroine of the novel, finally marries the wealthy Darcy who’s also blessed with intellect.
Jane Austen, however, never married.
Over 50 years later, in another continent, Louisa May Alcott wrote ‘Little Women’, which is also about a family of many sisters where the girls have to sit around, waiting for a man who will have them because their prospects are dim otherwise. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Jo March, the second sister, is talented and hates the idea of being pushed into a marriage because she’s out of choices.
I read ‘Little Women’ as a teenager and loved Jo absolutely; I too wanted to become a writer and her rebellious, free spirit was what I idealised at that age. When she chops off her long, beautiful hair just like that, I too fantasised about the day when I could do so without my hair obsessed Malayali household acting like the sky had fallen on our heads.
Jo eventually marries professor Bhaer, after asserting several times in the book that she doesn’t want to get married.
Louisa May Alcott, however, never married.
Though the books of both authors are very similar (after we watched ‘Little Women’ yesterday, my husband said it looked like Jane Austen fan fiction and received a glare from me), it isn’t as if Louisa May Alcott was merely aping Jane Austen. Both novelists drew heavily from their own families and lives in telling their stories. What then explains the similarity? The answer is simple – despite the jump in the timeline and place, the lives of women continued to be restricted and defined by marriage.
And what is even more disconcerting is that in many cultures, including our own, this is still the case. ‘Bridget Jones’, after all, is a modern adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and is still wildly popular. There are spin-offs of the book in other countries too. The spinster is now the cat lady, but she’s still an eccentric – to be amused by, not emulate.
Parents of daughters, to put it bluntly, fix a certain marriageable age in their mind, and then calculate backwards to make crucial decisions. From the time a girl is born, they begin to save for her wedding whether or not they save for her education. If she wants to do things which may end up delaying this age bar they’ve set in their minds, the situation turns into a stand-off between the two parties. (“PhD? Why not get married and THEN do it?”) Though women are now allowed to earn a livelihood of their own, no aspiration can be considered equal to or above that of getting married. Anything which could possibly stand in the way must be shot down. (“Reputation” might as well be a delicate, vital body part that a girl has to protect till her dying breath.)
What’s worse is that the family of the future groom – which isn’t in the picture at all – already has a say in what the girl does right now. I’ve heard parents say things like they prevented their daughter from taking up bharatnatyam as a profession because in future, her in-laws may not approve. So, in effect, the opinion of their daughter matters far less than that of people who don’t exist in their lives yet.
Whenever I go for literature festivals and talk about my books, especially the Mayil series, it’s pretty clear from the responses that things are not very different in this generation either. When I ask the question – have you ever been told not to do or to do something because you’re a boy or a girl? – the immediate answer is a no. They’re all convinced that they live in gender equal homes. But probe a little and the stories come out – the division of labour in housework, the restrictions in place on a girl’s body and time, what they’re taught to hope for, what they’re taught to fear. Till what point they can push till they’re beaten back. By the end of the session, the boys are typically quieter or act nonchalant. The girls, on the other hand, nod vigorously all through. In their eyes, I see a flame and I hope it grows into the wildfire I wish I’d had at that age.
I also get asked often why most of my books have girls in the lead. Why not write something for boys so they’ll read my work too? Earlier, I would elaborately explain that boys too can read books which have girls in the lead. After all, doesn’t everyone read Harry Potter which is err…called Harry Potter despite Hermione saving his ass every time? But nowadays, I’m the bitch author who just says, “I’m fine if the boys don’t read my books.”
Jane Austen didn’t apologise for Elizabeth Bennet. Louisa May Alcott didn’t apologise for Jo March. These books, with their girl stories, girl dreams, girl squabbles, girl obsessions, girl tears and girl laughter, are what still describe our lives closely, centuries and continents apart. And so, I too will not apologise for the little women I write about. They will be the heroes in the worlds I create.
And if these worlds sound like fan fiction, again and again, it doesn’t matter because it’s still the truth and we’ll say it for as long as it takes to change it.
A version of this was first published on the author’s Facebook wall.
Author bio: Sowmya Rajendran is a feminist, and an award winning writer of many books for children and grown-ups, and also reviews films. She’s a Deputy News Editor with The News Minute.
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