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I have always been somewhat bemused by the perennial popularity of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth—century novel about four New England sisters coming of age. At least once a decade a new film or television adaptation appears, and the list of successful women writers who identify Jo March as a formative influence is startlingly long. Jo aspires to be a writer, and insofar as she is Alcott’s alter ego in the novel, the book the reader holds in her hands is satisfying evidence of Jo’s eventual success. But in the fiction itself, bowing to both editorial pressure and the demands of her form, Alcott marries Jo off. To the dismay of her admirers, Alcott’s ambitious heroine sets aside her writing and finds happiness with an idealistic, charmingly disheveled German professor twice her age, with whom she founds an unusual school for boys called ­Plumfield.

If comedies traditionally end in marriages that successfully sort out the amorous inclinations of their confused protagonists, Little Women is classic comedy. After Jo refuses him, Laurie, the rich boy next door, contents himself with Jo’s youngest sister, Amy, while Meg, the oldest March girl, accepts Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke. Beth, the third sister, never having dreamed of either growing up or marrying, dies a quiet death, but the final note of the novel is one of almost undiluted happiness, the curtain falling on the contented couples picking apples together in Plumfield’s orchard.

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