An amazing confluence of events occurred for me last week. At the same time I was re-reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I happened to attend a superb HDLive broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It was remarkable that I should encounter two of my favorite childhood books at the same time, and it got me thinking about the early influences in my life that made me who I am.
Jo March, the second eldest sister in Little Women (1869), is an indomitable non-conformist who resists the restraints placed on her by 19th century society. Coming from a poor family, she spurns a woman’s traditional role and is determined to make a living for herself as an authoress. My memory of Katharine Hepburn as Jo March is so vivid.
Likewise, the heroine of Jane Eyre (1847) overcomes formidable obstacles of inequality and severe hardship in order to become the person she needs to be--one who is true to herself. Surprisingly, the National Theatre production gives substantial weight to Jane’s struggles for autonomy rather than focusing solely on the love story of Jane and her employer Mr. Rochester. The company did this no doubt to point up the dire situation of a poor, unwed young woman in the 1840’s.
Both these characters, Jo March and Jane Eyre, brim with strength and willfulness and an intense desire for the freedom to express themselves and develop their lives according to their own rules, not those of family or society; their resilience is inspiring. These were the early role models my generation grew up with, a generation of women who fought fiercely for women’s rights in the 1960s and beyond. These characters embedded themselves in our hearts and minds. What a pleasure to meet up with them again.
But I ask myself, who do young girls today—the beneficiaries of the struggle for women’s rights—have as fictional role models? Do girls still read Little Women and Jane Eyre? Bombarded as they are with media and pop culture, what characters do they look to for guidance in maintaining principles of equality and finding emotional and intellectual fulfillment?