If Louisa Met Saoirse: On Bigotry and Casting Little Women

The new trailer for Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women has gone live, and book lovers have gone into a delighted tizzy (except diehard fans of the Winona Ryder-Christian Bale film, of course).

One unusual thing about Gerwig’s new version, which surprisingly has gotten little press, is that these March sisters are distinctly less American. Set during the time of the Civil War, based on the real lives of the Alcotts of Concord, Massachusetts, steeped in the milieu of Thoreau and Emerson… one might consider Little Women as quintessentially American as Harry Potter has become quintessentially British. The Potter movies famously refused to use American actors, yet here’s Hermione (Emma Watson) in an Alcott adaptation!

Mind you, I’m not in the least bit outraged about it. I don’t care that Watson and Florence Pugh (Meg and Amy) are English, that Eliza Scanlen (Beth) is Australian, or that Saoirse Ronan (Jo) has dual citizenship, American and Irish.

In fact, I kind of love it. Especially the part about Jo March, Louisa May Alcott’s fictionalized version of herself, being portrayed by a brilliant Irish-American actress. Because Alcott, for all her virtues (and she did have many), was, well, a real jerk about the Irish.

Little_Women

Take, for example, the novel Work, which Alcott wrote to show the up- and downsides of all the careers open to women in the 1870s, having heroine Christie try each one in turn. In an early chapter, Christie becomes a servant. The narrator describes it this way: “she hopefully took her place among the ranks of buxom German, incapable Irish, and ‘smart’ American women; for in those days foreign help had not driven farmers’ daughters out of the field, and made domestic comfort a lost art.”

Yup, that’s the one word Alcott went with to sum up her view of all Irish people.

Christie goes to work alongside Hepsey, a black woman and former slave now employed as a cook. This portrayal is intentionally compassionate and respectful, though tainted by stereotype. Alcott is showcasing liberal ideas for the era. Yet after Christie gets fired (an amazing scene in which her employer shouts: “She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain”!), she decides to leave domestic service explicitly to avoid close quarters with Irish women. “She knew very well that she would never live with Irish mates, and could not expect to find another Hepsey.”

It may seem bizarre to the modern eye that a nineteenth-century white woman would have no problem with people of color, but an explicitly racialized hatred of the Irish. But actually, it’s a good reminder for us that race — being a social construct — wasn’t constructed in quite the same ways even 150 years ago. Having light skin and European lineage didn’t necessarily make you “white,” especially if you were one of those dreaded Catholics.

And yes, the word “race” applies here — Alcott used it. In a newspaper column about “The Servant-Girl Problem,” Alcott described an Irish woman she had employed as “an unusually intelligent person, but the faults of her race seemed to be unconquerable.” Biddy was soon fired, and in the search for her replacement, Alcott literally uses the famous words “No Irish need apply.”

If film had existed in Alcott’s day, the casting call for Jo may have included those words. It’s certainly hard to imagine her looking forward to the (highly capable) Irish-American Saoirse Ronan representing her autobiographical heroine.

I know people love Alcott and this text with a fierce loyalty, so maybe not everyone will agree with me, but Alcott darn well deserves this. She wrote novels about loyal groups of women fighting the odds to better themselves and each other, but she hung onto this one blind spot. Even the final chapter of Work — a Utopian vision of sisterhood and social action that ends with women of all classes (Hepsey included) clasping hands around a table — contains a random dig at Irish drunkenness. If she’s turning over in her grave at Ronan’s casting, well, it will be good exercise for her.

In the meantime, Alcott’s uncomfortable prejudice provides opportunity for a little meditating. In another 150 years, the generalizations of our time — whole swaths of people written off as incapable, impossible to live with, unworthy of inclusion, based on a single facet of their personhood — will sound just as hateful and absurd. Maybe we could skip ahead, and see it that way now?

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