It happens like clockwork: Every few Christmases, a new film adaptation of Little Women tempts book lovers with a new take on Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel. Costumes, dialogue choices and editorial decisions are dissected; critics quibble over which adaptation should become canon. And hopes run high as viewers meet a strong new Jo, a swoony new Laurie, and a lovable quartet of sisters.
For many Little Women fans, though, there’s a fly in the ointment, a single sister they love to hate. Amy March, the youngest of the bunch, polarizes fans with her selfishness and her suitor, the very man many readers think the book’s main character, Jo, should love. But if the trailer for Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women is any indicator, this December’s adaptation may finally do justice to one of Alcott’s least lovable characters—a sister who often leaves viewers feeling as sour as a pickled lime.
Florence Pugh’s Amy figures prominently in the trailer. “I want to be an artist in Rome and be the best painter in the world,” she says, wielding her paintbrush in what is likely the film’s first scene. “I want to be great, or nothing,” she declares near the trailer’s end.
This Amy seems decisive, not defensive—strong, not selfish. If so, she could represent a much-needed break from the character’s familiar film trajectory.
The role is notoriously hard to translate from the page; over the course of the book, Amy goes from bratty baby sister to poised young artist. That presents a casting conundrum. The bigger challenge, though, for the actress playing Amy is winning over audiences. Amy the child is self-absorbed and petty, throwing tantrums over school fads (hello, pickled limes) and even burning Jo’s beloved manuscript in retribution when her bigger sister blocks her from attending a night at the theater.
For many, this unforgivable act overshadows the rest of the story and makes Amy’s next plot trajectory even harder to swallow. When Jo misses out on an opportunity to travel to Europe due to her lack of maidenly manners, Amy steps into her stead—and ends up replacing her sister in the affections of Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, a supposed betrayal that has created generations of Amy haters.
But those who scapegoat Amy risk missing a critical portion of the story—Alcott’s loving portrayal of her real-life sister, May, on whom Amy is based. It’s a portrait the movie seems poised to honor.
Amy March heads to Europe for a shot at becoming an accomplished young woman and a real artist. So did May, the youngest of the Alcott girls.
Like Louisa, who struggled to support herself and her family as a teacher, domestic and author, Abigail “May” Alcott struggled to fulfill her artistic ambitions. Unlike her sister, May found help along the way. “She is a fortunate girl, and always finds some one to help her as she wants to be helped,” wrote Louisa in her journal in 1864. “Wish I could do the same, but suppose as I never do that it is best for me to work and wait and do all for myself.”
May leveraged her knack for gaining patronage into sporadic artistic opportunities. Her chances were few and far between, but she nonetheless eked out an education unusual for a woman of her era. She studied briefly at the Boston School of Design, an art school for women, and was tutored through private lessons with respected artists David Claypoole Johnston, William Morris Hunt and William Rimmer, who helped her learn everything from anatomy to painting.
When it came time for Louisa to publish the first part of Little Women, which had been written in haste and out of financial necessity, Louisa asked her artistic sister to illustrate it. “Due to the lack of figure study,” writes art historian Julia K. Dabbs, “they were met with mixed reviews.”
May’s Little Women illustrations didn’t exactly portend a successful career. But the book proved prescient. Like Amy, May eventually visited Europe as the traveling companion of a woman on a “grand tour” in 1870. And she stayed there for years thanks to Louisa’s Little Women earnings. (Alcott’s publisher ordered what would become the second half of the book after the first half’s wild success.)
Few American women had the freedom, much less the finances, to go to Rome, Paris and London to study art. Even fewer ever managed to gain professional respect. May was an outlier, gaining entry to multiple Paris Salon exhibitions with her oil and watercolor paintings. Her accomplishments were so noteworthy they were even reported in the United States.
“The number of ladies studying art in Paris steadily increases, and among those now here Miss Alcott bids fair to take a high rank—possessing energy, patience, and an ardent love for her profession,” wrote a reporter in 1876. During her years studying and working as a professional artist, May made influential friends including American impressionist Mary Cassatt and critic John Ruskin.
May had clawed her way toward artistic success as a single woman—an anomaly among her age group and social class that she translated into an unusual degree of independence and artistic freedom. Marriage didn’t slow her down, either: After her 1879 wedding to Ernest Nieriker, a Swiss businessman a decade her junior, she continued to paint and even wrote a book of her own. Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply was written for women who wanted to follow in her footsteps. In it, May encouraged them not only to travel economically, but to join forces with other women and create their own artistic opportunities. Louisa may have written Little Women, but May taught them.
Though she often clashed with her older sister, May remained close to Louisa. In December 1879 she gave her a surprise—and tragic—gift. Seven weeks earlier, May had given birth to Louisa May “Lulu” Nieriker. On December 29, the new mother died of a likely childbirth-related illness at the age of 39. One of her last wishes was that Louisa raise her namesake, thrusting her sister into unexpected motherhood at age 48.
Can Florence Pugh, or Greta Gerwig, do the seemingly impossible and take Amy March from scapegoat to sympathetic figure? It remains to be seen. “You are your family’s hope now,” Meryl Streep, who plays the formidable Aunt March, tells Amy in the trailer. Perhaps there’s hope that this Little Women might finally do a complicated character—and the woman who inspired her—justice.