11 Fascinating Facts About Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’

The book made Alcott rich and famous—and initially, she didn’t even want to write it.
The cover of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women.’
The cover of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women.’ / Penguin Random House (book cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is one of the world’s most beloved novels, and even today—more than 150 years after its original publication—it’s still capturing new generations of readers. Whether it’s been days or years since you last read it, here are 11 things you might not know about Alcott’s classic tale of family and friendship.

Louisa May Alcott didn’t want to write Little Women.

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (with titles like Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls’ story, she caved into the pressure.

Little Women took just 10 weeks to write.

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant bestseller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

Meg, Beth, and Amy March were based on Alcott’s sisters.

Alcott, BYU — Harold B. Lee Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Elizabeth (or Lizzie), who contracted scarlet fever in 1856. Though she recovered, the disease permanently weakened her; Lizzie passed away in her sleep from a “wasting condition” on March 14, 1858—just shy of her 23rd birthday. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe and whose paintings were displayed in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

Little Women was originally published in two parts.

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

Alcott refused to have Jo marry Laurie.

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life,” Alcott wrote in her journal. “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. (“Jo should have remained a literary spinster,” Alcott wrote to a friend, “but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.”) Laurie ends up with Amy.

There are lots of theories about who Laurie was based on.

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did their affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

There are two sequels to Little Women.

Little Men: Life at Plumfield With Jo’s Boys was released in May 1871; in the U.S., its release coincided with the day Alcott came home from a year-long trip Europe. “Father and T. N. came to meet me with a great red placard of ‘Little Men’ pinned up in the carriage,” she wrote in her journal. “‘Little Men’ was out the day I arrived. Fifty thousand sold before it was out.”

Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out, released in 1886, took her seven years to write, a fact that Alcott wrote in a preface made “this story ... more faulty than any of its very imperfect predecessors; but the desire to atone for an unavoidable disappointment, and to please my patient little friends, has urged me to let it go without further delay.” Amy and Marmee didn’t appear because their real-life counterparts had died and could not “suggest, criticise, and laugh over [their namesakes].” But, Alcott added, “the folded leaves are not blank to those who knew and loved them and can find memorials of them in whatever is cheerful, true, or helpful in these pages.”

You can still visit Orchard House, where Alcott wrote Little Women.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. (The book made her so famous that fans flocked to the home hoping to catch a glimpse of her; Alcott would occasionally pretend to be a servant in an attempt to get people to leave.) Today, you can tour the house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

Like the March family, the Alcotts knew poverty.

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn’t work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. “As Louisa put it, he was a man in a balloon, with his family holding the ropes trying to hold him down to Earth,” Alcott scholar Harriet Reisen told NPR. “He seemed to live on air and in the air, and had no concern about earning a living. It didn’t seem to bother him that his family was literally starving.” At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

Little Women has been adapted a number of times.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, and Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Oscar-nominated version of the story, starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie. It’s also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently in 2018 for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

In the 1980s, a Japanese anime version of Little Women was released.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes.

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A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2024.