Never as it seems

A friend told me recently that the French translation of Little Women, the book by Louis M Alcott, reads as The Daughters of Mr March because there is no equivalent expression to convey the essence of Little Women in French. 

Is it patriarchal and possessive? 

I prefer the word ‘woman’ to ‘lady’. The word ‘ladies’ has such a ring of gentility about it. 

The other day, I went with my own little women. Or at least three of them, as the fourth is busy trying to rebuild a kitchen in her house. 

We were joined by a very old friend. 

Many years ago, we went to see the Gillian Armstrong 1994 adaptation of Little Women with a good friend when she was younger than I am now at the Carlton flea pit as they called the Carlton movie house in those days.

It had individual leather seats whose inner springs were almost collapsed to the point you almost sat on the floor. 

My daughters, one a baby, were still young children only one nudging adolescence then. 

I enjoyed this latest version of Little Women for its non-chronological effort to keep pace with the spirit of the book, a writer whom I imagine was trying to shift out of convention into a freer view of the world. 

How could any such view be experienced in a deeply Christian household struggling in poverty alongside much richer neighbours and relatives, and also against a backdrop of the American civil war? 

A minister father, a dedicated mother who gave up her dreams for her good works and her children. Reminds me somewhat of my own mother, only unlike Marmee, my mother was not married to a religious Chaplin. 

My mother might have liked that. To have been married to a priest. But Catholic priests were/are not allowed to marry. 

When I was young, I held the same view of priests as did my mother. She thought they were a cut above the vanities of ordinary men. The priests in her mind, were all ‘good’ men who knew how to be empathic and kind, who knew how to consider other people, who never got angry or drunk like our father. 

They would have been much better as a partner. Though my mother once told me she preferred that priests stayed celibate. She was fearful of whatever pillow talk might ensure.

‘I would not like the priest to tell his partner what I told him in confession,’ she told me once. 

Funny to me, the parallels to other more secular worlds.

When I moved first into social work and later into therapy, I imagined that any man who went into one of the helping professions must be a cut above the rest. 

In the mid-1970s, I went on placement with one such good man, the two of us, me and (I shall call him) Tom were appointed to work within the Northcote community. 

We were stationed at the Northcote Town Hall for six weeks over the Christmas period. Our job to travel throughout the community to interview the local charities and services and draw up a booklet of what was available to the community.

A list of community services. 

My mother included this newspaper clipping in her autobiography. Perhaps she was proud to have a daughter whose name featured in the newspaper then. She never told me as much.

The task itself was not of much interest to me, but travelling every day across town to Northcote was exciting and moving into a new neighbourhood, taking on the authority of one who knew how to do these things – when I did not – most of all working alongside Tom, was such a pleasure. 

He was married at the time to a woman who was as charming as he and they had a small daughter. It was my first glimpse into new parenthood and these two impressed me as the most loving of couples. 

I went over some weekend evenings with my then-boyfriend Paul and we spent hours playing card games, eating cheese and drinking, the men beer, and the women, Pimms and lemonade (or some other such sweet concoction). 

We fell out of contact once I finished my degree as well as switched boyfriends for another and entered a different life in the therapy world. 

Tom became an administrator in community services, the branch of social work that can lead people into higher places. I stayed at the grassroots of working with people.

I think of Tom from time to time, googled him once. Heard somewhere that he and his wife had split.

This put a nail in the coffin of my most delicious fantasy, that marriages to men who are social workers or therapists must be marriages made in Heaven.

I started watching a Netflix show called Bonus family the other night. 

It’s Swedish, (subtitles needed) and features a couple who work together as therapists to help couples who are struggling.

I won’t go into the details other than to observe the strange antics of this therapist couple who sit side by side as they seek to help the couple seated opposite.

They come across as thoughtful and wise.

Later we see the therapists in their kitchen between sessions bickering in a way that puts any fantasy of them as an ideal couple to rest. 

Truth is there’s no such thing as an ideal couple any more than there’s an ideal person, despite our tendency to want to include saints, heroes, and celebrities in our lives. 

We are all ordinary folk, mere mortals, flawed and prone to failure, including in our relationships. Despite the romantic ideals evoked in books like Little Women.

Oh but the fantasy is such a pleasure, as the fictional little woman, Jo Marsh will tell you. 

5 thoughts on “Never as it seems”

  1. Over the years I’ve gotten to know many married couples; I was brought in a congregation where we were always in and out of each other’s lives. It didn’t take me long to realise, however, that even amongst decent Christian folk what constituted a marriage could differ radically. Most, of course, projected an “illusion of idealness” to borrow from Alcott’s contemporary Henry James but the older and more perceptive I became the more I realised how hard all of them were finding it. That’s the problem when you have a perfect (albeit unmarried) man as your role model.

    I have seen ‘Little Women’, the 1949 version, but it was years ago. I don’t remember much about it other than June Allyson played Jo. (I had a huge crush on her when I was young, her and Debbie Reynolds: make of that what you will.) Of course the film was typical Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fare for the time and I learned to take what I saw presented with onscreen with a pinch of salt. I’ve always been good at that, separating fiction and reality, which doesn’t mean a film has never made me cry (Disney’s ‘The Legend of Lobo’, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Billy Liar’ oddly enough) but mostly my emotions keep a respectful distance. I’m certain I didn’t cry when Jo died.

    Haven’t seen ‘Bonus Family’ but we have been watching ‘State of the Union’ which, according to IMDB, “follows Louise and Tom who meet in a pub immediately before their weekly marital therapy session. Each episode pieces together how their lives were, what drew them together, and what has started to pull them apart.” Each episode last only about ten minutes so I suppose you could binge the whole series but we tend to slip it in at the end of the night if everything else has finished early and we’re in no rush to get to bed.

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