Review: Les Quatre Filles du Docteur Marsch by Louisa May Alcott, translation by P.J Stahl

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was one of my favorite books that I read when I was a child. I have such clear memories of curling up on the couch at my grandparents’ house with this book. It was one of the first long novels that I ever read, I must have been 9 or 10 years old at the time. I can remember being sucked into the story, with the feeling that I was inside the book with the March sisters. I was outside playing in the snow with them, or next to the fire with them in their cozy home. I remember that the descriptions Alcott used were so vivid and clear, it was so easy to get lost in the story.

I picked up this 1923 French translation by P.J. Stahl at one of those free libraries that seem to be popping up everywhere. You know, those lone wooden boxes with “Take a book, leave a book” written on them. I think I found this one in a box in the suburbs of Paris, where I was living last year. I’ll be the first to admit that I take a lot more than I give back…*personal note to start giving back more* so that’s definitely something I need to work on! I can’t help it, once I’ve read a book I tend to feel an attachment for it, and then it’s hard for me to give them away.

As I started to read this 1923 French version of the story, I was immediately taken back to the first time I read it. I started to remember things about how I was feeling at the time, and how I felt reading my first “grown up” novel on my grandpa’s favorite chair. These feelings of nostalgia shocked me, but also made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

As the story progressed, I started to get the feeling that it was a lot different from the version I read as a child. At first, I chalked this up to my bad memory. But then, when I finished the book, I knew that there was a lot missing from this French translation.

First of all, the book is only 252 pages, and ends right after Dr. March returns from the war. There is a very short last chapter called, “ Quatre Ans Après “ (Four Years Later), that briefly explains what happens for the March sisters four years after the end of the previous chapter. This is the moment when I really knew something was different. If you’ve read the original Alcott version, you know that Alcott quickly produced a second volume to the story that was then published as a single volume in 1880. This is the version that most English speakers would have read.

I started to do my research, because there were other parts of the story that didn’t line up. The major difference is that Beth meets a very different fate in the English version than in the French version. I won’t go into detail as I don’t want to spoil the story for any of you who haven’t read it. The other major difference is Jo’s character, and who she goes on to marry.

In the English version, Jo is a fierce tomboy who struggles with the pressures placed on women and girls in the late 19th century. You know the drill, girls are to be quiet, discreet, modest and obedient. They should strive for one thing in life, which is to become a good wife and mother. In a nutshell, they are expected to be the Angel of the House: an almost invisible force that is to take care of her husband and children, and keep her house running.

I related strongly to Jo as a child. I loved running around outside and roughhousing. I was definitely a shy girl, but I felt more like a tomboy than a girly-girl. I loved that Jo stood her ground and wanted to become an author, not a wife or a mother. I too felt pressure from my family to settle down and become a housewife. Jo showed me that I didn’t have to.

While Jo’s character in the French translation is outspoken and rambunctious, I was really disappointed with how things turned out for her at the end of this translation. She does publish a few of her stories in the local newspaper, but, spoiler alert: she goes on to marry Laurie and move to an isolated farm with him in the hopes of becoming a dutiful farmer’s wife. I will admit that I was disappointed when she didn’t marry Laurie in the English version, but there is also something powerful in the fact that she stands her ground and doesn’t settle with him.

After a bit of digging, I discovered that Stahl (the translator) took some liberties and “adapted the story to appeal to a French audience.” So, what does that say about the French idea of the ideal woman? For me, and I was a bit shocked to realize this, it means that the ideal French woman can also be compared the Angel of the House: discrete, obedient and docile. This shocked me as I think we can all agree that (especially in the years of the 1920s Flapper), compared to their American or English counterparts, the elusive French woman has more liberties and more agency.

After even more digging, I started to realize that this isn’t necessarily true. The French woman didn’t get the vote until 1945, and up until 2013 there was an obscure law in Paris that stated that women were not allowed to wear pants. The moral of the story here is to ignore stereotypes.

All in all, I’m glad that I read this French translation as it allowed me to better understand the dichotomy between how women were, and still are, viewed and treated in France and in Anglo-saxon countries. Who would have thought a translation of one of my favorite books from my childhood would teach me such an important lesson.

Originally published at https://www.themistressofbooks.com on December 5, 2019.

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