By Anne Longmuir
As the Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia remind us, Charles Dickens was one of Alcott’s “early literary idols” (81). His novels have a pervasive influence on Little Women—from the allusions that pepper chapter after chapter to the March sisters’ “Pickwick Club.” Chapter XLV, “Daisy and Demi,” is no exception, bearing Dickens’s imprint not just in its literary references, but in its presentation of childhood itself.
As its title suggests, this chapter is almost entirely given over to Meg and John Brooke’s young twins, Daisy and Demi. Besides cataloguing the twins’ delightful precocity, this chapter also marks a crucial progression in Jo and Mr. Bhaer’s romance, thanks to the innocent question Demi poses to “the bear-man,” “Do great boys like great girls too, ‘Fessor?” (362).
The allusions to Dickens are immediately apparent. The narrator suggests, for example, that the children’s “tranquil audacity” reveals them to be “accomplished Artful Dodgers,” a reference, of course, to the bold young man who recruits Oliver Twist to Fagin’s gang of pickpockets in Dickens’s novel.
Similarly, Jo invokes another of Dickens’s characters when she declares that her nephew “is a born Weller” (361). Though perhaps now one of Dickens’s less familiar characters, Sam Weller of The Pickwick Papers was enormously popular during the nineteenth century, known best for his humorous sayings or “Wellerisms”—much like the young Demi.
But beyond these direct allusions to Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers, what makes this chapter closer to Dickens than, say, Charlotte Brontë is the depiction of the children themselves. Children in Brontë’s works are rarely charming or presented sentimentally: in Jane Eyre, the Reed cousins are violent and selfish, Adele’s precocity is not delightful but disturbing; in Villette, the young Paulina Home is positively eerie.
In contrast, both humour and pathos mark Alcott’s and Dickens’s portraits of children. Not only does Alcott’s treatment of Daisy and Demi evoke Dickens’s comic vignettes of family life (the Bagnets of Bleak House or the Pocket family of Great Expectations, for example), but as in so many of Dickens’s novels, Alcott reminds us that childhood is a precarious time. Much as childhood mortality preoccupies Dickens (we think of Paul Dombey or Little Nell), so Beth’s death haunts Daisy’s early care, prompting Meg “to pray that she might be spared a loss like that which had lately taught them how long they had entertained an angel unawares” (359).
But perhaps the closest analogue to Meg’s twins in Dickens’s work is Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. Like Daisy and Demi, Tim is a sweet child, sentimentally observed, whose childish sayings, like Demi’s, help the adults around him see their world differently—and potentially make it a better place. No wonder, then, that Aunt Dodo rewards her young nephew at the end of this chapter with “a big slice of bread and jelly” (362).
Eiselein, Gregory and Anne K. Phillips. The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 2001.
Anne Longmuir teaches English at Kansas State University. She co-edited Victorian Literature: Criticism and Debates (Routledge 2016) with Lee Behlman (Montclair State University) and has published articles and book chapters on Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, John Ruskin, and Wilkie Collins, among others. To her shame, she didn’t read Little Women until she was fully grown up.