This time of year, without fail, I think of soft green walls and sprigged wallpaper, of piles of quilts and the scratching of an eager quill long into the night. Rousing footsteps rattle up and down the stairs, very nearly in time to the merry notes issuing from an out-of-tune piano, and the light odor of something singed, “like burnt feathers,” hangs in the air — all from a place I’ve never been.
Every winter my family watches the 1994 film version of Little Women, and every winter I put it off for as long as I can to prolong its atmospheric embers through the cold months. The festive revels of the March family have gradually left echoes of various shapes and sizes in our own Christmas traditions, bringing in Yuletide cakes dusted liberally with powdered sugar and a cheery proliferation of evergreen garlands and red bows. I’m unashamed to confess that I play Thomas Newman’s evocative score year-round. But as I’ve tried to parse my affection for this particular movie and its beloved literary source, I’ve realized that what I’m after goes deeper than mere decorative or musical inspiration.
In a word, what I’m drawn to is the house.
Louisa May Alcott chose her family home, Orchard House, as the setting for Little Women, and based its characters on the members of her family. When Director Gillian Armstrong adapted the story for the screen, she replicated the structure and surroundings of the actual Orchard House — right down to the types of vegetables grown in the garden.
For the interior walls, however, the film crew opted to depart from the Alcotts’ more formal decor. They selected earthier tones of green and gray to underscore the feeling of warmth and closeness that marks the March family. This choice properly emphasizes the character of Orchard House, in my view, for the sheer endurance of this dear old structure through all that happens to its members is remarkable.
This is a house of resilient love.
Within its walls, headstrong Jo forgives impetuous Amy for throwing her treasured manuscript in the fireplace. Meg navigates the mores of Massachusetts society with the compass of her family’s ideals, and with her mother’s counsel, decides how she will forge her own path to womanhood. When Beth falls ill with scarlet fever and Mrs. March arrives home to take charge of her care, the relief of the older daughters is almost palpable: Marmee is here, and her very presence is good medicine. Orchard House is a hub of the kind of griefs and joys familiar to all who live — a “real home” consecrated by a birth, a wedding, and a death, as Marilla Cuthbert would say — and it is “the center of the story, this story which is so much about family,” according to Armstrong’s commentary.
I believe that’s what makes Little Women so beautifully compelling to watch, year after year. From the first scene to the last, the viewer is treated to the rare sight of constancy. Putting down roots, exercising a long obedience in the same place, plowing in season after season, remaining in relationships long enough to see wounds open and mend — these are things that feel a little foreign in our era of transient attention. We forget how powerful the effects of a real, long-term, in-person community can be, until we stumble upon one in amazement — or, with equal amazement, realize that we have been fortunate enough to be folded into one.
In truth, Orchard House brings a quiet rebuke to my life. The house tangibly represents the liberating properties of love. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy may argue, or introduce people into the fold who upset the happy status quo — each one may, at times, even feel like the black sheep of the family — but they never cease to be sisters, and sharers of the same childhood home. This security gives them leave to flourish and to try their wings upon new winds, to grow more fully into the way each was made.
All of this ought to sound more familiar than it does on my grayest days. I, too, belong to a house in which each member is distinct but vital. I have been — and am — so deeply, demonstrably loved by my Lord that my creative endeavors are free to be one exercise after another in service and exploration. Yet doubt and comparison get the better of me periodically, and my work dwindles into pieces that timidly seek validation; the pride-based fear of disappointing others seeps in like paralyzing venom. The difference between a work that I’ve produced primarily to meet others’ standards and a work I’ve spun out of unfettered love for God and people is stark.
But thanks be to God, I also live moments when the immediacy of His love sinks inward so deeply that every vein and word in me is alive.
There is a point where grace becomes more than theological fact. The beauty of it opens up like a profound choral harmony growing richer and more consonant with each musical step, until either the song must stop or my heart will break, though I would not stop listening for all the world and its pleasures. When the kingly love of Christ ceases to be a thing at which I marvel and becomes the reality I breathe, when I am aware that the glory of His Person is remaking a mirroring answer in me, everything becomes an outpouring. An offering. Every effort, every movement is given over to the hope of delighting the One who gave Himself, unthinkably, for me.
Some of these moments have come in my times alone, but the vast majority have happened in the context of community. To paraphrase an observation that C. S. Lewis made about friendship between the Inklings, Jo would be a lesser Jo without the gentling influence of Beth, the steady decorum of Meg, and the artistic ambition of Amy. Even the prickly presence of Aunt March and the adventurous camaraderie of Laurie matter. Likewise, when I come into the company of others who are doing what they were created to do — being who they were meant to be — with whole hearts, I grasp the good work that God has prepared for me with renewed strength.
This sort of community is built by increments: a comment telling a friend of the effect of her work, well after the first wave of admiration; a cup of tea with a potentially kindred spirit; a hesitant check-in with an acquaintance after an awkward conversation. The ties of a family take years to weave, but it’s within close quarters that we learn to love, to receive, and to create without stinting.
When Thomas Newman considered how to write the music for Little Women, Armstrong recalls, he thought there ought to be two main themes: a theme for Jo’s questing and dreaming, and a theme for the family — “the celebration of the family and Christmas and the place.” I love the names for these musical threads; how well they capture the spirit of the film! And though I know the observation likely goes beyond what either Newman or Armstrong meant, I believe that an even deeper truth underlies the theme of “family, Christmas, and place”: the combination of the Incarnation, and the new family of believers formed by Christ, creates a sheltering place strong enough to bear death, life, and all the consecrating acts of humanity.
A place strong enough to celebrate the fullness of life, as the indestructible gift of our redemption unfolds.
In a little room in our house, my husband recently built shelves for our library: a quartet of floor-to-ceiling bookcases. I was drawn to a shade by Valspar called “Green Tea Leaves” when he asked me to choose a color, and I’m only now beginning to understand why. Far beyond the impulse to differentiate this nook from the Swedish blue of the living room, I harbor an Alcott-tinted wish to keep a home that imparts an enduring love.
Like Armstrong’s Orchard House, these rooms are intended to be a space for aching, for failing, and for understanding grace anew. I want our home to be built upon such a solid Foundation that it will weather and embrace all seasons — but this is simply one among many sites that take their strength and warmth from a Savior whose presence is life.
“For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). He binds His beloved into family, teaching them to love as they are loved, and gives them an everlasting reason to rejoice — together.
The image of the Etched Christmas Orb and Pinecone is (c) Lancia E. Smith.
It is offered with love for Amy Lee’s exquisite essay – The Strength and Spirit of Orchard House.
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.
And now you’ve inspired me to listen to this long-time favorite soundtrack tonight. As always, beautiful and lovely ideas to be found in your compositions, Amy. Thank you.
I just read through this. I had to put on Newman’s soundtrack, which is playing right now. Ha!
I haven’t seen this particular version of Little Women, but I watched a newer version last year. I have to check it out this season.
I think there are some interlacing threads here! That’s so encouraging for me to recognize the touch of the Lord across lives.
I really liked what you said about a home bearing so many different kinds of consecrated things in one place – children, deaths, marriages… a real living place.
I liked these lines too:
“the combination of the Incarnation, and the new family of believers formed by Christ, creates a sheltering place strong enough to bear death, life, and all the consecrating acts of humanity.
A place strong enough to celebrate the fullness of life, as the indestructible gift of our redemption unfolds.”
The “indestructible gift”. Yes. Thanks for sharing this, Amy.
Merry Christmas to you all.
I always get the urge to watch this film around Christmastime as well, and am glad to see I’m not the only one. I had never taken the time to tease out all the reasons beyond that a Christmas celebration is depicted and a fair amount the film takes place in winter. This piece does an excellent job laying out just why the movie feels perfect for the time of year – the hominess, the wonderful picture of loving community.
It also helped me realize that for some reason we don’t own the soundtrack, even though I’ve always enjoyed the musical score. I think that might be remedied shortly.
Beautifully written, thank you for sharing with us.
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