The novel “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott is an American classic, and it was immediately popular with readers when it was first published in 1868.
Those early admirers included Ellen Murphy Meehan’s grandmother, or one of her grandmother’s three sisters, one of whom checked a copy of the book out of the West Boxford Library in the 1890s.
But that copy was never returned, which meant that when Meehan found it not too long ago, it was way overdue.
“Some years ago, I did some genealogical research, but only recently came across a box of books, and among the books that belonged to my grandmother and great aunts was this one,” said Meehan, who is from Andover.
But Meehan is glad that her forebears held onto the book, because she wants to read it again, now that “Little Women” is enjoying renewed popularity.
A film version that stars Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep was released around the country on Christmas Day and includes scenes that were filmed in Ipswich on the beach at the Crane Estate and at the Great House on Castle Hill.
Meehan was inspired to reread “Little Women” after hearing an interview with the film’s director, Greta Gerwig, who discussed the story’s message.
“It’s charming,” Meehan said. “It’s about four young women coming of age during the Civil War, and their father is in the Civil War, and they want to be more independent than women are allowed to be at that time.”
Meehan, who works as a health care consultant for Lawrence General Hospital, first read “Little Women” when she was a student at Simmons College. She could identify with its main characters — Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg March.
“Jo wants to be a writer, and she writes a volume of pages and one of her sisters throws it in the fire,” Meehan said. “Another sister wants to be an artist, and another sister wants to be a musician. They were four women with aspirations beyond marriage. For me, that did resonate. I went to an all-women’s college. I enjoyed the story of women surviving poverty that befell families during the Civil War, and the post-Civil War period.”
While she enjoyed the fact that the four “little women” of Alcott’s novel were the same number as her grandmother and great-aunts, the similarities ran deeper than that.
The Mulry sisters also wanted to be educated so they could do something with their lives, and that meant that they had to leave Boxford, where there was no high school.
“My great-grandparents came from Ireland, both of them, and raised four girls and one boy, and they were all born in Boxford,” Meehan said. “They moved to Methuen so they could go to high school, and they all went to college.”
The brother, Edward Mulry, was the first Irish Catholic graduate of Amherst College, in 1908, Meehan said.
One of the sisters, Patricia, died in Methuen as a teenager, but Mary graduated from Tufts, and Harriet went to Lowell Normal School.
“My grandmother, Helen, went to what was then the Peter Bent Brigham School of Nursing,” Meehan said.
She carried on their tradition by attending the University of Paris-Sorbonne, in addition to Simmons, and by earning a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Virginia’s Darden School.
These same ambitions are embodied in the new movie version of “Little Women,” because it seeks to educate audiences, while also entertaining them.
“In the interview I heard on the radio, with Greta Gerwig, she talks about having a conversation with Meryl Streep, who said, ‘You need to give contrasts for these girls watching the movie, who don’t realize how limited things were for women at the time,’” Meehan said.
She said the book that her family borrowed from the library was printed in 1882, and includes a list of borrowing policies inside one of its covers.
“It says that the library is only open two hours per week on Saturdays, and you can only take out two per family,” Meehan said. “You have to return them before annual meeting.”
She thinks the book was never returned because the Mulrys moved to Methuen before the next meeting was held, and they were never able to get back to Boxford.
The policies include a penalty of one penny per day for overdue books, which Meehan figures would come to around “400 and some odd dollars” at this point.
But Beth Safford, a reference librarian at West Boxford, said a fine was “not an issue for us,” although she deferred a final decision to the library’s director, who was not available for comment.
Meehan said that the dozens of books that she found in a box with “Little Women” had mostly been gifts between the sisters, and someone cared for the borrowed book as if it were their own, even if they never managed to return it to the library.
“When you got deep into the book, there’s a page that was ripped, "Meehan said, "and somebody sewed the page.''