Anne Undeland gives voice to Alcott classic 'Little Women'

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Audiobook producer, actress and author Alison Larkin knows how to give voice to women's stories. So, it was only fitting that her company give voice to some not-so-little women in literary history.

"We've got a female-centric bent at Alison Larkin Presents, so it was a no-brainer," Larkin said of her decision to produce and record an audiobook of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," which coincides with the holidays and a blockbuster remake of the movie set to hit theaters on Christmas Day.

Larkin has released 62 titles in three years on her label Alison Larkin Presents, winning eight AudioFile Earphones Awards for excellence. Her extensive stable of narrators includes herself, a 200-recording veteran; locals Karen Allen and James Warwick; "Downton Abbey" king Simon Jones; and "Born Free" star Virginia McKenna reading Kipling's "Just So Stories." Larkin's take on the 1868 "Little Women," about a year in the life of "Marmee" March and her four daughters from Christmas to Christmas, when their Civil War army chaplain father returns home, was given a local voice with the help of actress Anne Undeland, making her audiobook debut.

"I was interested in launching a new narrator," said Larkin, a Berkshire County resident, over tea with Undeland at her West Stockbridge studio. "Anne has a really special voice."

Self-described "19th century history geek" Undeland has played notable historic women in solo plays at Ventfort Hall and beyond, and recently starred in a two-hander she wrote about Lady Randolph Churchill.

"Knowing how autobiographical ["Little Women"] was, I fell in love with Louisa May Alcott," Undeland said. "She was revolutionary in telling women's stories.

"Alcott wrote ["Little Women"] in 10 weeks, not expecting it to turn into anything big," she said.

It was an enormous hit. With the public "clamoring to know who these Little Women were going to marry," Alcott's publisher urged her to write a sequel.

Alcott wrote three: "Good Wives" (1869), "Little Men" (1871) and "Jo's Boys" (1886). Movie scripts typically combine the first two books of the series. Undeland will record "Good Wives" for release in 2020.

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"Alcott [1832-1888] was an early feminist and the daughter of transcendentalists," Larkin said, "and that was way ahead of its time."

Recently, Larkin was asked if the British feel for Alcott what Americans feel for Jane Austen — an author whose words Larkin gave voice to in her audiobook "The Complete Novels: Jane Austen."

"Absolutely they do," said Larkin, who was born in America, adopted by British parents and raised in England and Africa.

Separated by the Atlantic and 60 years, Alcott and Austen had much in common, writing about girls, their families and marriage prospects.

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"They're almost the only women we've heard of," Larkin said of the authors. "Then, it was a rarity for a woman to be a writer. Now, every woman I know is a writer."

To prepare for the audiobook recording, Undeland delved into Alcott's background. Raised in Concord, Mass., Alcott's father was an educator, opening — and closing — schools as students rejected his unconventional approach. By age 6, Alcott's family had moved 12 times.

Alcott's writing stresses the centrality of home, yearning for the stability and coziness she never experienced, Undeland said. She was a nurse during the war, her mother a social worker — just like Mrs. March.

In "Little Women," with Father gone, the family experiences real hardship. Still, they help German immigrants living nearby in squalor and disease, even as one of the March sisters, Beth, contracts life-threatening scarlet fever.

"One reason the book is so relevant today is we have to learn how to take care of and listen to each other," Undeland said. "It keeps honing in on selflessness and service and bringing good into the world."

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"There's a yearning now for purity, cleanliness and goodness," added Larkin, "and a reminder of what that is."

Undeland and Larkin discuss Alcott's feminist background and the story's contemporary relevance in an included audio interview.

In an essay they found, titled "Happy Women," published Valentine's Day, 1868, Alcott writes "about how a woman doesn't have to be married in order to be happy," Undeland said. "I think that was in response to 'Little Women.'"

Narrating an audiobook was more physically demanding than Undeland expected, voicing characters alone in a small foam-lined booth for 20 hours with recording engineer Galen Wade.

"When you're in that womb-like, dark space," Larkin noted, "you get immersed in the world."

The audiobook industry is booming, according to Larkin, with busy people listening while driving and working out. And Larkin has adventurous new works on deck.

Inspired by her daughter's question about the need for gender distinctions, Larkin recorded two Charles Dickens' classics, "A Christmas Carol" and "Great Expectations" — each with a unique plot twist.

"I thought, what if I take famous novels in literature and simply change the sex of the protagonist? Everything else would remain the same." If Pip from "Great Expectations" was female, "it would be perfectly normal for a girl to kiss a girl or walk into a bar without being molested."

"I'm excited about bringing out classics in new and interesting ways," Larkin said. "We need to bring beauty into the world and reach for our higher selves."


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