By Azelina Flint
Putting on airs, sleeping with a peg on her nose, and, of course, burning Jo’s manuscript, young Amy is for many readers of Little Women the least favourite March. In the second part of the novel, though, Amy undergoes an edifying transformation. She swallows her pride at May Chester’s fair and eventually marries for love, instead of money (or so she claims). In the end, we forgive Amy for being annoying when she was a child. But this is actually her punishment. Adult Amy is Louisa May Alcott’s revenge upon her little sister, May, for refusing to embrace the model of “little womanhood” she had fashioned in Little Women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “My Lord and Lady.”
The chapter begins with Laurie asking permission to borrow his wife who is seated on her mother’s knee. Amy is made the baby again, mirroring the way that May Alcott was “babied” within the Alcott family. Critic Natania Rosenfeld cites an 1877 letter from thirty-seven year old May to Abigail Alcott in which she refers to herself as “Marmee’s…big baby”; a charcoal drawing in May’s bedroom at Orchard House depicts a mother with a giant baby on her lap. Here is the primary point of rivalry between the sisters: Louisa and May were in competition for Abigail’s affections. Louisa may have dedicated her 1873 novel Work to her mother, but Abigail’s last diary was inscribed to May.
If Louisa viewed her sister as the primary rival for her mother’s heart, why is Amy and Marmee’s bond given such attention in this chapter? Marmee may state that “[t]o be loved and chosen by a good man is the best … thing which can happen to a woman” (Chapter IX), but real life Marmee did not see marriage as the ultimate aim: “My girls shall have trades,” she wrote–not benign accomplishments, but actual careers (LaPlante 88). Of course, Amy gives up her “trade” because she realizes that “talent isn’t genius” and “want[s] to be great, or nothing” (Chap XXXIV). But May Alcott was all about the genius. According to Lauren Hehmeyer, May pursued the “immortal fire” relentlessly, even climbing the pass of Mount St Bernard in a lightning storm so that she could undergo sublime experience.
Unfortunately, May’s pursuit of genius came at her sister’s expense. Her studies abroad were financed by Little Women and other bestsellers that Louisa churned out to support her family. Louisa had her ambitions, too, but was sidelined by what she referred to as “moral pap for the young” throughout her journals. Louisa’s revenge is the creation of a parallel reality: Marmee’s favourite child is advised by the March matriarch that she should settle for marrying a rich man, while Jo goes on to write a bestseller.
Item number two in Louisa’s revenge plan is Laurie. Some readers, disappointed because Laurie and Jo don’t get together, might think that this is just another instance of Amy getting what Jo secretly wants—but Laurie is Jo’s cast-off. This is a case of Louisa saying, “Here, take this failed composer who isn’t going to be a genius either and you can sit around decorating society together.” Can’t you just imagine Louisa gleefully rubbing her hands together and cackling while she’s doing it?
At the close of the chapter, Amy likens herself to the “beggar-maid in the old story” of Cophetua, a celibate king who marries a beggar, Penelophon, when he falls in love with her after a chance sighting. While the story is often used as an illustration of how love transcends class, it’s disturbing that Penelophon is only “rescued” on the condition that she marries a man she barely knows.
Young Amy will always have a special place in my heart because she was unashamed of her ambition. Adult Amy should have remained in Paris, made a name for herself and married a man who was her equal. Instead, she became Penelophon: a figure who in Burne-Jones’s iconic painting is nothing more than a vapid objet d’art. She exists purely to be rescued; even her scantily-clad rags seem arranged for the purpose of alluring the king. This beggar-maid is Louisa’s revenge: “my lady,” the adult Amy March, is the little sister Louisa knew she would never have.
Hehmeyer, Lauren. “May Alcott Nieriker and Louisa May Alcott Confront Nineteenth-century Ideas About Women’s Genius”. American Studies Journal 66 (2019). Web. <10.18422/66-03>
LaPlante, Eve. My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother. Simon & Schuester, 2012.
Myerson, Joel and Daniel Shealy, editors. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. U of Georgia P, 1997.
Rosenfeld, Natania. “Artists and Daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s Diana and Persis“. New England Quarterly 64.1 (1991): 3-21.
Azelina Flint recently finished her PhD at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral dissertation recovered the influence of the religious beliefs of Louisa May Alcott’s and Christina Rossetti’s mothers and sisters in their literary works. Azelina fell in love with May Alcott after spending a semester conducting archival research at the Houghton Library and hopes to complete a post-doctoral project on Louisa May Alcott’s precocious younger sister in the future.
Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884.