We are going to experiment this week by offering two different perspectives on the same chapter, both by distinguished Alcott scholars. The ways they complement each other, intersect, and diverge are fascinating. Enjoy!
By Eve LaPlante
In the gender-bending world of Little Women, the Laurence boy plays an important role. A lovely, compassionate, accommodating young man with a girl’s name, Laurie serves as a mirror to our heroine, Jo, a daring and ambitious young woman with a “gentlemanly demeanor” and a male-sounding name. It’s clear from the start that Laurie and Jo are a pair, two cross-gendered friends who seem more typical of the modern era than a century and a half in the past.
It seems fair to ask – given that Jo and her sisters were inspired by the four Alcott girls and that no Alcott boy existed (much to the dismay of Louisa’s father, Bronson) – on whom did the author model Laurie? Several names have been suggested, including one of Louisa’s maternal first cousins and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian. Louisa herself wrote in a letter to Alfred Whitman, whom she knew in her twenties, that Laurie was based jointly on him and a Polish man she met in her thirties on a trip to Europe, the former being the “sober half” and the latter, “the gay whirligig half.”
The problem is that none of these males was an intimate of the Alcotts in the way that Laurie is with the female Marches. In the novel, Laurie often feels like – and is referred to as – a brother to the sisters and a son to their mother. So who else could have inspired such a character?
I propose that the loving, gender-bending intimacy shared by Laurie and Jo was modeled on the lifelong relationship of Louisa’s mother, Abigail, with her brother, a prominent minister, abolitionist, and suffragist named Samuel Joseph May. If at first an uncle of Louisa seems an unlikely candidate to be Laurie’s progenitor, consider the fact that Abigail, too, grew up as one of four sisters. She often talked with her children about her sisters, who had all died by the time Louisa was born. Abigail’s brother, three years her senior, was her greatest friend and benefactor, providing her and her family with not only money and places to live but also enduring love. Abigail’s life-long correspondence with Sam provides a fine lens through which to observe the hardships endured by the Alcotts until the publication of Little Women, which enabled thirty-five-year-old Louisa to support them all.
It’s also possible that Louisa’s uncle the Reverend Mr. May inspired another important character in Little Women, but that’s a subject for another post.
Eve LaPlante is the author of several biographies, including a dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her mother called Marmee & Louisa (Simon & Schuster, 2013), and the editor of My Heart Is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother (Free Press, 2013).
By Joel Myerson
Chapter Three, “The Laurence Boy,” follows the chapter in which we see that the family’s decision to give their Christmas breakfast to the poor Hummel family resulted in the unexpected gift of a “feast” from their neighbor, Mr. Laurence, whose grandson had not yet been formally introduced. That event takes place at a fancy party where Meg is determined to have the “right” fashions for the dance, even if her shoes are uncomfortable (and soon result in her turning her ankle), whereas Jo is decidedly unconcerned with fashion and the need to impress others. While Meg wants to shine and dance with as many partners as possible, Jo flees the dance floor lest someone approach her and hides in an alcove. There she meets Mr. Laurence’s grandson, who has decamped from the crowd for the same reason as Jo. His name is Theodore, but, because his classmates had taunted him by calling him “Dora,” he chose “Laurie.”
Here we see the questioning of gender roles in the first part of Little Women as Laurie prefers the company of the March girls to the usual male friendships of someone his age (partly as a result of his being tutored at home), but declines the feminine nickname “Dora.” We also see how the names “Laurie” and “Jo” (for “Josephine”) advance both the androgynous aspects of the characters as well as their role reversals: Laurie is a boy who fits in with girls, whereas Jo is a girl who acts like a tomboy more than she does a young lady (by the standards of the time). Also of note is how Marmee acts as a father-figure—indeed, many of the illustrations to Little Women have the girls sprawled at Marmee’s feet or surrounding her, receiving advice in the same way that male authors, like Hawthorne in Grandfather’s Chair, have frontispieces showing children spread out around an elderly male figure to receive his stories:
Finally, the theme of being fashionable and the issues that arise from it stretch throughout the book with Amy and also in Meg’s disappointment at Miss Moffat’s party (in Chapter IX, “Vanity Fair”), where Meg tries her best to fit in among a group of wealthier adolescent girls.
Joel Myerson is Carolina Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Emeritus, at the University of South Carolina.