By A. Waller Hastings
Like many of the chapters of Little Women, chapter 12 – “Camp Laurence” – could be a self-contained short story, moving along a trajectory from the arrival of invitations to the picnic to a satisfactory day’s end, when Mr. Brooke responds to the British Kate’s observation that “American girls are very nice when one knows them” with the comment “I quite agree with you.” What more is needed?
The first half of the book, covering a year in the March family’s lives while Father is away at the war, is constructed as a series of such episodes. If chapter 12 could function independently, though, it also fits into the overall arc of the novel, in two ways. First, it offers additional evidence about the characters and romantic attachments of several characters. And second, it is a rare chapter that makes explicit, if satirical, reference to the war itself.
I first noted this chapter a few years ago when exploring the degree to which the Civil War plays an explicit role in Volume One of Little Women. Although Laurie’s “jolly time” games and picnic are not all that different from what might occur just as well in peacetime, he presents it as a kind of military exercise. The picnic site is designated “Camp Laurence” and every participant is assigned a military-termed role. During the croquet game, the American contingent “contested every inch of the ground as strongly as if the spirit of ’76 inspired them,” and disputes about the game are called “skirmishes.” In the mock-military company, Brooke is named as commander-in-chief; and he is the one member of the party who will actually go on to serve in the army.
When Meg turns to Brooke to ask about Laurie’s future (and by extension, his own), he says “as soon as he is off I shall turn soldier,” an aspiration of which she strongly approves: “I should think every young man would want to go, though it is hard for the mothers and sisters, who stay at home.” His bitter reflection that he lacks anyone to miss him then gives her an opportunity to state obliquely that she – and the other Marches, of course – “should all be very sorry to have any harm happen to you.” Thus more hints are dropped of the growing attachment of the couple, and add weight to Brooke’s closing remark.
Generations of readers have lamented that Jo does not end up marrying Laurie, but despite the close friendship the two share, there is little here to suggest that Jo, at least, has any romantic notions about her neighbor. She appears oblivious to any such possibilities, most notably in her segment of the “Rigmarole” storytelling that follows the group’s lunch.
Brooke starts off seriously, establishing a poor knight (himself) searching for a “certain beautiful face” (Meg’s) to be found in a group of captive princesses (the other March girls). As each member of the party takes up the story, it veers wildly according to the teller’s personality. Meg introduces a Gothic element: a ghost. Jo parodies the romantic tale, having a ghost threaten the knight with a snuffbox that makes him sneeze so hard his head falls off; Amy converts the narrative into a fairy tale, and Laurie tops things off by replacing the knight’s head with a cabbage. So the serious romance between Brooke and Meg is offset by the more juvenile, not to say silly, attitude toward such romance by the younger Marches and Laurie.
Professor of English at West Liberty University, where he teaches young adult literature, Wally Hastings wouldn’t be caught dead reading Little Women in his childhood. As an adult reader, he forced himself and became hooked.