By Jan Alberghene
I was nine when I first read Little Women, but I still remember pausing over Hannah’s calling Laurie the “‘interferingest chap,’” not because I disagreed with her opinion, but because it took me a few minutes to decode the unfamiliar word “interferingest.” I had to agree with Hannah. Laurie popped up in places where he had no business being: at a meeting of the Pickwick Club (where Jo was, to be fair, a co-conspirator), and later when the sisters climbed a nearby hill on a pleasant afternoon to “play pilgrims” in private as they sewed and talked. “Yes,” I thought, “Laurie was the ‘interferingest,’” and I hadn’t even reached the chapter titled “Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace.”
After I finished reading chapter 21, the Laurie I liked no longer existed. Although Laurie is barely sixteen, he feels superior to his tutor Mr. Brooke, a good and conscientious man eleven years his senior. Laurie actually feels entitled to the role of confidant regarding Brooke’s feelings toward Meg March. Peeved that Brooke firmly shuts him out, Laurie seizes the opportunity to take revenge when his tutor is out of town. Posing as Mr. Brooke, Laurie sends and rescinds love letters to Meg March.
Six decades and many re-readings later, I still enjoy reading Little Women. What has changed is the depth of my admiration for the novel, which has steadily increased, despite—or perhaps largely due—to my ever-diminishing regard for Theodore, a.k.a. “Laurie” and “Teddy,” Laurence. He doesn’t age well in terms of his becoming more mature during the year that passes in Part I of Little Women. Neither has he aged well outside the novel, in the 150 years since its initial publication.
I write this conscious of the critical misinterpretations that can result from reading a novel in isolation from the milieu in which it was written. I’m even more conscious of the mistakes that can arise from interpreting a chapter in isolation from the rest of the novel’s text. Interpreting Laurie’s “mischief” in chapter 21 as egregiously callous is only reinforced, however, by close reading of the chapters that precede his “mischief.” And it isn’t ahistorical to assume that a contemporary seventeen-year-old young woman would feel pain and mortification akin to what Meg experiences.
Laurie’s comportment in chapter 21 is particularly striking because intrusive behavior aside, he’s a good friend to all the March women and downright heroic when he saves Amy from drowning (ch. 8). Laurie’s a complex character, no mere foil, a constant presence reminding readers just who holds power in 19th century America: men, all men, especially rich men.
The space devoted to Meg, Marmee, and Jo in chapter 21 can obscure the fact that Laurie’s “mischief” is directed toward his tutor, a poor man who has to earn his living by teaching a rich entitled brat who charms gentlewomen but throws tantrums at other men, his tutor and his grandfather. Laurie isn’t trying to hurt Meg, but he does something far worse: ignore her very existence in his plot to show Mr. Brooke who is boss. Meg is just collateral damage in a skirmish fought by a boy against a man who is not even aware this particular war is on.
The three women participate in the cover-up of Laurie’s emotional violence. Jo quickly realizes that Laurie, not his tutor, wrote the notes attributed to Brooke and has violated Meg’s privacy by reading and keeping his replies. Jo and Marmee quickly turn their attention to damage control.
Marmee spends a half hour with Laurie that ensures the incident is contained; Meg must not suffer further embarrassment by Laurie’s telling anyone what he did. Jo smooths over Mr. Laurence’s anger at Laurie’s consequent refusal to confess. Most tellingly, Jo also calms Laurie’s outrage at being shaken by his grandfather. The very mild physical reprimand isn’t what angers Laurie. His fury stems from a man’s (regardless of who and how old the man) shaking him. No matter how much time Laurie spends with Jo, her sisters, or Marmee, Laurie lives in a man’s world. And so do the women, whether grown or “Little.”
Jan Alberghene is Professor Emerita of English Studies at Fitchburg State University and the co-editor, with Beverly Lyon Clark, of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999).
Christian Bale as Laurie, Little Women (1994).