By Elizabeth Lennox Keyser
Like Dee Anne Anderson, who blogged about the “Vanity Fair” chapter, I as a pre-teen identified with Meg, not Jo. As the eldest of three sisters I saw myself, like Meg, as the “grown-up in the room,” above the squabbles of my younger siblings. And, growing up in the 1950s, I could not envision for myself a career other than marriage and motherhood. Thus the “Vanity Fair” chapter, this one, and, in Part II, “Domestic Experiences” were among my favorites. Even Meg’s later discovery that “marriage is very trying” (part II, chapter iv) did nothing to dissuade me from constructing a “castle in the air” similar to hers.
In my teens I “graduated” from Alcott to Austen, from Little Women to Pride and Prejudice, another novel about a family of daughters. And on reading chapter 23 this time I made a fresh connection between Alcott and Austen. Although Meg has just assured Jo that she will reject John Brooke’s proposal with dignity, she is on the verge of succumbing until she detects that, despite his “beseeching” tone, he is sure of his success. While Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (the possessor, like John, of a pair of fine dark eyes) has other reasons for rejecting Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, his complacency offends her: “she could see that he had no doubt of a favorable answer” (II, xi). Thus both Meg and Elizabeth shock their suitors by initially refusing them. Months elapse before Darcy tries again as opposed to moments in John’s case, but both are encouraged to renew their suits by the interference of aunts—in John’s case Aunt March, who feels Meg will be marrying beneath herself, and in Darcy’s his own aunt, Lady Catherine, who believes Darcy will. Both aunts threaten the girls: Aunt March threatens to disinherit Meg and predicts she will be miserable living in a cottage; Lady Catherine threatens that Darcy’s aristocratic family will shun Elizabeth. Both young women respond indignantly, refusing to promise not to enter into an engagement and asserting that the prohibited marriage would be a happy one despite any loss of economic or social standing. As a result Darcy a few days later renews his suit, admitting that his aunt’s unsuccessful interference “taught him to hope” (III, xvi). John, who overhears Meg defend him to Aunt March, proposes again immediately.
Austen wrote no sequels to Pride and Prejudice, leaving that task to innumerable modern authors, but Alcott at the end of Part I suggests that she might raise the curtain on a second act of Little Women. And in this second act Aunt March settles more questions. Her preference for the amenable Amy as opposed to the intractable Jo helps persuade Aunt Carrol to take Amy, not Jo, abroad, thus enabling the eventual courtships of Laurie and Professor Bhaer. And of course her willing of Plumfield to Jo enables the Bhaers to found their school, the site of two further sequels.
The final scene in Part I diverges from the group scenes so often depicted by illustrators of Little Women. Instead of the sisters gathered around Marmee or Beth at the piano, the characters appear in pairs: Marmee and Mr. March, Beth and old Mr. Laurence, Meg and John, Jo and Laurie. Only Amy is alone, “drawing the lovers.” Interestingly, Part II ends fifteen years later with the familiar, much loved tableau featuring Marmee and her daughters, each of whom has realized or improved upon her castle in the air.
Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, professor emerita of Hollins University, is the author of Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott (1993), Little Women: A Family Romance (1999), and the editor of The Portable Louisa May Alcott (2000).
2 thoughts on “Chapter XXIII. Aunt March Settles the Question”
How lovely to end the year with the last chapter of Little Women, Part 1! A lot of modern editions end with this chapter and cut the second part. Indeed, what if Jo’s wish for a long journey would have come true? I agree, Aunt March settled a lot of questions, but it’s also a consequence of Beth’s illness. Amy goes to Aunt March who starts fancying this sister.
And what would have happened if Alcott had decided for a Lizzy-Darcy- story for Jo and Laurie? It would be funny and sentimental, but would it be the same? Another reference to Austen could be Mr. Dashwood, Jo’s editor in New York. Little Women may be not so sweet like Pride and Prejudice, but it includes more life. The consequences of Beth’s illness are finally her death, and so she will be only present in Amy’s daughter Bess. Think of consequences, whatever you do.
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