By Liz Rosenberg
There are few more thrilling literary detective stories than the Eureka! moment of literary historian Leona Rostenberg at the Houghton Library, uncovering proof that Louisa May Alcott indeed authored the gothic “sensational” stories of A. M. Barnard.
Smaller revelations are held in the Concord (MA) Free Public Library in handwritten manuscript pages from Little Women. There I found proof—as if one needed it!—of Alcott’s genius. In manuscript form, first drafts and revisions emerge like slow-motion photographs of a blossoming flower. A hat is “dashed” instead of “flung” to the ground. “Poor Laurie” becomes Jo’s “poor young lover.”
Something of the essence of the writer quivers even in ink. Alcott’s handwriting has a rushed, energetic look about it. Immediately, one long, slashing cross-out caught my eye. It appears during the chapter, “Heartache,” which Little Women devotees will remember as “the chapter where Jo finally turns Laurie down.”
Many readers find Jo’s refusal of Laurie hard to swallow. Alcott was hounded by readers insisting she marry Jo off to her eager neighbor. But Alcott’s first instinct was not to marry off her independent-minded heroine at all.
“Very sweet and pretty,” the author wrote coolly of sister Anna’s new marriage, “but I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Louisa May Alcott never married. If she ever had passionate, consummated love affairs she left no proof, so far at least, unearthed in any library.
But she did take chances—in life, and in art. She asked one male friend to “run off” with her. She spent days in Paris shockingly unchaperoned in the company of her “Boy,” the Polish Ladislas Wisniewski whom she nicknamed “Laddie.” Laurie is modeled partly on Ladislas. But she would not marry either of them, never mind her reading public.
In “Heartache,” Laurie hopes he’s proven his worth to Jo. The chapter is cunningly placed just before “Beth’s Secret,” where we learn of that sister’s impending death. Alcott manages to distract us both from the doomed romance and the doomed sister. She throws us off, placing a false “Heartache” before the real one.
“Heartache”’s tone is more comic than tragic (“Oh deary me!”) and a touch patronizing (“his poor little feelings.”) But Alcott’s instincts are too fine to dismiss the Laurie/Jo love affair out of hand. If Laurie’s rejection were a foregone conclusion, the novel would lose much of its power.
Jo turns down Laurie’s proposal five or six times in as many pages. She tries wheedling, humor, history, logic. The last time she throws it out defiantly: “I shall always be fond of you, very fond indeed, as a friend, but I’ll never marry you; and the sooner you believe it the better for both of us—so now!” What follows is the all-important revision—in Laurie’s response.
Here is the original in hand-written draft: “That speech was like fire to gunpowder. Laurie looked at her a minute as if he did not quite know what to do with himself, then he caught her in his arms and kissed her violently.”
“WHAT?” I shrieked. The librarian looked up. She must have feared that a lunatic had gotten hold of the precious Alcott pages.
When I glanced again at the draft I saw that Alcott had corrected her own mistake, crossing out the word “violently,” and substituting “turned away.” Here is the revised scene: “Laurie looked at her a minute as if he did not quite know what to do with himself, then he turned away.”
Imagine if Laurie had really caught Jo in his arms and kissed her passionately. Her speech is “fire” after all, to his “gunpowder.” Would she have slapped him, as Louisa once slapped a suitor who dared kiss her sister Anna? After that kiss, how could he marry her younger sister Amy? The whole plot of the Laurie love story twists in the wind at that instant—and Alcott brilliantly rescues it.
He turned away. Those two words are written with more force than any others on the manuscript page, as if Alcott needed to emphasize them to herself.
It took a great author to consider such a move—and an even greater author to reject it. “Heartache” is the tragicomic conclusion to a teenage friendship that would have turned out badly in matrimony. The scene may hold a kernel of autobiography. “I’m homely and awkward and odd and old” Jo tells Laurie—exactly what the elder Louisa perhaps told Laddie.
“We lived it,” Alcott admitted about her famous book. Little Women is the story of that life—transformed by the revisions and conscious decisions of fiction. What remains is the novel itself, and that has sufficed for more than 150 years.
Liz Rosenberg is at work on a YA biography of Louisa May Alcott for Candlewick Press. Novelist, poet, and children’s book author, her most recent book was House of Dreams: A Biography of L. M. Montgomery.