By Lauren Rizzuto
Though it may seem to gesture toward Amy and Laurie’s eventual marriage, the title of the chapter “New Impressions” is misleading. Au contraire, it is the old impressions, indelibly made upon each other in childhood (he, the teasing older brother, and she, the ebullient younger sister yearning to be included) that now serve as prelude to their romance. A quick sketch of events illustrates the curious sense of déjà vu that pervades the chapter.
It’s Christmas again, this time in Nice, and once more the Laurence boy will make things merry for a March girl. In a variation of Jo’s memorable opening grumble, Amy exclaims, “‘This will be a regularly merry Christmas to me, with presents in the morning, you and letters in the afternoon, and a party at night.’” Their holiday rendezvous begins with a carriage ride, though admittedly it is now Amy who drives Laurie. News of Beth’s decline may temporarily wilt their spirits, just as Mr. March’s battlefront ruminations once gently rebuked his daughters’ misbehavior, but the two soldier on to attend a Yuletide ball together with some other American expats (and a potpourri of European types). Amy, perhaps having learned from Meg’s mistakes, prepares herself to look, if fashionable, still “sensible.” She may “prink,” but only insofar that she continues to impress the boy-next-door. Laurie, for his part, looks “unusually débonnaire,” but true to form he at first shyly refrains from dancing (at least he does not hide behind a curtain) until, so overcome by his female companion’s charms, he dances with gusto. Yes, by the end of the evening, everything old is “new” again.
And yet Alcott is no one-trick poney! True, from these examples Amy appears not merely to “change places” with Jo in Laurie’s heart but assume the role of nearly all of the “little women,” the quintessential, built-to-order “good wife.” But this interpretation denies Amy the very irrepressible qualities that Laurie (and the reader) finds so attractive: unlike other eligible mesdemoiselles, “her old petulance now and then showed itself, her strong will still held its own, and her native frankness was unspoiled by foreign polish.”
The pejorative “foreign polish” occurs more than once in this chapter, as does the phrase “a good effect.” It’s as if Alcott wants to remind readers that, although their Amy will always be susceptible to “little affectations of speech and manner,” her time abroad has taught her the difference between art and artifice. Ironically, Amy acquires this knowledge without self-awareness; possibly, Alcott wishes to assure the (dismayed) reader that Amy and Laurie’s romance is happening naturally as they are “unconsciously giving and receiving” these old new impressions. For instance, when Laurie greets Amy before the dance with flowers, just as he did with Marmee their first Christmas as neighbors, she cringes when—nostalgia be damned!—her date cloaks his gift in cliché:
“Thank you; it isn’t what it should be, but you have improved it,” he added, as she snapped the silver bracelet on her wrist.
“I thought you liked that sort of thing!”
Sacre bleu! Poor Laurie has misjudged the French Amie for one who appears to (but really doesn’t) value “that sort of thing.” This March sister values authenticity. “My rouge won’t come off,” she says pointedly when, after a particularly vigorous dance, Laurie notices her red cheeks. She’s not interested in performing, how do you say, je ne sais quoi, but in exposing sprezzatura for what it is: a learned art. ‘“I study as well as play,’” she informs him, ‘“and as for this’—with a little gesture toward her dress—‘why, tulle is cheap; posies to be had for nothing, and I am used to making the most of my poor little things.’” Junoesque beauty requires diligent effort.
C’est la vie.
Lauren Rizzuto is a Senior Lecturer in the graduate programs in Children’s Literature at Simmons University and a PhD candidate in English at Tufts University. She visited France for the first time in January but, like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone, remains “what the French call ‘les incompétents.'”