By Krissie West
Jo’s poem, “In the Garrett,” is discovered by Friedrich Bhaer and returned to her on the occasion of their engagement “under the umbrella” in Chapter 46 of Little Women. In what Jo calls her “very bad poetry” and which she subsequently rips up to let “the fragments fly away on the wind,” Jo has written of four chests that revisit the characters of the sisters first established in the fireside scene of Chapter 1.
Meg’s shows the “record of a peaceful life,” with her own children taking away the toys that once lay there now that she is “a happy mother.” Beth’s is that of a “saint,” canonised by death but always “less human than divine,” and now a bittersweet memory for her grieving sister. Amy’s chest bears testament to a more fashionable life than her sisters—no toys, but slippers and snoods—yet it is still a record of a childhood completed and a heart “now learning fairer, truer spells.” Jo’s own chest is sadder even than Beth’s. While the younger sister is lamented in her early death, the older seems stalled: “memories of a past still sweet” are giving way to “hints of a woman early old.” But in the poem’s return to Jo by Friedrich Bhaer, readers already know that the poem’s promise, “Be worthy, love, and love will come,” has been fulfilled.
Yet the concept of Jo’s writing in Little Women is always, of course, that it was Alcott’s writing first. And in this case, the poem had a life prior to the text: “In the Garrett” was first published in The Flag of Our Union (18 March 1865) but with a number of differences. It discussed the chests of Nan, Lu, Bess, and May, rather than Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Many of the other differences are minor—a word omitted or added, the line order sometimes swapped—but the final four lines are significantly different. The Little Women version, from the 1869 text, reads:
A woman in a lonely home,
Hearing like a sad refrain,—
“Be worthy, love, and love will come,”
In the falling summer rain.
The earlier version (as read from a manuscript in the Houghton Library, Harvard University) reads:
A woman musing here alone,
Hearing ever her life’s refrain —
“Labor and love, but make no moan”—
In the drip of the summer rain.
Alcott troubles the divide between author and narrator to claim herself, if problematically, as character, as the “Lu” to whom she has given a version of her own name in this earlier rendering of the poem. And this woman’s fate differs from that of Jo: no love waits for her except the love that she must give, second only to labor; neither of which, it seems, can make her happy.
But Jo is granted a reprieve in the fulfillment of romantic love with her professor, one which may have upset both generations of fans who were eager for her to marry Laurie and feminist critics who felt that she should not have sacrificed her career for any man. For Jo, though, Bhaer means the most important thing of all: a turn “from the night and storm and loneliness to the household light and warmth and peace.” For Jo, Bhaer means home.
Krissie West is a British scholar working on American literature, particularly New England Transcendentalism and representations of childhood. Her first monograph, Louisa May Alcott and the Textual Child, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan later this year, considers the portrayal of childhood in Alcott’s works for children beyond Little Women. She is currently researching her second book, Reading Childhood in the Salem Witch Narratives, forthcoming from Palgrave next year.