Chapter XLIV. My Lord and Lady

Take Two

By Elise Hooper

In “My Lord and Lady,” we get a glimpse of newlywed life for Amy and Laurie as they plot how to use their wealth to help Jo and her penniless suitor, Dr. Bhaer. It’s easy to be charmed by the couple’s newfound maturity, optimism, and interest in philanthropy, and I think we’re supposed to marvel at how far these two have come, but this chapter always strikes me as a bit heartbreaking when Amy laments, “Ambitious girls have a hard time, Laurie, and often have to see youth, health, and precious opportunities go by…”

I picture Louisa writing those lines for Amy while hunched over the little desk that Bronson built her in her upstairs bedroom in Orchard House, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted to throw open the window beside her and yell, “Is anyone listening? Being a woman and a professional writer is hard!” After all, few knew how ambitious girls suffered more than Louisa. After nearly three decades of trying to paddle her own canoe, Louisa was still pegging away at her writing despite the fact that she was no longer a girl and her health had taken a turn for the worse. And Louisa wasn’t the only ambitious girl in this family. May, the real-life sister who inspired the character of Amy, also spent years struggling to find success as a professional painter at a time when women were widely discouraged from pursuing art as a serious vocation.

Of course, one hundred and fifty years later, we know something that our beloved author didn’t: the precious opportunity that Louisa had been awaiting was taking shape in the manuscript being written by her own cramped, ink-stained fingers.

Little Women ended up being the book that secured Louisa’s future and positioned her to reach out a hand to help others girls who were less fortunate, including her sister, May.  Louisa used some of her hard-earned income to travel to Europe with May and further her sister’s art instruction. So, while Amy and Laurie vow to use their resources to help Jo, I love that real life brought a far more satisfying plot twist in Louisa’s life than a benevolent relative offering her financial aid. Our ambitious girl-turned-woman produced her own opportunity through her own tenacity and creative talents.

Elise Hooper received her BA from Middlebury College and her MIT from Seattle University. She has taught literature and American history in high schools throughout the Seattle area and has written two novels, The Other Alcott (2017) and Learning to See (2019). Her forthcoming novel Fast Girls (2020) focuses on the lives of women athletes competing in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She currently lives in Seattle with her family, but grew up outside of Concord, MA and credits Louisa May Alcott with inspiring her to write fiction.

 

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Chapter XLIV. My Lord and Lady

Take One

By Azelina Flint

Putting on airs, sleeping with a peg on her nose, and, of course, burning Jo’s manuscript, young Amy is for many readers of Little Women the least favourite March. In the second part of the novel, though, Amy undergoes an edifying transformation. She swallows her pride at May Chester’s fair and eventually marries for love, instead of money (or so she claims). In the end, we forgive Amy for being annoying when she was a child. But this is actually her punishment. Adult Amy is Louisa May Alcott’s revenge upon her little sister, May, for refusing to embrace the model of “little womanhood” she had fashioned in Little Women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “My Lord and Lady.”

The chapter begins with Laurie asking permission to borrow his wife who is seated on her mother’s knee. Amy is made the baby again, mirroring the way that May Alcott was “babied” within the Alcott family. Critic Natania Rosenfeld cites an 1877 letter from thirty-seven year old May to Abigail Alcott in which she refers to herself as “Marmee’s…big baby”; a charcoal drawing in May’s bedroom at Orchard House depicts a mother with a giant baby on her lap. Here is the primary point of rivalry between the sisters: Louisa and May were in competition for Abigail’s affections. Louisa may have dedicated her 1873 novel Work to her mother, but Abigail’s last diary was inscribed to May.

If Louisa viewed her sister as the primary rival for her mother’s heart, why is Amy and Marmee’s bond given such attention in this chapter? Marmee may state that “[t]o be loved and chosen by a good man is the best … thing which can happen to a woman” (Chapter IX), but real life Marmee did not see marriage as the ultimate aim: “My girls shall have trades,” she wrote–not benign accomplishments, but actual careers (LaPlante 88). Of course, Amy gives up her “trade” because she realizes that “talent isn’t genius” and “want[s] to be great, or nothing” (Chap XXXIV). But May Alcott was all about the genius. According to Lauren Hehmeyer, May pursued the “immortal fire” relentlessly, even climbing the pass of Mount St Bernard in a lightning storm so that she could undergo sublime experience.

Unfortunately, May’s pursuit of genius came at her sister’s expense. Her studies abroad were financed by Little Women and other bestsellers that Louisa churned out to support her family. Louisa had her ambitions, too, but was sidelined by what she referred to as “moral pap for the young” throughout her journals. Louisa’s revenge is the creation of a parallel reality: Marmee’s favourite child is advised by the March matriarch that she should settle for marrying a rich man, while Jo goes on to write a bestseller.

Item number two in Louisa’s revenge plan is Laurie. Some readers, disappointed because Laurie and Jo don’t get together, might think that this is just another instance of Amy getting what Jo secretly wants—but Laurie is Jo’s cast-off. This is a case of Louisa saying, “Here, take this failed composer who isn’t going to be a genius either and you can sit around decorating society together.” Can’t you just imagine Louisa gleefully rubbing her hands together and cackling while she’s doing it?

At the close of the chapter, Amy likens herself to the “beggar-maid in the old story” of Cophetua, a celibate king who marries a beggar, Penelophon, when he falls in love with her after a chance sighting. While the story is often used as an illustration of how love transcends class, it’s disturbing that Penelophon is only “rescued” on the condition that she marries a man she barely knows.

Young Amy will always have a special place in my heart because she was unashamed of her ambition. Adult Amy should have remained in Paris, made a name for herself and married a man who was her equal. Instead, she became Penelophon: a figure who in Burne-Jones’s iconic painting is nothing more than a vapid objet d’art. She exists purely to be rescued; even her scantily-clad rags seem arranged for the purpose of alluring the king. This beggar-maid is Louisa’s revenge: “my lady,” the adult Amy March, is the little sister Louisa knew she would never have.

Works Cited

Hehmeyer, Lauren. “May Alcott Nieriker and Louisa May Alcott Confront Nineteenth-century Ideas About Women’s Genius”. American Studies Journal 66 (2019). Web. <10.18422/66-03>

LaPlante, Eve. My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother. Simon & Schuester, 2012.

Myerson, Joel and Daniel Shealy, editors. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. U of Georgia P, 1997.

Rosenfeld, Natania. “Artists and Daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s Diana and Persis“. New England Quarterly 64.1 (1991): 3-21.

Azelina Flint recently finished her PhD at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral dissertation recovered the influence of the religious beliefs of Louisa May Alcott’s and Christina Rossetti’s mothers and sisters in their literary works. Azelina fell in love with May Alcott after spending a semester conducting archival research at the Houghton Library and hopes to complete a post-doctoral project on Louisa May Alcott’s precocious younger sister in the future.

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                        Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884.

Chapter XLI. Learning to Forget

By Claudia Mills

Beth has just passed through the valley of the shadow and been given up to God, following the chapter in which Amy unmercifully lectures Lazy Laurence. But it’s Laurie who is now trying to forget a different sister, the one he loved first and longest: Jo.

It’s strange that the chapter in which Laurie proposes to Amy has such a backward-gazing title, for here Laurie and Amy are not so much learning to forget, but starting to remember: who they both most truly are. And this will lead them to realize that their future lies together.

Few lovers come to each other with fewer illusions. Their previous encounter destroyed those illusions forever. Amy tells Laurie, truthfully, that she “despises” him for his indolent and self-indulgent ways. When Amy coolly confesses to Laurie that she plans to marry Fred Vaughn for his money and social position, Laurie observes that this “sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.” So: Amy knows that Laurie can be spoiled and entitled; Laurie knows that Amy can be mercenary and shrewd. These are serious flaws, indeed.

Both Amy and Laurie have also given up any illusion of artistic genius. Laurie abandons his efforts at composing a requiem (mourning Jo) and opera (starring Jo) after hearing one of Mozart’s “grand operas”: Mozart’s music “takes the vanity” out of Laurie just as the great artworks of Rome took the vanity out of Amy. Both must now accept the limits of their lesser gifts.

And as Laurie tries to forget Jo – succeeding far more easily than he had expected – he himself expresses the prospect of marrying Amy as a second-best outcome: when Mozart “couldn’t have one sister he took the other, and was happy.”

Alcott has made abundantly clear her intention to strip all romance away from the Laurie-Amy mating, taking care that Laurie’s proposal to Amy does not transpire, as Laurie had imagined it would, “in the chateau garden by moonlight, and in the most graceful and decorous manner,” but “exactly the reverse”: “the matter was settled” (what businesslike terminology!) “on the lake, at noonday, in a few blunt words.” While Laurie falls short of saying, “So, Ames, ol’ gal, should we go and get hitched?” his wish that they might “always pull in the same boat” has a similarly pragmatic ring to it.

And yet . . . and yet . . . when Laurie hastens to Amy after hearing of Beth’s death, and she hurls herself into his arms, crying, “Oh, Laurie, Laurie! I knew you’d come to me!” it’s hard not to feel one’s eyes growing misty. (And there are many less romantic spots to become engaged than Lake Geneva on the shores of picturesque Vevey!) Maybe, in the end, there is something to be said for love grounded in clear-eyed reality rather than “delusive fancies,” a deeper tenderness to sadder-but-wiser affection, and a happier ever-after when fairy tales are forgotten.

Claudia Mills is Associate Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a faculty member in the graduate programs in children’s literature at Hollins University. The author of almost sixty books for young readers and editor of Ethics and Children’s Literature (Ashgate, 2014), she has published articles on Alcott’s Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom and on Alcott’s childhood experiences at Fruitlands.

Images by Frank Merrill (1880).

Chapter XXXIX. Lazy Laurence

By Beverly Lyon Clark

“Valrosa! The romance of romances in our girlhood’s literature,” exclaims Anna Steese Richardson in the Woman’s Home Companion in June 1912 (qtd. in Clark 219n91). She is responding to what would become the first Broadway production of Little Women, noting that upon hearing the word Valrosa, “every woman and girl in the audience sits up in startled interest.” When Alcott was in Nice on the French Riviera in 1866, she’d visited Valrosa (or Valrose) and called it “a lovely villa buried in roses” (Journals 150). In the romantic, rose-bowered Chapter 39, we’re told that “roses blossomed everywhere,” in “every shady nook,” near “every cool grotto” and “every fountain.” Here in this “honey-moon Paradise,” as Amy calls it, Laurie lounges and Amy sketches, and she scolds him for his indolence.

Why is this chapter memorable for many readers, perhaps especially for early-twentieth-century women? (It wasn’t for me.) Maybe Valrosa resonates particularly for those who celebrate romance and sentiment in the book? Certainly Amy and Laurie engage in banter that, while bracing, verges on the romantic; she also tucks small roses in his buttonhole, and he sticks daisies in the ribbons of her hat. And she tells Laurie that her “talent isn’t genius,” so the chapter likewise marks an end to a strand of independent female ambition. But Amy still lauds hard work, even if the kind of work that she here pursues—sketching—can also be simply a decorative pastime for proper young ladies. Amy herself talks of channeling her art by becoming “an ornament to society.”

One sign of the chapter’s resonance is that at least seventeen illustrators have depicted Amy and/or Laurie at Valrosa, from Hammatt Billings in 1869 to Shreya Gupta in 2018. Artists’ preferences for illustrating Valrosa over the later Vevey suggests a predilection for the visually romantic over (spoiler alert!) the more mundane eventual proposal. Certainly the Valrosa illustrations generally give prominence to romance, yet they often hint at Amy’s independence as well. Whether Amy is portrayed as scold or artist—usually the latter—she has a measure of power over Laurie. Occasionally he dominates in the images, maybe towering over a seated Amy or seemingly putting her on display, as if she too is a spray of roses. Yet often she’s seated and he’s lounging on the ground, and thus she has visual dominance by being higher on the page—especially in the images that imitate Billings’ or else Jessie Willcox Smith’s (1915) renditions. In one intriguing Valrosa illustration, Reisie Lonette (1950) may dress Amy in frills and furbelows but she omits the ambience of romantic roses, except for a token in the bonnet, and fully subordinates Laurie by making him visible only in Amy’s sketch. Amy subjects Laurie to her gaze and her pencil. The chapter is not just romantic.

But let me give the last word to Holly Blackford. In The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature (2011), she notes that a modification of a passage from Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase appears in this chapter to underscore not a woman’s sexual awakening as in the sensation story but a mutual awakening of romantic possibilities. The echoes of the erotic point to the dangers of art and the ways in which Amy has fashioned herself as an object of the artistic gaze. Blackford emphasizes Amy’s self-fashioning; Europe provides “a sensationalist backdrop for the exotic creation of Amy Laurence” (105).

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, assoc. ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Little Brown, 1989.

Blackford, Holly. The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature. Routledge, 2011.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. The Afterlife of Little Women. Johns Hopkins UP, 2014.

Beverly Lyon Clark teaches English and Women’s & Gender Studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She is the author of The Afterlife of “Little Women,” the editor of Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews, and the coeditor of “Little Women” and the Feminist Imagination.

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Hammatt Billings, 1869.
Smith
Jessie Willcox Smith, 1915.
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Reisie Lonette, 1950
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Albert de Mee Jousset, 1950.
English
Mark English, 1967.

 

Chapter XXXVII. New Impressions

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.

“Please don’t!”

“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.'” 

Lux
      Peter Lawford (Laurie) and Elizabeth Taylor (Amy) from the 1949 MGM feature film version of Little Women as they appeared in a Lux soap ad in the Woman’s Home Companion.
      

Chapter XXXI. Our Foreign Correspondent

By Mo Li

Before departing for her trip to Europe, Amy announces that it “‘isn’t a mere pleasure trip to me’” (ch. 30). Instead, she aims to explore the future of her artistic career. Her purpose echoes the American tradition of formative foreign travel: Young, privileged American men traveled not for pleasure, but for elevating their mind and taste to suit their future calling (Levenstein, ch. 1). However, many men succumbed to the temptation of carnal pleasure, especially prostitution and gambling in Paris, which distracted them from their purposes (Levenstein, ch. 6).

Amy’s three enthusiastic letters home quickly reveal her own temptation amidst her report of sightseeing, shopping, and sketching. Rich, well-mannered, and occasionally “sentimental,” Fred Vaughn now epitomizes the romantic and economic boon of marrying into the “best” society (ch. 26).

In her third letter, Amy reveals her rationale for potentially marrying Fred, with whom she is “not madly in love:” “One of us must marry well; Meg didn’t, Jo won’t, Beth can’t, yet,–so I shall, and make everything cosy all around.”

Like a good artist, Amy sketches the March girls’ marital prospects. Meg has not married well, and the reader can recall her struggles as a poor man’s wife. Jo will not marry well, since her blunt tongue and uncompromising independence will clash with the intricate social web of agreeableness. Fragile and shy, Beth cannot marry well, and the kindly added “yet” by Amy does not dispel the ominous shadow looming over the ethereal little figure. Consequently, Amy “shall.” Coolheaded, winsome, and vibrant, Amy appoints herself to fulfill her personal ambition and perceived familial responsibilities.

The three negatives and a positive perfectly encapsulate the gritty side of striving for high thoughts, true hearts, and charitable hands. In fact, the bitter taste of poverty was no fiction to Alcott, as her family lived and barely survived Fruitlands, the failed commune of admirable yet unrealistic ideals (Matteson, chs. 7 & 9).

Non-carnal in its nature, Amy’s temptation is sympathetically logical. Marrying Fred might actually offer the artist more freedom and opportunity, thus posing no real danger to her original purpose. However, Amy’s third letter is addressed solely to Marmee, the girls’ moral center and spiritual guide. Therefore, the chapter suggests that the temptation threatens Amy’s mastery of inner principles.

How Amy fares won’t be fully revealed for another 10 chapters, but chapter 31 has planted the seeds that erode the veneer of Amy’s “best society” and suggest how she might overcome her temptation. While enjoying the gentlemen’s romantic gallantry, Amy observes their flaws: Men are prone to vices when they are not advised or admonished. Yet, Amy’s third letter noticeably foregoes mentioning Fred’s flaws. Thus, the chapter hints that Amy will have to assume responsibility for her future partner’s moral or spiritual welfare before she can enjoy the reward of a loving marriage, as Marmee advised Meg after the “Vanity Fair” episode (ch. 9). What is reserved for the artist, however, remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Levenstein, Harvey. Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Matteson, John. Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. New York, Norton, 2007.

Mo Li received her M.A. in English from Kansas State University and her Ph.D. in English from Middle Tennessee State University. Now she tutors, edits, and translates, striving to be happy and useful.

Amy, Fred, Aunt, and Laurie_1994 Film.jpg
Amy, Fred, Aunt March, and Laurie. Film still from Little Women (1994).

 

 

Chapter XXX. Consequences

By Leslie Perrin Wilson

I appreciate Louisa May Alcott’s emphasis on family as a major focus of Little Women, but the struggle of each March girl to navigate between personal desires and ethical and social standards beyond themselves is at least as important to the story of their development toward maturity. The chapter “Consequences” explores what it takes to advance in the world.

Amy deals with hurt and anger over being demoted from the art table at the Chesters’ fund-raising fair to the less desirable flower table. Mrs. Chester, her daughter May, and May’s friends are swayed by jealousy (Amy attracts a lot of male attention and is talented, to boot), damaged pride (Jo has made fun of May while paying calls with Amy prior to the fair), and an underlying sense of class superiority.

Amy behaves well, conciliating the Chesters and making a success of her table with the help of Laurie and his friends. She learns that pushing back her inner feelings and impulses and conforming in some measure to expectations—which she genuinely acknowledges as necessary guides—will be rewarded by a trip to Europe with Aunt Carrol. She is aware of the connection between her actions and their outcome, and matter-of-factly embraces the consequences as her due, despite Jo’s disappointment at having been passed over for the trip.   From Amy’s perspective, virtue may be its own reward, but there’s nothing wrong with the personal benefits that may follow from it.

Working some years ago on an exhibition showcasing May Alcott as an artist, I explored Louisa May Alcott’s ambivalence about her youngest sister’s natural ability to get what she wanted from life. May’s inborn talent for fulfilling her aspirations by making others like her and securing their assistance by accommodating to accepted paradigms of womanly behavior ran counter to Louisa’s independence and drive for success entirely on her own terms. Louisa worked like a demon and often felt as if she were swimming upstream, while things seemed to come easier for May. That May was able to get what she wanted without the struggle and self-doubt that plagued her older sister did not escape Louisa’s notice, and seemed unfair. “Consequences” highlights Louisa May Alcott’s consciousness, learned first-hand, of the complicated relationship between self-fulfillment and the ability to push ourselves back and make compromises.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy each balance the relative importance of external models of behavior and the voice within in their own way, as did Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May Alcott. However differently Louisa may have seen herself from her sister May in negotiating this balance, the two sisters were actually more similar than not. Both held self-expression as the primary objective.

Leslie Perrin Wilson is Curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library and a writer on local literary and historical topics.  Louisa May Alcott and her family have formed a major emphasis in collection development and interpretation at the library since the start of Leslie’s tenure in 1996, and a focus of significant scholarly attention, as well.  Leslie plans to retire at the end of July 2019.

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1877 portrait of May Alcott by Rose Peckham.