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.

 

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.

300px-Edward_Burne-Jones_-_King_Cophetua_and_the_Beggar_Maid_-_Google_Art_Project

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

Chapter XLIII. Surprises

Take Two

By Paige Gray

Not far into the Little Women chapter “Surprises,” Jo awakens to find her long-absent best friend not in Europe, but very present in the March home. Astonished and bewildered, Jo wonders how “Laurie’s ghost seemed to stand before her” (343). Indeed, Jo then determines, this is some spectral version of her Teddy, a “substantial, lifelike ghost leaning over her, with the very look he used to wear when he felt a good deal, and didn’t like to show it” (343).

“Surprises” pivots around the idea of ghosts and how they haunt us—not a haunting through terror, but a haunting through the heartache of memory, of past lives and paths not chosen. However, the chapter also makes us confront what and who become ghosts. Is the ghost this married man, this dignified, self-assured Laurie who now deeply loves Amy, or is the ghost the memory that Jo holds with her—the awkward Teddy who worships, adores, and loves only her?

Rather than definitively answering such an impossible question, Jo and Little Women instead focus on how to navigate a life populated with such ghosts, those ghosts of our former selves, with all their triumphs and our tragedies, and those ghosts of our present, like this Laurie, who seemingly defy the existential truths upon which our identities have been built.

With the arrival of newlyweds Amy and Laurie to the March home, and with the recent loss of Beth, Jo must find a way to live with these hauntings. Because “Beth still seemed among them—a peaceful presence—invisible, but dearer than ever” (352), Jo can use this “presence” as a source of strength and affirmation. Beth’s ghost ostensibly comforts Jo, instilling her with a sense of determination to move on. The memory of her meek sister suffuses the March house in a way that makes Beth more present in death than she was, perhaps, in life. In death, she uncharacteristically commands Jo, telling her to “[b]e happy!” (352).

The ghosts that surround the marriage of Amy and Laurie—this ghostly new man who challenges Jo’s former idea of Laurie, the ghost of the boy-dreamer Teddy, and the ghost of their childhood friendship and infatuation—lead Jo to a different ghost. When Professor Bhaer shows up at the March house, Jo thinks “another ghost had come to surprise her” (350). Bhaer is “another ghost,” a figure that challenges and unsettles—he haunts her, but haunts her in the sense that he accompanies her into a new way of understanding and constructing her future life.

“Surprises” underscores the power of those ghosts that haunt us, and ultimately suggests that ghosts do not surprise us through their presence—they surprise us through their considerable influence.

Paige Gray is a professor of liberal arts and writing at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her book, Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age, will be published by SUNY Press in August 2019. 

Tudor.Surprises
Illustration by Tasha Tudor (1969)

Chapter XLII. All Alone

By Karyn Valerius

Despite its autobiographical roots, Jo’s story diverges from Alcott’s by the end of Little Women. Alcott embraced her literary vocation as a welcome alternative to marriage for herself, but she conceded to pressure from her publisher and readers to “marry off” the surviving March sisters in Book 2 “as if that were the only end and aim of a woman’s life” (Letters 122, Journal 167). Alcott registered her discontent with this turn of events by denying readers the match they desired between Laurie and Jo, and more subtly, by sowing doubt about Jo’s motives for reconsidering marriage as an acceptable option in Chapter 42, “All Alone.”

The chapter opens with a description of Jo’s distress after Beth’s death. Overwhelmed by grief and loneliness, Jo cannot imagine a tolerable future for herself: “for something like despair came over her when she thought of spending all her life in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures, and the duty that never seemed to grow any easier.” Jo finds solace in her parents’ sympathy and wise advice, in Meg’s good company, and in cheerfully performing Beth’s household chores. She reimagines her promise to devote herself to her parents in Beth’s absence as a “splendid” and difficult achievement worthy of her effort. At Marmee’s suggestion, Jo also immerses herself in her writing, achieving literary success precisely when she wasn’t seeking fame and fortune. The renewed sense of purpose Jo discovers in her family and professional ambitions suggests one satisfying resolution to her crisis.

And yet, the chapter closes with Jo crying in the garret and wistfully thinking about Professor Bhaer. The example of Meg’s contentment with her husband and children makes Jo susceptible to the idea that “[m]arriage is an excellent thing, after all,” and news of Amy and Laurie’s engagement stirs Jo’s “natural craving for affection.” In a frank conversation with Marmee, Jo generously refuses to be jealous of Amy’s happiness, and she affirms that it would be wrong to marry Laurie herself both because she does not love him and because they are temperamentally incompatible. However, Jo admits that if Laurie had proposed to her a second time, she might have consented out of loneliness. This conversation reveals Jo’s vulnerability. Given the “hungry look” Marmee observes in Jo’s eyes, her wish to see Professor Bhaer again seems suspect since, like Laurie, Bhaer is more friend than lover. The chapter ends ambiguously with a series of questions about Jo’s feelings for Bhaer: “Was it all self-pity, loneliness, or low spirits? or was it the waking up of a sentiment which had bided its time as patiently as its inspirer? Who shall say?”

Karyn Valerius is associate professor of English and director of the Disability Studies Program at Hofstra University. Her chapter “’Is the young lady mad?’: Psychiatric Disability in Louisa May Alcott’s Fiction” appears in the volume Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) edited by Elizabeth J. Donaldson.

Merrill.All Alone

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.

Billings.png
Hammatt Billings, 1869.
Smith
Jessie Willcox Smith, 1915.
Lonette.Amy.Lazy.J
Reisie Lonette, 1950
file-37
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 XXV. Heartache

Take Two

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. 

1994.Heartache
Still image from the 1994 feature film adaptation of Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong.

 

Chapter XXXV. Heartache

Take One

By Kristen Proehl

From L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2012), young adult literature is replete with representations of friendship that trouble the boundaries of romantic and platonic love; indeed, these relationships often exemplify what might be termed “queer friendships.” Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women reflects and might even be said to set the stage for these representations. For this reason, among others, it has served as an ideal framing text for my young adult literature courses. Our class discussions have tended to devote considerable attention to Chapter 35, “Heartache.” This chapter is widely known because it depicts Jo March’s romantic rejection of her adoring friend and neighbor, Laurie Laurence. Alcott’s girl readers were famously displeased with Jo’s rejection of Laurie, whom they believed to be her perfect match. Since then, “Heartache” has elicited an array of critical readings among Alcott scholars and continues to evoke a diversity of responses among my students.

In this chapter, Laurie has returned home from college, where he has labored to conform to what he perceives as Jo’s expectations for him. To his great disappointment, however, he learns that his efforts to transform himself for Jo’s sake have been in vain. Against Jo’s protestations, he confesses that he has loved her ever since the day they first met and implies that they should marry one another. In response, Jo insists that she has only ever loved him as a friend and explains that she never plans to marry. Laurie disagrees vehemently with her assessment, storms off to his grandfather’s house, and pounds out melancholy music. Jo attempts to intervene by talking to Laurie’s grandfather, who ultimately convinces Laurie to cope with his grief by traveling abroad.

For Jo and Laurie, the experience of coming of age also entails a coming to terms with the socially-constructed binary of romantic and platonic love. As their friendship transitions from one of childhood to adolescence, it becomes fraught with romantic tensions and frustrations. Her dilemma is one that appears throughout YA fiction because of its capacity to appeal to young, female readers. Perhaps counter-intuitively, her refusal to marry Laurie in order to simply advance her social position situates Jo within a position of power.

In her foundational essay, “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women,” Roberta Seelinger Trites notes that Laurie’s “girlishness” and Jo’s “boyishness provide the text with multiple layers of possibility” (48). She outlines her own and other scholars’ critical responses to this scene, including those of Martha Saxton, Sarah Elbert, and others (48-9). Building upon the diversity of critical responses to this chapter, I ask students to consider the following questions: is Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal a “strong affirmation of lesbian politics” (33), as Trites suggests? If, as Elbert notes, Laurie is both a “surrogate sister” and “son” to Jo, might her decision be interpreted as a rejection of an incestuous relationship? Finally, we also consider the extent to which Jo’s rejection of Laurie might set the stage for her marriage to Professor Bhaer—a more traditional relationship, to be sure, but one that is more closely aligned with her own spiritual and intellectual development. The capacity of “Heartache” to yield such a diversity of critical responses not only speaks to the complexity of Alcott’s writing but also illuminates many of our historically-constituted understandings of human relationships.

Works Cited

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger For Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Temple UP, 1984.

Trites, Roberta. “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd. U. of Michigan P, 2011. 33-58.

Kristen Proehl is an assistant professor of English at SUNY-The College at Brockport, where she teaches courses in children’s, young adult, and American literature. She has recently published Battling Girlhood: Sympathy, Social Justice, and the Tomboy Figure in American Literature (Routledge) and is at work on a second project, “Queer Friendship in Young Adult Literature.”

Merrill.Heartache
Illustration by Frank T. Merrill (1880).

 

Chapter X. The P. C. and P. O.

By Lorinda B. Cohoon

“The P. C. and P. O.” chapter recounts a deepening of the friendship between the March family and the Laurence family through Laurie’s admission to the secret society of the Pickwick Club. Both Meg and Amy have reservations about admitting a boy to the club–Mr. Winkle reminds the club members that “[t]his is a ladies’ club, and we wish to be private and proper” (90). Despite these objections, Laurie is voted in as “Sam Weller” once Jo, as Mr. Snodgrass, draws attention to all the ways the members of the Pickwick Club have benefited from the Laurences’ wealth and position: “We can do so little for him, and he does so much for us, I think the best we can do is to offer him a place here, and make him welcome, if he comes” (90). The martin house post office Laurie provides becomes the site of material exchanges and gifts that further cement the connection between the two families, and the chapter concludes with a list of some of the items and letters that are subsequently sent through the post office between the two houses.

Although I re-read Little Women regularly as a child, and as an adult, this chapter is not one that inspired me to pursue its literary references. While I avidly read The Castle of Otranto and The Wide, Wide World to find out more about what Jo was reading, I confess to never having completed reading The Pickwick Papers, despite having kept a copy beside my bed for many years. I meant to read it before making this contribution, but as Mr. Winkle acknowledges in his apologetic article in the Portfolio, I have had trouble taking “time by the fetlock” (88). I still mean to finish reading it, and I wonder how many Dickens scholars and readers as well as Alcott scholars and readers were inspired to read The Pickwick Papers after reading this chapter.

Alcott tells her readers that the sample paper she includes comes from a real version that she wrote with her sisters, and it seems to me that the model paper must have inspired other readers to try to make a newspaper for themselves. Have other readers of Little Women created their own portfolios or made Tracy Tupman’s recipe for baked squash? I am surprised on re-reading the Portfolio by how many of Beth’s activities and pursuits are acknowledged in the articles about “Public Bereavement,” the “Lament for S. B. Pat Paw,” and the advertisement for Mrs. Beth Bouncer’s Doll Millinery. I frequently skim quickly past the Portfolio when I re-read this text, but I have been surprised by the rich details it includes about the sisters’ lives and their endeavors and interests. The list of items delivered through the private post office also warrants further study. What became of the puppies? Were they as well-loved as Beth’s cats?

Lorinda B. Cohoon is an associate professor of English at the University of Memphis, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in children’s literature. She is a second daughter with three sisters (as well as four brothers), and she grew up with a father who was an impractical genius. She loves to read more than anything else and sometimes experiences (far-too infrequently) a Jo-like writing vortex.

March sisters still from Little Women (1994).
March sisters still from Little Women (1994).

 

Illustration from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers.
Illustration from Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.