Chapter XXIV. Gossip

By Elaine Showalter

Chapter 24, “Gossip,” is the first chapter of a sequel that Alcott didn’t intend to write. After the huge success of Little Women, Alcott’s publisher Thomas Niles asked her to go on with the story. She grumbled in her journal, “Girls write to ask who the little women will marry, as if that was the only end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone” (167). But on November 1 she buckled down to write a chapter a day, and Part II came out in April 1869. In the U.S., the two parts were combined in 1881 into a single volume, but in Great Britain, Part II was published separately under titles Alcott would not have liked, including Little Women Wedded (Sampson Low, 1872), Little Women Married (Sampson Low, 1873), Nice Wives (Weldon & Co., 1875), and finally, Good Wives (Nisbet, 1895).

Part II begins in June 1865, after the end of the Civil War, and the day before Meg’s wedding to John Brooke. Alcott has to bring readers up to date “with a little gossip about the Marches,” implying that the anonymous omniscient narrator is a woman. But while Chapter 1 begins with Jo grumbling, Chapter 24 begins with five and half pages of sentimental, pious, and didactic narrative. Mr. March is back home, and the narrator devotes three paragraphs to praising him as the sage in the study, “the head of the family,” and the “household conscience, anchor, and comforter.”

Has patriarchy returned to tame and repress the spirited March women? Marmee is planning Meg’s wedding. John Brooke, “manfully” wounded in the war, has turned down generous offers of good jobs from rich Mr. Lawrence, and insists on taking up the humble office of “under book-keeper,” and earning an “honest well-earned salary.” Meg is preparing to be to become his humble, womanly wife, and their marital home, the Dovecote, is described in Dickensian diminutives: tiny, little, small, narrow, cosy; indeed a “baby-house,” not just a nursery to come, but a doll’s house. At this point, the narrator seems to be making the March women ominously small. But Alcott’s humor breaks through, thankfully, when she describes the would-be fountain Meg dreams of having represented in the present “by a weather-beaten urn, very like a dilapidated slop-bowl.”

It’s a relief when Laurie, nicknamed “Toodles” by Jo, for a character in a popular play who loves to shop at auction, gets back from college laden with ridiculous wedding gifts. His argument with Jo about his clothes and behavior breaks the preachy narrative tone and re-opens the question of whether Jo will marry, and if so, whether she will marry him. In the last sentence, Laurie whistles, and ominously predicts, “Mark my words, Jo, you’ll go next.” That’s a cliff-hanger, but Laurie is always the last one to figure Jo out.

Work Cited

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

Elaine Showalter is Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University. She is the editor of Alternative Alcott (1988), and the Library of America edition of Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

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XXIII. Aunt March Settles the Question

By Elizabeth Lennox Keyser

Like Dee Anne Anderson, who blogged about the “Vanity Fair” chapter, I as a pre-teen identified with Meg, not Jo. As the eldest of three sisters I saw myself, like Meg, as the “grown-up in the room,” above the squabbles of my younger siblings. And, growing up in the 1950s, I could not envision for myself a career other than marriage and motherhood. Thus the “Vanity Fair” chapter, this one, and, in Part II, “Domestic Experiences” were among my favorites. Even Meg’s later discovery that “marriage is very trying” (part II, chapter iv) did nothing to dissuade me from constructing a “castle in the air” similar to hers.

In my teens I “graduated” from Alcott to Austen, from Little Women to Pride and Prejudice, another novel about a family of daughters. And on reading chapter 23 this time I made a fresh connection between Alcott and Austen. Although Meg has just assured Jo that she will reject John Brooke’s proposal with dignity, she is on the verge of succumbing until she detects that, despite his “beseeching” tone, he is sure of his success. While Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (the possessor, like John, of a pair of fine dark eyes) has other reasons for rejecting Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, his complacency offends her: “she could see that he had no doubt of a favorable answer” (II, xi). Thus both Meg and Elizabeth shock their suitors by initially refusing them. Months elapse before Darcy tries again as opposed to moments in John’s case, but both are encouraged to renew their suits by the interference of aunts—in John’s case Aunt March, who feels Meg will be marrying beneath herself, and in Darcy’s his own aunt, Lady Catherine, who believes Darcy will. Both aunts threaten the girls: Aunt March threatens to disinherit Meg and predicts she will be miserable living in a cottage; Lady Catherine threatens that Darcy’s aristocratic family will shun Elizabeth. Both young women respond indignantly, refusing to promise not to enter into an engagement and asserting that the prohibited marriage would be a happy one despite any loss of economic or social standing. As a result Darcy a few days later renews his suit, admitting that his aunt’s unsuccessful interference “taught him to hope” (III, xvi). John, who overhears Meg defend him to Aunt March, proposes again immediately.

Austen wrote no sequels to Pride and Prejudice, leaving that task to innumerable modern authors, but Alcott at the end of Part I suggests that she might raise the curtain on a second act of Little Women. And in this second act Aunt March settles more questions. Her preference for the amenable Amy as opposed to the intractable Jo helps persuade Aunt Carrol to take Amy, not Jo, abroad, thus enabling the eventual courtships of Laurie and Professor Bhaer. And of course her willing of Plumfield to Jo enables the Bhaers to found their school, the site of two further sequels.

The final scene in Part I diverges from the group scenes so often depicted by illustrators of Little Women. Instead of the sisters gathered around Marmee or Beth at the piano, the characters appear in pairs: Marmee and Mr. March, Beth and old Mr. Laurence, Meg and John, Jo and Laurie. Only Amy is alone, “drawing the lovers.” Interestingly, Part II ends fifteen years later with the familiar, much loved tableau featuring Marmee and her daughters, each of whom has realized or improved upon her castle in the air.

Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, professor emerita of Hollins University, is the author of Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott (1993), Little Women: A Family Romance (1999), and the editor of The Portable Louisa May Alcott (2000).

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Illustration by Louis Jambor (1947).

XXII. Pleasant Meadows

By Wendy Matlock

Growing up a bookworm and a reprobate, I loved Little Women despite its morality. I wanted to be Jo with her shorn hair, literary ambitions, and adventurous spirit, and I skipped over all allusions to the girls’ Christmas gifts from Marmee, personalized, color-coded copies of “that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived” (ch. 2). My dislike for didacticism may have led me to become a medievalist, because I relish Geoffrey Chaucer’s play with sentence (moral seriousness) and solaas (entertainment) in the Canterbury Tales. The Nun’s Priest, for example, tells a beast fable starring the handsome rooster Chauntecleer. The tale concludes with four different morals: one for the cock, one for the fox antagonist, one for readers, and one for the organizer of the storytelling competition. Imagine my surprise rereading Little Women as an adult and recognizing Alcott’s equally complex handling of sentence and solaas. Indeed, in volume 1, chapters 6-9, Alcott derives four different lessons for four vividly realized characters from a single allegorical narrative, the story of Christian from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Allegorical narratives, it turns out despite my youthful disdain, can be quite sophisticated. Margaret Atwood highlights their complexity when she connects Pilgrim’s Progress to speculative fiction as stories that “can speak of what is past and passing, but especially of what’s to come” (“The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake in Context,” PMLA 119.3, 515). Little Women does more than just allude to Bunyan’s work. Alcott uses it to structure the first volume. Marmee’s night-before-Christmas plan in Chapter 1 invites her daughters to recreate their childish playacting of Pilgrim’s Progress, “not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before father comes home.” That arc culminates in Chapter 22, “Pleasant Meadows.” Jo even reminds us of its perfect symmetry, asking, “Just a year ago we were groaning over the dismal Christmas we expected to have. Do you remember?” The chapter welcomes home Mr. March and recounts his assessment of the girls’ journeys so far: he praises Meg’s industriousness, Jo’s gentleness, Beth’s increasing outgoingness, and Amy’s generosity, the very qualities they strove for during their earnest peregrinations.

We see in “Pleasant Meadows” how thoroughly Alcott incorporates the art of allegory, which, Augustine of Hippo explains, “causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses” (On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr., 43). In other words, allegory requires a deep grounding in the literal to invite readers into symbolic interpretations. Chapter 22 begins in sensory detail—the snowman and Beth’s gifts, the pratfalls that greet Mr. March—and ends with symbolism and song, Beth’s performance of her original piano accompaniment to a hymn from Pilgrim’s Progress:

Fulness to them a burden is,

     That go on Pilgrimage;

Here little, and hereafter bliss,

     Is best from age to age.

“Here” in this song, this moment, this chapter, the reunited family enjoys a little bliss, but too much pleasure becomes a burden. Anne Phillips explicates Beth’s “most serious sin” as “her failure to love God more than she loves her family” (“The Prophets and the Martyrs: Pilgrims and Missionaries in Little Women and Jack and Jill,” Little Women and the Feminist Imagination, edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark, 224). Her music at the end of “Pleasant Meadows” acknowledges Beth’s struggle and embeds us in it. We appreciate the solaas of the domestic story but risk ignoring the sentence it contains. “Pleasant Meadows” enfolds us in the family’s warm embrace even as it acknowledges the moment’s transience (whether caused by an excess of love for the world or not). The final chapter in the volume, “Aunt March Settles the Question,” sets in motion the household’s dissolution. This penultimate chapter pauses that inevitability, gazing instead into a speculative future, “hereafter bliss.”

Associate Professor of English at Kansas State University, Wendy Matlock teaches medieval literature and specializes in using old pop culture to sell even older pop culture.

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Illustration by LalaAdanwenB, who writes, “Beth is my favourite March sister and one of my most important heroines, I identify so much with her… I tried drawing her lost in her own world here” (https://www.deviantart.com/lalaadanwenb/art/Beth-March-playing-the-piano-716233979).

Chapter XXI. Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace

By Jan Alberghene

I was nine when I first read Little Women, but I still remember pausing over Hannah’s calling Laurie the “‘interferingest chap,’” not because I disagreed with her opinion, but because it took me a few minutes to decode the unfamiliar word “interferingest.” I had to agree with Hannah. Laurie popped up in places where he had no business being: at a meeting of the Pickwick Club (where Jo was, to be fair, a co-conspirator), and later when the sisters climbed a nearby hill on a pleasant afternoon to “play pilgrims” in private as they sewed and talked. “Yes,” I thought, “Laurie was the ‘interferingest,’” and I hadn’t even reached the chapter titled “Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace.”

After I finished reading chapter 21, the Laurie I liked no longer existed. Although Laurie is barely sixteen, he feels superior to his tutor Mr. Brooke, a good and conscientious man eleven years his senior. Laurie actually feels entitled to the role of confidant regarding Brooke’s feelings toward Meg March. Peeved that Brooke firmly shuts him out, Laurie seizes the opportunity to take revenge when his tutor is out of town. Posing as Mr. Brooke, Laurie sends and rescinds love letters to Meg March.

Six decades and many re-readings later, I still enjoy reading Little Women. What has changed is the depth of my admiration for the novel, which has steadily increased, despite—or perhaps largely due—to my ever-diminishing regard for Theodore, a.k.a. “Laurie” and “Teddy,” Laurence. He doesn’t age well in terms of his becoming more mature during the year that passes in Part I of Little Women. Neither has he aged well outside the novel, in the 150 years since its initial publication.

I write this conscious of the critical misinterpretations that can result from reading a novel in isolation from the milieu in which it was written. I’m even more conscious of the mistakes that can arise from interpreting a chapter in isolation from the rest of the novel’s text. Interpreting Laurie’s “mischief” in chapter 21 as egregiously callous is only reinforced, however, by close reading of the chapters that precede his “mischief.” And it isn’t ahistorical to assume that a contemporary seventeen-year-old young woman would feel pain and mortification akin to what Meg experiences.

Laurie’s comportment in chapter 21 is particularly striking because intrusive behavior aside, he’s a good friend to all the March women and downright heroic when he saves Amy from drowning (ch. 8). Laurie’s a complex character, no mere foil, a constant presence reminding readers just who holds power in 19th century America: men, all men, especially rich men.

The space devoted to Meg, Marmee, and Jo in chapter 21 can obscure the fact that Laurie’s “mischief” is directed toward his tutor, a poor man who has to earn his living by teaching a rich entitled brat who charms gentlewomen but throws tantrums at other men, his tutor and his grandfather. Laurie isn’t trying to hurt Meg, but he does something far worse: ignore her very existence in his plot to show Mr. Brooke who is boss. Meg is just collateral damage in a skirmish fought by a boy against a man who is not even aware this particular war is on.

The three women participate in the cover-up of Laurie’s emotional violence. Jo quickly realizes that Laurie, not his tutor, wrote the notes attributed to Brooke and has violated Meg’s privacy by reading and keeping his replies. Jo and Marmee quickly turn their attention to damage control.

Marmee spends a half hour with Laurie that ensures the incident is contained; Meg must not suffer further embarrassment by Laurie’s telling anyone what he did. Jo smooths over Mr. Laurence’s anger at Laurie’s consequent refusal to confess. Most tellingly, Jo also calms Laurie’s outrage at being shaken by his grandfather. The very mild physical reprimand isn’t what angers Laurie. His fury stems from a man’s (regardless of who and how old the man) shaking him. No matter how much time Laurie spends with Jo, her sisters, or Marmee, Laurie lives in a man’s world. And so do the women, whether grown or “Little.”

Jan Alberghene is Professor Emerita of English Studies at Fitchburg State University and the co-editor, with Beverly Lyon Clark, of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999).

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Christian Bale as Laurie, Little Women (1994).

XX. Confidential

By Jeanne Birdsall

Louisa settled at her desk, preparing to slog through another chapter of Little Women, this book she was writing only for the money. It was meant to be read by girls, which meant she needed to stay away from high drama and thunder, her usual ways to advance a story. She rubbed her temples—a headache threatened—unwittingly mussing her hair. Who was she to write for girls? A woman who’d never been a conventional girl, who barely knew what such girls talked about and wished for.

Stop fussing, she told herself, and get to work. Where was she in the story? The mother of the March family, Marmee, had just rushed home from Washington, where she’d been nursing the girls’ father, to find that Beth had miraculously escaped death from scarlet fever. The chapter needed to begin with quiet joy and gratitude. Louisa picked up her pen and wrote: Chapter 20, Confidential. I don’t think I have any words in which to tell the meeting of the mother and daughters . . . Oh, blast! What a pitiable beginning. She didn’t think she had the words? She’d better find them. She’d put too much labor into this book to abandon it now.

It took a while, but the words did come, as they always did for disciplined, hard-working Louisa. As she went, she found bits she could be proud of. Meg and Jo feeding Marmee like dutiful young storks. Amy, in exile at Aunt Josephine’s to keep her safe from scarlet fever, generously letting Laurie sleep off his exhaustion. But it was later in the chapter, when Jo talks to Marmee about John Brooke’s wooing of Meg, and what need be done about it, that Louisa’s words flew across the pages. Jo was always easiest for her to write, with all that stomping around and telling of blunt truths–as when she tells Marmee, “I don’t know anything about love, and such nonsense!” and “I wish wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up.” Who wouldn’t like writing about Jo?

Soon Meg is innocently proving to Marmee that she’s not in love with John (but soon will be), and Louisa could bring Chapter 20 to a close. She stood up to stretch, unfolding herself like an animated puzzle. After her initial reluctance, she was pleased with the day’s work. Despite Jo and flat-irons, she’d been able to subtly pivot the March sisters away from girlhood and toward incipient womanhood. Who knew what the readers—the girls—would think about that? Louisa didn’t care. It was her story.

She sat down again, picked up her pen, and wrote: Chapter 21.

Jeanne Birdsall shares Louisa May Alcott’s birthplace – Germantown, Pennsylvania – and used this as an excuse to borrow lavishly from Little Women for her own New York Times- bestselling Penderwick series. The National Book Award Jeanne won for the first of the Penderwick books is held jointly with Alcott, whether she knows it or not.

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Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Little Women (1933), directed by George Cukor.

Chapter XIV. Secrets

By Jacinta Mioni

It was just another sweltering June afternoon in Kansas, the summer between my fifth and sixth grades, when I happened upon a shelf in my local public library dedicated to the works of Louisa May Alcott. The rest of that summer vacation was spent in the air conditioning, immersed in the lives of Alcott’s characters. Thirteen years later, you can imagine how my breathe quite literally caught in my throat when I saw the course listing for English 720 at K-State, a class dedicated solely to the creator of my childhood heroes and heroines, of whom I was particularly fond of the March sisters. Of course, I enrolled in the class immediately and I want to give you a little peek into our classroom and its many lively discussions.

A theme that has resurfaced several times in our consideration of Little Women, and one that fascinates me, is the change that necessarily accompanies growing up, and the various ways that Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy react to it. I don’t  know about you, but for teenager me, the thought of growing up was a dismal one. When my older sister got married, I cried for days because I realized that my seven siblings and I were not going to stay together forever. I wanted to stay in high school for the rest of my life because if I did, my best friend and I would get to share every moment with each other forever.

I think that is why I connect so much with Jo in the “Secrets” chapter of Little Women, as she experiences similar “growing pains.” In this chapter, Laurie discloses to Jo that John Brooke stole Meg’s glove and has been carrying it around in his pocket, cherishing it with romantic hope. Far from being delighted by news of her sister’s potential suitor, Jo is horrified by the revelation. Realizing that her sister and best friend will eventually get married and move on without her, Jo declares—in typical Jo fashion—that she wants to stay young for as long as she can and advises Meg to wish for the same.

Blinded by the painful thought of losing her sister, Jo overlooks the fact that her own life is beginning to change right alongside Meg’s. At the beginning of the chapter, she submits some of her stories for publication at the local newspaper. Although it takes her several attempts before she summons the courage to enter the publishing house, this moment marks Jo’s blossoming independence and maturity.

At the end of the chapter, Jo no longer cries tears of sadness over growing up, but tears of joy over her story that is chosen for publication. She is thrilled by the possibilities that adulthood holds for her as a writer and as an independent woman. Over the course of this chapter, Jo learns something that most children realize as they make the transition into adulthood: that growing up is not so bad after all.

Jacinta Mioni is a senior pursuing her B.A. in English literature and French at Kansas State University. After graduation, she plans to travel a great deal and then pursue further studies in children’s literature.

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Illustration by Boopliette, http://boopliette.tumblr.com/archive, December 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XII. Camp Laurence

By A. Waller Hastings

Like many of the chapters of Little Women, chapter 12 – “Camp Laurence” – could be a self-contained short story, moving along a trajectory from the arrival of invitations to the picnic to a satisfactory day’s end, when Mr. Brooke responds to the British Kate’s observation that “American girls are very nice when one knows them” with the comment “I quite agree with you.” What more is needed?

The first half of the book, covering a year in the March family’s lives while Father is away at the war, is constructed as a series of such episodes. If chapter 12 could function independently, though, it also fits into the overall arc of the novel, in two ways. First, it offers additional evidence about the characters and romantic attachments of several characters. And second, it is a rare chapter that makes explicit, if satirical, reference to the war itself.

I first noted this chapter a few years ago when exploring the degree to which the Civil War plays an explicit role in Volume One of Little Women. Although Laurie’s “jolly time” games and picnic are not all that different from what might occur just as well in peacetime, he presents it as a kind of military exercise. The picnic site is designated “Camp Laurence” and every participant is assigned a military-termed role. During the croquet game, the American contingent “contested every inch of the ground as strongly as if the spirit of ’76 inspired them,” and disputes about the game are called “skirmishes.” In the mock-military company, Brooke is named as commander-in-chief; and he is the one member of the party who will actually go on to serve in the army.

When Meg turns to Brooke to ask about Laurie’s future (and by extension, his own), he says “as soon as he is off I shall turn soldier,” an aspiration of which she strongly approves: “I should think every young man would want to go, though it is hard for the mothers and sisters, who stay at home.” His bitter reflection that he lacks anyone to miss him then gives her an opportunity to state obliquely that she – and the other Marches, of course – “should all be very sorry to have any harm happen to you.” Thus more hints are dropped of the growing attachment of the couple, and add weight to Brooke’s closing remark.

Generations of readers have lamented that Jo does not end up marrying Laurie, but despite the close friendship the two share, there is little here to suggest that Jo, at least, has any romantic notions about her neighbor. She appears oblivious to any such possibilities, most notably in her segment of the “Rigmarole” storytelling that follows the group’s lunch.

Brooke starts off seriously, establishing a poor knight (himself) searching for a “certain beautiful face” (Meg’s) to be found in a group of captive princesses (the other March girls). As each member of the party takes up the story, it veers wildly according to the teller’s personality. Meg introduces a Gothic element: a ghost. Jo parodies the romantic tale, having a ghost threaten the knight with a snuffbox that makes him sneeze so hard his head falls off; Amy converts the narrative into a fairy tale, and Laurie tops things off by replacing the knight’s head with a cabbage. So the serious romance between Brooke and Meg is offset by the more juvenile, not to say silly, attitude toward such romance by the younger Marches and Laurie.

Professor of English at West Liberty University, where he teaches young adult literature, Wally Hastings wouldn’t be caught dead reading Little Women in his childhood. As an adult reader, he forced himself and became hooked.