By Suzanne Rahn
They need to get away from home and “find themselves.” Today they’d be in college—bright young women in their late teens and early twenties, majors in Art and Creative Writing, measuring their talents and discovering (by trial and error) their core values.
The difference between Amy’s “college” year in Europe and Jo’s in New York City is obvious. Even the chapter titles are comically contrasted—the dignified, impressive “Our Foreign Correspondent” versus the home-grown, unassuming “Jo’s Journal.” Amy has beauty and luxury for her share, and Jo only penny-pinching drudgery and low social status in uninspiring surroundings. Yet there are parallels. Both girls, yearning to escape poverty, will realize that money should not be their primary objective. And while Amy re-discovers Laurie, Jo discovers—Professor Bhaer.
The delay between the first volume of Little Women and the second allowed ample time for reader input, and Alcott knew that “everyone” wanted Jo to marry Laurie. Vowing, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody!” she created a mate for Jo who would be virtually Laurie’s opposite—neither young, handsome, nor rich, but middle-aged, homely, and poor, with a bushy beard and a funny German accent. “Jo’s Journal” takes on a daunting challenge—to introduce an entirely new character, late in the story, who will nonetheless be of crucial importance, and to lay bare his un-Laurieish characteristics while still making him attractive.
Her strategy is to present Professor Bhaer as a mystery for Jo to solve, a man who piques her curiosity from the first. Newly arrived at Mrs. Kirke’s boarding-house, Jo sees “a gentleman” carry a heavy load of coal up three flights of stairs for “a little servant girl.” She is impressed by this unusual act of kindness—in the nineteenth century, virtually no one (including, clearly, Mrs. Kirke) found this backbreaking daily chore too much to ask of little servant girls.
“That must have been Professor Bhaer; he’s always doing things of that sort,” Mrs. Kirke tells her later. So Jo learns what the Professor is even before she knows who he is, and he has already aroused her respect—and curiosity.
By a fortunate happenstance, there is only a curtained glass door between the nursery where Jo sews and teaches Mrs. Kirke’s daughters and the parlor where the Professor gives German lessons. She tells her correspondents (Marmee and Beth), “I mean to peep at him, and then I’ll tell you how he looks.” Admitting it was “dreadfully improper. . . but I couldn’t resist the temptation,” she notes (and passes on) every detail of his face and clothes, witnesses a visit from little Tina (wondering if she is his child), listens while he gives a lesson to two dense young ladies, and takes another sympathetic peep “to see if he survived it.” Later, at the communal dinner table, she is not at all put off by the ways he “shovels in” his food, reasoning that “the poor man must have needed a deal of food after teaching idiots all day.” She is already on his side.
Thus Alcott enables us, too, to spy on the Professor and learn intimate and endearing details of his appearance and behavior, a not-quite-forbidden pleasure that continues even after he and Jo have been introduced. Jo (“by accident,” she insists) knocks open his bedroom door and sees him in his dressing gown, darning his own sock. Next day, with Mrs. Kirke, she takes a thorough look around Bhaer’s “den” while he is out, and decides to secretly darn his socks herself. It is not long after this that the Professor—no fool—notices the darned socks, catches Jo in the act of trying to pick up some German on her own, and insists on teaching her in payment. If Jo’s spying has made her (and us) feel slightly guilty, his kindly “you peep at me, I peep at you, and that is not bad” lets us all off the hook.
The seal on their growing friendship comes at Christmas, when the Professor—aware by now of Jo’s ambitions—gives her his treasured one-volume Shakespeare. The gift makes her feel “rich.”
Jo will continue pondering the Professor. But in the fifteen pages of this “total immersion” introduction, she (and we) have already gotten to know and like him quite well.
Whether Alcott succeeds in winning the reader’s assent to Jo’s marrying him is another question. The Laurie-versus-Bhaer controversy rages to this day. But the depth of Jo’s love for her Professor by the story’s end seems to me entirely convincing.
Suzanne Rahn is the author of Rediscoveries in Children’s Literature and co-editor of “St. Nicholas” and Mary Mapes Dodge. She founded the Children’s Literature Program at Pacific Lutheran University.