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).
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.