At the Back Fence Issue #234

August 14, 2006

Earlier this summer a favorite Friends episode re-ran for the umpteenth time on TBS – The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends. Though that’s the main plotline, two hilarious secondary plot lines ensue, one involving Phoebe and new boyfriend Robert, who keeps coming out…of his shorts, that is (after much dithering among the friends, it is Gunther who finally tells Robert to “put the mouse back in the house”). The other secondary storyline develops around Rachel and Joey, as each decides to read the other’s favorite book. The storyline reaches its apex after Joey mistakenly reveals the ending of The Shining, a book so scary to Joey that he is sometimes forced to put it in the freezer, to Rachel, at which point she purposely tells him “Beth dies.” Joey is so distraught that Rachel suggests he put Little Women in the freezer. His horrified response to Beth’s demise is utterly brilliant and ranks right up there for me in my list of top TV moments.

After watching this particular episode, I thought to myself who wonderful it would be to devote an entire ATBF column, as we’d done before with Gone With the Wind and Jane Eyre, to Little Women. After all, it’s a book just about all of us have read, and presumably,

 one that just all of us love. If I remember correctly, Little Women was the first classic 19th century novel that I’d ever read, and I was fascinated by it from start to finish. From Pilgrims Progress (a book this Jew had never heard of until reading Alcott’s novel) to Meg’s burned gown, to Laurie’s grandfather, to Beth and the piano, to Amy’s role as companion to Aunt March, to Beth’s death, I ate it all up – and more than once.

When books or movies don’t always turn out as I like, I rewrite certain scenes in my mind. Because I never really understood Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer, I was devastated when Jo turned Laurie’s proposal down, and always felt that if Amy hadn’t married him, they would eventually have married. As for Jo herself, Katharine Hepburn was the perfect actress to portray her as she so easily embodied the spinster aunt Jo became in my mind by the end of the book.

Two other characters who struck me particularly were Aunt March, the nasty old lady who takes Amy to Europe after promising it to Jo all her life, and Marmie. Aunt March is such a classic character that I wonder how often she inspired other prejudiced old ladies in historical romance…and how much of a cautionary tale she was meant to be for Amy if the latter didn’t put away her spoiled and petulant ways. And then there’s Marmie, the perfect Northern bookend in my mind for Ellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Marmie’s gentle wise counsel, though, worked better on her daughters than it ever did on Scarlett.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I asked Robin, our resident classic and literary fiction expert, to write about Little Women. Did she prepare the column of my dreams? Read on!

–Laurie Likes Books

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher: Thoughts on Little Women

A few months ago Laurie asked who would like to do an ATBF on Little Women. Remembering the book with fond thoughts, I put my hand up because I wanted to visit again with a favorite character, Jo March.

Little Women is the story of the four March girls, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy but most of all it is the story of Jo, the tomboy who plans to be a writer. The story opens just before Christmas during the Civil War. Mr. March, the girls’ father is away serving as a chaplain with the Union troops. The girls call themselves poor, but this family is not truly impoverished. They are a middle class family living in reduced circumstances. Marmie, the girls’ mother, has eliminated dancing lessons, pretty dresses, special art lessons and drawing materials. As the book opens Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are struggling with Marmie’s suggestion that they give up Christmas presents, both as a gesture in the war effort and a way to conserve funds.

The March sisters love different things and envision different futures for themselves. Meg is the beautiful one who wants to marry and be the perfect wife. Jo, the tomboy, plans to be a writer. She dreams of exciting adventures and entertains her sisters with stories. Jo makes a mess of her clothes, speaks when she should be silent, runs when she should walk. She resists acting like a lady most of the time and when she tries she’s likely to fall on her face. Beth thinks only of others and dies early, of a wasting illness.

Amy, the youngest, is a prospective artist – and thinks of herself most of the time. Her beauty makes it easy to deceive others as to her motives.

The story takes the March girls from the teen years to young adulthood. During that time Jo meets Laurie, the wealthy boy next door, who becomes Jo’s good friend and later proposes marriage. Jo rejects Laurie which disappoints many readers. In the end she marries an older, German man, Professor Bhaer whose romantic appeal is controversial. Meg marries and, after some memorable struggles ruining jelly, does just fine. Amy steals Jo’s chance go to Europe – something Jo dreamed of all her life – and marries Laurie.

Little Women bored me the first time I tried it. I loved Jo but the book seemed preachy. Every selfish act, such as making lemonade instead of doing housework, ends in disaster (a pet bird dies). These girls never get a break from having to be good. Marmie’s draconian (to me) suggestion that the March girls do without Christmas presents offended my childish sense of justice and I was annoyed by the girls’ constant refrain that they themselves were too selfish. I was an avid reader of Laurie Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, where a pioneer family, with far fewer possessions, cheerfully dives into a Christmas, grateful for any small good fortune that comes their way. When on Christmas Marmie gives each of the girls a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, I was appalled. Does any teenager want a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress? Couldn’t they have shared one copy and gotten Pride and Prejudice along with it?

At thirteen I picked Little Women up again, mainly because of Katherine Hepburn’s role in the movie. Hepburn, played Jo as a strong, beautiful girl so full of energy she fairly shouts her lines and she was not the least bit afraid of appearing masculine to her audience. I adored Katherine Hepburn. I identified with her in almost all of her roles. Watching Jo strain at the limits of traditional womanhood, I felt for her. When she said she wanted to be a boy I admired her. I sometimes told people I wanted to be a boy too. It amused me when some elders looked alarmed. But the truth is I didn’t want to be a boy. I knew that inside and out, I was a girl. Deep down it confused me that Jo said she wanted to be a boy rather than rant against the plight of girls—though I was not sure how to express that thought.

One of Laurie’s ideas for this column was to have romance writers send us some comments and talk a bit about how Little Women had affected them. When I went to the RWA national conference a few weeks ago, I broached the subject with a number of authors, thinking they might be interested. What I found was this. Although every romance author I approached had read Little Women, few if any had been passionately affected by the book. They liked Jo March, no question. But they had not been passionately affected in the way they were by books like Gone With the Wind, Jane Eyre or the books of Mary Stewart, Daphne DuMaurier or Georgette Heyer.

Trying to be a dutiful columnist…and also without analyzing what I was hearing, I kept asking. And yet the responses I got were very like the one given to me by Mary Jo Putney, who said she had read the book, but it had not been a cornerstone for her.

Coming home I sent some emails to writers asking for comments. There was not a lot of excitement, though Nora Roberts was nice enough to send me this comment:

Little Women? Oh gosh, I read it a lifetime ago. I certainly remember enjoying it, and being–as I suspect most young girls were and are–most struck my Jo. Her verve, her courage, her temper. She resonated.

But I’m pretty sure, at this time of my life, I was even more taken by Nancy Drew. Not only did she get so investigate all those crimes, she drove a really cool car. So to my ten-year-old mind, she was the ultimate.

This letter from a kind author trying to help me out but not saying what I wanted her to say should have tipped me off to the truth. But, like a lot of people married to one idea – ie. Little-Women-must-be-important-because-Jo-was-a-writer – I failed to get the point.

The truth which had been staring me in the face for days, as I wrestled with this column was this: Little Women lacks even the slightest hint of sexual passion.

What is the matter with Jo? Why does she not fall in love with Laurie? Why does she pick a husband who does not seem to ignite the passion we hear about throughout the book?

I have read Little Women about four times, once in childhood, once in adolescence, once in my thirties and just recently for this column. Each time I read it I see it a little differently. But, because I am a romance lover, Jo’s almost romance with her neighbor Laurie is the thing that strikes me hardest. Laurie wants his friendship with Jo to end in marriage. He loves her and he can’t believe she doesn’t love him back. It is said that many readers are bitterly disappointed when Jo refuses Laurie, but I cannot help but wonder if they are more disappointed in her lack of sexual attraction to him. Here is the Jo’s rejection of Laurie:

“They were in the grove now, close by the stile, and when the last words fell reluctantly from Jo’s lips, Laurie dropped her hands and turned as if to go on, but for once in his life the fence was too much for him. So he just laid his head down on the mossy post, and stood so still that Jo was frightened.

“Oh, Teddy, I’m sorry, so desperately sorry, I could kill myself if it would do any good! I wish you wouldn’t take it so hard, I can’t help it. You know it’s impossible for people to make themselves love other people if they don’t,” cried Jo inelegantly but remorsefully, as she softly patted his shoulder, remembering the time when he had comforted her so long ago.

“They do sometimes,” said a muffled voice from the post.

“I don’t believe it’s the right sort of love, and I’d rather not try it,” was the decided answer.”

Ah yes, that sort of love. I completely understand Jo’s feelings. Hard as it is to imperil her friendship and reject Laurie, Jo is courageous and right when she says this. And this rejection, and the rightness of it, is I believe the reason that Little Women is not the favorite of romance readers and writers that Gone With the Wind, or Jane Eyre are. The problem is not Jo’s rejection of Laurie, it is the fact that Jo, if we take it at her word, is not attracted to him. Romance lovers can handle unrequited love and a sad ending, though they might not like it. But a book where the hero just doesn’t turn the heroine on? Ah no.

Girls and women look for romance in the books they read. I have heard women say that they are disappointed with Jo’s rejection of Laurie. But, if Jo had accepted Laurie, would Little Women be a romance?

I don’t think so.

In her book Louisa May, Martha Saxton makes an excellent case for the idea that Louisa May Alcott would not allow Jo to marry because she herself was not allowed to be happy. Alcott was under extreme pressure at the time of her writing, to produce money for the Alcott family. Branson Alcott, LMA’s father, refused to work, saying that he saw work as unethical. He did not, apparently, think it was unethical to marry and produce children while refusing to support them. Nor did he seem to feel qualms about taking his daughter’s money to support the family. Little Women was published in parts. As they followed the story many readers clamored for Jo to marry Laurie. Saxon says that there is evidence indicating that Branson Alcott himself wished for Jo to accept Laurie. She sees LMA’s decision to have Jo reject Laurie as a kind of subtle punishment of her father.

Before I began re-reading Little Women this time I was a strong supporter of Saxon’s theory. You cannot read Louisa May and not be affected by the constant threat of poverty and hunger that plagued the Alcott family. LMA was certainly within her rights to resent her father.

AAR’s Ellen Micheletti knows a lot about both Little Women and the Alcott story. She agreed that Branson Alcott and constant money pressure influenced LMA. She wrote that, she thought seeing how her father would not work and how precarious it made their lives:

“Led to Louisa stressing the importance of work in this book. Jo is always urging Laurie to do something, especially when he goes through a period of slacking off in college. The Alcotts were never destitute but they were often uncomfortably close to it. They borrowed from family and friends a lot and eventually Louisa’s stories supported the family. I wonder if Louisa was a bit conflicted about them. Her A.M. Barnard sensation stories were popular and God knows the family needed the money, but in Little Women Jo is gently chided by Professor Bhaer for writing sensation stories, and eventually changes her style.”

But in re-reading Little Women this last time, I was honest enough with myself to wonder about something else, which may appall some of you…

Jo’s sexual orientation. For a woman as passionate as she is, isn’t it odd that Jo does not fall passionately in love, with someone? But Jo, the girl who was so adventurous in youth, is the most afraid of real growing up. She is frightened by her sisters marrying. When she was young she said she wanted to be a boy. Is there a connection? Perhaps not. In times when there is a lot of repression of women, lots of girls say they want to be boys. But, even though I said the same thing when I was a girl, I never meant it. Reading Little Women this time I could not help but wonder if Jo really did want to be a boy, not because she desired women sexually, but because she knew that she was different from her sisters and mother in some fundamental way.

When Jo does make her choice, she marries Professor Bhaer. This relationship carries on to the sequel of Little Women, Little Men, you do not get a sense of passion on her part. Professor Bhaer is older. He is more sophisticated than she is, and this is something Jo has always wanted. Now Professor Bhaer is certainly not so old that he has lost his passion. He’s probably the same age as Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. But Alcott seems to be presenting him that way—as though Jo would be happier with a man too old to love her passionately. Professor Bhaer makes Jo happy, no question. But as I read the book I got the feeling Jo was more comfortable with him than with Laurie because she knew Laurie’s feelings for her and was uncomfortable being the object of them. I never felt the same depth of feeling coming from Professor Bhaer and it seemed to me that, for Jo, this was a good thing.

Is Jo gay? It’s the kind of question I would have been afraid to ask years ago, mainly because of the implications it would have carried – ie. that a woman who wanted her own life and career was homosexual. But now, in a time when we can be (hopefully) less bigoted about the question, I think it is worth asking. Does Jo settle for Professor Bhaer because she knows, deep down, that there is really no hope for her to have a passionate love affair or marriage? And is this not the saddest thing you can imagine? That a passionate, beautiful and brilliant woman would have come to the conclusion that love, passionate love, was beyond her grasp?

Regardless of Jo’s sexual orientation, Jo’s rejection of Laurie seems pre-determined. In fact, it is surprising that so many people seemed to want Jo to accept Laurie when her attraction to him was platonic. Is it possible that Branson Alcott, and many others, wanted Jo to accept Laurie because of the lack of passion between them? Is it possible that, especially in that day when Americans were so in denial about sex and its importance, that they wanted to read stories about people who married who felt only friendly toward each other.

Over the course of the past month, I asked a number of people about his issue. AAR’s Teresa considered the issue of Jo’s rejection of Laurie, writing that the first time she read the book, she was “really shocked” that the two didn’t marry, and “continued to feel that way even after re-reads.” She added, “I didn’t appreciate the professor until the second or third re-read, and also after reading Little Men (which I remember liking a lot but I never read it again. FWIW, my husband loves Little Men but couldn’t abide Little Women. Go figure.)”

I suspect that many people who know Little Women, and the story of Louisa May Alcott well, will be shocked at my suggestion that Jo is gay. Ellen Micheletti was disappointed that Laurie and Jo did not marry and thought Alcott’s reason why they didn’t – that they were too much alike – was silly. She asked, “Wouldn’t you want to marry a man who thought and felt like you and who had been your best friend for so long? The man who had been with your family in good times and in bad and who understands you?” In the end Ellen believed that Alcott did such a good job of building Jo and Laurie as soul mates that when she refused his proposal, “I got mad at her. I warmed up to Professor Bhaer finally, and really came to like him in Little Men, but I still think Laurie and Jo belonged together.”

AAR’s Blythe Barnhill also saw a love story in Little Women that I cannot see. “I am definitely in the Jo should have married Laurie camp. It made absolutely no sense to me that she didn’t. They always seemed to love each other, and they were best friends to boot. Every time I read it again, or watch it again, and she turns him down (again) I get annoyed. Even though I know it’s going to happen, and even though I love the story.”

Being too much alike is the reason Jo gives later for her rejection of Laurie. But I accept Jo’s explanation of her feelings, the one she gives to Laurie directly. She would not want try to force “that kind of love,” the kind that Laurie feels for her. When we find a man completely without sexual attractiveness—and yet we are good friends with him—is that not what we feel (that the man is too much of a friend or perhaps that he is too much like us)? For me it rang true, though obviously not for Ellen.

AAR’s Cheryl Sneed learned to like the professor after all, but will never completely forgive Jo for rejecting Laurie. She loved Laurie and could not understand why Jo did not. She remembered being heartbroken with Laurie plea, “Really, truly, Jo?”

Cheryl was more convinced than I was by Jo’s love of the professor; she thinks Alcott well portrayed Jo’s confusion and love when the Professor visited her back at home. She particularly likes the “Under the Umbrella chapter where he proposed”, finding it “wonderfully sweet and mushy”. But like many of my AAR colleagues, Cheryl will “always be a Laurie Girl – they were just so much fun together. And I particularly disliked that he wound up with Amy. Never liked Amy, never got over her burning Jo’s book of fairy tales she had written.”

AAR’s Jane Jorgenson and Lee Brewer, though, have feet firmly in the Professor’s camp. Lee made the point that Laurie and Jo might not have been an even match intellectually: ” I don’t think Jo should have married Laurie because I don’t think he was emotionally mature as she was. And Jo was a lot smarter than he was – which is not necessarily bad, but I think he couldn’t have kept up with her on an intellectual level.”

Jessica Langlois, one of AAR’s newer reviewers, initially thought Jo should accept Laurie but has come to feel differently, “I absolutely agree with Jo’s decision now. I think she was right that they wouldn’t have gotten along as husband and wife, and a lot of it is because they knew each other too well”

As I finish this column, one of the toughest I have written, I find I am still struggling with Jo’s decision. If Little Women has more romance in it than I can see – why can’t I see it?

I will be curious to see what all of you have to say. When you post on the At the Back Fence Board, think about these questions:

  • When you think of Little Women, do you think of the romance?
  • Which character caught your fancy? Which one did you identify with?
  • Should Jo have married Laurie? Do you buy her explanation for rejecting him? And if you did not, did you have an explanation?
  • Did you feel an attraction between Jo and the Professor? What do you think about that relationship?
  • Is it odd that a woman as passionate as Jo did not show more passion? What do you think of the possibility she might have been gay?

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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