Fandom: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Spoilers: All four books in the series
Notes: About not just the pairing but their original shipping fandom in the 19th century.
Not many recs at the end; might add more later.
Some Things Never Change
(Jo/Laurie: Little Women)Thanks to the modern luxury of the Internet, shipping is an inevitable part of every fandom. Books, movies, television shows, online reviewers, you name it – if there are fans, there will be shippers. Romance, of course, was a staple of literature long before the time of the Internet, and our own manifestos for such classic couples as Gilgamesh/Enkidu, Eponine/Marius, and Holmes/Watson show how much fandoms love to rediscover classic ships and rally online centuries later to share all the reasons why characters should have been together.
Yet, at least one classic literary couple developed a large, widespread, rabid shipping fanbase as we know it today over a hundred years before fanfiction.net and forums and wikis, before fan conventions, before the term “shipping” ever existed. Fans insisted en masse that they had to hook up even when they had no way to express themselves except writing letters to the writer and publisher. They were shipped together even though they were never NEVER NEVER intended to be a couple in the first place. Their fanbase constantly annoyed and angered the writer with their ignorance of all the “important” stuff in the story and concern solely for seeing their couple get married. They were even insane and vocal enough to cause a writer to deliberately reference and spite them within the work.
This manifesto tells the story of the first two characters that I can find to be shipped as a couple by the fans, but not canonically, while their franchise was still current, with the same ardent fervor found among online shippers today:
Jo March and Laurie the-boy-next-door from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
I. The Story
Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott began her writing career shortly after serving as a nurse during the Civil War – a time when many publishers told her to “stick to your teaching,” due to the flaw of being a woman. She slaved over her first novel Moods for four years before it was published in 1864, leaving a less than very memorable impression on the literary scene. In 1867, publisher Thomas Niles made what sounded like a ludicrous suggestion to the budding authoress: “I think, Miss Alcott, you should write a book for girls.” But perhaps the history of how Little Women came to be is best told in Alcott’s own words within Chapter 3 of Jo’s Boys:
“It began during a bad year when everything went wrong… Confined to her room, Jo got desperate over the state of affairs, till she fell back upon the long-disused pen as the only thing she could do to help fill up the gaps in the income. A book for girls being wanted by a certain publisher, she hastily scribbled a little story describing a few scenes and adventures in the lives of herself and sisters—though boys were more in her line—and with very slight hopes of success sent it out to seek its fortune.
“Things always went by contraries with Jo. Her first book, laboured over for years, and launched full of the high hopes and ambitious dreams of youth, foundered on its voyage, though the wreck continued to float long afterward, to the profit of the publisher at least. The hastily written story, sent away with no thought beyond the few dollars it might bring, sailed with a fair wind and a wise pilot at the helm into public favour, and came home heavily laden with an unexpected cargo of gold and glory.”
Little Women – an episodic collection of the day-to-day happenings in the lives of the four teenaged March sisters trying to survive in a patriarchal world with their father away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War – became an instant hit upon publication in October 1868, making Alcott famous overnight. It became so popular that her fans and Thomas Niles demanded (in less than a month!) she write a sequel, which she reluctantly started in November that year. Little Women Part Second (both parts are usually published as one book today) hit the shelves in May 1869. Alcott returned to the March family for monetary support (for her recently widowed older sister) again in June 1871 with another sequel Little Men. Alcott struggled over the final sequel Jo’s Boys for ten years as her health drastically declined. It was finally published in 1886, two years before her death.
II. The Characters
o Meg (short for Margaret) March, 16 (at the first book’s opening): Meg, being the first born of the March sisters, is the motherly one. She works as a governess for a rich family, sews and cooks, enjoys parties and fancy dresses, and tries to set a good example for her sisters, often lecturing in a firm but kind way. Her story arc in the first book deals with her anxiety about being poor while surrounded by rich friends and dreams of marrying rich so that she may dwell in the lap of luxury all her days… dreams which are cast aside when she falls in love with a poor tutor, John Brooke. Her story arc in Part Second deals with getting married and striving to be a good wife and mother. I identified with her motherly nature, especially towards her younger sisters, being a first born myself.
o Jo (short for Josephine), 15
“It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!”
Jo is the tomboy, as well as the unofficial central protagonist, the character based on Alcott herself, and the one her readers loved the most, despite Alcott constantly dwelling on her unflattering physical appearance, sharp tongue, quick temper, rudeness, clumsiness, utter disregard for social etiquette, etc. Jo gave me an eerie feeling the first time I read Little Women in high school because she made me think Alcott must have been psychic; Jo is me, right down to the long, thick mane of hair as her one beauty and love of books and writing! Her story arc is, of course, about her attempts to control her temper and become a writer in order to support her family. In the meantime, she suffers through serving as a companion to her elderly great-Aunt March.
o Beth (short for Elizabeth), 13: Beth is the quiet one. While her sisters spend their days at work or school, her intense shyness made school impossible, so she studies at home and helps their one servant, Hannah, with the housework, despite how much she loathes it. Beth’s hobbies are dolls, kittens, and playing the piano. This was my favorite character when I first read the book, although many accuse her of being too angelic and perfect. You can hardly blame Alcott for such a portrayal, though; Beth was based on her own sister Elizabeth, whom she was incredibly close to and died of scarlet fever when they were young. The scene of Beth’s death in Part Second still makes me sob my eyes out whenever I read it.
o Amy, 12: Ah, “the little Snow Maiden”… artistic, womanly, proper, kind, polite, “magnanimous” Amy… I have to be honest with you – I hate this character. I really do. I am biased, I will admit it. See, I told you earlier that I pretty much am Jo. Well, my own little sister is Amy – blonde, beautiful, popular, “graceful,” glamorous, pleases without effort, a great artist, and “a very important person—in her own opinion at least.” Amy and Jo clash just as much as my sister and I do. Oddly enough, Alcott always takes Amy’s side. In Part Second, she constantly dwells on how wise and courteous and kind Amy is – her magnanimity when others are mean to her, her good manners and refined tastes that are rewarded with a trip to Europe with her rich aunt and cousin, not to mention her beauty and elegance; in fact, the text devotes more attention to Amy’s physical appearance and wardrobe than any of the other sisters’. The text not only constantly portrays Amy as seemingly perfect (by Part Second, at least), but she is also rewarded with the most perfectly happily-ever-after scenario among her sisters in the end, being the only sister to marry wealthy. My annoyance with the character of Amy herself is eclipsed by annoyance with the narrator’s treatment of her.
The four heroines are accompanied by characters such as the wise servant Hannah; crotchety old Aunt March; their loving, selfless and hard-working mother “Marmee;” and their rich neighbor old Mr. Laurence. After two chapters of exposition and Christmas festivities, the plot really begins to move when Jo makes the acquaintance of the reclusive, mysterious oddity known to the sisters up until then only as “the Laurence boy.”
o Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, 16: The Laurence boy, who prefers to be called Laurie, has lost both his parents and lives with his incredibly wealthy grandfather next door to the March family. The two Laurences don’t always get along; old Mr. Laurence wants his grandson to go to college and study business, but Laurie prefers to daydream about traveling to Europe, write music, and play the piano. When he is first introduced, Laurie is a very romantic and rather rebellious young man (whom his tutor, Meg’s future husband John Brooke, likens to an untamed colt) who needs companionship more than all the comfort and luxury his grandfather can give him. He is also shy and quiet and clearly needs someone to liven him up.
III. The Heroine and the Laurence Boy
Jo and Laurie have apparently been eyeing each other for quite some time. Jo believes in Chapter 2 that he looks like “a capital fellow, and I wish we could get acquainted. He looks as if he’d like to know us but he’s bashful.” She did get to chat over the fence with the boy next door once when he brought one of their cats home. “[We] were getting along capitally—about cricket, and so on—when he saw Meg coming, and walked off. I mean to know him some day, for he needs fun, I’m sure he does.” Meanwhile, Laurie was observing his neighbors enough to know their names, what each of them liked to do, and what they each usually did most days. Seeing the girls gathered round the fire every night with their mother made him long to join them. “[W]hen I’m alone up here,” he says in Chapter 5, “I can’t help looking over at your house… I beg your pardon for being so rude, but sometimes you forget to put the curtain down at the window where the flowers are; and when the lamps are lighted, it’s like looking at a picture…” (By the way, instead of being offended or creeped out at this blatant admission of peeping, Jo tells him, “We’ll never draw that curtain again, and I give you leave to look as much as you like.”)
The two finally properly introduce themselves when they bump into each other (literally) at the Gardiners’ New Year’s Eve ball in Chapter 3. Jo isn’t enjoying herself nearly as much as Meg: “Jo saw a big redheaded youth approaching her corner, and fearing he meant to engage her, she slipped into a curtained recess, intending to peep and enjoy herself in peace. Unfortunately, another bashful person had chosen the same refuge, for, as the curtain fell behind her, she found herself face to face with the ‘Laurence boy.’ ”
Things are awkward for a minute as the two wallflowers try to be polite, until they both admit how much they hate their first names:
Laurie: My first name is Theodore, but I don’t like it, for the fellows call me Dora, so I made them say Laurie instead.
Jo: I hate my name, too—so sentimental! I wish everyone would say Jo instead of Josephine.
The ice broken, they have a very pleasant private party in their curtained nook. “Both peeped and criticized and chatted till they felt like old acquaintances. Laurie’s bashfulness soon wore off, for Jo’s gentlemanly demeanor amused and set him at his ease, and Jo was her merry self again… She liked the ‘Laurence boy’ better than ever and took several good looks at him, so that she might describe him to the girls… ‘Curly black hair, brown skin, big black eyes, handsome nose, fine teeth, small hands and feet, taller than I am, very polite, for a boy, and altogether jolly.’ ” Sorry, Jo, but this observation of his looks could not be less neutral; it sounds to me like you find him attractive.
Unsurprisingly, Laurie asks Jo to dance, which she at first declines because everyone would see the burn and tear in the back of her dress. So Laurie suggests they dance in the long hall adjacent where they can hear the music and no one will see them. “The hall was empty, and they had a grand polka, for Laurie danced well, and taught her the German step, which delighted Jo, being full of swing and spring.”
Poor Miss Alcott had no idea what she started. Little Women’s first generation of fans came to the same conclusion I did from this chapter: Jo and Laurie are obviously destined to become a couple.
IV. The Ship
Jo develops a keen motherly interest in Laurie after the dance, correctly believing he is “suffering for society and fun” and “looked as if he would like to be known, if only he knew how to begin.” She takes it upon herself to brighten up his rich but lonely life and starts acting on this resolve in Chapter 5, when she sees her new acquaintance shut up in his room with a cold. After talking to her from up in his window, Laurie takes Jo up on her offer to cheer him up and invites her in. When old Mr. Laurence comes home, “the change in his grandson did not escape him. There was color, light, and life in the boy’s face now, vivacity in his manner, and genuine merriment in his laugh”… all from spending the afternoon talking with Jo March. The old man is impressed with Jo immediately, “for her odd, blunt ways suited him, and she seemed to understand the boy almost as well as if she had been one herself.”
Fans can hardly be blamed for seeing something more than friendship in the chemistry between Jo and Laurie. When Jo comes home and tells her family of her adventures next door, she turns surprisingly defensive when Meg comments on Laurie’s good looks:
Meg: That’s why he has such handsome black eyes and pretty manners, I suppose. Italians are always nice.
Jo: What do you know about his eyes and his manners? You never spoke to him, hardly!
That sounds suspiciously like Jo is marking her territory, and her sister better not get any ideas. Alcott is apparently aware that some of her readers would get ideas, too:
Meg: That was a nice little speech about the medicine mother sent him.
Jo: He meant the blancmange, I suppose.
Meg: How stupid you are, child! He meant you, of course.
Jo: Did he?
And Jo opened her eyes as if it had never occurred to her before.
Meg: I never saw such a girl! You don’t know a compliment when you get it.
Jo: I think they are great nonsense, and I’ll thank you not to be silly and spoil my fun. Laurie’s a nice boy and I like him, and I won’t have any sentimental stuff about compliments and such rubbish.
The classic “just friends and nothing more" speech… showed up pretty early in this case, didn’t it? Well, friendship is a strong foundation for any romance, and Jo and Laurie become great friends: going to the theater, ice skating, rowing, playing checkers, Laurie coming to Jo’s disastrous dinner party where everything was burnt or undercooked, the cream was sour, and she accidentally put salt in the sugar bowl… fun times.
After Jo takes Laurie under her wing, her three sisters, of course, also become friendly with him and his grandfather, making life far more fun for each other with the Laurences’ wealth and the Marches’ kindness and love. Jo, however, continues to be sensitive to her sisters’ comments about their honorary brother, such as in Chapter 7, as Amy watches Laurie gallop past on his horse:
Amy: That boy is a perfect Cyclops, isn’t he?
Jo: How dare you say so, when he’s got both his eyes? And very handsome ones they are, too.
Amy: I didn’t say anything about his eyes, and I don’t see why you need fire up when I admire his riding.
Jo: Oh, my goodness! That little goose means a centaur, and she called him a Cyclops.
Jo is not in denial, though, if she developed feelings for Laurie deeper than friendship; she is honestly too innocent to realize it. As Alcott writes in Chapter 5, “She had been so simply taught that there was no nonsense in her head, and at fifteen she was as innocent and frank as any child. Laurie was sick and lonely, and feeling how rich she was in home love and happiness, she gladly tried to share it with him.” Jo’s intentions when she initiates her friendship with Laurie are completely innocent and, as far as she knows, remain so.
Unfortunately for Jo, the same cannot be said for Laurie. This is evident several times, such as when he invites the March sisters to join him and some rich friends from England on a picnic in Chapter 12. The group falls to playing the game Truth, where one person has to truthfully answer one question from each player. When Sallie Gardiner asks Laurie, “Which girl here do you think prettiest?” he answers, “Margaret.” But when Fred Vaughn next asks, “Which do you like best?” he answers, “Jo, of course.” “What silly questions you ask!” is Jo’s response, “And Jo gave a disdainful shrug as the rest laughed at Laurie’s matter-of-fact tone.” Laurie doesn’t drop the issue, however. When it is his turn to ask his question of Jo, “ ‘What do you most wish for?’ said Laurie. ‘A pair of boot lacings,’ returned Jo, guessing and defeating his purpose,” which was no doubt to hear her wish to marry him or something.
Chapter 14, “Secrets,” provides the best picture of the strange relationship Jo and Laurie have. At the start of their walk home together, Jo plays the mother, lecturing Laurie about visiting billiard halls and the less-than-uprightly-moral male companions he frequently associates with. Laurie always lets Jo lecture and browbeat him to please her, of course, but he also admits he’ll just a take a bus if she plans to lecture the entire walk home. He prefers it when they’re having fun, like when they proceed to race down the road. It appears Jo prefers herself as Laurie’s motherly figure, but Laurie prefers her as a friend. This is also the chapter, as far as I can tell, where we first see Jo call her boy “Teddy,” which we learn in Part Second is her special name for him that Laurie allows no one else to use.
After the ecstasy over Jo’s first story being published passes, the little women have much more serious matters to deal with. A telegram arrives in Chapter 15 informing them that Mr. March is gravely ill, and John Brooke escorts Marmee to Washington to nurse him. The March girls boldly continue to go to work and keep house instead of giving into despair and worry over their father. Just when things seem to calm down and everyone is allowing themselves to relax, another tragedy strikes when Beth contracts scarlet fever.
Jo, who was always especially close to Beth, finds her illness almost unbearable. Throughout the “Dark Days” of Chapter 18, the strong young woman is almost paralyzed by fear and dread and sadness. Up until now, she has always been a pillar of support for Laurie, coaxing him out of his shell, helping him overcome his bashfulness, and filling his life with laughter and excitement. With her beloved sister deathly ill, it is Laurie’s turn to be the pillar of support for Jo. A beautiful, tender scene takes place when Laurie comes over after Jo has telegrammed Marmee about Beth’s illness (Hannah prevented them from informing and worrying her as long as they could) and asked her to come home:
“ ‘Oh, Jo, it’s not so bad as that?’ cried Laurie, with a startled face.
‘Yes, it is; she doesn’t know us … she doesn’t look like my Beth, and there’s nobody to help us bear it; Mother and Father both gone, and God seems so far away I can’t find Him.’
“As the tears streamed fast down poor Jo’s cheeks, she stretched out her hand in a helpless sort of way, as if groping in the dark, and Laurie took it in his, whispering as well as he could with a lump in his throat, ‘I’m here. Hold on to me, Jo, dear!’
“She could not speak, but she did ‘hold on,’ and the warm grasp of the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed to lead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in her trouble. Laurie longed to say something tender and comfortable, but no fitting words came to him, so he stood silent, gently stroking her bent head as her mother used to do. It was the best thing he could have done, far more soothing than the most eloquent words, for Jo felt the unspoken sympathy, and in the silence, learned the sweet solace which affection administers to sorrow. Soon she dried the tears which had relieved her, and looked up with a grateful face.
‘Thank you, Teddy, I’m better now.’ ”
In spite of “Teddy’s” comfort that makes my and shippers’ hearts positively glow with warmth, Jo is still intermittently consumed by tears. Laurie pours her a glass of wine to calm her down, and after the wine has “refreshed [Jo’s] body, as the kind words had done her troubled mind,” Laurie decides to tell her something that will “warm the cockles of your heart better than quarts of wine”:
“ ‘I telegraphed to your mother yesterday, and Brooke answered she’d come at once, and she’ll be here tonight, and everything will be all right. Aren’t you glad I did it?’ ...
“Jo grew quite white, flew out of her chair, and the moment he stopped speaking she electrified him by throwing her arms round his neck… She did not weep again, but laughed hysterically, and trembled and clung to her friend as if she was a little bewildered by the sudden news.
“Laurie, though decidedly amazed, behaved with great presence of mind; he patted her back soothingly, and finding that she was recovering, followed it up by a bashful kiss or two, which brought Jo round at once. Holding on to the banisters, she put him gently away, saying breathlessly, ‘Oh, don’t! I didn’t mean to, it was dreadful of me, but you were such a dear … that I couldn’t help flying at you. … [D]on’t give me wine again, it makes me act so.’
‘I don’t mind,’ laughed Laurie, as he settled his tie.”
The heartwarming scene of Jo being so tenderly comforted by her boy segues into the brief but relatively exciting scene above that confirms two things: Laurie sees Jo as the kind of girl he wants to embrace and kiss, and Jo reciprocates his feelings when her guard is down. Consciously, she refuses to be anything but a mother to her Teddy, but when uninhibited by wine, her true instincts burst forth, strongly enough to scare her sober.
“ ‘Laurie, you’re an angel! How shall I ever thank you?’
‘Fly at me again; I rather like it,” said Laurie, looking mischievous.”
Jo has no time to sort out her feelings for Laurie or even to let them concern her, for there is always something else demanding her attention (which, coincidentally, frees their ship from one of the most common complaints about couples: writers focusing too much on the romance and letting the main story suffer). After Beth is on the mend, Jo dwells on the possibility of losing Meg to John Brooke. In the end, Jo cannot prevent the inevitable, and with a little push from Aunt March, Meg and John get engaged. Even though the marriage is three years away until Meg turns 20, Jo is heartbroken at the thought of losing her sister. But once again, Laurie is there to comfort her.
“ ‘It never can be the same again. I’ve lost my dearest friend,’ sighed Jo.
‘You’ve got me, anyhow. I’m not good for much, I know, but I’ll stand by you, Jo, all the days of my life. Upon my word I will!’ And Laurie meant what he said.
‘I know you will, and I’m ever so much obliged. You are always a great comfort to me, Teddy,’ returned Jo.”
Shortly after Laurie’s vow of eternal love, the first book ends with an image that erased all my doubts and cemented these two as a couple in my mind: “Jo lounged in her favorite low seat, with the grave, quiet look that best became her, and Laurie, leaning on the back of her chair, his chin on a level with her curly head, smiled with his friendliest aspect, and nodded at her in the long glass which reflected them both.”
V. The Fandom
Little Women became an instant success, to Miss Alcott’s surprise and the misfortune of her nerves, for her fandom had no instantly accessible way to share their ardent love and indulge their passion like we have thanks to the Internet. With no other outlet for their obsession, readers flooded Alcott and Thomas Niles with letters expressing their love for the book. And what did the Little Women fandom write about? How much the Marches reminded them of their own sisters? How scared they were when Beth was ill? How they knew exactly how the girls felt about having a father away in the War? How much they admired Jo for pursuing a career and resolving to support herself and her family instead of being concerned with snaring a rich husband and how they wanted to follow her example of independence? No. All the fans wanted to know was: when does Jo marry Laurie?
Children’s writers and other media producers are used to this reaction by now, how it’s all about the shipping, and are even able to occasionally laugh at it. However, this was a new phenomenon to Miss Alcott, and her journals clearly show she was appalled: “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life” (Journals of Louisa May Alcott 167). Alcott pictured Jo spending her future as an independent literary spinster like herself. The very idea that Jo would marry her adopted brother/son Laurie – worse, the idea that the readers wanted her to – was absurd.
Alcott’s objections to Jo/Laurie don’t seem to be directed to Laurie himself but to marriage in general, which is understandable given the state of women’s rights at the time and how subservient wives were expected to be. She would also probably take her fans’ apparent support of this misogynist system personally since Jo was basically herself. Can’t people just let us career women write our books in peace without telling us to get married already?! she must have thought.
There is a particular passage from Chapter 38 of Part Second, “On the Shelf,” describing how Meg, now a married mother of twins, has learned “that a woman’s happiest kingdom is her home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.” Alcott is not implying that she finds it acceptable that women are afforded no greater happiness by her society, nor that women should be content with their role as wife and mother. Wives are not queens, and women should not get married if they don’t want to be subservient. Marriage was not for Jo.
The fans disagreed (don’t they always?). “Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse,” wrote the disgruntled authoress. “Alcott had already been disillusioned about her ability to write her own ideas freely, without subjection to market forces” (Sands-O’Connor 2)… sounds familiar. Well, although Thomas Niles and paying readers could force Alcott to bend on the point of Jo getting married, they could not force her to make Jo marry Laurie. She wrote the sequel with one firm compromise: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody.”
The ship war was on, and this one was the most brutal type: not between opposing shippers, but between the shippers and the writer.
VI. The Ship War
Little Women Chapter 24 (Part Second Chapter 1), “Gossip”: “And here let me premise that if any of the elders think there is too much ‘lovering’* in the story, as I fear they may (I’m not afraid the young folks will make that objection), I can only say with Mrs. March, ‘What can you expect when I have four gay girls in the house, and a dashing young neighbor over the way?’ ”
Translation: Believe me, critics, it was not my idea to put so much shipping into this sequel, but it’s apparently what the young readers want. I admit I have no one to blame but myself, putting a dashing young man in a house next door to four young women.
* Lovering = Alcott’s term for what we now know as shipping
Part Second is far more overtly romantic than the first part of Little Women. Three years after Meg’s engagement, the adults are aware that love is now in the air and that the children are at the age when they are guaranteed to become its victims. “Indeed, a general impression had prevailed in the family of late that ‘our boy’ was getting fonder than ever of Jo, who, however, wouldn’t hear a word upon the subject and scolded violently if anyone dared to suggest it.”
What strikes me right away in “Gossip” is the drastic change in Laurie. The college student is portrayed far shallower than the boy next door three years ago, spending money frivolously, mostly on an impractically large “dandy” wardrobe, devoting more time to partying than studying, and hanging out with a crowd his honorary sisters less than approve of. Oh, and he has a terrible haircut. I cannot help but sense eagerness on Miss Alcott’s part to malign half of the ship she so loathes.
Yet, we also have in “Gossip”:
Jo: I never cry unless for some great affliction.
Laurie: Such as fellows going to college, hey?
Jo: Don’t be a peacock. I only moaned a trifle to keep the girls company.
Jo/Laurie moves from being a side-effect of their friendship to a primary plot at the end of the second chapter of Part Second, “The First Wedding,” when the Laurences return home after Meg’s wedding:
“ ‘Laurie, my lad, if you ever want to indulge in this sort of thing, get one of those little girls to help you, and I shall be perfectly satisfied,’ said Mr. Laurence…
‘I’ll do my best to gratify you, sir,’ was Laurie’s unusually dutiful reply, as he carefully unpinned the posy Jo had put in his buttonhole."
Laurie’s wishes are clear. As for Jo, her time is almost entirely divided between her blossoming literary career and the now frail and fragile Beth, never fully recovered after her bout of scarlet fever. The latter takes center stage in Chapter 32, “Tender Troubles.” In a mockery of shippers’ practice of seeing “evidence” for romance in the most neutral, unromantic gestures, Jo, through her own close observation one evening, comes to the conclusion that… Beth is in love with Laurie!
“If she had not got the new idea into her head, she would have seen nothing unusual in the fact that Beth was very quiet, and Laurie very kind to her. But having given the rein to her lively fancy, it galloped away with her at a great pace… Jo fancied that Beth’s eyes rested on the lively, dark face beside her with peculiar pleasure, and that she listened with intense interest… She also fancied, having set her heart upon seeing it, that she saw a certain increase of gentleness in Laurie’s manner, that he dropped his voice now and then, laughed less than usual, was a little absent-minded, and settled the afghan over Beth’s feet with an assiduity that was really almost tender.”
Jo, you’re grasping at straws! Who ever heard of someone so determined to see romance in every little innocuous detail because they’re so desperate to believe two people are in love? … … … …
Jo’s “discovery” prompts her to quickly remove herself to New York hoping Laurie will begin to devote himself to Beth. Meanwhile, Laurie returns to college with a new fervor for his studies, graduates with honors, gives up billiards and all the other habits Jo lectured him against, and even lets his hair grow, all to make him a man worthy of Jo’s love. Thus, “Tender Troubles” introduces the two purposes for which Alcott uses Jo/Laurie hereafter: to mock their shippers, and to make Jo and Laurie suffer.
After leaving Laurie with what she hopes is all the discouragement in the world, Jo is finally allowed to be happy briefly during the two chapters that cover her winter in New York. Waiting for her at home (no less than for Laurie) is the title of Chapter 35 – “Heartache.” This is my favorite Jo/Laurie chapter; Laurie making his “earnest declaration of love and Jo rejecting her young suitor while simultaneously trying to comfort her rejected brother is so well-written, genuine, and never seems the least bit contrived or forced. None of the movie adaptations I have seen do it justice.
It is hard to determine which person is in more pain. Jo words her feelings as, “[Y]ou’re a great deal too good for me, and I’m so grateful to you, and so proud and fond of you, I don’t see why I can’t love you as you want me to.” I think this is because, between her writing and her worry for Beth, Jo still has not had the time to sort out her complicated feelings for Laurie, honorary brother + adopted son + suitor. There seem to me to be hints that she finds it so difficult to turn down Laurie’s proposal not only because she doesn’t want to hurt him but because a part of her wants to accept:
- “Laurie threw himself down on the grass at her feet… not conducive to calm speech or clear thought on Jo’s part, for how could she say hard things to her boy while he watched her with eyes full of love and longing…”
- “She gently turned his ahead away, saying, as she stroked the wavy hair which had been allowed to grow for her sake—how touching that was to be sure!”
- “There was a little quiver in Jo’s voice, and, thinking it a good omen, Laurie… said, in the wheedlesome tone that had never been so dangerously wheedlesome before…”
So, ultimately, is Jo in pain: because the boy she cares for as a brother has had his heart broken and she hates seeing him in pain (let alone causing it), because she is in love with Laurie but not enough to give up her independence in a society that demands married women sacrifice their independence, or both?
Another important question is, Do shippers like this couple because it is a hopeless cause? Because they endure so much pain only not to end up together? Anyone who has belonged to even one online fandom knows that the couples that draw the most shippers are inevitably the ones with the least likelihood of getting together. In the back of my mind, I would love Jo and Laurie to get married, but I also admire Jo’s firm resolve against all the agony it causes her: “Not until months afterward did Jo understand how she had the strength of mind to hold fast to the resolution she had made when she decided that she did not love her boy, and never could. It was very hard to do, but she did it, knowing that delay was both useless and cruel.”
Laurie: Don’t disappoint us, dear! Everyone expects it.
Hmmm, I wonder who “everyone” could refer to? Subtle, Miss Alcott.
In the end, Laurie, in the fashion of many spurned lovers, finds himself at home that evening playing a sad song on the piano, and, “Mrs. March’s voice [was] heard calling, ‘Jo, dear, come in. I want you.’ Just what Laurie longed to say, with a different meaning! As he listened, he lost his place, the music ended with a broken chord, and the musician sat silently in the dark.”
VIII. Brother or Lover?
Little Women would not be the same without Jo’s and Laurie’s relationship… whatever that may be. The writing of “Heartache” – indeed, of most if not all scenes centered on Jo and Laurie, whether happy or sad – is far better, more evocative, and more satisfying to read than the lighter-hearted, more traditional romance Laurie enters next. “New Impressions” where he and Amy begin their romance arc is the least Alcott-like part of the books and sounds more like an excerpt from Daisy Miller or Pride And Prejudice than Little Women.
Laurie’s heartbreak over Jo is resolved after his grandfather prescribes a trip to Europe as a cure. To cure it by having him marry Amy was not something I saw coming by any stretch. I didn’t learn until years later this was in accordance with the traditions of “sentimental and pseudo-chivalric novels of the early nineteenth century. These novels dictated that the ideal hero … never marry the flawed heroine” (Sands-O’Connor 7). I take comfort in the fact that Alcott’s young, female, 19th century readers rooted for Jo, the flawed heroine.
Laurie’s new romance with Amy has several conspicuous parallels to his relationship with Jo. Most prominent is the issue of the line between “brother and sister” and “lover.” Laurie insists in Chapter 43 that he has sorted out his feelings and that Jo’s proper place in his heart is as his sister, but the text repeatedly referred to the way Laurie and Amy wrote and read their myriad letters to each other in Chapter 41 as like a brother and sister. According to Alcott’s own words, Laurie has thought of both girls as his sister before and has been treated like a brother by them both, so how could that make him realize proposing to Jo was a “mistake” but not to Amy?
Laurie also serves as a pillar of support and comfort for Amy when Beth dies, just as he did for Jo when Beth first fell ill. I am guessing that means Alcott liked that part of his relationship with Jo as much as I did. She also apparently liked Jo’s role as Laurie’s mentor, lecturing and scolding him at every opportunity for his own good. Amy initiates her romance with Laurie by stepping into Jo’s role, lecturing Laurie on how poorly he bears her rejection, permanently sulking and lazing about. Through these parallels, Amy/Laurie shows us which elements of Jo/Laurie Alcott herself approved of.
We would say today that Laurie was on the rebound when he stated courting Amy. Laurie himself certainly thinks so, as he is consciously careful to get assurance from Jo that there is not even the least hope of changing her mind before giving into the feelings he can sense developing for Amy. He still harbored some hope, apparently, since Amy noticed he always wore a ring Jo gave him, made of a lobster feeler. After getting his assurance, however, “Laurie gathered up all Jo’s letters, smoothed, folded, and put them neatly into a small drawer of the desk, stood a minute turning the ring thoughtfully on his finger, then slowly drew it off, laid it with the letters, locked the drawer, and went out to hear High Mass at St. Stephens, feeling as if there had been a funeral.” Laurie literally and deliberately lays his feelings for Jo to rest as if in a grave before moving on to a new love.
Jo cannot put the past to rest so smoothly. While Laurie and Amy are living in luxury and devoting their days to art, courtship, and pleasure, Jo watches her closest sister die and must continue to support and comfort her parents thereafter. She finally gets a reprieve from her grief and loneliness in Chapter 42, “All Alone,” when she begins writing again and finds magazines and newspapers clamoring for her stories. But before this can make her too happy, the letter announcing Amy’s and Laurie’s engagement comes.
Although Jo assures her mother (and probably honestly believes) that she does not “find it difficult to rejoice over” the news, the change it has on her outlook says otherwise. One paragraph, Jo is enjoying writing again and appreciating new praise for her work; the next, she is more depressed than ever. Why the change?
Jo: I am lonely, and perhaps if Teddy had tried again, I might have said ‘Yes,’ not because I love him any more, but because I care more to be loved than when he went away.
She would be ready to appreciate his love more. I am sure the spirit of human perversity to desire something only once it is pulled out of your reach enters here, too; Alcott used it previously to get Meg to realize and assert her love for John. If Aunt March forbidding Meg’s marriage could cause it to happen, why couldn’t reading Amy’s and Laurie’s “loverlike” glorification of each other and Amy’s ecstasy over how wonderfully Laurie loves her make Jo realize being Laurie’s wife might not be as bad as she originally reasoned? In spite of all the sorrow Jo has lived through over the past years, only now when Amy becomes engaged to Laurie is she consumed by “a sorrowfully patient wonder why one sister should have all she asked, the other nothing.” The universe was saving its strongest blow for last in its mission to torture Jo March: giving her boy to her sister.
Has Jo lost Laurie, though? Has Amy taken Jo’s place as fully as he thinks? Are they truly content to be brother and sister now? Several hints when they meet again in Chapter 43, “Surprises,” make me doubt it:
- “Jo must have fallen asleep, … for suddenly Laurie’s ghost seemed to stand before her, … and [she] lay staring up at him in startled silence, till he stooped and kissed her. Then she knew him, and flew up, crying joyfully—‘O my Teddy! O my Teddy!’ ”
- Laurie: How good it sounds to hear you say “Teddy”! No one ever calls me that but you.
…including his wife. When Amy called him “Teddy” during her lecture, he instantly snapped, “Don’t, that’s her name for me!”
- Jo: (after hearing what Amy said to Laurie at Niece) What baseness! Well, if she abuses you, come to me, and I’ll defend you.
- Laurie realizing how unfairly they left Jo to bear all the family troubles alone “while we went pleasuring,” promising she will never be alone again, and Jo’s familiar response:
“ ‘[S]omehow all my troubles seemed to fly away when you came. You always were a comfort to me, Teddy.’ And Jo leaned her head on his shoulder, just as she did years ago, when Beth lay ill and Laurie told her to hold on to him.
“He looked down at her, wondering if she remembered the time, but Jo was smiling to herself, as if, in truth, her troubles had all vanished at his coming.”
The one thing Jo and Laurie can agree on by “Surprises” is that absence not only “makes the heart grow fonder” but allows one to see a “friend” or “brother” or “sister” in a new light. Laurie saw little Amy in a new light when he met her for the first time in years in Niece. Jo and Laurie were never apart long enough for either to have such an epiphany until Laurie returned from Europe. But by then, Laurie was already married and it was too late.
This is precisely the sort of tragic resolution shippers love.
IX. The Legacy
Louisa May Alcott would get her chance to defend spinsterhood over marriage in the series’ last installment, Jo’s Boys. Jo and Laurie continue to remain close confidantes after getting married to others and starting their own families; it’s even revealed in Little Men that they are able to communicate with their eyes, no words necessary. The main characters of the last two books (besides Jo, of course) are the boys and girls who live at Jo’s and her husband’s school, Plumfield. In the ten years between Little Men and Jo’s Boys, the orphanage expands into a college (for both men and women!). One of the most promising students at Laurence College is Nan Harding, who grew from a mischievous tomboy into an independent woman and a talented doctor, with a heart bent on spinsterhood.
Nan, so like Jo as a child in Little Men, is the character Alcott wanted Jo to be in Jo’s Boys. Although she has an ardent, sincere suitor in Tommy Bangs, she laughs at the idea that he still clings to the childhood marriage promise they made when they were ten-years-old! This time, Alcott’s strong-minded woman is allowed to remain a free, happy spinster with a career instead of a husband. But don’t worry about Tom; he finds a much more traditional, ideal girl who completely worships him in Dora West… whom he accidentally starts falling for after only befriending her to make Nan jealous. (Just how old is that plot, and why hasn’t anyone learned that it never works yet?!)
It was an awkward time for Tom, but fortunately, he had someone who had been through an eerily similar situation before to guide him through it: “It took some time to get the old and the new emotions comfortably adjusted, but Mrs. Jo helped him, and Mr. Laurie gave him some wise advice upon the astonishing gymnastic feats the human heart can perform.” That’s Louisa may Alcott for you – always ready to slip in a sly in-joke to her fans who made her miserable with their obsession with “lovering.” With or without the Internet, in the world of fandoms and shippers, some things never change.
Don't Make A Mistake by siriuslover92: How Laurie's conversation with Tom in Jo's Boys might have sounded.
Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs
Louisa May Alcott at Wikipedia
"Why Jo Didn't Marry Laurie: Louisa May Alcott and The Heir of Redclyffe" by Karen Sands-O'Connor