Caution! This post contains spoilers for all books in the Little Women series, a lot of footnotes containing personal asides, and more extensive use of italics than I intended. Also, I haven’t read Little Women or Little Men since I was a teenager, because Jo’s Boys is my favourite in the series (I know, I know). However, I was really interested by one of the Classic Remarks questions, and I thought I’d give it a shot.
My favourite is Beth, so clearly I don’t agree with how it worked out for her. She should have had a wonderful husband, at least four children, an extremely fancy piano, perfect health, twenty kittens, and everything else she wanted in the whole world(1). That aside, I think the most interesting sister is Jo, and I absolutely love her arc over the course of the books.
Firstly, I’m going to start with Jo turning Laurie down when he proposed. I was so surprised when this happened, and so pleased. The “friends to lovers” trope is endemic in books, and I sometimes enjoy it (see also “enemies to friends to lovers”, for which Anne of Green Gables will always and forever be my favourite example). However, I think Jo’s refusal was very powerfully written. Although I respect the man that Laurie grows into in the later books, I think he is immature and petty when he proposes to Jo. He seems to admire her primarily because she’s “not like other girls”, he thinks she owes him romance because of their friendship, and when he gets turned down he makes vaguely threatening remarks suggesting he’s going to kill himself. What a charmer. I agree with Jo’s assessment that they are too similar, too hot-headed, to make a relationship work–and she would be so utterly bored as a high society wife. One of my bugbears in books is that every cross-gender friendship gets turned into a romance. I think that Jo and Laurie’s relationship—before, during, and after Laurie’s Spurned Moping Lover phase—reflects the messy, lovely, difficult thing that is human friendship. Alcott’s decision to stubbornly keep the two as best friends, and give them both happy marriages to which the friendship is not a threat, is one of my favourite things in fiction(2).
This leads me nicely onto Professor Bhaer, who is one of the Great Underrated Romantic Heroes in my view. I have seen Jo’s decision to marry Bhaer described as the Unforced Causabon Error on Twitter recently (the tweet’s since been deleted, so I can’t link to it), which made me laugh out loud(3). However, I think this is inaccurate. Causabon views Dorothea as a convenient assistant, something pretty to help him shelve his books and facilitate his own dreams. Prof Bhaer calls Jo Professorin as a term of endearment: you brilliant, capable, fascinating woman; you are my absolute equal in every way. My favourite friendships in real life are the ones where the relationship is sturdy enough for utterly direct speech: I love you, but you did this, which is unworthy of you; I love you. I think that Bhaer is Mr Knightley, not Mr Causabon. I feel like Bhaer’s criticism of Jo’s writing comes from a place of absolute respect for her character and her capacity—not from a place of dismissal. The two of them end up partnering very effectively because of this forthrightness—at least I think so.
Perhaps my view of Little Men-era Jo is coloured by the fact that I have always wanted to be a foster carer, or to adopt, or to work with children whose families can’t provide all the care they need. It seems very right and reasonable to me, though: Jo is fiercely affectionate and loyal and she will fight anyone for the people she loves. The idea that she ends up in this house full of lost boys, having adventures, trying to keep them from setting the place on fire, and somehow cramming in some education around the edges—that sounds kind of fantastic to me. I like seeing a maternal Jo who has retained a lot of her “fight everything all the time for any reason at all” personality, but has turned it to a more mature purpose.
I’m also thrilled that Jo ends up being a pioneer of higher education for women, and of equality of opportunity for both men and women irrespective of class. Jo’s Boys, if I recall correctly, is often outspoken in its feminism. In it, as well as being professionally successful, Jo and her sisters actively facilitate supportive friendships between women. She rails against the cultural norm that every woman should marry irrespective of desire. She intentionally teaches the young men she helped raise not to objectify women but to see them as equals. Women at Lawrence College receive the same educational and extracurricular opportunities as the men. I understand why people mourn the fact that Jo didn’t get to be a writer until she was middle-aged(4), but she is portrayed as such a groundbreaker for the women coming after her. Nan, the stubbornly spinsterish female medical student, would not have been possible without Jo. Little Women starts out with Jo feverishly wishing she were a boy, so she could fight in the army—she does fiercely independent things as cutting off all her hair, and moving to live in New York and earn money for the family, both of which were coded very “male” at the time—and then Jo’s Boys ends with Nan studying medicine, staying single, and campaigning for the right to vote. It is because of women like Jo that we had women like Nan; it is because of women like Nan that I can do a PhD and live alone.
In short, life does take unexpected turns. I’m only 26, and already I am both professionally fulfilled and very far away from the profession I imagined having as a teenager. There is this pervasive idea that every person has One Special Calling, that if at forty you aren’t living the life you dreamed of at thirteen you’ve somehow failed. That’s so unhealthy. Jo gets to be a teacher, a mum, a governess, a matron, a wife, a pioneer, a best friend, a feminist, an aunt, a sister, an academic, a dramatist—and, yes, eventually she becomes a famous and successful writer. She lives an extraordinarily full life. Jo’s fear at the start of Little Women is that she will have to “grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster”. Not only does she never succumb to this, but part of her narrative arc is the gradual dismantling of that stereotype. Of course I love her story. Women like Jo paved the way for women like me, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
(1)Side note: I would have loved a story in which Beth’s incredible compassion turned her into a charity worker or political campaigner, gradually learning to overcome her crippling anxiety. I think that would have been a fascinating character study, and very in keeping with her behaviour e.g. with the Hummels.
(2)Laurie and Amy’s conversation, where Laurie promises Amy that he can dance at Jo’s wedding “with a heart as light as my heels”, is delightful. Overall I find their relationship honestly a bit weird, but I did enjoy that.
(3)The Unforced Causabon Error is probably the relationship mistake I am most likely to make myself, which may be affecting my judgement here–but I never liked Causabon and I do like Bhaer very much.
(4)Though I think it betrays a kind of snobbery about older women, frankly–as if doesn’t really count if she doesn’t get it nailed down by thirty.