Blast from the Book Boyfriend Past!
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While waiting for my copy of Oryx and Crake to get here (and yes, it may be a while yet), I decided to work on a few old drafts and get them published before the Dystopian theme that we're going to have soon means they'll have to wait a little longer.
Please note that today's featured characters are over 150 years old, so there are going to be spoilers here. I hope that this post's being a "two-fer," just like the book that inspired it, will make up for that somewhat.
by Louisa May Alcott
Laurie bent, and whispered three words in Jo's ear . . . She stood and stared at him for a minute, looking both surprised and displeased . . . "I'm disgusted, and wish you hadn't told me."
"I thought you'd be pleased."
"At the idea of anybody coming to take Meg away? No, thank you."
"You'll feel better about it when somebody comes to take you away."
"I'd like to see anyone try it," cried Jo fiercely.
"So should I!" And Laurie chuckled at the idea.
"I don't think secrets agree with me, I feel rumpled up in my mind since you told me that," said Jo rather ungratefully.
"Race down this hill with me, and you'll be all right," suggested Laurie.
So is anyone else still "shipping" Jo March and her "Teddy" Laurence? . . . I thought so! . . . And Louisa May Alcott has only herself to blame.
By now, most readers know exactly what will happen when these fifteen-year-old friends grow up, but the first fans of Little Women had to pick up the clues as they found them . . . and it's pretty obvious that Alcott was setting Jo and Laurie up for something sweet. Their first meeting alone is a classic "meet-cute," as a girl so poor she must wear a burned dress to a party escapes the crush in the same curtained recess chosen by possibly the only rich boy in town who won't laugh at her for it. And although she was prepared to be a wallflower all night, he gets her to dance with him in the deserted hall, where they both can't help noticing how naturally they move together. Alcott was totally channeling Cinderella!
The best part is that Jo and Laurie don't start "dating" (to use the modern expression) immediately afterward. Instead, they become very good friends--and Laurie gets to be the first person outside of the March family circle whom Jo enjoys any real intimacy with. But even here are hints that what they have is developing into something even richer: like the foreshadowing of Jo's own romantic future when Laurie tells her that he knows someone is in love with her older sister Meg (See above) . . . or a certain tender scene when Laurie reveals he has just helped to lift a heavy burden from Jo's shoulders, she cries in his arms from relief, and he kisses her. It's a caress she's not quite ready for yet--although I'm sure the readers were thrilled.
So why did Alcott decide to take matters in a different direction when she wrote the sequel?
"I've loved you ever since I've known you, Jo, couldn't help it, you've been so good to me. I've tried to show it, but you wouldn't let me. Now I'm going to make you hear, and give me an answer, for I can't go on so any longer."
"I wanted to save you this. I thought you'd understand . . ." began Jo, finding it a great deal harder than she expected . . . "I never wanted to make you care for me so, and I went away to keep you from it if I could."
"I thought so. It was like you, but it was no use. I only loved you all the more, and I worked hard to please you, and I gave up billiards and everything you didn't like, and waited and never complained, for I hoped you'd love me, though I'm not half good enough . . ."
". . . you'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 know why I can't love you as you want me to. I've tried, but I can't change the feeling, and it would be a lie to say I do when I don't."
In Good Wives, Jo's earlier girlish shyness is practically retconned into Puritan virtue. She is apprehensive of Laurie's intentions, not because she is still worried about growing up and having everything (including herself!) change . . . which was, by the way, one of the most endearing things about her . . . but because she has been unable to change at all and has also rationally decided that she and her dear Teddy would make a poor match. They are too much alike--to be specific, both too touchy and hot-headed--to be a good, supportive married couple.
Having typed it all out for myself, all I can say is . . . Wow. I mean, can you believe that Alcott got us all to swallow that sludge??? Seriously, how the heck did she come up with that rule? It's certainly not from that "little book" all the March girls got copies of one Christmas. And in fact, it's so badly done that the how of it is pointless. It's the why of it that's the real issue--and one that I've been pondering for years. Of course, I've long known of Alcott's admission that "so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that [Jo] should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her." But only now do I also have the courage to say . . . You're a troll, Louisa May Alcott.
Nevertheless, let's check out that "funny match" and see what else we can come up with . . .
She was going early, so she bade them all goodbye overnight, and when his turn came, she said warmly, "Now, Sir, you won't forget to come and see us, if you ever travel our way, will you? I'll never forgive you if you do, for I want them all to know my friend."
"Do you? Shall I come?" he asked, looking down at her with an eager expression which she did not see.
"Yes, come next month. Laurie graduates then, and you'd enjoy commencement as something new."
"That is your best friend, of whom you speak?" he said in an altered tone.
"Yes, my boy Teddy. I'm very proud of him and should like you to see him."
Jo looked up then, quite unconscious of anything but her own pleasure in the prospect of showing them to one another. Something in Mr. Bhaer's face suddenly recalled the fact that she might find Laurie more than a "best friend" . . .
This whole post was inspired by the discussion under Brandon's review of another Alcott novel, A Long, Fatal Love Chase, in which he remarks that she has strong moral elements in all her stories, whether they are children's books (her "moral pap") or Thrillers (what Jo would call "rubbish"). And it occurred to me that there were two senses in which Alcott used the dumping of Laurie and the introduction of Friederich Bhaer to teach her clamouring readers a lesson.
On the one hand, Jo's falling for a stout middle-aged man with little money and even less dress sense is no more than Alcott following through on a mean impulse. On the other hand, it lets Alcott develop another part of Jo's character arc in a organic direction, while also setting up a moral she must have genuinely believed in. For Professor Bhaer is also a mentor to the ambitious Jo.
I can't help drawing a contrast between him and Laurie here. In the first book, Laurie was supportive and very happy for Jo the first time she ever had a story published. Here in the second, she is doing steady work producing "sensation stories" for a widely-read newspaper, and all Professor Bhaer wants to do is to guide her away from it. Never mind that Alcott herself loved writing those kinds of stories in real life and apparently was able to keep her integrity. (Ironically, it was her children's books that made her feel like a sell out.) After Little Women, everything that Jo does and experiences seems to be Alcott's way of telling her readers: "Do as I say, not as I do." Or if you prefer, "Don't do as I do, but as I say." Which means that we are not to try writing morally complex and sophisticated literature, even if we really enjoy it, and that we are not to marry men who are also our best friends, even if we have to check our brains at the door.
Can you imagine the furore that Alcott would have faced over this if she had been writing for readers with blogs? =P Which is not to say that book bloggers should have a say in the creative process, but that authors shouldn't expect to be indulged when they're actually writing quite badly. And now that I think about it, I'd love to know what the first readers of Good Wives really thought when they saw that Alcott had, just to spite them, thrown some of her own characters under the omnibus.
Image Sources: a) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, b) Good Wives by Alcott