24 August 2014

+JMJ+

Blast from the Book Boyfriend Past!


Meet Shea Adler and other book boyfriends
@ Stuck in Books

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.


Laurie Laurence
Little Women
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 . . .


Professor Friederich Bhaer
Good Wives

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

10 comments:

Brandon said...

You're awfully hard on poor Fritz! I think Jo and Fritz are actually an excellent pairing. And I think Jo and Laurie would have been a bad pairing, for more or less the reasons Jo says; I'm reminded of the fact that when Laurie in the aftermath tries to deal with her rejection, his impulse is to try to write an opera about it, and he discovers that no matter what he does, he can't make her fit.

But it's certainly true that we get a bit of whiplash making the transition. My thought is that Alcott made a mistake from the beginning (although the sort of mistake only good authors usually get to make); she clearly intended that Jo would never marry at all, but wrote the Jo-Laurie interaction so extremely well that Jo refusing to marry anyone, including him, comes like a slap in the face. Then Jo goes off and gets married anyway. 'Perversity' does seem the right word for it.

One always gets the impression that Alcott enjoyed writing but had a low opinion of readers. I'm reminded of a chapter in her book, Moods, which starts out, "Whoever cares only for incident and action in a book had better skip this chapter and read on..." and is titled, almost as if it were a dare to anyone reading, "Dull but Necessary".

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

You should hear me on Amy with Laurie. =P

I didn't recall that detail about Laurie and the opera, but it makes the perfect farcical feather on top of this whole "shocking twist." LOL! On the other hand, I do remember the sonata for violin that he composed for Nat in Little Men, which Jo was really moved by and which seems to suggest that Laurie's strengths lay less in passionate melodrama than in classical romance. (Note: I'm sure I'm not using the musical terminology properly, but this is what both fictional pieces sounded like in my imagination!) But I'll have to reread Laurie's moments in Good Wives before I can satisfy myself that the opera isn't another example of Alcott trolling.

In any case, it's true that both Fritz and Amy aren't so bad once they get out from under Laurie's and Jo's shadows.

Alcott's attitude toward readers is something I can understand--but I don't know if it's because I already shared that quirk or if she nurtured the sentiment in me at the time when Little Women (separated from Good Wives) and Little Men were my favourite books in the world. I tried writing my own poems in Jo's style, some of which were even published in my school paper. And woe to any classmate who dared comment favourably on one of them to me! =P But my reason for disliking their praise was that I knew my poems weren't so great--which meant (by some sad process of reasoning) that the people who liked them were only revealing that they weren't so great, as readers, either. Basically, I didn't like what I saw in the mirror. =/

Sheila said...

Keep in mind that Little Women was semiautobiographical -- and that Louisa herself never married. (Why not? She never said, but she did say that she never managed to fall in love with a man, so perhaps that is why.) I think she was just being true to her source material by not letting Jo marry Laurie -- and by giving the not-very-good reasons for it that she does. Those were her real reasons, I'm guessing!

But then, of course, there was outcry amongst the readership and she had to invent Mr. Bhaer to keep everyone happy. I do remember later characters of hers making the (at the time quite socially unacceptable) decision to remain single on purpose. But in Little Women she wasn't quite ready to do that to her fanbase.

That's my opinion anyway! And I too would have much rather she'd just married Laurie. I know perfectly happy couples just as hotheaded as they are.

mrsdarwin said...

Fritz forever! One can, I suppose, make the case that a Jo and Laurie pairing might have made a certain dramatic sense, if Alcott had planned to end her story with Little Women (I'd forgotten that the second half was called Good Wives); I would argue that Jo and Fritz make much more human sense. I love that Jo moves beyond her little circle and meets someone in the outside world; I love that the Professor meets her as an adult and expects a certain maturity from her work; I love how Jo brightens his loneliness.

One of the best relationship bits in the book, I think, far more romantic than Amy and Laurie (though I think they're a good fit as a couple too, much better than Jo and Laurie could have been; they have the right things in common) is after Jo has left the boarding house, accidentally giving the Professor the impression that she is in love with Laurie. He is heartsore and lonely for Jo and weary, not with the trials of boyhood, like Laurie, but with the burdens of responsibility. Laurie burns and blunders like a pup; Professor Bhaer is a man, and the depth and force of his longing for home and family and Jo is breath-taking. Sexy isn't a word I use often as a compliment, but in this case (and probably no where else in Alcott) it's applicable.

I would agree, though, that as a matter of craft it doesn't seem as if Alcott had planned the Professor from the beginning, but I don't think that makes his inclusion a lesser ending for Jo. Life is richer than our teenage experiences -- thank God!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Sheila -- It's the whole idea of "doing something to" your fanbase that I'm not crazy about. For all I can see of the actual merits of Jo and Fritz's romance, I can't quite shake the knowledge that it started as a mean trick from someone who wanted to pull one over on people who were very supportive of her.

Mrs. Darwin -- I was also moved by Jo and Fritz's story, but there is at least one place where I don't think Little Women and Good Wives fit: although I suspended disbelief the first time I read it, I must admit that Alcott hasn't sold me on Jo's character development. I feel almost as if we started with Anne Shirley and ended up with Valancy Stirling!

But you are right that Laurie is still very immature at the end of Good Wives--something I do buy--and it is this, if anything, which makes Jo's refusal of his suit convincing.

Sullivan McPig said...

I never liked Laurie. Even when I read the book for the first time when I was 12 he felt too immature to me. I never felt he and Jo would make a good match.

Having sort of reread the book a few years ago (Little Women and Werewolves: one of the better mash-ups) I stand by my views. Professor Bhaer and Jo make a much better match imo.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I find it interesting that even as a pre-teen, you were finding some characters immature! You must have been ahead of the maturity curve, Sully. ;-)

There really is no getting around that Fritz and Jo are ultimately better off than Laurie and Jo. I really just can't get over Alcott's motivations in putting him into the story. He's like her Rita Skeeter.

DMS said...

I was just saying the other day that I need to reread Little Women. It has been ages since I read it. I never read the sequel- but after this thought-provoking post I am thinking I need to first read Little Women and then read Good Wives. Thanks for sharing!
~Jess

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

For a book I read over and over as a child, it still managed to surprise me when I gave it another try a few months ago. =) I hope that you enjoy your own reread, Jess!

Sullivan McPig said...

@Enbrethiliel: I might have been a peculiar kid. I was one of the few children who didn't like Pippi Longstocking because she was being too naughty imo. My mother is still stunned by how outraged I was. :-p