Good Wives is the sequel to Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, & Amy, often published together in the same book. Nowadays, most people don’t realize they are reading two very different books, but there was a year’s gap between the original publication of part one and part two, and it seems the choices Louisa May Alcott made for the sequel were not necessarily planned ahead of time.
She doesn’t seem certain there will be a sequel, since the first volume ends by stating “[T]he curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given the first act…”
When I first read the two volumes, I took everything more or less at face value, but rereading them late last year made me realize how off-course the whole thing became. First, Beth’s near-death in book one was, I always felt, the stronger ending for her character. It was moving, it was sad and meaningful; it would’ve given all kinds of character-growth opportunities for her sisters. Her partial recovery just felt unsatisfactory, because she never becomes a major character again. (In my young imagination, I always had her live and go on to marry Laurie, because if he couldn’t marry Jo, I wanted him to marry someone else other than Amy. Click here for my defense on Jo and Laurie as a good couple that should’ve happened.)
Still, Ms. Alcott does a great job making such a mismatch believable. So here, in six easy steps, is her recipe to marrying off the wrong couples.
- Give yourself a nice gap of time between the first and second novels. There’s nothing like time to explain away changes. By sending Laurie off to college, and mentioning his flirtations there, Ms. Alcott helps make any change in Jo’s attitude towards Laurie more believable.
- Start throwing your new couple together, in little throwaway lines that no one sees as important. As soon as the second volume gets underway, we start seeing Laurie paired off with Amy as frequently as possible without becoming heavy-handed. At the wedding, he takes her hand and goes off promenading (leaving Jo behind; nothing is mentioned of it). He gives Amy a charm as a joke after her luncheon disaster; earlier, he never gave presents to her. He goes with her father to see her off on the boat that takes her to Europe, and we hear she says her last words to him, not her father, strangely enough.
- Introduce the other candidate for marriage before the first fellow proposes. Mr. Bhaer gets a chance to win our hearts before we see him as the reason for Laurie’s rejection. Jo runs off to New York and spends a winter there, and she and Mr. Bhaer become friends. This helps keep Mr. Bhaer from feeling like a complete afterthought.
- Don’t let your “red herring suitors” ever get a real scene. While in Europe, Amy reconnects with Fred Vaughn, a young man she’d met in the first volume. He’s changed from the cheating, competitive, freakish youngster he’d been, but we never get to actually see him. He’s mentioned in the correspondence between Amy and her family, and then in a summarized passage later, so we never have a chance to get to know the new Fred, and root for him and Amy to be a couple. This way, he doesn’t even have a chance.
- Keep the right couple, which you don’t want together, away from each other. Jo goes off to New York, and then, right after she gets back, Laurie goes off to Europe to join Amy. If he’d stayed in America, Jo and Laurie’s mutual attraction would’ve been very difficult to overcome, but since he was gone, he could easily forget his love for Jo, and we could be reconciled to such a state of affairs. Also, he could develop a relationship with Amy without Jo’s presence there to overshadow and throw things off.
- Make it seem inevitable. Lines like “Amy felt that no one could comfort and sustain her so well as Laurie” and “Amy was the only woman in the world who could fill Jo’s place and make him happy” make us feel bad if we still demand a different outcome. After all, Jo was trying to get Meg to marry Laurie in the first volume, to keep everyone she cared about in the family. In the second volume, she tries to get out of the way for Beth to marry Laurie, and then thinks Amy would be a good match. When Amy and Laurie are finally engaged, everyone in the book is happy about it. Why shouldn’t we be, too?
- Marry off the wrong couple with as little writing as possible. We don’t have much of a proposal between Amy and Laurie, and we don’t get to attend the wedding. We rarely get to see the two of them together at all after they fall in love with each other, so we can’t critique their behavior and whether it’s really love this time or just contrived.
- Don’t let your heroine fall in love with anyone until the end of the book. This keeps the fans happier. In Jo’s case, there are hints that Mr. Bhaer cares for her more than as a friend, but he says nothing until we know that Laurie is already married to Amy. Thus, the fans of Laurie are kept from seeing Mr. Bhaer in an evil light, as an interloper and a pest. Jo doesn’t love anyone when she turns down Laurie’s offer, so it isn’t his fault that Laurie got rejected.
So there you are. It may make some readers unhappy, but at least it doesn’t feel completely fake and contrived.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren