Generally, I defend authors as being the most likely candidates to get a storyline right. They should know their characters better than anyone else, and their insights are very valuable—never to be discounted. Sometimes, though, I think an author’s prejudice or personal opinions can skew their understanding of their characters, and one major instance of this is in Little Women, in the relationship between Jo March and Laurie Laurence.

Supposedly, Ms. Alcott never wanted Jo to marry anyone, remaining single throughout the books, as she herself was in real life, but the clamor of the fans and probably the pressure of her publisher made her go a different route. (Perhaps she did it to spite her fans?) But I don’t feel like the first volume supported the second volume, and I think Jo would’ve fallen for Laurie, if the author hadn’t interfered.

First of all, there are plenty of textual examples of how much she cares for him. She was the one who longed to know him in the first place. She was the one who knew how to manage him, and while they had quarrels, they both shared the same interests. She defends him against anyone’s comments to the contrary, and considers him “her boy.” She flies at him to thank him for summoning her mother home, and he gives her a few kisses in exchange. And she doesn’t repulse them, just backs away, flustered, into the kitchen—exactly the kind of reception she’d have towards any young man she admired.

And while he thinks Meg is the most beautiful of the sisters, Jo is the one he likes the best. She manages to talk him out of his craziest schemes while participating in the more sane ones. They plot together for his inclusion in the Pickwick Club and in Beth’s Christmas present after she recovers. They share secrets with each other, and despite what she says about him and her writing when he proposes in the second volume, (that he would hate her “scribbling”), he does support her writing. When he first finds out that she’s submitted a story for publication, he rejoices and calls her “the celebrated American authoress.”

And, though he is rich, he is a bit eccentric. He doesn’t seem to go in for society anymore than Jo does (when she meets him, they are both trying to hide out in the same back room at a party, and proceed to dance down an empty hall). His elegance makes Jo want to rise to his level (she wishes her gloves were as nice as his, at one point) and her “freaks” keep him from being bored. And the narrator hinted that the post office set between her house and his would contain love letters in future days.

All this points to a perfect setup for Jo and Laurie to become a wonderfully passionate, happy couple. They are each other’s best friends, and while their temperaments are similar, in a big house, it really wouldn’t matter. They’d be able to get away from each other long enough to cool down and realize they both needed to apologize to the other (as they did at one point in the story, after Jo gets fidgety from too little work). While I think Jo and Professor Bhaer work—especially if we are looking at a conservative model of marriage, as was common for the time period—I think it isn’t as wonderful as Jo and Laurie could’ve been.

And the sequels seem to agree. In Good Wives (the second part of Little Women), Laurie thinks that only Amy could take Jo’s place, and we never see him and Amy and Jo together for any kind of duration after Amy and Laurie are a couple. When they are together, we see Jo and Laurie teasing each other, just as they always have done, and Amy just melts into the background. And it seems to get worse in Little Men and Jo’s Boys, the two other books in the series. Laurie and Jo have chats about how the boys are coming along, and he brings his daughter out to Jo’s school for a visit, leaving Amy behind. When he wants to share his thoughts about the growing family, he takes Jo around in the middle of the party, showing her the various groups and tableau.

I think Jo probably would’ve refused Laurie’s first proposal, if he went about it as he does in Good Wives, but I think he would’ve known that. I think it’s far more likely that he’d pull a Mr. Rochester and pretend to be interested in marrying someone else so that she would, in turn, realize how much he meant to her and fall in love.

In some ways, I feel that Professor Bhaer really just fills the role of father in Jo’s life, since her real father is nonexistent in the first volume of Little Women and only seems to come into his own once Demi, his grandson, shows up as a little philosopher.

All this isn’t to say that I hate the ending, as it is written. Jo and Professor Bhaer have a good relationship, and they seem be a solid couple. They just aren’t best friends. He seems to be the voice of wisdom and patience in her life—and not the love of her life.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by markgraf, Creative Commons

18 thoughts on “When the Author Gets It Wrong: Jo March and Laurie Laurence

  1. Thanks for an excellent post! I completely agree – and I do think that Jo would have fallen for Laurie had the plot been allowed to continue without Alcott’s interference.

    I think Jo and Laurie’s marriage would have been way ahead of its time. Victorian marriage was a thing of patriarchy, where women tended to give up on their dreams and become proper “little women” and wives and mothers. Jo and Laurie would have had a passionate, energetic, and yes at times tempestuous marriage. It would have been a relationship of equals, with a truly solid basis of a beautiful friendship underneath. This is hardly the marriage that was the norm during the times of LW; and Alcott herself preferred that Jo remain independent rather than marry – mainly because she couldn’t envisage what a modern successful marriage looked like. And thus due to the demands of the public and her publisher, set up proper conventional marriages in LW.

    Since Laurie is largely modeled after Ladislas Wisniewski, who Alcott certainly seems to have had romantic feelings for, and she based Jo largely on herself, I do think it makes sense that Jo and Laurie would have had a romantic relationship had Alcott permitted it. But alas, based on her diaries, her relationship with Laddie “couldn’t be” and so neither could Jo and Laurie’s marriage. I think it all would have turned out differently had it taken place today.

    Ah well, fun to speculate. Thanks for a wonderful post!

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts. That’s interesting, to think that Jo and Laurie mirrored the inevitability of real life, for the author. Makes you wonder how many authors happy or unhappy endings are based on their own perceptions of what can or cannot happen.

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  2. Thank you for this post – I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! I completely agree with your reading of the situation that Jo and Laurie seem to have been set up, then thwarted.

    Louisa May Alcott had originally written Little Women in two parts – Little Women and Good Wives (which I will be referring to as Part 1 and Part 2 henceforth). She wrote Part 1 at the request of her publisher for “a book for girls,” and had not imagined the success it would receive. Part 1 ended with Meg’s accepting John Brooke and Mr March’s safe return to the family, and it was the perfect stand alone book (this was actually how I first read Little Women – I didn’t realize Part 2 existed, until years later as an adult). The friendship between Jo and Laurie was deep, affectionate, and innocent – she could be completely herself with him, being free to write, run races, even serve salted strawberries, without a word of reproach (though of course with plenty of praise, egging, and teasing, in that order). He encouraged her to write, and she encouraged him not to be a dandy. She was there for him when he was sick, he was there for her when she needed her mother to return for Beth. I suspect Alcott was very aware she was setting up some romantic tension – but because she had been expecting Part 1 to be a stand alone book, and children were not expected to have any romances, that was fine (she didn’t expect to have to write the actual romance into being). It was a girls’ book after all, and I think she would have known that the Jo-Laurie tension would be something of a hit.

    I just don’t think she expected Part 1 to be THAT much of a hit – or the clamor that followed from readers demanding a sequel that would reveal first and foremost whether Jo and Laurie were to marry in the end (and who the other sisters married, as well – but I believe the preoccupation was predominantly with Jo and Laurie). And that really quite aggravated her, and I completely understand why! Imagine writing into being a character such as Jo March, who is talented, driven, and accomplished – and instead of your readers asking, “So does Jo end up getting her castle in the air, where she travels about writing books and becoming a famous author after all?” they’re asking, “So how does Jo get together with Laurie?” Also, Jo was the character based on herself – and she had intended for Jo to remain single, as she had. But her publisher, and readers, demanded a marriage for Jo March – and so she deliberately set about making “a funny match” for her heroine.

    And this is where Part 2 comes in – because she’s already written such a set up for Jo and Laurie in Part 1, she has to then systematically undo that in order to not have to write them into marriage in Part 2. First she has to besmirch Laurie a bit, so that people won’t want to see him with Jo (or at least, I think that was the idea) – from Meg’s wedding we’re given the impression that Laurie has fallen into some bad habits or vices in college; we’re told that he falls in with college fashions, spends a truckload on clothing, flirts incessantly and falls in love with a different woman every month. Sure, he studies hard on his last year of college, but that was only so he could impress Jo, and ask her to marry him the moment he graduates (at which point his only ambition is to not carry on with his grandfather’s ships – he has no other idea what to do with his life. Contrast this with Jo – who at this stage, is already a published author of not only articles but a whole book). Then, Alcott has Marmee give Jo the advice that that they suit very well as friends, but they would not suit as a married couple (and has Jo ever gone against Marmee’s wishes, or not trusted her advice?) – advice that Jo then can reiterate to Laurie as justification for her refusing his hand in marriage (and how can Laurie possibly argue against Marmee, who he loves as his own mother?).

    During her refusal, there were also some rather confusing remarks like Jo’s saying “you’re a great deal too good for me,” and “you would hate my scribbling,” which really baffled me, because Laurie had always shown her the best of support for her writing, and she had never used such language as ‘too good for someone’ before (and it doesn’t seem to fit her worldview of people – she disagrees with Amy wholeheartedly about showing nicer manners to rich people over poor people, and treating people better the more highly ranked they are – so the whole “too good for me” thing struck me as quite strange). And I agree with your point that Laurie never went in for society either, so Jo’s argument for not being together based on Laurie’s needing a fine hostess for a wife also doesn’t quite fit – unless you buy into Alcott’s portrayal of Laurie in Part 2, where upon entering college, he seems to abandon his personality and character in Part 1, and becomes someone who loves society, fashion, seeks a wife who is fashionable and fits into society, and hates reformers who scribble like Jo (that’s what Jo seems to say of him, and Laurie doesn’t refute her).

    And I suppose that what was ultimately disappointing for me about the Jo and Laurie scenario – you’ve put it very nicely, they would have naturally come together, had Part 2 followed the story set up in Part 1, and their characters would have grown and been sharpened as iron sharpens iron. Part 2 Laurie, instead of throwing away his talent and potential on flirting in college then brooding in Europe, would’ve knuckled down, studied, written some brilliant music, learned some business skills, then courted Jo with a vengeance that would’ve put even Fitzwilliam Darcy to shame. Jo would’ve written her stories, and filled them with the sort of humor, friendship and romance that can only be written from experience, and they would have had adventures. Jo would have been softened by Laurie’s affectionate teasing, and Laurie would have been intellectually challenged by Jo’s curiosity and ambition. Ahhh, if only.

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      1. LOL I don’t know about a talented fan, but I had a go of it 😉 (I married my own best friend, and it all started with doodling about how the proposal might have gone while on holiday and it sort of took a life of its own from there – posted on fanfiction called March and Laurence – an alternate ending to Little Women.)

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  3. i totally agree with your remarks about the books in the series following Good Wives. I feel like there are these little moments between Jo and Laurie in Little Men and Jo’s Boys that really underscore how much they still mean to each other. as you said, Amy and the Professor just seem to fade into the background by comparison.

    and i sometimes think that Laurie’s kindness to Dan could be influenced by some perception of Dan as the son that he and Jo might have had – handsome, strong, reckless and intelligent and brave.

    anyway, loved this post and agree 100%!

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    1. I know, the narrative of Little Men and Jo’s Boys really seems to show how close they still were and Amy disappears, almost as much as Meg’s John. I can’t help but wish she’d written it differently, to where Jo and Teddy had married and run the boys’ school instead.

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