Photo: My own time-worn much-loved childhood copy of Little Women
For many years at Christmas time, I’d open up my childhood copy of Little Women and re-read my favorite parts. Little Women isn’t Christmas-themed, but it does begin with 15-year-old Jo March’s famous complaint: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”
Little Women is not about complaining, of course. After the four March sisters grumble a bit, they buck up and decide to spend their small savings on gifts for their mother, who is single parenting while their father is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. The family soon decides to be good Christians and give their Christmas breakfast to an impoverished German neighbor with six hungry children.
Since it was first published in 1868, Little Women has become an enduring classic, arguably due to tomboy Jo March, who yearned to be a writer (so did I). The novel has been turned into movies or TV productions several times, and this month a new one, directed by Greta Gerwig, premieres on Dec. 25—thus firmly linking it with Christmas. The internet has been abuzz with praise for the movie, which has already garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Jo.
I confess: I’ve never seen any of the Little Women adaptations, and it’s unlikely I’ll see this one, either. When I was a teen, I resisted all movie versions because I loved the book so much and was convinced any movie would ruin it. As I grew up and came out, I developed a different objection.
Allison Ashley @AllisonAuthorNext up: Worst book to film adaptation #writingcommunity
I’m sure Gerwig’s version is great, but over the years I’ve realized I don’t need or want to see anyone else’s interpretation of Little Women, because I’m satisfied with my own.
Admittedly, there’s nothing in the book that directly says Jo March is a big ol’ lesbian! And some readers now interpret Jo as transgender because of her repeated identification with masculine pursuits. Barely a few pages into the book, Jo declares: “It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.”
Others have interpreted Jo’s devoted and sometimes jealous love for her sisters and mother as homoerotic. Some have seen the same in her friendship with boy-next-door Theodore Laurence, who goes by the nickname Laurie (except Jo calls him Teddy). Laurie is an interesting guy because he loves spending all his spare time with four girls, and he doesn’t see anything wrong with treating Jo as a boyish equal. He’s sensitive and artistic, but also wealthy and handsome; he can be read as feminine or masculine.
In her essay “‘Queer Performances’: Lesbian Politics in Little Women,” Roberta Seelinger Trites writes: “If we interpret Laurie as feminized ... we can read nuances of a lesbian relationship in their friendship. If we interpret Jo as masculinized, we can read it as homosexual.”
However one reads Laurie, one thing is clear: Louisa May Alcott never intended for him and Jo to have a romantic relationship.
As soon as Little Women was published in 1868, readers started to clamor for Jo to marry Laurie. But Louisa would not give in to their demands, and wrote in her journal: “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”
Later, in a letter to Elizabeth Powell, Louisa wrote: “‘Jo’ should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect.”
That “funny match” that Louisa imagined is the reason I never re-read Little Women in its entirety. I always stop midway through—probably right before Meg gets married—and skip ahead to Amy March’s trip to Europe. I skip every scene involving Jo’s romance with a much older man named Professor Bhaer, which leads her to give up her writing dreams in order to become his wife. I was so disappointed in Jo’s choices. That “funny match” ruined Jo for me.
The reason I still remember Little Women with such fondness is not because of Jo, whom I loved first. It’s because of Amy, whom I loved last.
Everybody usually hates Amy March, the youngest sister who is admittedly quite a brat when the book begins. In one famous scene, she burns Jo’s manuscript after they get in a fight. That was indeed horrible, but I would argue that Jo almost allowing Amy to drown in an icy river as retribution is quite a bit worse!
I loved Amy because she wants to be an artist, and she never lets go of that dream. She pursues it actively. When she’s a young woman, she goes to Europe to paint, traveling to London and Paris and Nice and, eventually, Vevey in Switzerland. I loved reading about Amy’s travels, and I loved it even more when Laurie showed up.
At this point in the narrative, Laurie has recently proposed marriage to Jo, who has rejected him. Laurie is moody and dejected, but he’s still rich and well-connected, so he takes his young broken heart to Europe where he can be glamorously melancholy. He meets up with Amy in Nice, where he plays the part of heartbroken romantic hero, and she reveals herself to be all grown up. They’re given the chance to connect as adults rather than children, and their friendship soon moves into romantic territory. Laurie proposes to Amy in Vevey, Switzerland, a pretty town on Lake Geneva.
I’ve re-read that scene countless times, and though I’ve never heard much about Vevey outside of Little Women, I’ve long remembered its name.
Last year, my wife Amy (no relation to Amy March) and I went to France for the Women’s World Cup (yes, it was amazing!), and because many of the games would be in Lyon, we hunted around for nearby destinations we could also visit. As I looked at the map, I realized we’d be very close to Switzerland—and Lake Geneva—and Vevey.
Reader, we went to Vevey.
Photo: In June 2019, I took these photos of the gardens around the Musée Suisse du Jeu (Swiss Museum of Games), housed in the former castle of La Tour-de-Peilz, built in the 13th century by the Counts of Savoy.
“[Laurie] knew Vevay well; and as soon as the boat touched the little quay, he hurried along the shore to La Tour. ... the blonde mademoiselle might be in the chateau garden.” — Little Women, p. 558
Photo: The Lake Geneva-facing exterior of the Musée Suisse du Jeu.
“A pleasant old garden on the borders of the lovely lake, which chestnuts rustling overhead, ivy climbing everywhere, and the black shadow of the tower falling far across the sunny water. ” — Little Women, p. 558
Photo: On the ferry from Vevey to Lausanne, on Lake Geneva.
“They had been floating about all the morning, from gloomy St. Gingolf to sunny Montreux, with the Alps of Savoy on one side, Mont St. Bernard and the Dent du Midi on the other, pretty Vevay in the valley, and Lausanne upon the hill beyond, a cloudless blue sky overhead, and the bluer lake below, dotted with the picturesque boats that looked like white-winged gulls.” — Little Women, p. 562
Amy’s dreams came true in the end: She became an artist, and she married the person she loved.
Perhaps Louisa married Jo off to Professor Bhaer “out of perversity” because Louisa, who by all reports identified with Jo, could not give Jo the romance she truly desired.
In an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton for the book Our Famous Women: An Authorized Record of the Lives and Deeds of Distinguished American Women of Our Times, published in 1885, Louisa famously said: “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body. … because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
Although it’s tempting to view Louisa’s words through a twenty-first-century lens, we should keep in mind that in 1885, popular understandings of sexuality and gender were different. At that time, the concept of “inversion” was just being introduced by sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. A homosexual was believed to be an “invert,” or someone “whose physical gender did not match their mental gender” (Trites, “Queer Performance”). Today, we understand this as gender dysphoria, not sexual orientation. But in nineteenth-century America, these issues and identities were overlapping and confused in ways that aren’t directly comparable to what we know now.
I don’t think we’ll ever know for certain how Louisa thought of herself in terms of her sexual orientation or gender identity, and even if she were somehow able to explain it to us from the grave, her understanding of herself might not align with our current language around these identities. But I do believe that Louisa did not consider herself to be just like everyone else.
In that same interview, right before Louisa admits to having fallen in love with “so many pretty girls,” she jokingly compares herself to a horse. Here is the full passage:
“I have often thought,” she said, “that I may have been a horse before I was Louisa Alcott. As a long-limbed child I had all a horse’s delight in racing through the fields, and tossing my head to sniff the morning air. Now, I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body.”
“Why do you think that?” I asked, in the spirit of Boswell addressing Dr. Johnson.
“Well, for one thing,” and the blue-gray eyes sparkled with laughter, “because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls, and never once the least little bit with any man.”
Louisa, apparently, is making fun of herself. I can imagine her blue-gray eyes sparkling with a hint of Jo’s roguish grin as she answers the interviewer’s questions. “So many pretty girls,” she says with a wink, daring us to take her seriously.
Little Women is so well-known now that I feel as if it’s practically a fairy tale, ripe for retelling. If I were to retell it, Jo and Laurie would still be boyish best friends, but they would be two butches growing into their butchness together. Laurie would still mistake her friendship with Jo for first love, the way so many queer girls do. Laurie would swan off to Europe to mope, playing the piano moodily until she runs into Amy, Jo’s cute little sister who has grown up to be quite a pretty femme. They roam around Vevey together; Laurie carries her painting supplies and rows the boat for her. Amy finds herself inexplicably drawn to her sister’s best friend, and then she realizes what that means.
And because this is now a fantasy novel and not the real 1860s, Amy and Laurie get gay-married, while Jo doesn’t need to marry Professor Bhaer to maintain any semblance of heterosexuality. Instead, Jo falls in love with so many pretty girls, and she becomes a world-famous novelist, just like Louisa May Alcott.
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