Jo’s evolution as a creative, and as a woman

jo writing (norman rockwell)What did Jo March  mean when she said she wanted to create something “spendid?”

Perhaps gaining recognition for her writing. Maybe even being hailed as a great writer. Writing a book of artistic merit and universality that would stand the test of time.

Yet we find in Little Women that Jo’s goals would evolve from that solitary act of writing into a communal creation: a school for boys, founded in partnership with her new husband, Professor Bhaer. In the end, I believe she satisfied her desire to create something “splendid.”

Why caused her goals to change?

I’d like to offer my opinion and then I’d love to hear from you!

Here’s my theory.

A necessary act

joWriting was a legitimate and necessary creative activity for Jo. It helped her to release the tremendous energy inside of her that otherwise might have expressed itself in negative ways.  She had talent and much to share.

A practical way to help

Never happy to sit on the sidelines, Jo used her writing to help her family in practical ways as they coped with Mr. March’s absence along with poverty. Besides providing money, her stories entertained the others.

A means of retreat

Writing was a means of escape. Holed up in the garret, Jo could avoid dealing with growing up, something with which she was in open rebellion.

Meg and John get married; Father presides.

Meg and John get married; Father presides.

She fought vehemently against the idea of the family unit being changed with the addition of boyfriends/husbands (recalling her reaction to Meg and John, and her rejection of Laurie as a husband). As long as the immediate family remained intact, she could continue as she was. Womanhood was a frightening prospect as Jo feared it would restrain her spirit. She was like a wild colt refusing to be broken.

A means of verification

burning fireplaceWriting verified Jo as a person when nothing else would. When Amy destroyed Jo’s manuscript it was like Jo herself was burnt to a crisp in the fireplace. I believe Jo perceived Amy’s deed as an act of violence against her very self; therefore the depth of her rage was justified in her own mind, until it put Amy’s own life in peril. It was at this point that Jo’s creative energy (anger being a great force) posed a danger to herself and others.

A way to avoid the truth

Writing was an act that drew Jo into herself, far away from the real world into that safe place of fantasy which gave her consolation. Sometimes that withdrawal could be beneficial, particularly when her emotions were getting the better of her. But often that withdrawal was an escape from a reality she had to face–she could not remain a child forever.

The turning point

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

I believe the watershed moment for Jo was in her grief after she lost Beth.

Anyone who has grieved over someone knows that such a time can transform one’s life. Whether that transformation takes you forward in growth or leaves you behind, mired in the mud, is a singular choice.

A new idea of “splendid”

At first, willing to do anything to please the sister she so loved and admired, Jo agreed to Beth’s terms: to leave behind her old ambitions of doing something “splendid” to take on the more noble (and needed) task of caring for her parents. She soon found her promise hard to keep when faced with the prospect of living it out without the physical presence of her sister nearby as example:

“… something like despair came over her when she thought of spending all her life in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures, and the duty that never seemed to grow any easier. ‘I can’t do i. I wasn’t meant for a life like this, and I know I shall break away and do something desperate if somebody doesn’t come and help me.’ she said to herself, when her first efforts failed and she fell into the moody, miserable state of mind which often comes when strong will have to yield to the inevitable.” (from Chapter 42 of Little Women)

A desire to be good

As Jo had lost herself in her writing, she had also been consumed with nursing Beth. Louisa May Alcott herself believed she had a call to nursing that was nearly as strong as her call to be a writer. It was what gave her the courage to become a Civil War nurse. I believe that in nursing Beth (or in Louisa’s case, Lizzie), Jo found a way to be truly virtuous–acting out of sacrificial love for her sister. As much as she desired to live out her creative life, Jo wished also to be good. It was Louisa’s wish too, ingrained in her from her earliest days.

Finding consolation outside of writing

Where once writing provided the consolation, now the counsel of mother and father provided the comfort. Jo was learning to reach out to others rather than retreat into her fantasy world. While she had certainly confided in her parents before, it was more as a child looking for direction. Now she could confide in her parents as an equal, woman to woman, and woman to man:

“Then, sitting in Beth’s little chair close beside him, Jo told her troubles … she gave him entire confidence, he gave her the help she needed, and both found consolation in the act. For the time had come when could talk together not only as father and daughter, but as man and woman, able and glad to serve each other with mutual sympathy as well as  mutual love.” (Ibid)

Moving forward

Jo agreed to the process of the grief journey,  moving ahead rather than staying behind. She soon grew to find meaning in the mundane household tasks:

“Brooms and dish cloths never could be as distasteful as they once had been, for Beth had presided over both, and something of her housewifely spirit seemed to linger around the little mop and the old bush, never thrown away.” (Ibid)

The beginning of adulthood

In the process, a change took place within Jo, a capacity to long for love outside of her immediate family unit. It was the beginning of her maturing into an adult. Meg saw the potential, urging Jo to consider love:

“It’s just what you need to bring out the tender womanly half of your nature, Jo. You are like a chestnut burr, prickly outside, but silky-soft within, and a sweet kernal, if one can only get at hit. Love will make you show your heart one day, and the rough burr will fall off.” (Ibid)

And indeed, grief would prove to be the tool that would pave the way for “Grief is the best opener” as Louisa writes in chapter 42.

Learning to be herself

Little Women October 12, 2004 Credit Photo ©Paul Kolnik NYCJo tried to justify that living for her parents and not for herself was the “something splendid” that she had desired, but in fact that “something” was missing. In denying herself and living as Beth would, Jo was not living the life to which she was called. The suppression of her creative energy depleted that which fueled her joy, which made life exciting and delicious. It took her mother urging her to write again, even if just to entertain the family, for Jo to find that energy again and bring it back to life. It eventually lead to real success for her as a writer.

Issuing an invitation

And in the end it would be a poem she had written about the four chests in the garret that would issue an invitation (unbeknown to her) to a certain professor to seek out the woman he loved. This time she was ready, having recognized the loneliness in her life:

“I’d like to try all kinds. It’s very curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of natural affections, the more I seem to want. I’d no idea hearts could take in so many. Mine is so elastic, it never seems full now, and I used to be quite contented with my family. I don’t understand it.” (Ibid)

In this admission, Jo embraced adulthood, seeing beyond her tight family unit for the first time.

Lost or found?

jo and professor bhaerSome would argue that Jo in fact lost herself becoming a woman as she did not, in the end, become a writer. Instead, she marries her professor and founds a school for boys with him, using a gift from a most unexpected source–Aunt March’s Plumfield.

Was Jo’s evolution a sell-out by the author?

While it is well known that Louisa would have preferred keeping Jo single and writing, I do not get the sense that Jo was at all unhappy or feeling compromised with her decision to marry or to found the school. It is true that Louisa was compelled by her publisher and her fans to give Little Women a more conventional ending but the evolution of her fictional self from “wild colt” to mature woman felt natural to me. The creative energy Jo had once poured into writing could now be poured into making life better for unfortunate boys. Anyone who has been a teacher knows the creative fire burns bright within, expressing itself in so many ways.

Creativity and community

the boys at plumfieldJo had evolved from a solitary, strong-willed child who sought escape in her creativity (and who sometimes was controlled by its darker side), to a woman comfortable within a community, using her creativity to make life better for others. It is my belief that the giving away of what we have (and having it accepted gratefully by others) makes makes the creative act worthwhile and satisfying.

Jo March succeeded in her desire to create something “splendid.”

That’s my theory; what’s yours? Go for it!

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Thoughts on Little Women the second time around–seeing Jo in a new light

I have just finished my second reading of Little Women. Both times I have listened to the free audio book on Librivox.com. The first time around wasn’t too bad until I got into the crux of Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer in chapter 46. The reader unfortunately had such a loud and grating voice that it totally ruined that chapter for me.

A dramatic reading

This time around I found a dramatic reading of the book which was done almost to perfection. The narrator (who also took on the role of Jo) was superior in every way. All the main parts were done well although it took awhile to accept Laurie’s voice.

Never fails to please

It is amazing how much this book yields in multiple readings! It’s a different book each time. But then you long-time fans know that already, don’t you? For some of you, it’s a yearly habit. I can certainly see why.

Changing view of Jo—her rite of passage

WinonaJoMarchThe first time I read Little Women I was put off by Jo and favored Amy. Jo was frankly rude, obnoxious and self-absorbed at times (part of being a teenager) and because I had spent so much time with her real life counterpart, Jo seemed a shadow of Louisa.

From this second reading I have a much better sense of Jo. Her rite of passage from the awkward teenager who never wanted to grow up to the mature and more sober woman of twenty-five moved me. Louisa did an outstanding job of tracing Jo’s journey to maturity and revealing some of herself in the process. Her grief over the loss of Beth and how she carried on in the aftermath transformed her heart, making it ready to love someone beyond her immediate family.

A perfect match

jo marchMany readers see her capitulating to marriage but I don’t see it that way. I still maintain that Professor Bhaer was the perfect match for her (and I’ve often entertained the idea that he was Louisa’s ideal for a husband who for her, did not exist in real life). Jo grew to be a better writer for having grown within herself, writing from that true place in her heart. (Oh, and by the way, Jo mentioned a few times that Laurie disapproved of her writing).

A quiet revolution

jo and professor bhaerShe and Fritz lived the companionate marriage that Louisa dreamed of and wrote about in Work A Story of Experience. Jo and Fritz shared everything, from meaningful work to family life. This in and of itself was a quiet revolution, illustrating a marriage between equals. I had missed the fact in my first reading that Jo actually was the one to plant the first kiss! Loved that. How like our Jo!

Ever present spiritual guide

jo and bethLittle Women began to shed light on a burning question I have entertained since I got interested in Elizabeth Alcott. Louisa often mentioned that her late sister Lizzie was her “spiritual guide” but she never detailed any of that in her journals or letters. I wondered then how that idea manifested itself in her life. Of course her books provide the answer. From chapter 40 on when Beth dies, I began see how real life Lizzie influenced her older sister. And I intend to go over those chapters carefully (especially 40 and 42) to find out more.

A treasure trove

little women in the garretThere is so much treasure to unearth between the lines of this book. And many universal themes, themes that do apply to today if you work at it a little bit. Thank goodness for places like Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House where the spirit of Little Women is kept alive for generations to come.

Speaking to you and me

little women 190I am late to Little Women, very late. Most of you are probably saying, “Of course! Duh!” This book has spoken to you throughout your lives. In my late fifties, it is now speaking to me.

That’s the mark of a true classic. Little Women is no mere “children’s” book. It’s a book for every age.

Your thoughts?

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part four: The All-American Novel makes a cherished dream come true

COVERLittle did Louisa May Alcott know that when she wrote Little Women, her classic book based upon her own family life and their “queer” adventures, she was writing the story that was on the heart of all Americans.

Universal family

It was time when American yearned for its own literature, its own family. The March family was quintessential New England and yet their story transcended New England, having, as Madeleine Stern put it, “a more universal reality than that of a single village.”

The emerging adolescent

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenCharacters were composites, real people sprinkled with fiction. For the first time teenaged readers met themselves: adolescent characters navigating through the daily trials and triumphs, emerging into adulthood.

Four different journeys

Meg begins her own family with John. Jo strikes out on her own as a working woman and writer, living far away from home New York City. Amy evolves into a woman of grace, leaving behind selfish impulses and eventually leading Laurie to his better self. Beth was not destined to enter the world of adults but left behind an example and a spirit that guided her sister Jo to a place where she could reconcile her ambitions with her love of family.

Universal home

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Stern writes, “Then the families of the nation might open the door of Hillside to find not the Marches, but themselves waiting within. Under the roof of one New England home, they would see all the homes of America.”

Surviving manuscript

Writing at astonishing speed (completing one chapter each day), Louisa filled the lined blue papers with a story “that knew no bounds of geography, no limits of time.” Some of this manuscript survives, ready for viewing in the Special Collections room at the Concord Library.

Determined spinster

Louisa_May_AlcottPart two of Little Women, dubbed Good Wives, was written not at Orchard House but in Boston on Brookline Street. The demands of readers were great, such was the price of success, a success she had dreamed of since being a teenager herself. Yes, the girls would marry even though she wished that Jo could have remained like herself, a “literary spinster.” It was not from lack of suitors. George Bartlett, a fellow actor in the local theatricals, offered his help in reading the proofs of the first part of the book and his help was gratefully accepted. His attentions upon the “chronic old maid,” however were politely rebuffed.

A fancy hotel and a simple story

FileHotelBellevue-Boston-BlueBook1905.pngMoving with May into the new Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street, Louisa continue work on the second half of the book while receiving her first royalties totally three hundred dollars for three thousand copies sold. Here she relived the pain of Lizzie’s death, brought Amy and Laurie together in a boat they would pull together and had Professor Bhaer serenade Jo with the song Louisa herself had sung for Mr. Emerson.

Dream come true

Stern writes, “Devoutly Louisa hoped that the new year of 1869 would bring to the Orchard House a happy harvesting from the tears and laughter she had sowed in the book where she had found her style at last.” It would come to pass with a harvest pressed down, shaken together, and running over, as it says in the scriptures. “The long-standing hurts were healed, the reception of the March family into the hearts of New England proved a timely restorative to one who had created that family.”

Dreams do come true (just ask any Red Sox fan!).

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“The March Sisters at Christmas:” So, what did you think?

I went into this movie preparing to hate it. I don’t watch Lifetime and am not a huge fan of “chick flicks” (with the exception of “Pretty Woman” – Richard Gere <sigh> :-)

I am also wary of fan fiction surrounding Little Women although The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly and March by Geraldine Brooks were both terrific.

However, “The March Sisters at Christmas” proved to be a very pleasant surprise. Here’s what made it work for me:

Chemistry

These four women were very appealing. Many of my favorite scenes featured the four sisters together. Kudos to director John Stimpson for choosing the right people and creating a real sisterhood that was so key to the original story of Little Women. I also loved the chemistry between Jo and Teddy (and liked the fact that Laurie was known as Teddy). My only complaint was that he was a little too much in the beef cake department. :-)

Twists and turns

I liked the way the movie was not literally faithful to the book but was faithful in spirit.  All the different twists in the movie made perfect sense. Amy as a theatrical rather than an artist worked for me (and coincidentally, she was also portrayed that way in The Little Women Letters) – it brought in both the theatrics from the story and Amy’s artist temperament.

Jo was perfect. My husband at one point said that Jo was “annoying” and she was in the original story – abrasive and bossy, but also generous and kindhearted.

Meg was almost overly motherly, especially towards Beth; I liked the fact that it wasn’t certain at first between Meg and John and that there was another man in the mix.

Beth is a hard character to bring to the 21st century and at times the other sisters seemed to treat her as if she needed therapy because she lacked ambition and confidence. I was glad to see the kindness that is Beth’s most sterling quality brought forth with the Christmas presents.

Plot twists

I loved the brewing feud between Jo and Amy, playing itself out with an “evil” tweet! It wasn’t evident right away how Amy would get her revenge (I thought she was going to cut the power in the house and cause Jo to lose her story) and her injury from the water heater which brought Jo to her senses worked for me.

The writing

I appreciated the fact that the writer(s) had actually studied the book and remained faithful to it while at the same time showing some imagination in how the story would play out in current time. It again confirmed what all us Little Women fans know – that this story is universal.

What didn’t work

What didn’t quite work for me was how Jo and Teddy’s relationship worked out. It seemed like two weeks was not nearly enough time for Teddy to get over Jo and fall in love with Amy. But that’s TV for you! I also felt that Jo’s relationship with Marcus Bhaer was rushed and underdeveloped. Still, I liked the fact that he was the one holding back rather than Jo.

The verdict?

I really enjoyed “The March Sisters at Christmas” and was very pleasantly surprised. It was a lot of fun to watch (especially spotting the scenes from my hometown. And yes, I spotted all the Concord scenes too!).

You can catch “The March Sisters at Christmas” again today at 5pm on Lifetime. I have it on my DVR.

So, what did you think?
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Little Women on the stage – a Concord Players’ tradition

Julius and Nancy Gluck

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of seeing the Concord Players‘ historic production of Little Women with one of you! Nancy Gluck of the Silver Threads blog along with her lovely husband were spending the weekend in Concord (she is preparing a 5-part series on Louisa May Alcott for her adult education class). We thought it would be most appropriate to meet for the first time while seeing Little Women and we had a wonderful time kabitzing.

Louisa May Alcott and her sister Anna helped found the Concord Players (once known as the Concord Dramatic Union) in 1856; when introducing the play, Michael Govang (John Brooke) referred to Louisa as their “patron saint.”

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

Since 1932, the Concord Players have staged Little Women every ten years (with the exception of 1942, because of the war). It began in 1932 as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Louisa’s birth. Two cast members were direct descendants of Anna – Louisa Alcott Kussin (Meg) and Bronson Alcott Pratt (Father).

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Orchard House as a museum, making this year’s production historic.

A direct descendant of the family was in the ensemble (Louisa Alcott Yamartino) who is co-owner of fritz & gigi, The Children’s Shop in Concord with her sister, Karen. According to the program, “the business is run by a third generation of the family and is celebrating 75 years in business this year.” Louisa is the great, great, granddaughter of Anna.

The play was written by a local, David Fielding Smith, and features Jo acting as both narrator and character. The quick pacing and energetic performances made this play a joy to watch.

Beth and Jo at the seashore.

Casting on the  most part was perfect. Nicole Dunn took the part of Jo and perfectly embodied Jo’s spirit. I truly could feel Jo’s love for her sisters, her buoyancy and joy for life and writing, and the desperation when Amy fell through the ice, and Beth caught scarlet fever. The scene between her and Beth at the seashore brought tears to my eyes.

It is interesting to note that Dunn had never read Little Women although she had seen the 1994 film (read an interview with her here). She was Jo and I will forever think of her whenever I read Little Women.

David N. Rogers took the part of Laurie. I wasn’t quite sure about him until the pivotal scene between Laurie and Jo when Jo tells her boy that she doesn’t love him. Here Rogers shown, exploding with deeply felt passion.

Marmee reads a letter from Father to the girls.

Jan Turnquist, the executive director of Orchard House, revived her role as Marmee. Jan is such an integral part of Louisa’s continuing legacy that it seemed very fitting to have her there as Marmee.

Kimberly Rochette‘s Meg and Amelie Lasker‘s Beth were both perfect. My only disappointment was the choice for Amy (Molly Weinberg) as the portrayal was somewhat two-dimensional. I had a hard time accepting the actress especially when Amy became an adult. There was no chemistry between her and Laurie.

I wish the part of Professor Bhaer had been larger because the actor, Julio Gomez, was terrific. Michael Govang was very good as John Brooke and Marcella Fischer provided comic relief as Aunt March.

Knowing how connected the Concord Players is with town, Louisa’s ancestors and her history made this production extra special.

Nancy secured us seats in the third row giving me a perfect position to capture the play on film. Enjoy the slide show!

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The Concord Players also produced a promotional video with background and scenes:

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Take 5 minutes to enjoy Little Women Wynona-style

I found this video via Suck My Alcott – Six snarky chicks who dig Louisa Maythe 1994 version of Little Women condensed into under 5 minutes (with music by Savage Garden – used to love those guys!).

It’s cool, raw and rainy today but for about 5 minutes, it got warm and cozy. Enjoy!

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Finally saw the 1994 film of Little Women

I suppose if I’m going to be so long in reading Little Women , I might as well be long in seeing the film too! My lovely husband, keenly aware of my interest, set the DVR to tape Little Women on the Oprah Winfrey Network so I could watch it (awfully nice, thanks Rich!). I watched it last night with my daughter and we both enjoyed it a lot although the commercial interruptions on OWN are absolutely horrible and so frequent!

I don’t consider my 22 year old daughter to be the sentimental type at all but she really seemed to enjoy the movie. I did too even though it took great liberty with the story (Jo writing Little Women??). It did capture the spirit of the book and the scenery was beautiful. Orchard House looked splendid!

I very much liked Winona Ryder as Jo, her performance was very spirited. I always thought of Jo as much taller so I was surprised that detail was overlooked. There was great chemistry between Jo and Laurie (and none between Amy and Laurie – more on that in a moment); Christian Bale is sweet to the eyes. :-) Professor Bhaer was a bit too handsome but his face was very kindly as I would expect.

I didn’t care for Susan Sarandon as Marmee and I’m not sure why. It seemed like she came off as preachy. Marmee can be preachy but once I got into the into the character, I forgot about that. Sarandon never made me forget it.

Claire Danes did Beth to perfection but it was almost spooky during the final death scene with the look in her eye.

I missed the first part of the movie so I never really got to see the younger Amy, but the mature Amy really seemed to be lacking in spirit, and that’s why there was no chemistry between her and Laurie. I know Amy becomes a proper lady but I never got the impression she was lacking in spirit. I was very disappointed in this film’s depiction of my favorite character.

Meg was Meg, nothing more to say on that. :-) Oh, and I loved Aunt March. :-)

I bawled like a baby through the movie and not just during Beth’s death scene. The anniversary of my mother’s passing is coming up in April and she’s been on my mind a lot lately. This story really makes me feel close to her so I missed her a lot last night while watching it. My daughter tactfully left me alone while I cried and I’m grateful to her. :-)

Now the funny thing is that during the ALA workshop, several of the librarians and scholars said that they preferred June Allyson as Jo. I never could imagine Allyson in the part but now I’ll have to search out that movie and see it too. And of course, I must catch Hepburn’s performance!