Updates to blog pages

Be sure and check out all the new books I added to My Growing Library after I went on a shopping spree! No less than 11 new books (almost all at bargain prices, what fun!). I’ve put an * next to books I’ve either read or are in the middle of reading. Slow going but lots of fun!

Plus, I’ve added a wonderful photo album to the Audio/Visual page from Harriet Reisen’s site. There were several pictures I hadn’t seen before.


Setting the stage for a major disappointment

Louisa knew she was about to inflict a major blow on her fans. Countless girls had implored and demanded that Jo and Laurie be married, but the stubborn author refused to give in. She never wanted Jo to marry in the first place but figured she’d create a “funny match for her” instead (see my post on “Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?“). I went along for the ride and felt pretty good about Professor Bhaer as her impending spouse, and felt he was a good match for her.

So it caught me by surprise as I read chapter 35, Heartache, and found myself weeping as Laurie desperately declared his love for Jo since I knew it would lead to nowhere happy nor good. I didn’t realize how vested I was in the character of Laurie and his love of Jo. Although I still feel Professor Bhaer is the best match for her, I couldn’t help but think that Jo worked a little too hard to push him away as if she had to convince herself that loving him in that way wasn’t right for her.

This is the one place in Little Women where the logic of the story fails. In the author’s real life, there were many good reasons why she feared marriage and fiercely remained a spinster. Louisa had witnessed her mother’s suffering over the years being married to her immensely impractical and self-absorbed father (and no, I don’t hate Bronson Alcott, he had many stellar qualities along with as many fatal flaws). She nursed feelings of betrayal when her father nearly abandoned her mother and family after the Fruitlands debacle. This was after the family suffered incredible poverty, nearly starving and freezing to death because her father and other members of the community wouldn’t or couldn’t do the labor required to make Fruitlands work. Louisa suffered real trauma as a result of Fruitlands, and that was only one of many incidents that shaped her view of marriage. To Louisa, marriage was slavery – the end of her independence, which meant more to her than love.

She infuses this aversion of marriage into Jo but without the experiences of life that shaped that aversion. Jo, for all intents and purposes, grew up in a very happy home where the marriage of her mother and father was sound and good. There’s no reason offered for Jo’s aversion to marriage except that she was “odd” – a rebellious, passionate and fiercely independent girl. There’s no premise for the thought that marriage to Laurie (or any man) would entail loss of freedom. For example, I always found her reaction to Meg’s engagement and marriage as unnatural.  At one point she even wished she could “marry” Meg to keep her in the family! Quite a strong, and odd, reaction in my view.

So it’s no wonder that her contemporary readers cried “foul” at the pairing of Jo and Professor Bhaer even though Louisa laid out a good case for it in chapters 33 and 34. But the logic of her lawyer-like argument could not blunt the blow. After all, everyone loved Laurie. He also seemed perfect for Jo – dear trusted friend, handsome, charming, intelligent and good, yet high spirited like her. It was the dearest wish to see the two of them married and living happily ever after.

I guess through my tears I was crying “foul” too, despite myself. But I must admit, it makes the story a lot more compelling in the long run.

Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)

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Our winner just got her book :-)

Here’s our winner, Mia, with her copy of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriett Reisen.  Her kitten, Pupi, is reading with her. 🙂

Here’s what she said about it:

“I got the book yesterday, some, let’s see 28 hours ago. I love it! Started reading from the very first page and I’m on the 117 page now, chapter “The Happiest years of my Life.” It reads so well, I love how Abby is portrayed and all those family life details. Everything is so familiar yet new and interesting. I’ve never read any LMA biography before, though Keyser’s Portable Louisa May Alcott  gives her life chronology and her view on her life in an Introduction. And there are valuable Memoirs, Letters and Journals contained.

The paperback version (which Mia won) was released on October 26.

pssst! I will be talking with Harriet Reisen soon and will post an interview with her in the future, stay tuned . . .

Want to know more about Louisa? Lots of new links added to this site

Be sure and check out a new page added to the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion blog known as Other Sites of Interest. Here you will find links to brief biographies, bibliographies, commentary (both modern and from contemporaries), news articles from the NY Times archives, critical essays and even an Alcott Challenge!

I can’t wait to start digging into some of these critical essays myself. Have fun exploring!

Jo’s choice

In Chapter 34, “A Friend,” Jo makes not one but two choices. One is exceedingly difficult, the other flows from the first. The choice most commented upon is her decision to give up writing sensational thrillers. Modern feminist critics look to this chapter as a death of sort, of Jo’s independent self (see Little Women The Norton Critical Edition and the essay by Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant entitled “The Horror of Little Women.”). I believe this is a narrow interpretation of what transpired, and it points out to me anyway, yet again, why the modern feminist movement makes me uncomfortable.

I do not reject feminism outright; if I did, I wouldn’t be so fascinated with Louisa May Alcott, who devoted many of her writings and much energy to feminist causes. In Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen  notes that Louisa followed in her mother’s footsteps, embracing the issue of woman suffrage (pg. 265). To advance the cause of a woman’s right to vote (moving towards equality), women  in the 1870s strove first to secure the vote in local town elections. Reisen writes that, “Louisa proudly wrote in her journal, ‘was the first woman to register my name as a voter.’ ” (pg. 266). Louisa found, however, that women were not anxious to vote, citing such excuses as “jelly-making, sewing, sickness or company” (pg. 266). Reisen continues, “Louisa ‘gave them a good scolding & offered to drive the timid sheet (in a van) to the fatal spot where they seem[ed] to expect some awful doom.’ ” (pg. 266). In the end it would take forty years until the nineteenth amendment, guaranteeing the vote for women, would be passed (pg. 267). The biggest obstacle that women had to overcome was none other than themselves.

I applaud what Louisa and many other brave women did to assure all women of right to vote, which in turn, opened many doors to women over the years. What I object to with modern feminism is what I perceive to be the idea that power trumps all. Nothing should stand in the way of a woman obtaining power (aka independence) – not love, not family, not religion, not even morality. Power is not a means to an end, it is the end.

To me, power as the end is pretty empty. And lonely. I just don’t get it.

I also object to modern feminist critics laying latter 20th century perceptions and ideas on a 19th century woman. Estes and Lant maintain that Louisa, in essence, murdered Jo because Jo subdued much of her rebellious, independent spirit and became a ‘little woman’ (the jury is out on that for me as I haven’t finished Little Women yet). What did they expect of Louisa? She was, in the end, an eminently practical woman who knew that her labors supported her “pathetic” family. In the business world, compromises must be made. It may seem that Louisa compromised her ideals by taming and marrying Jo, but to me, I believe Louisa made a choice. Choices are not often black and white but agonizingly gray.

But back to Jo and her choice – to give up writing sensational thrillers. Here again, Louisa lays out her case like a lawyer with a persuasive opening argument (and I couldn’t help thinking that she was explaining, and then exonerating. herself for writing such “rubbish,” as she put it). She describes the process that Jo went through to write these stories, eventually immersing herself into the “rubbish” by devouring lurid stories in books and newspapers, and observing people in the streets. She feared that she was internalizing her research, calling it a”morbid amusement.” Did Jo sense that she could be losing her soul to her work?

Jo had a very strong sense of self. I do not believe that Professor Bhaer would have been able to influence her the way he did had she not be ready for it in the first place. He proved that he was worthy of her respect and admiration, especially after she witnessed him standing up for his faith in God in front of a group of admired intellects:

“. . . Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him.

She did neither; but she remembered this scene, and gave the Professor her heartiest respect, for she knew it cost him an effort to speak out then and there, because his conscience would not let him be silent. She began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty; and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, –‘truth, reverence and good-will,*”–then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.”

(*Interesting coincidence that the statement, “truth, reverence and good-will” is credited to a lecture given by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson whom Louisa held in such high esteem.)

It sounds to me as if Jo was already prepared to make the difficult choice but needed someone she deemed worthy to give her a push. After all, didn’t she hide her work from her own family and friends? She refused to have her name associated with her stories, what does that tell you?

Estes and Lant would have you believe that Professor Bhaer told her outright to give up her writing:

“Professor Bhaer, therefore–the upholder of social proprieties and agent of Alcott’s surface narrative–disapproves of Jo’s writing, insists that she stop writing sensation stories, and thereby takes away Jo’s power, ensuring there will be no ‘happy end’ to her story . . .” (then they quote what he said in Chapter 34 about the newspapers that come into the house with these thrillers, and how inappropriate they are for children) (pg 580 from Little Women the Norton Critical Edition, “The Horror of Little Women“).

I did not read his comments that way at all. In fact,  he saw what I saw: a woman conflicted, and I believe he reached out in kindness to her:

“He knew that Jo wrote, and had met her down among the newspaper offices more than once: but as she never spoke of it, he asked no questions, in spite of a strong desire to see her work. Now it occurred to him that she was doing what she was ashamed to own, and it troubled him.”

I maintain the following: Professor Bhaer did not, in fact, take power from Jo, but instead, empowered her to do what her better self desired. He never demanded, never intruded, but simply observed her conflict and gently offered a way out of it.

Jo sensed long before she agreed to marry the Professor that she wanted more than just power and independence (although at the time she was not aware of it, as we will see in the next chapter, Heartache). She also wanted love and companionship, and she wanted to be at peace with her conscience. She understood that it took hard work,  sacrifice and compromise to make these things happen. This was her second choice, the one that flowed from the sacrifice of her writing. This to some is seen as weakness, but I see it as strength, a healthy journey towards wholeness and fulfillment.

I believe Louisa was working out her own life issues in Jo (whether she would admit it not, and this is why the story to me is so compelling). I’m not sure she ever succeeded in totally subduing her demons and finding a resting place, but she was going to make sure Jo did. But I’ll have to finish Little Women before I can say that with surety.

Come and visit a village in Louisa’s time

My husband and I spent a lovely day at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA. Old Sturbridge Village is an authentic recreation of a New England village in the 1830s. Louisa was born in 1832 and lived most of her life in New England so I thought you’d like to see pictures I took of our day at the village on a perfect autumn day.

Here’s some teasers . . .

And here’s the link to where the photos are on Facebook.

I feel so lucky to live here in New England, near all this history that I love. Enjoy!

Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)

At least that’s my take on Professor Bhaer. And what a sweetheart she’s created! Kind, gentle, a lover of children . . . an intellectual who can challenge her mind and create stimulating conversation . . . a confidant . . . someone with the courage to be virtuous and defend it . . .  someone who can let his hair down and play with children on the floor . . . someone who brings out Jo’s best side.

Louisa needed to lay out a strong case for Jo choosing Professor Bhaer over Laurie and she presented it like a lawyer. I found the argument logical, convincing and keeping in character with Jo  (although I thought she overdid Professor Bhaer’s virtues a bit, perhaps trying too hard to convince her readers who had pressured her to marry Jo to Laurie). Jo was decidedly different and preferred odd people; she stated emphatically in chapter 33 from her journal, “I hate ordinary people!” It makes sense to me that she was paired with Bhaer.  Louisa has methodically revealed Jo’s personality and character throughout the book; Jo has opened slowly before me like a beautiful flower. Louisa needed to do the same with Bhaer but far more quickly. By the end of chapter 34 (The Friend), I was convinced, and comfortable with the idea.

Chapter 32 (Tender Troubles) actually presents the opening argument in this exchange between Jo and Marmee when Jo confides that Laurie has designs on her:

Jo looked up and Jo looked down, then said slowly, with sudden color in her cheeks. “It may be vain and wrong to say it, but–I’m afraid–Laurie is getting too fond of me.”

“Then you don’t care for him in the way it is evident he begins to care for you?” and Mrs. March looked anxious as she put the question.

“Mercy, no! I love the dear boy, as I always have, and am immensely proud of him, but as for anything more, it’s out of the question.”

“I’m glad of that, Jo.”

“Why, please?”

“Because, dear, I don’t think you suited to one another. As friends you are very happy, and your frequent quarrels soon blow over, but I fear you would both rebel if you were mated for life. You are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as well as love.”

“That’s just the feeling I had, though I couldn’t express it.

It is well known among Alcott enthusiasts that Louisa never wanted to have Jo marry in the first place but caved  in to pressure from her readers. In a letter to one Elizabeth Powell, she writes:

” ‘Jo’ should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt 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.” (from Little Women A Norton Critical Edition, page 421)

Louisa said that Bhaer was a “funny match” but I actually found it to be the perfect match and a very logical choice. And I had to smile as I read because it seemed to me that Louisa, had she met a Professor Bhaer at the right time in her life, might have considered marrying him. Some have speculated that Bhaer was based on her father’s lifelong friend and family benefactor Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s no secret that Louisa had a girlhood crush on Emerson (writing love letters to him a la Goethe’s Correspondence With a Child) and if Bhaer is based on him, then her affection for Emerson was deep and authentic.

Only Louisa’s skill as a writer (and the heart she put into her writing) could have pulled this off. It creates a far more interesting and dramatic story in the long run even if readers were disappointed with the outcome.

And this is just the beginning, as I began to realize upon reading chapter 35 . . . I was amazed at how my tears flowed as I read it . . . but more on that in my next post. I have so much more I want to write about, just from chapter 34, let alone chapter 35. And then there’s chapter 36 . . . yikes! But that will have to wait until tomorrow.