By Trix Wilkins
Photo of 1870s printing of Little Women courtesy of Wikipedia
Louisa May Alcott chose Friedrich Bhaer for Jo March in Little Women, and for many readers he is the perfect fit – a learned, mature professor who spurs her to write from the heart. Then why do some wish Alcott had written a marriage between Jo and her best friend Laurie instead? Surely it’s got to be more than the fact Christian Bale played Laurie in 1994…I suspect it’s to do with the stories we grew up with and learned to love.
We love the Cinderella concept
Jo is the girl next door who is not really recognized for her full worth and potential by wider society in general. She has the love and appreciation of her family, but not that of anyone else; she’s awkward and has no close female friends apart from her sisters. She is poor, it is implied she is largely unschooled though she is a voracious reader, and we are told she has no outward beauty to speak of (apart from her hair).
Then she meets Laurie, the boy next door – not only is he incomparably wealthy (think Prince Charming, with the added romance of his being an orphan born of parents who married and died sort of Romeo-Juliet style), he is also thoughtful, generous, and immediately befriends Jo, instantly preferring her company to any other. He doesn’t see her as a “diamond in the rough” whose rough edges need polishing – he sees her as a diamond.
We love the idea of “it just so happened…”
Best friends marrying is a bit of an irresistible combination. There’s innocence underpinning the relationship. There’s no set up. There’s no motive to become rich through marriage (a thing Alcott implies was more the norm than the exception, in those days), no exploiting for personal gain. Though both had been curious about the other by virtue of their being neighbors, Jo and Laurie didn’t intend to become such good friends.
It just so happened that Beth’s cat ran away next door. And Jo could hardly help who the Gardiners invited to their New Year’s Eve party – nor could she have known that Meg’s instruction to hide her burned dress would end up with her running into Laurie behind a curtain. The friendship started without any thought of ‘sentimental nonsense’ – they simply spent time together, got to know each other, and were there for each other during both the hard and the joyful times.
We love the “girl fixes guy” routine
When Laurie realizes he loves Jo and that he’s “not half good enough,” he studies hard and graduates with honors. He pulled up his socks for his girl, and we expect Jo will love him for it. She does, but not in the way he wants. So she refuses him. At this point, we are expecting Fitzwilliam Darcy (maybe that’s just because I read Austen first, but yes. I expected Darcy), that Laurie will think, “OK, she doesn’t love me now in that way, but I’ll do something that will make me absolutely irresistible to her.”
We like the idea of a guy chasing a girl and becoming a better man in the process. That’s why when Laurie doesn’t – in fact his character takes a dive, he runs off to fritter away his talent and money, before marrying Jo’s beautiful younger sister Amy – it’s such a bitter pill to swallow.
We love the “one in a million”
If we wanted to know about a relationship that consisted of a talented rich good looking guy with a flirtatious young beautiful girl, we’d just step outside the door, go to school/uni/work/the local restaurant, and see it. We probably have friends in this sort of relationship. We might even be in this sort of relationship.
But our favorite stories aren’t about the things we see every day everywhere – they’re about the things that are one in a million. They’re about people who don’t do what is easy or convenient, “the way things have always been,” “the way everyone does it.” They’re about bucking the odds, the smallest chance of success yet the determination to try anyway (eg: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Marvel franchise…). They’re about the exception – exceptional character, exceptional circumstances, exceptional choices.
And for many readers – Theodore Laurence patiently and persistently courting Jo March until she came to love him would have been the exceptional choice.