By Trix Wilkins
Photo of the Old Manse, Concord, courtesy of Wikipedia
We write best about what we know – with Louisa May Alcott herself being Jo March’s alter ego, who might have been the model(s) for the man who was to be Jo’s best friend for life?
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph was Louisa’s generous next door neighbour in Concord – as was Laurie to Jo. A friend in deed as well as name, Ralph would provide for Louisa’s entire family in several instances of dire financial need, as the Laurences would for the Marches (though Louisa’s personal experience was more extreme – poverty and want were the norm, her family at times teetered on the edge of homelessness).
Like Laurie, Ralph possessed an astonishing library, and allowed Louisa to borrow as many books as she chose. His grounds were full of flowers – as was the Laurences’ conservatory, from which Laurie cut a bunch for Jo upon her visit when he fell ill. The Emersons were known to give liberally of their beautiful flowers; Laurie would regularly gift Mrs March with bouquets.
Henry David Thoreau
Henry was Louisa’s schoolteacher and shared Laurie’s penchant for music. He reportedly serenaded Louisa on his flute – and upon his death, Louisa wrote a poem of his life, Thoreau’s Flute. He gave her lessons in nature, including boat trips down the Sudbury and Assabet rivers; Laurie and Jo would go boating down river in the chapter Camp Laurence.
Like Laurie, Henry became involved in the family business as it was financially more lucrative, even though he would have preferred a career in the arts – Laurie longed to play music, Henry loved to write. Nothing is explicitly said of Laurie’s political leanings – it is merely hinted that he was compassionate towards the poor, as he replaced the sisters’ gift to the Hummels and helped a poorer student at college with money. I can imagine however that he, like Henry, might have been an abolitionist.
Alfred “Alf” Whitman
Louisa met Alf whilst performing together in a Charles Dickens’ play (remember when Jo invited Laurie to become part of the March sisters’ secret drama society, and they talked of the joy of pretend sword fights?). Like Laurie, Alf didn’t have a mother. They became friends quickly, and the childhood friendship would grow and deepen into adulthood. Louisa wrote Alf letters, and as Jo did with Laurie, would come to openly tell him about her writing sensational stories.
Perhaps the most compelling proof of his being a model for Laurie was Louisa’s explicitly telling him so, “I put you into my story as one of the best and dearest lads I ever knew! ‘Laurie’ is you and my Polish boy [jointly].” (The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; cited by Susan Bailey in Louisa May Alcott is my passion).
Ladislas “Laddie” Wisniewski
The “Polish boy” referred to in her letters, Laddie met Louisa in Vevey, Switzerland – the very same town where Laurie had attended school before he came to live next door to the Marches. Mrs March told her daughters that James Laurence’s protectiveness was in part due to Laurie’s being “sickly;” Laddie suffered from respiratory illness. Both Laddie and Laurie were gifted pianists. Laurie and Jo were known for their pranks (Mrs March sternly questioned Jo about her involvement in the prank on Meg and John alongside her recalcitrant friend), as were Laddie and Louisa.
Laurie once invited Jo to run off with him on one of his ships to India to have adventures – Jo refused, but Louisa spent two unchaperoned weeks with Laddie in Paris. The account of this time is scratched out in her diary, the simple note left in the margins, “Couldn’t be.” Of their parting, Louisa wrote, “I drew down his tall head and kissed him tenderly, feeling that in this world there were no more meetings for us.” Of Laurie and Jo’s parting following her rejection of his proposal, Louisa wrote, “She felt as if she had stabbed her dearest friend; and when he left her, without a look behind him, she knew that the boy Laurie never would come again.”
(I’ve often wondered what might have become of Laurie had he not taken on his grandfather’s ships – and under what circumstances it might have been acceptable for Jo to be in Europe with him…Hence the writing of The Courtship of Jo March.)