Hints of Heidelberg: The Little Women trail #3

By Trix Wilkins

Photo courtesy of Adventures of a Globe Trotter

“The hall was empty, and they had a grand polk, for Laurie danced well, and taught her the German step, while delighted Jo, being full of swing and spring. When the music stopped they sat down on the stairs to get their breath, and Laurie was in the midst of an account of a students’ festival in Heidelberg…”

This is one of my favorite scenes in Little Women. A nineteenth-century new year’s eve ball featuring gowns, gloves, and dancing, through which Jo and Laurie formally meet. After the initial awkwardness of running into each other behind a curtain, they connect immediately, exchanging stories of the past and opinions on present company. They laugh and dance. It is an idyllic circumstance hinting at new beginnings and hitherto unimagined possibilities.

Heidelberg is noted only once in the entire book: this one occasion following Jo and Laurie’s private dance. It then vanishes completely from the novel. Little Women glances over Heidelberg so briefly that I almost didn’t include it in this trail. After all, absolutely nothing occurs here. But as I read and re-read this passage, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this passing mention remains somehow significant.

At first, I couldn’t explain to myself why I felt so strongly about this. Later, I discovered Louisa May Alcott herself had visited Heidelberg in 1865, a few years prior to her writing Little Women. Her journals describe the city as “a charming old place surrounded by mountains…the moon rose while we were there and completed the enchantment of the scene.”

One of the endearing qualities of Little Women is the presence of such hints at lived experience. They point to a fullness of possibility. The hint of Heidelberg is significant not only because of the actual history Louisa herself lived, but the potential history that might have taken place within the narrative of Little Women. It is about the stories and ideas that were not explored, different pasts, different futures. And it is the nature of possibility to lend itself to exploration – almost to beg, really, for exploration.

Which brings us to this trail. This is a trail of possibility. These are the places in Heidelberg that might have featured in Little Women – and the stories that might have taken place within them.

A possible past: for love of music

At some point before the opening of Little Women, Laurie develops his love for and talent in music – at least well enough to play as impressively as he does when Jo visits him. Heidelberg in the 1860s had entered an era in which learning thrived. The nineteenth century saw Heidelberg University become renowned for its extensive research, democratic ethos, and openness to new ideas. Students the world over were welcomed and drawn to its halls.

Laurie would not have attended Heidelberg University, but perhaps the atmosphere of Germany’s oldest university and its stance towards learning might have been palpably felt at the student festival he mentioned to Jo. Heidelberg might have been the city where he met and received encouragement from others who shared his love for music, learned to embrace and hone his talents, and perhaps met his some of his closest friends, the Vaughns.

A possible present: adventures abroad

The possibility that intrigues me most in relation to Heidelberg is: what if Aunt March and Aunt Carrol had chosen Jo to accompany the latter abroad instead of Amy? Instead of Amy’s letters regarding Fred Vaughn’s courtship, we might have read Jo’s dispatches regarding European history interspersed with anecdotes consisting of shrewd observations and pranks on her travelling companions (I’m imagining Aunt Carrol similar to Aunt March in temperament…).

I cannot imagine Jo traipsing about too freely whilst in Aunt Carrol’s company, but she most certainly would have been exposed to at least the fashionable places to tour, such as the Schloss Heidelberg. As they walked across the red sandstone arches of the century-old bridge Karl Theodor over the Neckar River towards this impressive castle, Aunt Carrol might have talked of the significance of their present location to the Protestant Reformation (remember Aunt March’s proclivity for sermons? Aunt Carrol might have shared the same).

Meanwhile, Jo might have been gazing across the river wondering who might be strolling at that very same moment across its sister-bridge, the Brückentor, whilst imagining all sorts of stories and itching to record them.

After having discussed Martin Luther’s defense of the 95 theses at Heidelberg, Aunt Carrol might have tired – and been more amenable to allowing Jo to continue a walk on her own. Jo would have persuaded her that the Philosophenweg, along the side of the Heiligenberg, was a perfectly genteel and acceptable walk for a young lady. It was after all, where the university philosophers would reputably stroll to ruminate over their ideas.

When Aunt Carrol had become accustomed to Jo’s walks, I imagine Jo would have agitated for a visit to one of the oldest and largest botanical gardens in Germany (conveniently located adjacent to the university), the Botanischer Garten. In exchange, Aunt Carrol would have requested her company to the Heiliggeistkirche, a church with enviable views that had been unusually shared by the Catholics and Protestants for over a century.

A possible consequence: the question unasked

Had Aunt Carrol taken Jo to Europe, Laurie would have graduated from college while she was away – and the proposal in the grove would never have taken place. Instead, he might have travelled to meet Jo immediately after graduation. Together they might have explored the countryside of Heidelberg enroute to the summit of Königstuhl in the Odenwald forest.

Would he still have proposed? I believe so. The original storyline sees Laurie spend the last year of his studies “[digging] to some purpose;” Jo goes to New York to avoid him to temper his affection for her, only to find her absence and ambition merely increased his ardor. In this scenario, she would simply have been absent in a different place.

I imagine Jo would have written letters consisting of her travels, including places Laurie himself had visited in his youth, instead of her encounters with Professor Bhaer in New York (she would not have met the professor at all…unless he hailed from Heidelberg and been one of those philosophers who regularly frequented the Philosophenweg). She might even have written several manuscripts.

Would she still have refused him? I’m not so sure. If she had travelled abroad, it is unlikely Jo would have had the conversation with Mrs March during which the latter said she and Laurie did not suit as marriage partners; she would likely not have begun to imagine that Beth were in love with Laurie.

Instead of Amy, Jo would have been the one incredibly homesick for Beth and family, and longing for a familiar face during her extensive absence abroad. And she would have been Laurie’s principal company on the very adventure he had imagined taking with her following graduation…We can only imagine.

Author and book sale PIC


  1. So many possibilities! Remember that when Louisa was abroad for real in 1865, she was on Anna Weld’s tight leash, wanting to see and do so much but not having time. Also remember that in Part Second of Little Women, one of Amy’s letters home IS headed “Heidelberg” So the great city gets another mention even though the shrift is short.
    Very fascinating also that Transcendentalism and German Romantic Philosophy have much in common.


    • I love how no matter how many times I’ve read Little Women there’s always something new to discover! Never noticed that Amy wrote one of her letters from Heidelberg (though to be honest this chapter is one of my least favorite and gets a skim on rereads because the theme of “saw something lovely, boys were nice to me” irks me a bit…), great spotting 🙂


      • Well, that was Amy as a teenager; she hadn’t had her life-defining moments yet. This is why the true story of the Alcotts is actually my favorite: it takes far more than 18, 20, or 25 years for a person to come into full bloom. The story is far from over at that age and few reach perfection or stability in time for an early marriage.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You might recall that in the novel, Amy found out the difference between talent and genius in Rome and said she was never going to paint her great work of art (“Lazy Laurence.”) The other was in “Learning to Forget” when Amy said “No, thank you” to Fred Vaughn, feeling that something more than money and social position were
    required to make a happy life. In real life, her development was much more gradual.
    Yes, the Fruitlands experiment was a disaster and so was Louisa’s health when older, as well as May’s tragic early death. But their personal developments were more realistic in just how long it took for them to come into bloom. In fact, the real-life Alcott girls are very relatable to the young people of the last 50 years, in that it takes most of them much longer than a mere 18-25 years to develop a career and decide what they want in relationships, marriage and family. If a girl today is in the habit of comparing herself to the March girls, as I always did when young, she needn’t
    feel disquieted if by 25 she isn’t happily married and a mama, or married and settled at Plumfield, dead, or a rich man’s wife—because except for Beth’s unfortunate death, real life wasn’t that way at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “In fact, the real-life Alcott girls are very relatable to the young people of the last 50 years, in that it takes most of them much longer than a mere 18-25 years to develop a career and decide what they want in relationships, marriage and family.” – Oh yes, I definitely! I really actually prefer May’s real life story to her fictional counterpart Amy. I admire that May persevered with her art and not only enjoyed her passion during her lifetime but that also managed to make a career of it. It always bothered me that the reason Amy abandons her art in Little Women is “because talent is not genius.” Not everyone can be Michelangelo, Van Gogh, etc – yet the art that is produced by the thousands by those not recognized as ‘genius’ nevertheless plays a significant role in beautifying the world. Imagine if only the ‘geniuses’ continued with their art and their craft! (Genius as you pointed out takes years to cultivate anyway if not decades; I think Amy gave up too easily, determining by the age of twenty two after a mere few years that she “just didn’t have it.”) I find it sad that Laurie is discouraged from his music altogether by such an idea also. Wondering do you have a favorite Alcott biography? I’d be keen to read a good one of May 🙂


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