By Trix Wilkins
Questions are telling. They reveal nearly as much about the questioner as the one being asked. This trail is about the questions in Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic that inevitably lead to Paris, with its treasure trove of books and music that remain for the finding to this day.
What a loaded question this is! From five words we can infer the following things about Jo: she considers Laurie a young man of fortune (only young men and women of fortune would have had the opportunity to travel to fashionable places such as Paris, purportedly brought by well-meaning and well-connected parents to round out their education), she is not daunted by the fact that he is wealthy and she is not (she pelts him with “eager questions” despite their difference in social status), and she wants to go to Paris (not explicitly stated, but most certainly implied!).
If I had read only this exchange in all of Little Women, I would still count Jo and Laurie amongst my favorite literary characters. Jo’s is a brilliant question in any context, but especially during a game of Truth (a game in which all participants are obliged to answer any question). The others ask Laurie about women. (The fact that the woman Laurie likes best is not the woman he thinks prettiest had me shelve him with the likes of Darcy and Knightley, at this point in the narrative.) Not Jo. She asks Laurie of his heroes.
Essentially, what Jo is really asking of Laurie is: “What sort of person do you aspire to become? What are the qualities in a person you admire most? When you’re unsure over a decision, whose example do you think of first and foremost? Where do you wish to see yourself in ten years, in fifty years?” It’s a deeply probing yet also disarming question.
As for Laurie’s response, I admit this threw me at first. I could easily understand Laurie’s admiration for his grandfather (despite his reticence to inherit his grandfather’s business), but of all the notable figures throughout history, why Napoleon? I couldn’t imagine military conquest and empire creation drawing Laurie to the “Man of Destiny.”
I could however imagine the following reasons for his avowed admiration for a French emperor of relatively humble origins despite his own aristocratic half-English background: he wanted to rattle Fred Vaughn’s cage (Fred had after all just cheated Jo in croquet – what might irk an English patriot more than informing him one’s hero a) is French and b) attempted and arguably succeeded in challenging Britain’s supremacy in Europe?), he sympathized with Napoleon’s early loss of his father, he admired Napoleon for transferring ownership of and access to Paris’ greatest libraries and theatres to the public, his mother might have been involved in similarly revolutionary efforts towards Italian unification.
I laugh every time I read this exchange.
By returning the question to the questioner, Jo informs Laurie, “I want the sort of learning and talent that is only possible to acquire on my own. Your wealth empowers you, and you are accustomed to being able to possess or bestow anything you wish, but all your money cannot buy genius. This is one thing that isn’t in your power to give.”
This is a long bow to Paris, but I’m going to do it anyway (for those who have a love of Paris and/or great libraries, you’ll soon understand why):
“Genius” makes me think of talent honed over time through practice, discipline, and creativity; which requires learning from masters of the past; which implies research and study neither of which are as effective without books; which necessarily leads to: libraries. Libraries whose collections have been procured over a long period of time, from a vast variety of sources, and accessible to any with the heart and will to search.
What Jo and Laurie might have loved about Paris
All these questions lead to Paris: the scene of Laurie’s last winter before the opening of Little Women, the object of Laurie’s hero’s projects of the arts, the seat of some of the world’s most extensive collections of books and music. Which brings us to the grand libraries and theatres of Paris – and what Jo and Laurie might have loved about them.
Bibliothèque Mazarine: The oldest public library in France
Jo: Its history (its chief librarian, Abbé Gaspard Michel, channelled books confiscated during the French Revolution into the library, including several thousand volumes from aristocratic and monastic libraries as well as conquered territories), the Gutenberg Bible dating back to 1250, the historical focus of its collection such as religious history and the history of the printed book.
Laurie: The secret door hidden among the velvet-draped shelves towards the back of its grand reading room, the beauty of its architecture and design.
Bibliothèque Richelieu-Louvois: Opened to the public 1868, the year Little Women was first published
Jo: The collection bequeathed by author Victor Hugo in 1881.
Laurie: Its history in relation to Napoleon – after four centuries under aristocratic and monastic control, Napoleon deemed the library “the property of the French people” and proceeded to add to its collection during the course of his conquests.
Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève: A regal library built in the style of the Eiffel tower
Jo: The stone facade engraved with the names of hundreds of thinkers and scholars including Galileo, Copernicus, and Shakespeare; the rare book and manuscript collection dating back to the 9th century.
Laurie: The beauty and novelty of its architecture – it was one of the first buildings to extensively use cast iron which allowed for a significantly greater and lighter space.
Bibliothèque Forney: One of three remaining medieval private residences in Paris
Jo: It was a library designed as a “popular library,” a legacy for the education of craftsmen who could work on site, borrow books and models, and improve their own documentation.
Laurie: Its inclusion of foreign works including Italian; its turbulent history and eventual restoration.
Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne: The largest library in Paris today
Jo: Its romantic location in the medieval Sorbonne building; its emphasis on history: the history of Europe, historiography and world history.
Laurie: Its acquisitions in German, Spanish and Italian literature.
Médiathèque Musicale Mahler: The library dedicated to musical instruments
Jo: The violin and clarinet music being continuously played inside the library.
Laurie: Its dedication to resource music professionals and students; its unique collection of books, recordings, periodicals, and personal archives relating to 19th century music; its location in an elegant private home.
Palais Garnier: The opulent Parisian Opera House
Jo: The opera library’s collection conserving three centuries of the theatre’s history; the massive stone blocks dating from 1870 that remain in the staircase leading to the exhibition hall; the persevering artistry involved in the ceiling painted by Marc Chagall.
Laurie: Its construction in the tradition of Italian theatre; the adept engineering involved in the construction of its metallic structure covered by marble, velvet, gilding and crystal chandeliers; the permanent exhibition of paintings, drawings, photographs and set models.
Théâtre du Rond-Point: Commemorating Napeleon’s victories
Jo: The fact that it had been converted into an ice skating rink complete with a cafe, promenade and stage for an orchestra until the 1980s.
Laurie: Decorations outside the building featuring panoramas of Napoleon’s great battles.
Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique: A combination of loves
What Jo and Laurie would both have loved: Its three centuries long “alternately turbulent and prestigious history;” its persistence until the present making it one of the oldest French dramatic and musical institutions; a joint dream of writing plays and musicals consequently performed here.