By Trix Wilkins
Did Friedrich Bhaer replace Theodore Laurence as Jo March’s dearest friend? Or did Jo and Laurie retain that irresistible connection in the Little Women sequels…
Photo background courtesy of Canva
It took me twenty years after my first reading of Little Women to finally read the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys. I wrote The Courtship of Jo March, then begrudgingly admitted to myself it would be fair to at least give Professor Friedrich Bhaer a reading. What did Jo’s marriage end up looking like? Would I find it more compelling, more romantic, more engaging than I had ever found the interactions between Jo and Laurie in the first two books? Maybe the Professor really was the best choice…?
There are definitely things I love about Little Men and Jo’s Boys. I love the stories about the children of Plumfield, and laugh to myself wondering what sorts of scrapes my own little ones will get up to one day (of course they haven’t gotten up into any scrapes yet, of course). I fell in love with Nat, Nan, Demi, Daisy, even Tommy Bangs made a dent in my heart. In the midst of all that, was I finally sold on Jo and the Professor? Did I come to the conclusion that Professor Bhaer was Jo’s perfect match intellectually, emotionally, spiritually? Not at all…
Writer Andrea Lundgren makes the insightful point that our preferences for Jo have a lot to do with our expectations and ideas of an ideal marriage. I admit, I still cannot imagine passing up marrying one’s best friend. The idea of having a separate man to my husband as a best friend just doesn’t sit right. (I lay the blame for this bias at my husband’s door.)
And so when I came to Little Men and Jo’s Boys, I expected Laurie to fade into the background, that the most tender and intimate interactions between Jo and another character would be with Professor Bhaer – that he would take the place of Laurie as her closest and dearest friend.
This just doesn’t happen in the sequels. It is still Jo and Laurie who have that irresistible connection, and it is woven throughout both the books.
He’s still “her boy”
Little Men opens with Laurie sending Nat, a young boy with a penchant for music, to Plumfield to be cared for and educated. He signs off his letter to Jo with, “Give him a trial, for the sake of your own boy, Teddy.” When Laurie comes to talk to Jo, he sits down at a stool at her feet, and she “stroked the curly black head at her knee affectionately as ever, for, in spite of everything Teddy was her boy still.”
The second Theodore
Jo names her second son Teddy, which is understandable in one sense. We’re told Laurie has proven to be a friend to both Jo and the Professor over the years. (In another sense, does anyone else feel it’s a little strange for a woman to name her child after a man she’s rejected? I know it’s all water under the bridge by this point, but surely there were other names?)
He’s the one we see look after Jo
He may not be her husband, but Laurie takes care of Jo as far as he is able or allowed to anyway. He gifts Jo with Toby the donkey “so she shouldn’t carry Teddy on her back when we go to walk.” After the passing of John Brooke, Jo asks one of the Plumfield boys, Nat, to play “the sweet little airs Uncle Teddy sent you last. Music will comfort me better than anything else tonight.” It is still Laurie we see minister to Jo and comfort her even at a distance.
She’s the one we see him write music for
Then he writes a song. Laurie writes a song. I had wondered, almost the whole time I first read Little Women, “When is Laurie going to write a song the way Jo has written a book?”
At the family thanksgiving dinner, Nat performs “one of those songs without words that touch the heart.” Jo somehow recognizes instantly that this is no ordinary song, turns to Laurie and says, “You composed that.”
He replies, “I wanted your boy to do you honor, and thank you in his own way.”
A lot of the fun times – they’re of Jo and Laurie
Most of the moments of fun we see Jo enjoying are with Laurie. She runs into him by accident whilst shopping for a play kitchen for Daisy, “Teddy and went and bought it with me, and we had such fun in the shop choosing the different parts.” (Without him she would not have been able to buy a thing, as the best pieces were just too expensive.)
When Jo tells the children of the last time she flew a kite (one of her favorite things), it was not while on a romantic date with the Professor. The memory she recalls is of Laurie, when they had privately made kites together and flown them during the first days of their friendship. (She hadn’t enjoyed climbing a tree since that time, either.)
They understand each other without words
Not only was there camaraderie between the two, there was an inexplicable understanding of the other. When Laurie comes to visit Plumfield, and Demi innocently asks him how he knew that Jo would approve of his taking the injured Dan in his carriage, he replies, “We have a way of sending messages to one another, without any words.”
During a family gathering at Plumfield, Laurie takes Jo (not Amy) on a ‘tour’ of the school, to each ‘scene’ through a doorway or window depicting a snapshot of the lives of the graduates of Plumfield, the grown up young men and women of whom Jo had such hopes and still does; they speak openly and confidentially to each other.
There is such a closeness between the two that I almost feel sorry for Amy…
They would have agreed on parenting
Actually, I do feel sorry for Amy. The one scene in the sequels where Amy appears and speaks is when she and their daughter Bess are working on their art together (we are told they spend a lot of time doing this).
Laurie says Bess needs to get out more, have more balance in life and not be utterly consumed by her art. He also says that he and Amy do not see eye to eye on this subject (I actually don’t like the fact that Laurie does this, as it’s not fair to his wife – really, it’s not nice to bring into a marital discussion the opinion of the woman whose hand in marriage you asked for first).
Jo takes Laurie’s side, telling Amy that she agrees with his assessment of the parenting situation – that is, while Laurie and Amy do not exactly agree on how to parent Bess, Laurie and Jo do.
Plumfield would not have existed without Laurie
But if Jo and Laurie had married and there were no Professor, some might object, there would have been no Plumfield! According to Jo, not true. She explicitly says to Laurie, “If it hadn’t been for you, there never would have been a Plumfield.” There would have been no school for it is Laurie’s generosity (and capability) that helps it thrive.
I suspect this might be part of the reason Louisa May Alcott wrote this situation into being. Initiatives like Plumfield cost somebody something – just like the schools her father attempted to form cost her family dearly and personally. Jo and the Professor have the luxury of doing what they love because Laurie does not.
Schools need money. Laurie went into the very business he despises for the money to enable all these things to happen; at first, it was to regain Jo’s respect and approval, next it was for the power to bring her joy through what he does for the school, and finally for himself.
Laurie doesn’t only visit Plumfield for Jo, as much as he does “pine” to see her. He visits to get away from business, saying that it does him good to see both Jo and the boys at the school – he’s longing to be there, to be more part of it.
She’s the one who inspires him
It is Laurie who envisions and endows Plumfield with what Jo then names, “The Laurence Museum,” a place for the boys to store and display their ‘treasures.’ It is he who gives a speech to them about researching the creatures and objects they display, and composing presentations in order to educate their fellow students.
Jo then asks, “What did inspire you with such a beautiful, helpful idea, Teddy?”
Did Laurie reply, “My wife?” “My daughter?” “The bundle of brilliant boys?”
No. What happens next is this: “Laurie took both her hands in his, and answered, with a look that made her eyes fill with happy tears, ‘Dear Jo! I have known what it is to be a motherless boy, and I never can forget how much you and yours have done for me all these years.’”
She’s always been the one who’s inspired him
Towards the end of Little Women, when Laurie spills the beans that he is already married to Amy, Jo muses that Amy had been the better influence and “managed” Laurie better than she ever had. She believes that it is Amy who helped Laurie become the man he is, the man she is so proud of that she declares to her entire family that she will tell all the boys at the school she wants to start that he is the sort of man they should seek to become.
Little Men closes with a telling conversation between Jo and Laurie that turns this idea on its head. While they are talking of the school and Jo tells Laurie her hopes for the little boys and girls, she says that she thinks Bess, “the lady, full of natural refinement, grace, and beauty” is the one to “keep them gentlemen in the best sense of the fine old word.”
Laurie replies, “It is not always the ladies who do that best, Jo. It is sometimes the strong brave woman who stirs up the boy and makes a man of him.”
The Little Women that could have been…
Amy had not wrought that significant change in Laurie, though her speech certainly did its part by pointing him to the surety of Jo’s sunken opinion were he to continue as he was. Jo had been mistaken thinking it was ladylike refined Amy who had done so, or who did it best.
The woman who compelled him to become the sort of man she would not find wanting, his best friend, his kindred spirit, who inspired him to write music, to support a school, to start a museum – he had not waited for her.
I finished the Little Women sequels feeling even more dissatisfied with the separation of Jo and Laurie, even more convinced, to borrow from Jane Austen, “no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was.”