By Trix Wilkins
Photo background courtesy of Canva
That was the moment it dawned on me. The moment I knew Jo and Laurie would not be together at the end of Little Women. The moment Mrs March advised her daughter that she and her best friend were not suitable for marriage.
Nothing in the world could now possibly persuade Jo to accept the proposal of the man she cared for most – the one person upon whose judgment she had utter confidence had warned that it would not end well for them if she did.
So I was quite excited to read a “what if” as to how things might have worked out had Mrs March changed her mind and found a way to express that change to both Jo and Laurie. Though it was written six years ago, this story has stuck with me. Now that I am a mother and feel that nerve-wracking responsibility to give potentially life-altering advice to my children, it feels a pertinent time to let others know of it!
Mending Our Mistakes is set in a Little Women alternate universe in which Jo did not go to New York – instead, she writes to Laurie upon Beth’s passing, prompting his early return from Europe. The author (who wishes to remain anonymous under the pen name HarmonyLover) has kindly allowed for an excerpt from the story to be published below, and given us insight as to its inspiration.
What’s your favorite scene in Little Women?
This is such a difficult question! I love the chapters The P.C. and P.O. and Castles in the Air, and I really think my favorite moment in the second half of the book is when Laurie comes home and surprises Jo, and they talk everything over like the best friends they are.
Is there anything you wish Louisa May Alcott had written into Little Women? If so, what?
I would have liked to see more character development for Amy. We get a little bit while she is in Europe, but by the end she is mostly Laurie’s wife, and it would have been nice to see how, for example, being a mother changed her. I could see her starting a home for chronically ill children, for example, or sponsoring medical research on childhood illnesses. She has so much ambition and spunk and I think she would go to the ends of the earth to try and help her daughter. Or, how would she incorporate her art into being a wife and mother? I can’t see her giving that up entirely.
Jo & Laurie or Jo & Professor Bhaer at the end of Little Women? Why?
It’s funny. As a young reader (pre-teen/teen), I didn’t mind the ending of Jo & Professor Bhaer. I could see why the Professor was good for Jo, in some ways – he didn’t mind her writing or her unconventionality. He actually found her interesting and charming. He was kind to her and supported her ambitions, he cheerfully helps her run Plumfield and enjoys the boys as much as she does, and all of those things are positive. He’s an educated man, and a good one, but he doesn’t have all of the social expectations about women that most nineteenth-century men did. I could (and can) see why all of those things would appeal to Jo, since she feels so constrained by conventionality (and conventional expectations for women, in particular).
However, the older I have gotten, and the more re-reads I have done, the more I have wished that Jo and Laurie ended up together.
They are so suited to each other – in different ways than Jo and the Professor are. They both upset gender norms in many ways, particularly nineteenth-century gender norms. Jo has many ambitions and mannerisms and even talents that would have been ascribed to men, while Laurie’s emotionality and tenderness, his love of music and his talent for it, would have been seen as very female traits. And yet Jo and Laurie see these “opposite” gender traits in each other and admire them, and even encourage them in one another. They are best friends; they understand each other and give each other emotional support that is crucial for both of them.
So while I didn’t mind the original ending as a young reader, as a mature adult I have very much grown to prefer the idea of Jo & Laurie, and to wonder what their story would have been like, if Alcott had chosen to write it.
How did you begin writing this story? What inspired it?
I had been watching the 1994 film with Winona Ryder again, and started to think about that heartbreaking scene toward the end when Jo is making bread and Laurie shows up at the door. It’s such a joyful and yet poignant moment. I had also recently read (or re-read) March by Geraldine Brooks, and had been thinking about that version of Marmee.
I really started ruminating on the idea of what would happen if Marmee and Laurie could actually have a conversation in that moment when Laurie comes home, if Marmee reassessed her thoughts about Laurie and Jo, and if Laurie had a chance to talk through some of the ways he has changed since leaving for Europe. That entire conversation that I wrote between the two of them was so emotionally satisfying to me.
Without further ado, here’s part of that “what might have been” conversation between Laurie and Marmee from Mending Our Mistakes…
“So Amy is in love with Fred, and you are still in love with our Jo,” Marmee summarized affectionately. “She wrote to you?”
Laurie flushed and then paled, but his dark eyes were full of emotion as he pulled Jo’s short missive from his vest pocket. The action earned him a truly amused glance from Marmee, and he lifted an eyebrow in question.
“If it wasn’t enough that you crossed an ocean to come back to Jo, all I would have needed to see was where you kept Amy and Jo’s letters,” she said in explanation, her lips twitching. “Amy’s in your overcoat, but Jo’s in your vest.”
Laurie gave a quiet, surprised laugh, but Marmee’s face was already becoming solemn again as she scanned the little letter, and at the end of it she gave a long sigh. “I am amazed she actually sent this to you,” she said, looking up at him again. “It is so unlike her, so fragile.”
“I know,” Laurie whispered, his face reflecting all the worry that had been in his heart since he left France. “It frightened me. Has she been so self-contained, then, since Beth died?”
“Yes and no,” Marmee said wearily, pressing her fingers between her eyes in an unconscious gesture of pain. “She is driven; she works at some sort of task almost constantly. She has been unfailingly attentive to her father and to me; she spends time with the families that we try to help, she is constantly helping Hannah in the kitchen or the garden, or helping Meg take care of Daisy and Demi. She has tried to drive away her pain with work, but she does not write, and she refuses to talk about Beth except when someone else mentions her. It has been so clear to us that she was suffering, but she would not talk to us. She never really grieved.”
Marmee sighed, pausing to drink before she continued. “Today was the first time she has cried, and somehow I am not surprised that it took you to draw that from her. The only moments of vulnerability I have seen are a handful of occasions where she would stand by your old post office or would go down to where you would talk by the stream. I-I watched her because I was worried,” Marmee admitted, a trifle shamefacedly. “I wanted to be there if she needed someone, but I didn’t dare approach her. Mr. March and I have both been afraid of what it would do to her if someone tried to breach her defences before she could cope with her grief.”
Laurie nodded, his throat too constricted to say anything. Jo had been light as a feather in his arms; he had been astonished when he picked her up, remembering the more substantial form of the girl who used to fly across the ice with him in exuberant abandon, or dance with him, unseen, in the hallways of his grandfather’s house.
When she had opened the door to him, he thought his heart might break at the deadness in her eyes. It had seemed impenetrable until he stepped forward to touch her. The flood of emotion that had been released as she realized he was home, that he really was standing in front of her, had been heartbreaking.
“She has missed you, all this long year,” Marmee said gently, compassion filling her features as she took in Laurie’s expression. “Whenever she retreated anywhere, it was always to somewhere that reminded her of you – the post office, the creek, the garret, even your grandfather’s stables. She would work and help Hannah and nurse Beth until she could not bear it anymore, and then disappear for an hour or so. She always came back a little more peaceful, if no less sad.”
Laurie let out a shuddering breath, his face shadowed with consternation. “I should not have stayed away so long.”
Marmee was silent for a moment, then set her teacup down decisively, as if coming to a decision. “I owe you an apology, Laurie.”
Laurie shook his head in protest, attempting to forestall her. “No, Mother, truly –”
“Please,” Marmee entreated him. “Let me say this, my dear. It will ease my heart and perhaps help you and Jo.” She caught his young hands in her older, work-worn ones, and not for the first time Laurie was humbled by this woman’s care for him, by the strength and tenderness that seemed such a part of her. He knew, from what little Jo had told him, that some of the endless patience and cheerfulness she now displayed had been hard-won and difficult to master, but it only made him respect her all the more. She had loved him like a son despite all his faults, and he found that he could not deny her request. He gave a little nod, waiting for her to continue.
“When Jo refused you a year ago, I thought she had made the right decision, despite the pain it caused you both,” Marmee began. “You were both such headstrong creatures, and you argued so often, that I did not see how you would ever get on. Jo was – and is – fiercely independent, and you seemed determined to make your life a social whirlwind, even before you went to Europe. Neither of you seemed inclined to bind yourselves to anyone, even to each other.”
Laurie opened his mouth, but Marmee put a finger to his lips with a wry little smile of motherly understanding. “I never doubted that you loved Jo, Laurie,” she continued. “I was concerned about your mutual ability to compromise with one another and lay the groundwork for a permanent relationship. Compromise was something that the two of you struggled with even in friendship, and I was afraid of what marriage might do to your relationship. I was also worried about Jo, more than I even admitted at the time, I think.”
Laurie thought of several things to say, but in the end he only asked, “Why?”
“She will tell you some of that herself, I am sure, but she was profoundly confused about her feelings for you, and upset by how quickly everything was changing,” Marmee explained. “I had not foreseen how much Meg’s marriage would affect her; she did not want our family stability shaken again when it had just recently been put back together. At the same time, she felt stifled by the demands of home life, as though she had lost the ability to make any decisions for herself or control what was happening around her. For someone who craves independence and control as much as Jo, that is a dangerous mixture of feelings.”
“And I was only making things worse,” Laurie said in realization, his eyes wide. “How could I have been so blind?”
“You are by nature honest and impetuous, Laurie, and you were in love,” Marmee said, again with an understanding smile. “There is no need to be ashamed of any of those things; they are all qualities to be cherished. But this is where my apology comes in.”
“What I did not see, then, was the extent to which the two of you had become each other’s touchstones, underneath the occasional contentiousness of your friendship. I might have done well to remember how much Jo is like me; you would never think it to look at us now, but Edward – Mr. March, that is – and I had quite the spirited relationship when we were young. We disagreed frequently, about everything from leisure occupations to politics, but we loved each other a great deal – and still do. Sometimes opposing qualities in individuals can bring a great deal of strength to love, particularly if they learn to cherish those differences rather than be vexed by them. I could have – should have – helped you, and for that I am sorry,” Marmee finished.
Laurie sat in silence for a few moments, contemplating everything he had just been told. It clarified some things tremendously; never had he understood so clearly why Jo had resisted all attempts to alter their friendship. She had desperately wanted the one thing she relied upon the most in her life to stay the same, at a point when everything was changing all around her and she had no power to stop it. Nor had she been sure of her own feelings for him, and he had forced her into trying to define them. He should have been more patient, and not put her into a position where she felt the only thing to do was push him away.
“You don’t owe me an apology, Mother,” he finally said quietly. “I have had a great deal of time to think this year – more than I wanted, in fact – and you were perfectly correct to worry the way you did. How did I react to Jo’s rejection, except to act in the very way she – and you – expected me to? She refused me because she could not contemplate one more momentous change in her life, and so I did my best to eliminate her from my existence, without bothering to notice how distraught she was. How could she do otherwise but say no, when she could scarcely sort through her own emotions? She did try to tell me,” Laurie admitted regretfully. “I just couldn’t see it then.”
“Still, I feel that I might have saved you both some heartache, had I been just a little more reflective,” Marmee said. “Even mothers aren’t perfect, no matter how much we might wish to be.”
“Your children don’t need perfection, just love, and the best counsel you can give,” Laurie said warmly. “The rest will sort itself out.”
For all who are keen to read the whole saga, here’s the link to Mending Our Mistakes by HarmonyLover.