Monday 23 June 2014

Sex and Jo March, by Leslie Wilson

The March girls and their mother:
Jo is top left (as you'd guess)

I wish I could remember who it was wrote a piece about the sexuality of girls in the nineteenth century, in particular referencing Jo March in Little Women. Jo famously couldn't understand why her sister Meg wanted to marry John Brooke and said: 'I wish I could marry Meg myself and keep her in the family.' The author of this article, which unfortunately I have failed to find in an Internet search, then went on to argue that a restricted-meat diet kept nineteenth-century girls from achieving puberty till seventeen or so; hence Jo's lack of understanding (at least she's not considered to be an incestuous lesbian, as someone averred about Jane Austen.)

I do feel a little uneasy about arguing with something I can only remember in my head, for I know only too well how facts can morph in one's memory; do any of my readers remember the article? But I have been thinking about this for ages, and have been re-reading not only Alcott, but Susan Coolidge on the subject, as well as a biography of Alcott. So I shall go on to reflect on the teenage sexuality (which is considered a modern phenomenon) in Little Women/Good Wives et seq, and What Katy did at School, and also on why I think Jo's creator made her so opposed to flirting, and also why she was married off to Professor Bhaer instead of to Laurie.
Incidentally, I have never heard of a German called Bhaer. He should have been called Baehr or Bähr, which is a fairly ordinary German name, and Alcott must have reversed the letters round, just as people sometimes write Kohlrabi as Kholrabi, though Kohl is the German for 'cabbage' and the name means 'Cabbage turnip'. So if you do misspell in this way; please don't. It is incorrect and gets on my nerves. But enough of the vegetable digression.
Louisa May Alcott aged 20
author unknown. Published 1909 or before
In Little Women, it seems to me (and this is a view shared by Harriet Reisen, author of The Woman Behind Little Women) that Jo represents an alternative role-model for girls (as she has for generations of readers). She rejects the demure feminine role-modelling espoused by her sisters Meg and Amy (Beth seems to me to suffer from a depressive illness; she reminds me so much of my grandmother.) Jo wants to ride, to act, to have adventures, to write, and not to be bothered with convention. She has 'unfeminine' rages and wishes she had been a man. She is, in fact, very like her creator. Being sexually interested in young men, in those days, meant being tied down, and Jo did not want to be tied down. So she sees young men as friends and comrades, playmates, in fact, and gets on with them very well.
Though Katy Carr turns into an Angel in the House and is far from a feminist role-model, she is horrified when she goes to school to find that many of the other girls are romantically obsessed with the young men at the nearby college, and starts a Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Behaviour (ugh!) Other girls, like her vapid cousin Lily, are madly sending out flirtatious signals to men they hardly know, obsessed with clothes, and even a child of thirteen declares that she is 'in love.' This is far from the demure stereotype of nineteenth-century girlhood.

Teenage girls' dance: from Danish Punch, 1879
I doubt if the book would have been written if such behaviour was not common; and indeed, in Little Women, Meg is invited to stay with rich friends who dress her up in sexy clothing, squeeze her into corsets, and make her over in their image, with the express purpose of flirting, which she does, though afterwards she is ashamed of herself. Nor is Meg uninterested in the male sex, and her younger sister Amy likes to hold court too - no matter how ladylike the manner she does it in.
Amy and Laurie

On our side of the Pond, incidentally, there was the correspondant to the 1880s' Girls Own Paper who was corresponding with two young men through the blinds of her bedroom window, and wrote for help when they got too ardent. All she got was a telling-off, though.
I know the age of puberty is considered to have got younger in the twentieth century and maybe was even higher in the nineteenth, but I suspect that is a teensy bit irrelevant. I 'flirted' with teenage boys when I was aged seven or so; it was definitely a romantic feeling, though I had no idea of acting on it in any way, and I was lucky that the boys I was keen on respected this. I think it's quite normal to feel that kind of love well before puberty. A restricted diet, however, was definitely the lot of the Alcott girls; since their father Bronson was too sensitive to earn a living properly, they were virtually starved in their youth, which didn't help their adult health.
It's interesting (and related to this) to reflect on why Jo might have wanted to 'keep Meg in the family.' It is actually a sentiment Louisa expressed when her eldest sister Anna got married. Louisa wanted independence and to earn a living; but her parents were heavily dependent on domestic help from their daughters. Her mother was often ill and her father, as I have said, toured the country speaking, but never brought any money home. The year Anna married was also the year the younger sister Elizabeth (Beth) died, which meant the parents needed Louisa and she had to come home to help them. Reading Good Wives, one finds Jo, after Beth's death, suffering in her role as prop and support to her bereft parents. Anna's marriage was a threat to Louisa's autonomy, and that was probably why she gave the sentiment to Jo.
Jo March was meant to be an independent woman, earning her living just like her creator, but Alcott's readers demanded a romance for Jo, so she gave her 'a funny one.' When she herself did have a kind of romance later in life, it was with a younger man; but the bizarrely-named Bhaer is older, and another version of Bronson Alcott. As one who always falls in love with her male romantic leads, I can imagine that Alcott didn't want to make Bhaer attractive; it might have destabilised her. So Bhaer (bah, what a ridiculous name!) has to be a cuddly oldish man, a kind of gigantic teddy bear with moral stuffing. (They made him sexy in the film, of course.)
Jo and Bhaer (Bah!)
At least Jo does achieve literary fame and fortune later in life, though celebrity becomes quite a burden to her. One can only sympathise. Jo's later tribulations at the hands of autograph-hunters (Jo's Boys) are an exact account of what her creator endured and were perhaps included in the hope that the fans would read and desist. Like Jo, Alcott was often reduced to pretending to be her own parlour-maid, in order to escape the attentions of intrusive worshippers.

Illustrations from Little Women and Good Wives are from my own copy, published 1911 Seeley and Co Ltd, by H.M. Brock. I do like the portrayal of Jo in them, though not the one of her smooching with the bizarrely-surnamed old man.

I do recommend Reisen's The Woman Behind Little Women; it is a fascinating book. And if anyone CAN remember the article about Jo and female sexuality, and tell me the author, I would definitely be very grateful!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Interesting post! I wouldn't be surprised about the late puberty; the Alcotts had a dreadful diet, not much more than fallen fruit! Her father was a very strange man, though well meaning.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this post - and if I ever find myself wanting to type the word for cabbage turnip, I will do so correctly!

Sally Zigmond said...

Am I the only avid reader of the four "Little Women" books who believes that the German professor (however his name is spelled)is the perfect partner for Jo? Laurie is too superficial but perfect for Amy who are perfect for each other. To me, "Little Men" remains the best of the four novels for me. Its views on education are well in advance of its time. Hooray for the Professor!

Leslie Wilson said...

Maybe he is, but I cannot ever imagine them in bed together..I agree about Laurie. I liked the version of B*** in the film, actually, but Alcott so specifically strips her professor of any attribute that would make him other than teddy-bear-ish and just cuddly (for teddies have no genitals, at least, I've never seen one that does).
I agree about the advanced methods of education (apparently modelled on Bronson, who did have some good points) but I hate the bit where the boy has to cane the Professor for his own bad behaviour. This is just psychological game-playing, and I can imagine it doing enormous damage to a fragile child like Nat.
However: I think this is why B*@!! (grr) is so sexless: Jo marries her creator's father.

Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you, Joan, for your responsiveness to my vegy-spelling-sensibility!

michelle lovric said...

So interesting, Leslie, thank you. I wonder if today we are not too quick to label rushes and outbreaks of heightened affection as sexual crushes. I agree the hormones of the pubescent sent them hurtling in all kinds of emotional directions. Girls become extremely possessive of their girlfriends. The tiniest rejection is felt at a rare peak of intensity. But actual sexual encounters are possibly not always on the agenda. We impose our own obsessions with sexuality from 'above' perhaps.

I read all Alcott's letters home when I was researching an anthology about women's letters. Her humour was a shining light.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, I can remember tremendously intense feelings for my girl friends when I was at school, along with the crises.. 'I've broken up with..' I was at an all-girls school, mind! And that was at a time when my raging hormones had definitely not yet got going, and I was worrying about my wedding night, and which of us would broach the dread topic of 'doing it.' A year or so later, this was no longer a concern to me!

Clare Mulley said...

I always wished Jo had not married at all, but perhaps that was too much to hope for. I remember reading Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy' when travelling, and my mother and sister also read it at the same time in different countries. We were all very clear about who she should have chosen, and each of us chose a different candidate. I must ask what they thought of Jo's choice, though I am sure we must have discussed it in the past. Now I begin to wonder what my daughters think...

Unknown said...

Interesting stuff. The way that Alcott's circumstances and the demands of her publishers/ reading public swayed the development of her books fascinates me.
Diet, weight and exercise are major factors in the age of menarche. When I studied human evolution, wheat was thought to be a major culprit for lowering the age of menarche in the West, but some researchers are now laying the blame on our intake of animal protein.
I was never sure about Jo and Bhaer. There didn't seem to be any chemistry, but then to be honest - was there really much chemistry conveyed between Meg & John, or Amy and Laurie, come to that? :) I'm not sure chemistry would have been approved of in a book aimed at girls!

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, but with the others I do feel chemistry is possible..

Cathy said...

I don't know if you found the article, but I think this matches your description: Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter By Alison Lurie, pages 14 & 15 on Google books. Hope this helps!

Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you, Cathy, and I did find the chapter very interesting, but alas, it wasn't the one I was after. However,as a result I have ordered the 1933 film, with Katharine Hepburn, which should be interesting to watch, along with the 1990s film for comparison... should be nice watching when the evenings grow dark and I'm not spending them in the garden!

Unknown said...

I must say I disagree with this completely 110 % I think trying to pair Jo with anyone else than Friedrich contradicts her character. Single Jo is still understandable but with anyone else especially with Laurie it would diminish Jo´s character. Jo is a gender fluid character and when she is a teen ager and she has that need to be a boy and Laurie represents all the exiting things Europe, freedom to do whatever one can do, Jo can´t do much because she is defined by her class and gender. When Laurie develops feelings for Jo, those times when they were brothers are gone. This forces Jo to distance herself from Laurie and since she is 18-19 she soon starts to see that those masculine traits which quite many of them fall into the category of toxic masculinity do her more harm than good and even embarrass her family, good example of this is the social call to aunt March where Amy gets to go to Europe, and in all fairness Amy deserved it and she much more found of aunt march than Jo ever was. These times make Jo feel detached and isolated. When she moves to New York and meets Fritz he completely changes Jo´s perspective on masculinity because he embodies traits that are considered both male and female and because Friedrich is wholesome character who is marginalised (poor, German..ect) he is self-possessed without struggle (unlike Laurie) and he is honest and not flicky( like Laurie) that attitude of him inspires Jo to be more comfortable as herself and that she can be as unconventional woman as she wants to and Friedrich would love her anyway...another way I also see it that if Jo is transgender (like I am pretty convince Louisa may alcott was) Friedrich loves her anyway. In Little Men when they start the school together it is ran with feminist values and the book continues playing with the gender themes. Alcott´s message was to look beyond gender because they are based on social structures. Both Jo and Fritz do not fit to the traditional idea of gender. It is different for example with Laurie who clearly wants a wife that is more feminine and Amy was raised more within a female sphere than Jo, since Amy spent big chunk of her childhood living with aunt march. I read Good Wives for the first time when I was 17 and I loved it especially since that was the time when I become more comfortable with my own sexual orientation, First part of Little Women was also charming but it was good wives where I could relate myself to all March girls since they were more mature and Fritz as well. Laurie on the other hand I liked him more when I read the book as a child but every time when I have read them as an adult he comes out immature.. he does become better eventually. Laurie´s interactions with Jo tend bring those elements of toxic masculinity to the surface in both of them but in his interactions with beth and amy we see the tender side of laurie.