|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
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
|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!)
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!