Many years ago I was on a high school field trip, sitting on a bus, when I noticed the two girls in front of me were discussing “Little Women.” I eavesdropped on their conversation because even though I thought “Little Women” was dull as hell (I’ve always been more of a “Lord of the Rings” fan) I was interested in why so many of my friends really liked the book. The girls sitting in front of me were obviously fans. They talked about their favorite March sisters, how many times they had read the book, and how stupid it was that Jo and Laurie never ended up together. Both girls lamented that last plot point heavily. Their shared moment of disappointment is familiar to masses of Louisa May Alcott fans.
“I don’t understand why they didn’t get married!” one girl said.
“I know!” the other girl agreed, “And I can’t believe that Laurie ended up marrying Jo’s
The first girl nodded vigorously. “And THEN!” she said, “And THEN Jo had to marry that boring German tutor, Professor Bhaer. I mean, come ON!”
Both girls sighed. “Yeah,” the second girl said, “I didn’t get that at all.”
The pain and indignation in my classmates’ conversation continued on in an energetic manner. One girl talked about her own “Little Women” fan fic where she retconned Louisa May Alcott’s classic to include a romantic conclusion for Jo and Laurie. I don’t remember what the plot was exactly, only that it involved Jo writing Laurie a letter confessing her true love for him. Laurie misinterpreted the letter but it all got straightened out in the end and MOST IMPORTANTLY Jo and Laurie ended up falling into each other’s arms and living HAPPILY EVER AFTER! TOGETHER, DAMMIT!
My classmates were not the only adolescent girls left bewildered and unsatisfied by the Jo storyline in “Little Women.” A quick search on Amazon has turned up at least one published novel re-writing Alcott’s original characters so that the romance all her young readers craved finally comes to fruition.
Here’s the deal though. Louisa May Alcott knew exactly what she was doing when she lead her young readers to believe in the blossoming romance between Jo and Laurie…. and then dashed their hopes into a thousand pieces.
She was being a troll.
You see, Louisa May Alcott was gay.
In an interview in 1883, Alcott stated “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body….. because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
That’s extremely straightforward, especially by 1883 standards when anti-homosexuality laws were sending people to prison. Despite the anti-sodomy laws (which, as can be seen by their name alone, were mostly targeting gay men and not gay women) it was still common to see winks, hints and nods towards lesbianism in 19th and 20th century literature. Lesbianism was the love that dare not speak its name but it could sure HINT pretty loudly. I mean, people weren’t even trying to pretend with the term “Boston Marriage,” a 19th century slang term for two women of means living together in a household. Legally, being gay in 1883 could send you to prison. Practically- for women at least- being gay could be done almost out in the open with few repercussions. No wonder Alcott was so comfortable stating her preferences during that 1883 interview.
It’s well-known that “Little Women” is based on Alcott’s own adolescent experiences. The March girls are Alcott’s sisters and Jo March is Louisa May Alcott herself. Jo, with her masculine-sounding name and non-feminine habits (at one point Jo laments “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay home and knit like a poky old woman.”) would have been recognizable to Alcott’s gay readers. The lack of a romantic conclusion between Jo and Laurie puzzled Alcott’s straight readers but her gay readers understood the conclusion very well. There was no way Jo could ever love Laurie as anything more than a friend. She was gay. Marrying a somewhat asexual person like Professor Bhaer was probably a safer path for a young gay woman in 19th century America than marrying a man who truly loved her romantically. At least with Professor Bhaer the risk of dying from childbirth was lower!
More importantly, Louisa May Alcott made Jo marry Professor Bhaer because Louisa May Alcott was a troll. A century and a half before social media, Alcott gleefully crushed all her readers’ expectations by making Jo marry a dull old man. According to Alcott’s letters at the time, she took a great deal of pleasure in how enraged her readers were. “”Jo should have remained a literary spinster,” Alcott wrote in 1869, “But so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect.”
See? What did I tell you? Total troll!
What would Alcott think of our world now with its armies of trolls and laughing cretins hiding behind their keyboards and laughing at the anger of others? She’d probably be horrified like the rest of us. Or would she be joining in the fun? I honestly don’t know.
One thing is for sure, however: Alcott would definitely have been chuckling with glee over the disappointed conversation of my classmates on that school bus. Louisa May Alcott was a troll, and those “vials of wrath” the two girls were pouring on Alcott’s head a century after her death would have delighted her.