Why Jo Didn't Marry Laurie: Louisa May Alcott and the Heir of Redclyffe(1)
Sands-O'Connor, Karen, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)
I enjoy romancing to suit myself ... I hope it is good drill for fancy and language, for I can do it fast, and Mr. [Frank] L[eslie] says my tales are so `dramatic, vivid, and full of plot,' they are just what he wants.
(Louisa May Alcott, Journals 109).
Louisa May Alcott is now well-known for "romancing" in the blood-and-thunder thrillers that she wrote before the monetary success of Little Women (1868) made such work unnecessary. Her ability to plot and vividly dramatize so quickly was certainly aided by her voracious reading throughout her life; Madeleine Stem suggests that Alcott worked deftly to "combine threads of her own experience with the threads of the books she had read and interweave them into a fabric of her own creating" (The Hidden Louisa xiv-xv). But even critics who discuss at length Alcott's credit to previous literature in her thrillers fall silent when it comes to Alcott's best-known work, Little Women. Many seem to take Alcott at her word that she and her sisters had "really lived most of it" (Journals 166), even though this was a comment made about the first half of the novel only. In the second half of the novel, Alcott wrote that, "I can launch into the future, my fancy has more play" (Journals 167). In fact, her fancy had considerable play in both halves of the novel, particularly where the hero of the story, Laurie Laurence, was concerned; and as with her thrillers, Alcott turned to the novels she had read as a source for her imagination. One of these novels was Charlotte Mary Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe (1853).
Almost everyone who has read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women can remember the scene, early in the book, where Meg finds Jo "eating apples and crying over the `Heir of Redclyffe,' wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa" in the garret (29). Jo's penchant for novels, and apples, and garrets is part of what made Alcott's character vividly alive to so many generations of readers, many of whom could empathize with the ability to become involved in the lives of "book-people." But the characters in Charlotte Mary Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe were not just any book-people, and Alcott's choice for Jo's reading had great significance. The title character of Yonge's book, Sir Guy Morville, is a handsome, young, wealthy, idealized hero who befriends a family with four children, eventually marrying the daughter who is popularly referred to as "silly little Amy" (HOR 13). Jo, in Alcott's book, is found reading Sir Guy's story at the beginning of the chapter titled "The Laurence Boy." This is only the first of many links between Sir Guy and Theodore (Laurie) Laurence, Jo's handsome, young, wealthy next-door neighbor; Alcott's Laurie could have been an American relative of Sir Guy. The parallels are crucial, as Alcott's choice of role-model ultimately results in one of the most memorable rejections in all of children's literature: Jo refuses Laurie's proposal of marriage, throwing him into the arms of the only remaining March sister--silly little Amy.
This theory is, of course, a radical viewpoint that Alcott's own writings reject. In fact, in 1868 she devoted a whole essay (titled variously "My Polish Boy" in The Youth's Companion and "My Boys" in Aunt Jo's Scrap-bag) to the subject of Ladislas Wisniewski, a young Polish man she had met abroad. The essay ends with the words, "Laddie was the original of Laurie, as far as a pale pen-and-ink sketch could embody a living, loving boy" ("My Boys" 342). A couple of months later, Alcott added in a letter to Alfred Whitman, "I put you into my story as one of the best & dearest lads I ever knew! `Laurie' is you & my Polish boy `jintly'" (Letters of LMA 120). Most of the critics have since taken Alcott's words at face value(2) although Sheryl Englund warns against "an unquestioned focus on Alcott's historical identity and its relationship to her writing" ("Reading the Author" 202); and Ann Douglas, in her 1980 "Introduction" to the reissue of Ednah D. …