Friday Hoyden from fiction: Jo Marsh March, Little Women

How old were you when you first read Little Women? I think I was about 8, and I was utterly typical: Jo was my favourite. Was anyone unenraptured by Jo March on reading the book? What about portrayals on the silver screen or the box?

The first one I ever saw was the 1949 Mervyn Le Roy version with June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor stealing every scene she could as scheming Amy).

Later I caught the 1933 George Cukor version with Katharine Hepburn, which is still my favourite.

And of course the 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. I didn’t hate Ryder, but I loved Sarandon (but then, I almost always do in whatever she does).

Until flippling idly through IMDB today, I’d never seen or heard of this 1978 version, but I’m terribly fascinated by how bad I think it could quite possibly be: Susan Dey as Jo, Meredith Baxter Birney as Meg, Eve Plumb as Beth, Greer Garson as Aunt March and just to put the cherry on top of the icing on the cake, William Shatner as Professor Bhaer! Yikes! Can you imagine Shatner delivering lines like this (script actually taken from the 1933 film, but just imagine):

Prof. Bhaer: Oh, please, please… just, just one moment, before… I have a wish to ask you something. Would you… Oh, I-I… I have no courage to think that… but, but, but, could I dare hope that… I? I… I know I, I shouldn’t make so free as to ask. I have nothing to give, but my heart so full and… and these empty hands.
Jo March: [taking his hands in hers] Not empty now.
Prof. Bhaer: Oh, heart’s dearest!
[they embrace]
Jo March: [drawing him into the house] Welcome home!


I serendipitously encountered a few eclectic Jo March links as I was looking for images for this post:

Well, we can’t all be Jo reflects on the appeal of Jo to nearly everyone who reads Little Women.

People who loved Jo March when young tend to carry that through their lives: I found this image on Ursula K Leguin’s contact page, where she begs people who want her to sign books to please just send her an SSAE in which she can enclose signed bookplates. One of the bookplates she offers is this one of Jo reading in the attic, the image taken from her own copy of Little Women which she inherited from her mother.

A documentary film-maker introduces her film, Tomboys! Feisty Girls and Spirited Women, as follows:

Louisa May Alcott was a tomboy, as was her heroine, Jo March, in Little Women. But Jo, like most literary tomboys, was tamed once she reached adolescence. Real-life tomboys tell a different story.

That’s why I never re-read the sequels to Little Women, although I’ve re-read Little Women at least a dozen times. Once was more than enough. It broke my heart to see Jo tamed so completely, so acquiescent, so dutiful. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to be grown up yet when I read them, but I’ve never felt an urge to revisit them. It’s one thing to accept adult responsibilities, it’s another thing entirely to have one’s fire quenched so thoroughly. Although she was portrayed as fighting fiercely for her boys after she was widowed, everything about her was so hedged about with motherhood statements I felt I could only see Mrs Professor Bhaer, there was no Jo March anymore. I didn’t want to read any more of that, so I didn’t.

Addit: I forgot to mention an addition to the March family canon which is well worth the read – Geraldine Brooks’ March takes us away from the comfortable (if shabby) March family home to the horrors of the Civil War that Mr March experiences while he is away from his wife and daughters. This is not a comforting book in any way, and apart from a few moments where he receives letters from home there is little connection to the world of the growing March girls which we love, but it’s well worth reading for those who like to get a more politically attuned and darker impression of the times.

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28 replies

  1. Er, typo in the title. I clicked over from my netvibes page wondering who this fictional Jo Marsh was, only to find it is actually a character I’m familiar with.
    I haven’t read the books though. I did see the Winona Ryder version and enjoyed it. Perhaps the world is divided into Little Women women and Anne of Green Gables women? I was the latter, although the grown up Anne was similarly strange to read.
    kate’s last blog post..Lagging behind

  2. Nope, I was fan of both.
    I’ve probably seen all the Little women movies and I’m not really happy with any of them. That’s probably because I read the books when I was pretty young and the movie I made for it in my own head negates the others.
    Though Kate Hepburn is much, much better than June Allyson. And Margaret Sullivan as Beth? Such scenery chewing!

  3. Kate, I’m not sure. I loved both Jo and Anne until, yep, they got married to virtuous types and were weighed down with so many kids and Doing Good (would things have been different if Jo had married Laurie? He seemed a lot more fun). Same thing happened to Laura in the Little House books – she goes from riding bareback to trying to losing the tree claim her husband had worked for.
    “real life Tomboys tell a different story” – I’m not so sure. I haven’t seem that film but I feel there’s more than enough pressure in past societies and our society to squelch the independence and spark of girls.
    What about Pollyanna? What happened to her – can’t remember. Did she suffer the same extinguishment?
    kris’s last blog post..I take all my parenting tips from the Hollywood stars

  4. kris – who’s Anne?!
    I loved Jo and Amy equally, actually; I was enamored of the Art supplies aisle in any toyshop by the time I was eight years old, and Amy got to go to Europe! AND to marry the Prince equivalent (yeah, heavy Disney childhood – I was also deeply mourning my brown hair at that stage, and dark eyes), and end up LIKE a princess, whilst getting to have genteel adventures in Art and travel that appealed to me more than Jo’s privations and old man.
    Professor Bhaer always struck me as kinda gross, actually – he seemed SO much older than Jo, their relationship squicked me out, even as a kid.
    Aphie’s last blog post..Baby updaterliness

  5. Aphie, Kris is referring to Anne of Green Gables, as mentioned in Kate’s first comment.

  6. Oh I’m totally with you. I adore Jo March! And, what’s more I am a lover of Anne too- similar heroines I suppose. Jo teaches us so much about being strong, original and fighting for what’s good in the world. I agree with you as well that “Good Wives” has not earned subsequent readings from me in the way “Little Women” has.
    I do disagree with some previous comments which indicate that Laurie may have been a better match for Jo. Not in my eyes. The Prof is Jo’s match in so many ways that Laurie can never be. Laurie, a fabulous friend in childhood, never matures to equal Jo. He is a lot of fun, but for a woman like Jo, fun is just not enough. Bhaer provides Jo with what she really wants and needs- an intellectual equal. They spark together. It’s a love match through and through. Jo just never has any chemistry with Laurie as he is such a boy. A real woman needs a real man, and that is what she finds in Bhaer. He stimulates and challenges her to achieve all she can- and to be the greatest woman she can be. Sure, he’s old and foreign and set in his ways, but clearly he sets her pulse racing and she responds to him viscerally. And, what a great device by Alcott to teach her readers that love doesn’t always happen along in the form we expect it to. Love sure would be easier if it always came in a handsome, good natured, wealthy form, and if it lived next door but hey, it just doesn’t, and it is more credit to the wisdom and spark of Jo that she can look past what’s expected by society to find her true equal, to love him and to be loved for ALL she is in return.
    And as for being ‘weighed down with so many children”….awww. I see both Jo and Anne as fictional representations of the spectrum of womanhood. They go from curious girl, to sparling intellect, to lover to mother and then wise crone. I love that they both became mothers. I too am fully immersed in the lives of my children and see it as a positive thing- and I feel proud to be experiencing a progression through the archetypes of womanhood as my childhood heroines did before me.
    Sister Suffragette’s last blog post..Macaroni Cheese

  7. Cheers, tig! 🙂
    Aphie’s last blog post..Baby updaterliness

  8. Sister, I wasn’t meaning to imply that Laurie was a better match for Jo – once I got past my disappointment for him and my initial reaction to Bhaer I could see that intellectually they were a good match.
    The age gap still did – and does – bother me, though. Perhaps because of some experiences I’ve had with older male figures in my own life, as much as anything. The squicky was that he seemed like a Daddy replacement as much as a romantic partner.
    It just seemed like the message was that because Jo was the tomboy, and not pretty like Amy or a “proper little woman” like Meg, she only got a man past his physical prime, rather than one at the same stage of life as she was. It felt (feels) a bit like a cop-out – “conform to societal standards or accept a partner who is less than in some way, because you can’t hope to be different and have a romantic partner who ticks off every box in the desirable traits list”.
    Aphie’s last blog post..Baby updaterliness

  9. “Margaret Sullivan as Beth”
    I think you mean Margaret O’Brien, generally considered the best child actor there ever was – Meet Me in St. Louis, Jane Eyre etc.
    Shirley Temple was famous for her singing and dancing not acting – her movies also haven’t traveled well – the sugar worked during the Depression but is pretty repulsive now.

  10. Oh Aphie- interesting perspective! I guess I never saw the Prof as a second choice at all, not lacking in any way really, but we all do read things within our own contexts 😀 . I also never saw Jo as just a tomboy either. I see Jo operating as an amalgam of all the sisters- or maybe it would be clearer to say that each of the sisters represents aspects of Jo’s own character. Amy is her vanity (albeit intellectual vanity maybe…), Meg her desire to be the ‘good girl’ and sadly, it is only when Beth dies that Jo is able to truly know herself, as Beth represented whatever it was that held Jo back from reaching her potential for so long. I really see the other sisters as less ‘womanly’ than Jo. They’re thin characters compared with meaty Jo. In my eyes Jo has it all going on!
    And what fun to be having heavy-duty chats about Jo March!!!
    Sister Suffragette’s last blog post..Macaroni Cheese

  11. Oh oh oh! I found some screenshots of that 1978 made-for-TV version.
    Shatner as Bhaer:

    And here’s Susan Dey as Jo:

  12. Sister Suffragette– I can only speak about the Anne books, because I never read the sequels to Little Women, but my problem is not that she became a mother, but that her role as a wife was so submissive and, well, unlike the headstrong Anne of the first few novels. In the first novels, she’s one of the first women to become a teacher (Miss Stacy was the first female teacher at Avonlea, and Anne was the second), she’s among the first women to get a university education, but once she gets married, it’s like her education was all tokenistic; she is capable of rational thought, but her emotional side always wins out, and it’s lucky that she has Gilbert there to set her straight. Mind you, I know that Anne was always emotionally driven, but in the earlier novels she had Marilla as a counterpoint– the older woman guiding Anne into womanhood, while Anne similarly taught Marilla that allowing your emotions to guide you sometimes is not a bad thing. When she’s married, however, they seem to introduce a false opposition between emotional and rational, in which the latter is very clearly privileged and masculine.

  13. Does anyone know if the submissiveness was the idea of the authors or forced upon them by editorial interference/societal pressure?

  14. I don’t know, UT.
    Headstrong young rebels who learn wisdom and end up embracing duty are all part of the Coming of Age archetype. It’s just that if they are young male rebels they end up getting all sorts of other public responsibilities and recognition as well as finally finding true love and discovering the joys of parenting. The expectation that young female rebels will be content with traditional private responsibilities and (lack of) recognition does seem to be standard societal sexism.

  15. I’m going to have to do a re-read – it’s been a long, long time. I’m casting my mind back and trying to remember exactly how much Jo was cast in the “invisible private responsibilities only” role. She was in a nurturing mother-hen type role, definitely, but at least she was presiding over a boys’ school in Little Men; was she as much ‘principal’ as ‘mother’?
    Probably not. Just musing. And blimey, the class and race stuff does strike between the eyes on a re-read, too, along with the sexism. Re-reading the Demi and Daisy character descriptions… bleagh.

  16. Actually, I’ve read a fair bit about L. M. Montgomery, and I believe that she was pressured to put in a fair bit of moralistic stuff. In the later Emily books (which are far closer to being autobiographical), you get a far more rebellious view of womanhood, in my opinion. Of course, the Emily books finish when she gets engaged, so we never see how she reacts to married life.

  17. Shatner as Bhaer – nooo! I was never a fan of the Prof but he had gravitas.
    Sister, I didn’t put that well. It’s not the ‘weighed down with children’, it’s the context in which Jo mothers – as someone who is subject to Bhaer’s greater knowledge and intellect, much in the way Anne mothers, as Beppie points out. It was lazy writing on my part.
    Nor was I suggesting Laurie was a better match. But he had money and Jo could have pursued her interests in a way that was closed to her when she married Bhaer and started the boys’ home. Remember how she had wanted to go to Europe but the chance was denied because she was snotty to the aunt? It would have been a very different Jo, with resources that *might* have offered very different opportunities.
    Thinking it through, all the March girls had tragedy in their lives. Beth died, Amy and Laurie’s daughter was ‘frail’ and Meg lost her husband early. Jo at least had her husband for a longish time and a fulfilling life with her boys – maybe she wasn’t punished in the books. I’m not sure that Bhaer was punishment for Jo. I wonder if he fits in that romantic character of the older, wiser man that perhaps doesn’t resonate so much anymore. (Was there a book called ‘Daddy Longlegs’ where the heroine falls in love with her guardian who older and in a trust relationship!). But punishment or no, much of that Jo fire goes in the end.
    Are there any independent female characters who hold to their own path right through their lives?
    kris’s last blog post..I take all my parenting tips from the Hollywood stars

  18. I really see the other sisters as less ‘womanly’ than Jo. They’re thin characters compared with meaty Jo. In my eyes Jo has it all going on!
    I feel like that too, except that I really do feel that when Amy goes to Europe (instead of Jo) she becomes more fleshed out at last, and emerges as an actual young woman, instead of a two dimensional, spoiled brat of a youngest sister. I’m not so fond of younger Amy, but I do love her as an adult.
    And what fun to be having heavy-duty chats about Jo March!!
    Oh yes! Some days it feels as if I must go back to Uni and declare myself a life-long student if I ever want to hope for feminist, in-depth discussions of literature and beloved characters. (What did we do before the internet?)
    Aphie’s last blog post..Baby updaterliness

  19. Lauredhel:
    Right – a lot of the old books just don’t work today – even supposedly “liberal” Pippi Longstockings is very much a product of its’ time

  20. Was there a book called ‘Daddy Longlegs’ where the heroine falls in love with her guardian who older and in a trust relationship!
    Oh yes! In so many ways, that book is far more explicitly feminist than other contemporary novels. Judy actually complains about the way that the young women are forced to attend sermons about how they’re going to have to become wives and mothers, and she basically rejects the church and becomes a communist. But at the same time, there’s this really insidious sense that she’s being groomed by the “Daddy Long Legs” figure– basically, in exchange for her tuition, she has to write to her anonymous guardian. She tells him all the details of her life, and he turns up and gets to know her, without revealing the fact that he’s her guardian– so he’s not only older, richer and male, he also knows all this personal stuff about her, while she knows almost nothing about him.

  21. Late to the party here (terrible how new motherhood saps one’s energy for intellectual pursuits), but I thought you’d like to know that L.M. Alcott is on record (letter or diary, can’t quite remember) as saying that if her public was going to insist that Jo should marry, she was going to marry her to a fusty old man, and see how they liked that – ha! (or something along those lines).

  22. Hey, stealth announcement! Congratulations!
    Thanks for the Alcott point of view. That’s a very hoydenish sort of thing for her to do.

  23. It wasn’t “Jo should marry” in the abstract that she was giving the finger too – it was the “Jo should marry Laurie” that people wanted

  24. Thanks tigtog! – crazy times indeed.
    I’ve dug out the quote: “Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare to refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her.”
    Found here:
    I, too, was horrified at the way that quenching every spark of spirit to fight against the limitations put on women’s lives was presented as the right thing for a young woman to do.

  25. That quotation is fantastic! Thanks so much for that. 🙂
    Sister Suffragette’s last blog post..Tuna Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes

  26. The way I saw it, it was not so much that the “quenching every spark of spirit to fight against the limitations put on women’s lives was presented as the right thing for a young woman to do,” it was more that Jo mellowed and found other ways of doing things that went beyond youthful hot-headedness. I seem to recall from the later books that Jo (a) encouraged the young women in her care to be suffragettes, and one of them to go to medical school and become a doctor, (b) ran the – quite radical – boys’ school with her husband and (c) was a successful author.
    It spoke to me of channeling her spirit in more mature ways, rather than merely being impetuous and outspoken, rather than the spirit being quenched. I myself, in my impending middle age, find that anger is much more useful if it’s channeled into doing something productive instead of just being angry.
    Rebekka’s last blog post..Useless help desk monkeys

  27. Exactly Bekk – mature, sophisticated, middle aged Jo would not be young hotheaded impetuous Jo

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