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Fictional Writers: Jo March (Little Women)

Monday, June 9, 2008

I heard a piece on the radio this morning, on NPR’s “In Character” series, about Jo March from Little Women, and it got me thinking about characters in fiction who are authors. So I’m going to take a leaf out of NPR’s book (a wave from their signal?) and do a semi-regular series on fictional characters who happen to also be writers, and the authors who created them.


“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster,
with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and
twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor
Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share
it, independent, and don’t need it. . . .”
~Jo March, Little Women

Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott (1832–1888.) was not only the daughter of famed transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, she spent her life amongst a community that included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody. She helped out in the school her father founded (the Temple School, based on the ideals of a utopian society), and was active in the abolitionist movement in her early years. Due to her family’s poverty, she began working at a young age—as a seamstress, a domestic helper, a governess, a teacher, as well as an authoress. Her first published work, Flower Fables was published in 1854. It had originally been written for RW Emerson’s daughter Ellen.

With such a background, and so many successful and brilliant writers surrounding her, it is no wonder that Louisa was allowed not only to explore her creativity through writing, but to pursue publication. Though it wasn’t as unheard-of for women in the mid-19th century in America to write and be published, it still wasn’t necessarily considered by many (outside of her circle of society) to be an appropriate path, especially for an unmarried woman, to pursue.

She became a regular contributing writer for Atlantic Monthly in 1860. For six weeks in the winter of 1862–1863, Louisa volunteered as a nurse at the Union hospital in Georgetown (Washington DC). The letters she wrote home during that time were revised and published in the Commonwealth, which began to garner some serious interest in her writing. They were published as a collection (Hospital Sketches) in 1863.

Alcott, like her creation Jo March, loved to write “pot-boilers”—thrilling tales of adventure and suspense, which she published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, including A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. These stories were immediately (and fiscally) successful and she always had a market for them.

In 1867, Alcott began writing Little Women at the suggestion of her publisher who wanted a “girls’ book” to market to younger readers than those reading Alcott’s other works. She finished the manuscript in two and a half months, drawing on her own family (including her three sisters, May [Amy], Anna [Meg], and Elizabeth [Beth]) and experiences for the story. The novel originally ended after Chapter 23, with Meg’s engagement to Mr. Brooke. The novel was an immediate success, and the second part, picking the story up three years later with Meg and John’s wedding, was published in 1869. The two parts were not actually combined into one volume until 1880, in the U.S., while in Britain, the second part continued to be published separately under the title Good Wives (a decision that Alcott had no say in). This was followed by two sequels: Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886), which continued to follow the March girls as they had children and as their children grew up.

Jo March was the second of four daughters of a scholarly minister, Robert March, and a feminist-figure mother, Margaret “Marmee” March. Jo is fifteen years old at the opening of the novel and is the central character. Jo is a tomboy, wishing she could go off to war with her father (a chaplain in the Union army), and claiming to be the man of the house in her father’s absence. Jo strikes up a friendship with the “boy next door” Theodore “Teddy/Laurie” Laurence. Jo is not only bold natured, she is impulsive—which has a tendency to land her in hot (or freezing) water. She speaks before she thinks and acts on her first reaction to a situation without taking the time to think it through first. The softest spot in her heart is reserved for younger sister Beth. It is Beth’s influence on Jo that helps Jo to become the “little woman” her father wishes her to be.

Jo as a writer is clearly a representation her creator. Jo’s love of passionate, suspenseful, thrilling stories parallels Alcott’s own publishing history, as does her ultimate publishing success when she begins to write stories about herself and her sisters, though Jo wrote these at the suggestion of her parents after the death of her beloved sister Beth (though in the movies, it’s usually at Professor Bhaer’s suggestion).

“Why don’t you write? That always used to make you happy,” said her mother once, when the desponding fit over-shadowed Jo.

“I’ve no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my things.”

“We do. Write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world. Try it, dear. I’m sure it would do you good, and please us very much.”

“Don’t believe I can.” But Jo got out her desk and began to overhaul her half-finished manuscripts.

An hour afterward her mother peeped in and there she was, scratching away, with her black pinafore on, and an absorbed expression, which caused Mrs. March to smile and slip away, well pleased with the success of her suggestion. Jo never knew how it happened, but something got into that story that went straight to the hearts of those who read it, for when her family had laughed and cried over it, her father sent it, much against her will, to one of the popular magazines, and to her utter surprise, it was not only paid for, but others requested.

Jo’s ultimate success in writing comes through everything the character has experienced in the novel. It is through the penning of the stories and poems about her family, and Beth especially, that Jo finds out who she truly is. And it is “In the Garrett,” a melancholy poem about Jo and her sisters in childhood days, which brings Professor Bhaer to Concord and leads to the eventual resolution of their romance.

Jo is probably one of the best-known fictional female writers in classic American literature. Though she does exhibit some doubts in herself as a writer, some fears of letting others see what she’s written, it’s only when she’s allowed herself to become vulnerable, to pour her heart out onto the page that her true skill as a writer is recognized.

For a small thing it was a great success, and Jo was more astonished than when her novel was commended and condemned all at once.

“I don’t understand it. What can there be in a simple little story like that to make people praise it so?” she said, quite bewildered.

“There is truth in it, Jo, that’s the secret. Humor and pathos make it alive, and you have found your style at last. You wrote with no thoughts of fame and money, and put your heart into it, my daughter. You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best, and grow as happy as we are in your success.”

“If there is anything good or true in what I write, it isn’t mine. I owe it all to you and Mother and Beth,” said Jo, more touched by her father’s words than by any amount of praise from the world.

So taught by love and sorrow, Jo wrote her little stories, and sent them away to make friends for themselves and her, finding it a very charitable world to such humble wanderers, for they were kindly welcomed, and sent home comfortable tokens to their mother, like dutiful children whom good fortune overtakes.

Links of Interest
Learning/Teaching Resources on Louisa May Alcott
Online Text of Little Women
“Jo March: Everyone’s Favorite Little Woman” on NPR’s “In Character” series

  1. Monday, June 9, 2008 12:38 pm

    She finished the book in two and a half months? Was it just for part one? That’s impressive. I had no idea it was first published in two parts.


  2. Monday, June 9, 2008 1:09 pm

    Yes, it was just the first half that was finished in two and a half months. I couldn’t find out how long the second part took, but probably not very long, since it was published only a year after the first part.


  3. Monday, June 9, 2008 1:22 pm

    That’s it! I absolutely have to find and purchase this series. My mother gave it to me many years ago but those books have long since been lost.

    Funny is how at varying points in my life, I have found that I’ve related more (or less) to each of the March sisters. Jo is my all-time favorite but my first fav was Beth, then Jo, then Meg, then Amy. (Imagine my horror in my early 20’s when I found myself empathizing with Amy!)


  4. Melinda (Marmie) Smith permalink
    Monday, June 9, 2008 2:29 pm

    Alcott is one of my all time favorite authors. All of her books were pretty much required reading for my girls because I loved her stories so much when I was growing up.


  5. Melinda (Marmie) Smith permalink
    Monday, June 9, 2008 2:30 pm

    Oh, one of my girls loved Little Women so much that I’m to be Marmie to my grandchildren. Hence my “on-line” name. : )


  6. Monday, June 9, 2008 2:42 pm

    An Old-Fashioned Girl needs to be at the top of any LMA fan’s reading list. It is truly Louisa’s masterpiece. It completely outshines Little Women in every way you can imagine.

    The real Orchard House in Concord is a museum now and all non-profit museums greatly need the assistance of private donations. The house itself is 317 years old. Just Google Orchard House and it’s the first link that comes up.


  7. Monday, June 9, 2008 2:48 pm

    I don’t believe I’ve ever read Little Women. Isn’t that awful?

    It’s neat to know that it was originally published as two separate novels. Wonder how many classics end up getting combined?


  8. Monday, June 9, 2008 4:33 pm

    One of my pet peeves as a writer is when a novelist creates a fictional author who’s an overnight success–a multi-millionaire at the ripe age of 27 or so :). It’s so unrealistic, and if anybody should know better, it’s a writer! Yet it’s done so often.

    I think that’s what I like so much about Little Women–Jo’s struggles as a writer are not only believable but probable. It’s the writing life as it really can be. I wish more writers would write that reality.


  9. Monday, June 9, 2008 4:50 pm

    It is tempting to make our characters unrealistically successful at a young age—simply because it makes it easier on us to be able to get around a restrictive work schedule.

    But there are some examples of authors who do find success in their twenties. Not many, but a few.


  10. Tuesday, June 10, 2008 9:37 am

    Somehow I missed the early success cutoff, LOL! You make a good point about the restrictive character work schedule. I think that’s why in my first book I made her work a bigger subplot, and in my second book the plot revolved around the character’s job and clients(Honey Do.)


  11. Tuesday, September 16, 2008 6:42 pm

    The wonder of it is not Jo Macrch’s success. but for me it is that she kept writing and persisted in spite of any failures. She is a true, writing heroine.


  12. Katrina permalink
    Thursday, January 20, 2011 6:26 pm

    This was very helpful! I just finished my 1 pg. Essay on Little Women and my favorite character Jo! Thanks!


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