Friday, April 14, 2017

6 Books for the Jo Marches Among Us

Jo March is perhaps one of the most beloved heroines of American literature. Of Louisa May Alcott's little women, she is the one that readers most frequently identify with. Her literary ambition has elevated her into a small pantheon of fictional benefactresses for women writers. Her rather meandering path to literary success, which in the novels, she doesn't genuinely attain until she is well into middle age, makes her all the more attractive for women struggling to get their work published.

Jo fits more easily than either Meg or Amy into modern ideas of womanhood. She defies conventions, insists that she doesn't need a man, dislikes housework, moves away from home, and works throughout her entire adult life, whether she is writing, teaching, or working as a companion or governess. She is unquestionably the most overtly feminist character in Little Women (though Alcott would write even more transgressive and radical female characters in other books, especially those written for adults).

Nevertheless, Jo is prickly, easier to embrace in memory than in the actual text, particularly for twenty-first century readers. Frustration is expressed at her refusal of Laurie, though this refusal could probably be considered the most blatant and considered independent decision that she makes in her life, purely on the strength of her own feelings, hopes, and ambitions. Her eventual choice of Professor Bhaer, too, has made many readers cringe, and many also find her occasional flippancy and hard-headedness difficult to like. Her sexuality is repressed to an unusual extent, even for a nineteenth-century heroine. Having said that, Jo is in many ways an extraordinarily beloved female character, whose likability defies those prickly qualities. Those less likable elements in her character are part of what make so many women identify with her: she's not a paragon, but at bottom, she's kind, optimistic, and good. She gives us permission to be scapegraces without losing our self-respect.

Here are six books for the Jo Marches among us:

Moods - Louisa May Alcott
Moods was Alcott's first novel and it behooves the reader to get a copy of the revised version she published nearly two decades later, which restored much of the radical politics that her publisher had her cut out. The heroine, Sylvia Yule, is much like Jo, a prickly, passionate, gadabout tomboy, who gets worsted when two different suitors approach her. With less of a head on her shoulders than Jo, Sylvia marries the wrong man; the novel is principally concerned with the tangled mess this bad match creates. Moods is more overtly feminist than Little Women, for Alcott delves deep into complex women's issues, without offering prescriptions. Sylvia's moodiness, her difficult personality, is at the heart of her poor choice, but so is her total inexperience. Thus Alcott insists on a heroine that simply can't adjust to prescribed models of femininity without destroying herself, while demonstrating that ignorance and innocence doom women - as well as their spouses - to unnecessary and avoidable misery. 

Shirley - Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë was one of Alcott's favorite authors and this socially engaged feminist masterpiece would have suited Jo to a T. Brontë's heroine, Shirley, is a land-owner and shrewd businesswoman, her ideas afire with zealous dreams of reform. This philanthropic, passionate, and brilliant woman's most important relationship is her friendship with Caroline, a more traditional woman, an orphan, but her quiet meekness conceals a perceptive and contemplative mind. As in Little Women, readers are confronted with the romantic and marital choices of these women, choices that refuse to conform to the usual paradigms. Brontë and Alcott were both extremely invested in the issue of marital fitness, decrying marriages based merely on social class, wealth, or similar superficial concerns without reference to the individual temperaments, interests, and values of the two people involved. 

The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot
George Eliot's spirited heroine, Maggie Tulliver, has much in common with Jo, including a fervid love for reading, a ravenous intellectual curiosity, an ambivalent understanding of her poverty, a deeply complex relationship with a Laurie figure with more overtly queasy incestuous undertones, that is, with her brother Tom, a struggle to resign herself to the dependence of being female in a patriarchal world, and amorous interest in a suitor few would identify as a romantic hero. Many critics have also considered this novel largely autobiographical, as in Alcott's case, though I would recommend taking that statement with a healthy grain of salt. The Mill on the Floss is a tragedy, unlike Little Women, but there is no question Jo would have relished the dramatic climax.

Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
My second favorite Hardy novel (after Jude the Obscure), Far from the Madding Crowd satisfies on myriad fronts: it is both the tale of an independent, empowered, and determined woman who runs her own farm and a deliciously torrid romance, in which the gorgeous Bathsheba is pursued by no less than three interestingly tortured, secretive, and ulteriorly motivated men, a panoramic vision of rural life both droll and heartbreaking and a darkly tinged fable of sexual obsession. Whether Hardy qualifies as a feminist is hotly debated in academic circles, but I am inclined to consider him at the very least proto-feminist, given his harsh critiques of the structural conditions that foster a culture of rape, exploitation, snobbery, entrapment, and corruption, conditions that, he acknowledges, were far crueler towards women than men and towards the poor than the rich. This novel, too, I suspect, would have been relished by Jo. 

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father - John Matteson
Louisa May Alcott drew a parallel between her most popular heroine and herself, so much so that it was not unusual for her to receive fan-mail addressed to Mrs. Josephine Bhaer, but the true story of Alcott's life included moments far darker and more radical than the relatively contented and smooth trajectory of her alter ego. John Matteson's dual biography of Alcott and her dreamy, intellectually (and literally) peripatetic father is both a brilliant work of scholarship and the most illuminating and beautifully written book about the Alcotts. Matteson dissects the complexities of Louisa's relationships with her parents and her sisters, especially the resentments, conflicts, and interdependencies of their highly unusual family dynamics, and analyzes her feminism both in her fiction and in her activism. Eden's Outcasts is essential reading for any Alcott fan.

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Jean Webster's novel is one of my most beloved books, but, unlike Little Women, it has failed to retain a cohort of passionate readers. Written in the form of letters and diary entries (with delightful pencil sketches!), Daddy-Long-Legs tells the story of Jerusha, called Judy, an orphan whose anonymous benefactor sends her to a women's college. Like Jo, Judy writes a novel based on her childhood experiences, and, also like Jo (and Louisa), she is anxious to earn money by her pen, in her case to pay back the wealthy man she refers to as her Daddy-Long-Legs. Judy is certainly a less saucy heroine than Jo, but then, her sufferings are far more severe; where Jo has Marmee and Orchard House, Judy has Mrs. Lippett, who finds names for the orphans on tombstones, and the overcrowded John Grier Orphanage. A paean to women's education, a protest against the social indignities visited upon children, especially girls, without families, and a sweet, delicious, vivacious treat, its sentiment cut with a clear-eyed social conscience, Daddy-Long-Legs has faced intense, and I believe undeserved, criticism from feminists, who have failed to recognize its insistence on women's independence and freedom to pursue educational, artistic, and professional ambitions.  

Are you a Meg March?

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