“Little Women”: Was Jo March really a lesbian?

 
 

I don’t remember exactly how I
came across it, but a while ago I stumbled upon an online list
that an organization called the Publishing Triangle had made of the
“100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels of all time.” Since I was a literature
major, and reading is still pretty much like breathing for me, it was
an interesting list. There were the overtly gay-themed novels you might
expect — E. M. Forster’s Maurice, for example, and
Radclyffe Hall
’s The Well of Loneliness — as well as books
that I recognized as subtextually gay, even if it’s not quite made
explicit: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (which, somewhat
counter-intuitively, is really about men in love with each other), and

Henry James’s The Bostonians.
One selection, at No. 43, came as a pretty big surprise, though:
Louisa May Alcott
’s Little Women.

I thought about this. Little Women?
Really? I mean, yes, Jo March was a tomboy; yes, she had a propensity
for dressing up in men’s clothes and swaggering about; yes, the handsome,
wealthy, intelligent, kind boy next door was in love with her, and she
just wanted to be friends. But it still seemed like a pretty big, and
presumptuous, leap to me, to claim it as a lesbian novel.

Until I did some Googling, that is,
and came across this quote from the Penguin Classics introduction to
LW
:

"In an interview with the writer
Louise Chandler Moulton, [Alcott] later commented with pre-Freudian
candor on her own feelings: ‘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 in my life with so many pretty girls and never
once the least bit with any man.’"

Well. Um. Words mean different things
at different periods of history … but still, as statements go, that
one seems pretty unambiguous. Jo is a fictional character, of course,
and not a literal representation of Louisa May Alcott — but with her
literary aspirations and her position as the second of four sisters,
she has long been looked on as a sort of alter ego for her author. I
began to look at her marriage to Professor Bhaer (in a later book,
Good Wives
) in a slightly different light.

I also began thinking about the three
Hollywood film versions of Little Women, and the Jos there. If
you don’t count two early silent versions, then the first one, with
Katharine Hepburn
, was made in 1933:

Although I’ve never seen it, I
can’t help thinking that the woman who played Sylvia Scarlett could
probably bring some lesbian subtext if needed:

The most recent adaptation was the
one with Winona Ryder, in 1994.

Although I don’t really find Winona
Ryder a convincing tomboy, no matter how many fake mustaches she draws
on herself, the screenplay does contain some interesting quotes. Jo’s
manner of admiring Laurie, for example, is to say, “If I were a boy
I’d want to look just like that.” And when she has turned down his
marriage proposal and is upset that Aunt March has chosen Amy rather
than her to go to Europe, she says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry
Marmee. There’s just something really wrong with me. I want to change,
but I — I can’t. And I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.”

That film also spawned a close friendship
between Ryder and co-star Claire Danes; which I mention for no
better reason than as an excuse to post these pictures:

The first Little Women adaptation
that I saw, though, and my personal favorite — even if it always seems
to get ranked lowest in critical discussions of the three — is the 1949
version, with June Allyson as Jo.

Not only does Allyson bring a convincing
swagger to the role, but the film also contains a couple of scenes that,
in retrospect, are interesting from a lesbianish point of view. Since
I don’t want to ick anyone out here, I should begin by saying that
I am well aware that Janet Leigh (as Meg) is playing Allyson’s

sister in the film.

At the same time, the fact that the
actresses are not sisters in real life makes me feel not totally unjustified
in noting that there is a particularly strong, possessive, jealous element
in Jo’s reaction to Meg’s suitor John Brooke, that at times does
kind of seem to verge on the lesbianish:

(Of course, it could just be that
I am projecting my feelings onto Jo, because I have a crush on Janet
Leigh).

In the film, as in the books, lesbian
subtext is pretty firmly submerged by the end. Jo meets the very likeable
Professor Bhaer, and any questions the reader might have had about her
sexuality earlier on seem resolved: she simply hadn’t met the right
man yet.

It is interesting to note, though,
that in the third volume of her March family quartet, Little
Men
, Alcott introduces a new character called Nan, who in many ways
is a younger version of Jo: tomboyish, athletic, rebellious. By the
last volume, Jo’s Boys, Nan is a young woman and training to
be a doctor. But although she is devotedly pursued by one of the male
characters, she is determined to stick to the single life, saying that
“[I] am very glad and grateful that my profession will make me a useful,
happy, and independent spinster.” This aim, Alcott tells us in the
last chapter, she goes on to fulfill.

 
 

Tags: , , , , , ,