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

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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.

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