Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Period Drama Heroines #10: Jo March

"I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end." ~Josephine March, Little Women

I'm starting at the bottom with my list of period drama heroines, and so Jo March will begin this series.

I love Jo, don't get me wrong. She isn't at the bottom because I don't like her; she's at the bottom because there are so many others that I like even more. Clear? Okay,
good. Somebody had to be at the bottom, and Jo usually gets left behind anyway, so she's used to it. "Well, of course Aunt March prefers Amy over me. Why shouldn't she? I'm ugly and awkward and I always say the wrong things. I fly around throwing away perfectly good marriage proposals." (Little Women, 1994)

Louisa May Alcott created Jo (partly from her own memories of herself as a girl) in 1868, and since then Jo has been loved by readers all across the world. Oddly enough, she's not a model heroine--Alcott spends more time discussing Jo's faults than extolling her virtues. "A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic." For a mid-Victorian novel written for girls, such a heroine was not the fashion. Girls' books of that day tended towards pale, beautiful maidens who fainted on couches and spent their time being rescued by dashing heroes or dazzling their friends at balls. But not Jo. "I hate to think that I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look prim as a China aster!" she complains.

Jo isn't a wishy-washy heroine. She's different. She's fiercely loyal, wonderfully clever, unashamedly frugal, happily imaginative, protective of her sisters while longing to be by herself, and she writes compulsively. (My kind of girl.) Her sister Beth says, "You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone."

June Allyson as Jo in Little Women (1949)

Of the four close-knit March sisters, it is Jo who is destined for greatness. When the girls discuss their castles in the air, Jo envisions a stable full of Arabian steeds, a library of books, a magic inkstand that never runs out and the satisfaction of having done some great deed for the good of humanity. "I think I shall write books and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream."

Despite her dreams of wealth and fame, Jo is anything but mercenary. She writes stories to help support her family, not because she covets filthy lucre. Her generous spirit is always on the lookout for someone to help. "If lack of attention to personal finances is a mark of refinement," she announces in the 1994 movie, "then I say the Marches must be the most elegant family in Concord!" When Marmee needs money to travel to Washington and nurse Father, Jo unhesitatingly sells her hair--her "one beauty"--rather than beg from Aunt March. Later Meg finds her crying over the loss of her hair, but she assures Meg that she isn't sorry: "I'd do it again tomorrow, if I could."

Another of Jo's attributes is her open frankness and honesty. This wasn't exactly an admirable trait for a young lady in those days, but Jo blithely ignored convention and said what she wanted to say. The 1994 movie adaptation (which IMHO is the best so far, though a truly faithful movie has yet to be made) portrays Jo as a "strong-minded woman" with decided feminist tendencies. Though I don't completely agree with this version of her, she had a few good things to say. "I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country." Some parts of this movie were blatantly feminist and rather out of character at times, but this quote from Jo sounds like something she might say.

Katharine Hepburn as Jo in Little Women (1933)

Of course, Jo's most oft-used expression is her trademark, "Christopher Columbus!" anytime something surprises her. This, too, was not particularly becoming for a proper young lady. Nor was her "bad trick of standing before the fire, so [she] burns [her] frocks." Nor was her love of the outdoors, her liking for boyish games, and her scorn of frills and fine feathers. Jo is a hard worker and doesn't mind doing menial tasks--in fact, she says it frees her mind. In her poem A Song from the Suds, she says, "I am glad a task to me is given/ To labor at day by day;/ For it brings me health and strength and hope/ And I cheerfully learn to say,/ "Head, you may think; Heart, you may feel,/ But Hand, you shall work alway!"

Though this isn't mentioned in the book or any of the movies, I imagine that Jo's refusal of Laurie's proposal made a few neighbors' tongues click with disapproval. Laurie was young, rich, handsome, charismatic, and head-over-heels in love with Jo (or so he thought). He could offer her everything she'd ever wanted, and the match seemed meant to be. "Everybody expected it." But Jo knew that she and Laurie weren't compatible, and in the end she married the wonderful Professor Bhaer.

Winona Ryder and Christian Bale as Jo March and Laurie Laurence

Jo knows right from wrong--and she's not afraid to follow her conscience instead of following the crowd. While in New York, writing for sensational newspapers, she tries to ignore the doubt that creeps into her mind despite the happiness of sending money home. Is she really doing the right thing? Professor Bhaer is the one who brings her to her senses, and as she burns the trashy stories, she laments to herself, "If I didn't care about doing right and didn't feel uncomfortable doing wrong, I should get on capitally." But there's the rub-- Jo does indeed care about doing right.
Winona Ryder as Jo in Little Women (1994)

So that's "my Jo," in a nutshell. Or, at least, that would be Jo in a nutshell if it were proper for young ladies to crack nuts. Which it was not in Jo's times, but Jo cracked and ate nuts anyway.

Because that's just the way she is.


Abby said...

I'll have to make a confession here and say I've never read Little Women! But this post was so wonderfully well-written that the book's been moved to the very top of my to-read list :) I love all the quotes you used, and the thing about nuts at the end :') A lovely way to sum up the whole post!


Amelia Colleen said...

Abby, you must read Little Women. It's such a wonderful book!

I liked Winona Ryder's interpretation of Jo--I thought she did a good job of conveying the essence of Jo's character to the audience. Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson were both way too old for the part. I love all those quotes, too!

Does anyone else think that Jo March and Lizzy Bennet would have been very good friends if they had ever met?

Ella said...

Jo is a lot like me-we both have a temper,love to write,and devour books.

Rachel Olivia said...

The real reason why Jo refused Laurie in the second part of Little Women: Good Wives (it was published in two parts) was because Louisa May Alcott did not like the book and did not wish to end it the way everybody thought it would. I can never forgive her-Jo and Laurie were meant to be together. It is proven again and again throughout all the books (Little Women. Little Men, and Jo's Boys); they were perpetually the best of friends, and their relationship with each other was far better developed in the novesl than their relationships with their spouses.

Anonymous said...

I must say, though I absolutely ADORE Jo in Little Women, it is in Little Men that I find I like her the most. She is a fantastically wonderful mother and school-mistress, making sure that each and every one of the boys who come into her care are lovingly and gently nursed back to health, both physically and emotionally.

I also find that Little Men showcases just how perfect she and Professor Bhaer are for each other...they work in tandem to help their boys get the best start they can in life, not only through a sound school education, but also with the state of their morals and in the nurturing of their little garden plots of patience, self-control and perseverence.

P.S: Thank you for this post, it was a joy to read :) The 1994 Little Women is far and away the best, though I would have preferred it to be just a tad longer...and yes, I think Jo and Lizzie would have gotten along famously.