SMC: In Defense Of Alcott’s ‘Little Men’

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It came as a shock to read Beulah Maud Devaney’s article for the Guardian about Little Men and her insistence that Jo March had been betrayed in terms of feminist principles. Days later, the shock still endures and I feel compelled to respond to defend my heroines; not only Louisa M Alcott but her wonderful character Jo March and Jo’s protégé, Nan Harding, who is introduced in Little Men and yet went unmentioned Devaney’s article.

It is true that it was a surprise to see Jo March happily settled as the head of a family. I read the combined version of Little Women and Good Wives at a young age, and Jo’s spirit, thirst for independence and her creative urge to write resonated with me from the outset. However, Jo’s marriage was not a betrayal of principle in my eyes, either by Jo or by Alcott. If Jo was going to be happy with anyone it would have to be a well read Professor with a love of books to equal her own, someone who would encourage her writing and push her to better herself rather than to be content with the sensational stories of her youth. Indeed, Jo does go on to have her own very successful career as an established author in her own right by the time of ‘Jo’s Boys’.

It also came as no surprise to me that Laurie assumed Jo would take responsibility for her boys’ medical care and physical needs, asking her to cure Nat’s ‘overtasked body’ while Fritz helped his ‘neglected mind’. Jo may have wanted to be a writer, but she was not blessed with a full formal education. Indeed at fifteen years old she was working full time as a companion to Aunt March. Fritz meanwhile is a Professor, an educated man and an educator himself. The assumption that Jo will care for Nat’s health should not come as a surprise, as Jo has always been inclined towards nursing. After all, when Beth fell sick Meg noted that ‘she did not like nursing, but Jo did’ and Jo proceeded to carefully and willingly tend to her sister Beth for many years, refusing to leave her side towards the end of her young life. Of course Laurie would assume that Jo would tend to her neglected boys, having supported her throughout her long vigil during Beth’s scarlet fever.

In fact, medical knowledge and the provision of medical care is the secret to unlocking the restraints placed on women in ‘Little Men’ and later in ‘Jo’s Boys’; not for Jo perhaps, but certainly for another headstrong young lady under her charge – Nan Harding.

Nan is introduced in Chapter 7 of ‘Little Men’, invited to come and live at Plumfield School by Jo who is keen to ‘bring up little men and women together’ and provide a companion for Daisy who ‘needs stirring up a bit’. Full of spirits, nicknamed Naughty Nan and described as a bright child who is running wild, Nan is one of the biggest handfuls that Jo inducts into the school and proceeds to cause havoc and mayhem throughout her stay. Determined to join in with every ounce of fun that the boys undertake, Nan asserts her childlike claim to equality and independence at a very early age, as she ‘attempted all sorts of things, undaunted by direful failures and clamored fiercely to be allowed to do every thing that the boys did … she would not be quenched and she would be heard, for her will was strong and she had the spirit of a rampant reformer.’

It’s interesting to note that Nan’s father had not sent her away to school, but would have been willing to if, according to Jo, ‘he could find as good a school for girls as ours was for boys’. Once enrolled at Plumfield, Nan has access to an egalitarian education, studying all of the subjects that the boys do, which she would not necessarily have had access to at an all girl’s school in the 1870s (Little Men being published in 1871). When she turns her efforts towards her studies, she shows the boys that ‘girls could do most things as well as boys, and some things better’.

Impatient, impetuous, and often feeling restrained and trapped by the expectations of femininity, Nan is a breath of fresh air. Frequently described by Jo as similar to her in her own youth, Nan picks up the cause for feminism where Jo left off, a delightful counterpoint to the docile and domestic Daisy who is destined to follow in her mother Meg’s shoes as a wife and homemaker. While Nan does attempt to imitate feminine ways in order to gain approval and even love, she has to ‘slip out to stretch her wings, or to sing at the top of her voice’ once in a while, rather than submitting with docility to the expectations of her gender.

Nan’s instincts are towards care and love, but not towards motherhood. Her willingness to abandon her dolls shocks her friend Daisy, while Nan declares that she will have ‘an office, with lots of bottles and drawers and pestle things in, and I shall drive around in a horse and chaise and cure sick people. That will be such fun!’ Just like her grandfather, Nan is drawn towards medicine as a career, something which Jo does nothing but encourage: “Fritz, I see what we can do for that child….Don’t let us snub her restless little nature…but by and by persuade her father to let her study medicine. She will make a capital doctor, for she has courage, strong nerves, a tender heart and an intense love and pity for the weak and suffering.’ Nan is given a herb garden to grow her cures and apprenticed to the nursemaid to learn plastering, bandaging and formenting and upon being accepted to Lawrence College for her medical studies at the age of just sixteen in ‘Jo’s Boys’, she becomes ‘the pride of the community’.

Nan’s desires for the practice of medicine grow with her, and her focus on this aim outlasts even her childish romance with Tommy Bangs, scrapegrace of Plumfield School. Tommy’s efforts to win Nan’s consent to marriage dwarf even Laurie’s pursuit of Jo in terms of patience and effort, and in ‘Jo’s Boys’ Tommy remains devoted to Nan in adulthood, and follows her to medical school against his inclinations in an effort to win her heart, saying to her “You know why I chose [medicine] and I shall stick to it even if it kills me. I may not look delicate, but I’ve a deep-seated heart complaint…only one doctor in the world can cure it, and she won’t”.

Nan remains devoted to her career aspirations and her studies. While she is sympathetic to Tommy’s affection, she regards it as an affliction rather than something to indulge. She offers him her own prescription, including a visit to a ball and a dance with ‘pretty Miss West’ and an instruction to ‘repeat the dose as often as possible’. She is still practical rather than submissive in her attitude towards femininity, recommending that a sick female patient of hers should take off her corsets, stop drinking coffee and dancing all night and begin to eat, sleep, walk and live regularly. ‘Common sense versus custom’, is Nan’s only comment. She is still supported thoroughly by the old March girls, including Meg and Amy and of course Jo, who maintains that ‘it is all nonsense about girls not being able to study as well as boys.’

Eventually Nan does outlast Tommy’s professions of love. He announces his engagement to ‘pretty Miss West’, just as Nan had predicted. Upon hearing the news of Tommy’s engagement, but not the identify of his fiancé, Jo is heard to exclaim ‘If Nan has yielded, I’ll never forgive her!’. Quite the feminist reaction against marriage and in favour of study and career, even if not for her own sake. Nan’s reaction, meanwhile, is as fair and understanding as Jo’s was to the news of Laurie and Amy’s marriage toward the end of ‘Good Wives’. Nan declares ‘it will be a relief to me and better for him; dangling is bad for a boy. Now he will go into business with his father and do well, and everybody will be happy.’ Nan’s diagnosis proves once again to be correct, when Tom resigns from his medical studies and joins his father in business.

Free from expectations and distractions, Nan excels and by the end of the book ‘remained a busy, cheerful, independent spinster, and dedicated her life to her suffering sisters and their children, in which true woman’s work she found abiding happiness.’

While Jo may not have spurned marriage in favour of a career, her role in Plumfield school as a guide and encouragement to her own little women, as well as her little men, paves the way for the next feminist revolution, for the equal expectations of both men and women, as held by men and women. Alcott may not have lead the rallying cry with Jo March, but she has provided a character who speaks loudly and often about the merits of girls’ education and the equality of expectation between men and women in terms of achievement. In doing so, Jo has lit the way forward for her own ‘little women’, in particular Nan Harding. It might be said that in this aim and outcome, Jo March is actually the most true feminist character of all, willing to encourage her protégés to go on to achieve even greater heights of independence and success than were available to her in her own youth.

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One thought on “SMC: In Defense Of Alcott’s ‘Little Men’

  1. Beulah says:

    Hello, thank you for sharing this with me on twitter – it’s great to know that people are reading what I write and that it’s inspired further debate outside The Guardian’s comment section!

    I think one thing that didn’t come through my article (but is quite important) was that I actually really like Little Men. It’s no Little Women but it’s a good read and out of the entire March series I’ve probably read Jo’s Boys the most often.

    I have a couple of comments but will try to keep them brief!

    1. Alcott HATED the fact that she had to marry Jo off and this is documented in her journal (which I referenced in the piece). So whatever our opinion of this fictional marriage (and I love Professor Bhaer) it is an example of a feminist writer being pressured into making one of her novels less feminist and more traditional.

    2. I didn’t mention Nan because I was focusing on Little Men, not Jo’s Boys where she is allowed to fulfill her future Jo March was denied. In LM Jo spends a lot of time trying to curb Nan’s rebellious tendencies and make her more like Dolly (who is completely infantilized while her male twin, Demi, is respected). Hardly a feminist move.

    3. Alcott’s father was self-educated, just like Jo, so she had a respect for non-traditional educations. And Nate had never been to school so it’s hardly like a treatise on German philosophy was needed. Laurie suggesting that Jo should not be involved in Nate’s education was pomposity and nothing else!

    Good to meet a fellow Alcott fan and all the best!

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