Origins of Friedrich´s and Jo´s story in Little Women

Niina Pekantytär
Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

Discussion between book bloggers Emily Lau and Niina Niskanen.

Emily: Alright. Niina and I found each other when I actually found her blog post about professor Bhaer when I was preparing to make my long and very critical review of the new 2019 Little Women adaptation she reached out to me and I realized that I have read her work before and we decided to do this collaboration because we love talking about Little Women and having long discussions about the adaptations of the book and today we are talking about professor Bhaer and Jo.

Niina: and I actually found Emily when one of my friends in Louisa May Alcott group on Facebook told me that I should watch her video!

Emily: Oh yeah?

Niina: Yes, Thank you Kymberly for all of this.

Emily: I am so flattered that people took the initiative to share the video. I was so excited when you reached out because I remember thinking "this person agrees with my views" because I loved your post on professor Bhaer, where you compared all the Fritz´s and the actors and you were like "oh I wonder how the 2019 film is going to treat him" and then I came to the end of the post and I was like "well..." you know. I was so happy when you reached out to me. Professor Bhaer, is kind of a topic of contention in the Little Women fan base. He is seen by a lot of people as someone who was shoehorn in at the last minute because Louisa May Alcott was forced by her publisher to marry Jo off to somebody because that is what she needed to get her book published. She wrote this random guy and married Jo off and then that was that.

Niina: This is all propaganda, mostly shared by Jo and Laurie shippers.

Emily: Yes. That is also what I think because people were so upset that Jo did not marry Laurie, so I think that is part of where the resentment for professor Bhaer comes and also I think professor Bhaer is not a conventionally romantic hero. He is this older guy. He is an intellectual and he is not into genre fiction at all and he doesn´t really operate in these big romantic gestures in the way that Laurie does. So I think people who are very attracted to Laurie really resent that.

Emily: When you sent me all those blog posts about him I was like "yeah I feel so validated right now" because Jo was never the type of person who would react well to romantic gestures. She hated it.

Niina: She did. She was really shocked when she realized in the first part of Little Women that there was a rumour going on that Meg and Laurie were an item. She was shocked by the whole idea that there was something romantic going on. She was shocked by the idea that Laurie had feelings for her. Romantic feelings. She resents the idea of being in love, but she is 15 and she grows out of it.

Emily: They are kids.

Niina: Yeah. She is a late bloomer, Jo.
Emily: She doesn´t quite awaken at the same time as everyone else.

Niina: She also sees the ridiculousness in some parts of Laurie´s behaviour, because she knows that she is not really part of that idea that he has.

Emily: As we discussed before, Laurie doesn´t really validate Jo´s feelings like that, because he keeps saying "Jo, you can get somebody to love you. I´ll get you someday". He says that a lot in the book. She is not really someone who enjoys that sort of romantic chase. She is a practical girl and that stuff just belongs into books.

Niina: She does have this romantic side on her but she is very practical about it. In the first part of Little Women, she is reading a book. A book by Susan Warner "Wide wide world" is the name of the book. That was one of the things that made me convinced that Louisa planned from the beginning that Jo ends up with Fritz and she crafted Friedrich´s character specifically for Jo. In that book, the whole storyline is very similar to Jo and Friedrich in Little Women. I was so fascinated when I read Wide Wide World because it felt like I was reading Jo´s and Friedrich´s stories in another dimension. It´s really uncanny. It is a very Christian book. Lot´s of Christian moralities but the dynamics between the leading lady and the romantic interest are very much the same.

Emily: what´s the name of that book

Niina: Wide wide world by Susan Warner. It is an American book from 1850. It was one of the first American feminist books and I find it so fascinating. Jo is reading that book in Little Women, in chapter 11 I think and she is reading that in a tree and she is crying because it is so moving. Jo actually reads romance novels.

Emily: Yes, she is not averse to romance. She just wants it in a certain way.

Niina: She wants an equal romance. She wants someone who respects her. The wide wide world is interesting because it is about these two people who are trying to find a balance in that relationship.

Emily: It is a value that Louisa May Alcott holds high in all of her books. Jo likes a certain idea of romance just not like the way Laurie exhibits it. I think you probably know more about this. Why do you think Louisa May Alcott would later write that Jo should have been a literary spinster or say something like that.

Niina: She wrote it to her friend Elizabeth Powell who was 16 years at the time. Elizabeth was Louisa´s friend. I think she was a teacher in a school where Louisa was studying with her sister and Louisa was a lot older than she was based on what I know Elizabeth wasn´t that interested in getting married at that time, which makes sense. She was only 16. You don´t want to get married when you are only 16 even in the 19th century. I think Louisa specifically crafted that letter to Elizabeth. Daniel Shealy who is an Alcott scholar has done some extensive research about this which is worth reading. Elizabeth did get married a decade later. She was like 26 when she married and it seems that her relationship was quite happy and she had two sons and she became a dean of a school and I think Louisa used Elizabeth as an inspiration for Jo´s character in the first part of Little Women and in the sequels because this actually sounds a lot like Jo´s and Friedrich´s relationship as well.

Emily: Yes it does.

Niina: It was Elizabeth who Louisa wrote this letter that she gave Jo a funny match but then she also writes in that letter that she is really frustrated about the little girls who want her to marry Jo to Laurie because that was never Louisa´s intention. People have taken that out of context. When Louisa herself was 15 she actually wrote love letters to her friend Emerson who was 30 years older than she was. He was her first love maybe. Her first crush was very different to Jo in that sense because she was very romantic and very sentimental. Then I have also done research on Louisa´s love for Henry David Thoreau who I believe was one of the main models for Friedrich and it is really uncanny how Henry appears in literal disguises in all of Louisa´s novels. I think she wrote Jo to be an idealized version of herself because when I read Little Women last time Jo is not really as angry as she is in the movies. Especially in the recent movies like the 2019 film or in the 2017 series when she snaps out from time to time but the book Jo, she is not that angry. People always say that Louisa May Alcott had anger issues and such, I think in the 19th-century context whenever a woman would get angry that would have been labelled something terrible. It has a lot to do with the way we read history and the way we approach Louisa´s character. Jo is definitely a combination of the women who Louisa admired.

Emily: It´s funny the whole anger issue because I think it is more about how she talks back at people. The whole incident with Amy falling into the pond I think she was like "Oh in my anger I left my sister behind and I almost let her die". I think it is that sort of thing where she is more governed by her feelings rather than her head. I think that is more what they are getting at. She is kind of a parallel to Marmee in a way because Marmee dealt with a lot of it when she was younger. She was always trying to hold back on her emotions. That is how Jo´s father became a good foil to her. Jo´s father was able to calm her down and it became harder again when they were poor because it was so hard for her to see her daughters financially struggle and have to work. For these characters, these other people were necessary to grow.

Niina: That is very true. It applies to John and Meg. It applies to Amy and Laurie and especially to Jo and Fritz. When Louisa was asked by her publisher to write a book to girls about good marriage matches. Louisa´s publisher actually would have wanted that Louisa would have married Jo to Laurie because Laurie was such a popular character but then Louisa was always against that. In the 19th century, the German immigrants were really discriminated against in the US, so she is also including this social aspect in the book, which I didn´t realize until I started to do this research. I was really blown away by all the German connections in Little Women. I am pretty sure that Louisa was a hardcore Germanophile.

Emily: Something that I love about the 1994 adaptation is the scene where she says "oh my family are transcendentalists" and Friedrich is like "yeah that is part of German philosophy". This is what we were getting at.

Niina: I love that scene so much.

Emily: Oh yes I love that scene.

Niina: I was so angry with Greta Gerwig because the 2019 film didn´t include this intellectual thirst that Jo has. Also in the 1949 film in away Jo wants to study German. It is not as good as in the 1994 film but you can see that she has this intellectual curiosity towards the professor.

Emily: You kind of see that he opens her to new horizons with music.

Niina: they go together to the opera and everything and I like that in that film Friedrich is actually singing and he is singing a song from Goethe. That is a direct link to Louisa and her love for Goethe and all these philosophers with who she was in love. I really like that.

Emily: I really love it when the filmmakers understand Fritz like that. People think that and I think you pointed out in your blog post or maybe another blog post did in another article, but Friedrich Bhaer was not a conventional choice at all. Even the choice of marrying someone like that was considered pretty out there because he was a German immigrant like you said. He had come from this position of respect to this position of poverty and for her to marry this guy who is not as well established in that country and is probably discriminated against and to make that choice. That was not conventional. That is not someone just knuckling down to society´s demands. That is a choice that was not expected of you at the time and it is also very fitting for Jo because she is an unconventional woman. She married an unconventional man.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN

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