22 April 2017

Jo March: the Calm and the Storm

First on Scroll

This is the culture of apathy: drizzle, don’t drench; don’t let anyone know you care. Emotional investment, or even the appearance of emotional investment, weakens you. Coast along. Don’t let art speak to you. Don’t even look at art long enough for it to speak to you. Do not care. And if you have the audacity to care, don’t, for god’s sake, let anyone know. Stay casual. Aloof. Chill. Netflix.

Except it’s mind-numbingly dull to never immerse, to never have enough conviction in anything to go for broke. The absence of immersion is not an insurance policy, it’s a forfeit of pleasure altogether. If caring is too much effort, then not caring, for all its ease, is a kind of exhausting vacuum, a hollowness, a paralysis of sensation, a shallowness of feeling. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s pretty damn dull.

All of which is to tell you why exactly I found myself drawn to Jo March as a young reader of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was not just because of who she was, but – as in the case of any real engagement with art – because of who I was. I found her liberating; she seemed to be legitimizing an earnest sort of ferociousness that is so frowned upon by the purveyors of ‘chill’ with all their cynicism and snark. Her blood rose fiercely in tempers both good and bad, in both love and fury, in the density of emotion and the soaring lightness of rapture. Above all, there was the free-wheeling abandon with which she allowed herself to feel things. No restraint for our Jo, thank you very much.

All of this had a profound effect on me. It had a potency that punctured every flimsy intention, every casual pursuit I strayed towards. Nothing, Jo appeared to be telling me, would be good enough if it wasn’t explosive: art had to make you cry and books had to make you sigh; you had to hunger for things; what you had to seek were experiences rather than possessions (Jo’s eagerness to go on that trip to Europe with Aunt March must be the origin of every listicle ever written about reasons to travel in your twenties). Getting by would not cut it for her. Passion was strength, and detachment was weakness.

Years later, I chanced upon that oft-quoted passage from My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl: ‘I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.’ This reminded me so much of Jo March, who could never do anything by half measures. I have felt this, always, in the people I admire: a throbbing heart, a ferment of intensity, a madness, white-hot and passionate.

There was too in her a sense of self-doubt that would never leave her, a quest for self-improvement, a strain that runs through all of Alcott’s fiction, but most particularly in this wild child. ‘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,’ she says. That very mutability kept her fluid, it made her strive to be better each day than the one that before it. While I adored the self-possession of the Austenian heroine, it was in Alcott’s Jo March that existence preceded essence. I found that it pierced something in me. How keenly I felt this too, this never-ending desire to remake myself.

And that elasticity of temperament – of essence ­– was, for me, a function of her androgyny. That has always been the classic appeal of the tomboy figure. Always full of binaries, she seemed to be saying that you never had to be of just one humour, that your nature could be contradictory and still be meaningful. Jo was just as capable of proudly chopping off all her hair as she was of bawling pitifully at the absence of the same hair.

It even felt as though the dichotomy between Laurie and Fritz was centering Jo. In Laurie – the ostensible man-child with surprising depth – existed the same curiosity and restlessness, the perpetual disquiet, the appetite for struggle, the vexation with smallness, the urgency to be free, the itch to see more, to feel more, and indeed to love more. There was an almost fearful conviction in these two that the world would not be enough. But Fritz! While Laurie stoked fire with fire, Fritz was pacific, a replacement for Beth, almost, with his tenderness, delighting in Jo with an adoration that might have been paternalistic had it not also been so respectful. If one was the eternal boy, the other was the wise older man, but neither fully belonging to either trope.

Fritz’s expertise stemmed elegantly from his reading; Laurie’s shrewdness derived from an innate mordancy. Our Jo, though, analysed everything afresh. She had no capacity for rote. Her suffrage argument was a product of such carefully reasoned thinking: ‘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.’ Remarkably, she came upon this entirely on her own, not through any preexisting familiarity with, say, Susan B. Anthony. If Fritz’s knowledge was scholarship and Laurie’s cleverness was wit, Jo’s wisdom was investigative, in a constant state of development, never fully formed. Each opinion she espoused was constructed anew, diligently worked out and inferentially unscrambled in that very moment. Almost nothing was a long-held view, lazily regurgitated for argument’s sake.

I don’t suppose I can get away without admitting allegiance to either Team Laurie or Team Fritz, but I’ve always been the girl who wanted both Paris and Menelaus, both Peeta and Gale – and neither Wickham nor Darcy. Laurie and Jo brought each other alive; Fritz and Jo harmonized with each other. And in both relationships there was a sense of bedazzlement: they were always marvelling at each other’s brilliance, never a moment when one grew too accustomed to the other’s radiance to cease to be amazed by it. My reading was populated with men who attempted to tame their shrews, but these two men let Jo be. If Laurie whirled into the tornado, Fritz stilled its blast. As far as I was concerned, Jo needed them both. Between the two, they mirrored her twofoldness. Neither possessed her duality, and although I wished Alcott had created, for Jo, a man (or, indeed, a woman) who was part Fritz and part Laurie, I had no trouble seeing them as two sides of the same coin. It’s a coin I’d flip every day.

In one of their cozy chats, Beth tells Jo: ‘You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone. Meg is the turtledove, and Amy is like the lark.’

Contentment is all very well, but Jo knew it took a storm to stir things up. 

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