Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic Little Women begins with an adult Jo March entering the smoke-filled, man-filled offices of a New York publisher in hopes of selling a story. “If the main character’s a girl make sure she’s married by the end,” the editor decrees. “Or dead, either way.”
Alcott herself never married and thought that Jo “should have remained a literary spinster”. But after publication of the first volume of the book, covering the March sisters’ childhood, Alcott was flooded with letters from fans demanding to know whom the little women had married. In rebellion, Alcott “made a funny match” for Jo, forgoing the obvious choice of Laurie in favour of Professor Bhaer, a middle-aged German, “neither rich nor great, young nor handsome, in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant”.
Gerwig reworks this disappointing ending by conflating Jo’s fate with Alcott’s. In the film, we see Jo negotiating the terms of a book deal. She agrees to marrying off her heroine to get the book published but won’t sell her off cheaply, negotiating the percentage of royalties and keeping the copyright, as Alcott did. Gerwig could be charged with cakeism: she simultaneously serves up a feminist outcome while feeding the audience a romantic resolution, and this time with a hunky husband.
Romance plots “are, evidently, some of the deep, shared structures of our culture”, wrote critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Writing Beyond the Ending (1985). The convention of “married or dead” female characters persisted in fiction well beyond the Victorian era. But if the romance fantasy was long doled out to women as a compensation for powerlessness elsewhere, contemporary writers are increasingly turning the marriage plot on its head…
Read the full article online in the Guardian