Little Women Podcast Transcript
Hello Little Women fans!
Today´s comment shout out goes to @justanavengersfan who says the following:
"Laurie is always a boy to Jo and when she speaks about Nat or Teddy as daughters, you can really see that she was never going to find Laurie attractive".
Jo in the books never finds Laurie attractive. Friedrich is her sexual awakening. There are quite a few scenes in Little Men and Jo´s Boys where Jo refers Nat and Laurie as "girly" or "daughters". I am surprised that not that many people discuss about this. I think it´s really fascinating. Even when Laurie is in his forties Jo always speaks about him in a very maternal tone, which doesn´t happen between Jo and Friedrich and Jo kinda sees Laurie as a personal success story, because he was the first boy that she adopted and that inspired Jo to start a school for boys. One of the things that a lot of people don´t seem to understand about Louisa, is that she was a very maternal person and she also loved the energy of young boys and very masculine men. Louisa was a paradox but do these qualities need to be exclusive?
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Some you may know that I didn´t read Little Women part 2, or Good Wives until I was a teen ager but I did read Little Women part 1 as a child. I still have my old copy which is a Finnish translation from 1940s. Here in Finland and in most European countries and I believe in most South-American countries as well Little Women used to be published as two separate books, when in the US it has been published as one book.
In the first part of Little Women Jo is 15, then part 2 it starts four years after the events of the first part and part 2 actually covers roughly 20 years of Jo´s life. I didn´t really pay attention to the adaptive attractiveness until I read the original English Little Women, which had not been white-washed by Louisa´s publisher. In the original text, Laurie, he has darker skin complex, big nose and there are lots of references to his Italian heritage. When I started to do more deeper research on Laurie´s character I re-read my Finnish versions, which were based on these "newer versions" where Laurie´s character was being romanticized. Many of these elements that made him more Italian were erased and it´s funny because I was looking at my copy of Good Wives. It has this cover illustration of Amy and Laurie. Laurie is actually a blonde and he could an actor from a Finnish film from the 50s. However I do not blame the illustrator because obviously that text was based on this, re-writing of Little Women.
In the original text same happens with Friedrich´s character. Louisa makes constant references on him being German and Jo loves that he is German, which is actually quite endearing. I am sure you can now find lots of different versions of this uncut original book which is great and the book that I have is Penguin classic Little Women based to the original book from 1867. That is the version I have used as a reference on this podcast. Every time when I have quoted something from Little Women.
This is small umbrella in the rain, Little Women podcast: Laurie and adaptive attractiveness.
Original Description of Laurie
Theodore Laurie Lawrence is one of the most complicated characters in Little Women and his cultural and cinematic history is also complicated. More than often the Hollywood adaptations of the book changes our perspective of the characters. In the original book that was published in 1868 Laurie is both foreign and androgynous.
Laurie has brown skin, curly black hair, long nose, nice teeth, little hands and feet. He is the same size as Jo making him equal to her. When he asks Jo to dance he makes a little French bow.
For the 1880 edition of Little Women Louisa´s publisher demanded her to make changes for the books. Little Women was a huge hit and publishers want to make money. Now all Laurie´s foreign features were removed because they were not suitable for a romantic suitor. He became more handsome, no mention of the colour of his skin and he is taller than Jo, making him superior to her.
The problem with these changes was that LMA herself never meant Laurie to be a romantic suitor for Jo. Quoting her own words when she created Laurie she gave her alter-ego a brother that she never had. It is the 1880 version with more "masculine Laurie" that is familiar to most people. This description of him remained in the books nearly 100 years. When I read Little Women as a child my Finnish version did not have any mention of Laurie being androgynous neither there was any mentions about his skin colour. The translation I read had been made in 1920´s. Last Finnish translation of Little Women appeared in 2012 so that is when the Finnish readers got to read the original description of Laurie for the first time. Little Women has been translated into more than 50 languages. Many translations especially the older ones are abridged and entire chapters are missing.
Another very important part of Laurie is that he has androgynous looks. In the famous and beloved 1933 film version of Little Women Douglas Montgomery plays Laurie and he has very androgynous looks. He has quite feminine and soft features. Katherine Hepburn´s Jo is close to the book Jo. She is tall, with androgynous looks and sharp features and a strong way to carry herself. Little Women is a semi-biographical novel and Jo´s character is loosely based on Louisa herself and Louisa was a tomboy and not traditionally feminine.
Hollywood and Adaptive Attractiveness
What it comes to Little Women adaptations they are model examples of adaptive attractiveness. Adaptive attractiveness refers to the way Hollywood changes the appearance of a book character. Who in the story is described from anything from old to ugly from androgynous to plain looking is played by an attractive actor in a film version. As we learned the adaptive attractiveness of Laurie already started in the 19th century. In films/tv adaptations Jo, Laurie and Friedrich all go through adaptive attractiveness. This does not mean that beautiful actors can not play these characters or that we should stop watching these movies. Some of them are the best adaptations of Little Women. The reason for this is the same as Louisa´s publisher changing Laurie´s looks, to make money. Studios invest great deal of money to the films and the best way to make profit and get viewers is to hire attractive actors.
Problems With Adaptive Attractiveness and Little Women
However there are lots of problems with adaptive attractiveness in Little Women Louisa´s original description of the three characters: Jo, Laurie and Friedrich, is a big part of the narrative. Adaptive attractiveness is deeply rooted idea in our culture. Starting from fairy-tales which follow the Hollywood narrative that love only belongs to the young and attractive. When Little Women appeared it became a massive hit and it made Louisa May Alcott a billionaire. When young girls came to visit Louisa they often left disappointed because they were expecting to see young and beautiful Jo March. Instead they saw Louisa who was rather plain looking. Sometimes she even opened the door dressed up as a maid and she said to the young fans of Jo March that Miss Alcott was not at home. An effective way to get rid of fans. Jo is not written to be beautiful so why did these readers thought that Louisa or Jo was beautiful? I have no idea.
Brown Skinned Laurie
Here is a quote from Jimena:
The importance of a dark skinned Laurie. A matter of representation
Louisa describes Laurie as
‘Curly black hair, brown skin, big black eyes, handsome nose, fine teeth, small hands and feet, taller than I[Jo] am…’
Yet in all adaptations, except the 80s anime, Laurie has been represented as a white character. It doesn’t surprise me that up until the 70s that was the case. However, the 2017 miniseries, 2018 modern adaptation and the 2019 movie make the same mistake: they whitewashed Laurie!
(I’m conflicted in using the word “mistake” cause that implies that they honestly didn’t know. But since they swear they love the book, then it seems more of a conscious decision.)
To me, it’s very worrying that almost no one discuss this in the media during the 2019 press tour.
But a brown skinned Laurie is not just about sticking to Louisa’s description of the character, it goes much deeper. It’s a matter of representation.
One problem that period drama set in Europe or the United States has is that there is little diversity, which makes sense cause they were slaving black people and discriminating everyone who wasn’t white and Christian. If today a show wants to add more variety into their cast, they normally have to race-bend characters or create a fantasy world, like Bridgerton. That or people of color get to play the servants or the poor people or the foreigners who appear in the background.
Yet, here we have an 1868 book, set the Civil War, that features a brown skinned character. And it’s not just a side character, he’s prominent, he’s part of the main characters. He has an arc as important as the main white family.
The fact that Laurie is brown skinned plays into his identity issues.
Just because the North was against slavery, doesn’t mean they weren’t deeply racist. As a matter of fact, Bronson Alcott got into a lot of trouble for offering education to white and black children in the same classroom.
For all the praise that Greta Gerwig’s movie got, I’m surprised very few people called her for including only a couple of black characters. There was one lady who barely had a line and another one at Meg’s wedding who is there just for background. That’s tokenism!
Even the modern adaptation which should have had no problem getting a diverse cast, chooses to cast Lucas Grabeel.
Then there’s the matter of his Italian heritage.
A couple of times, Laurie think about his Italian heritage and not in a good light. Actually his mother must have been the one who passes him his skin color. When he is in Valrosa with Amy, he think his Italian side brings out the superstition aspect in him. Italians have always had a negative stereotype in Western Europe and the United States. I don’t know how difficult must have been for Laurie to hear all these negative comments that attack his mother. This will also serve the discussion of immigrants in the XIX century America, alongside with Friedrich’s case.
Moreover, Italy is also a prominent Catholic country. A few articles I’ve read say that protestant America rejected Catholicism, even to the point of forbidding it. Let’s remember Aunt March’s French catholic maid who change her name from Estelle to Esther so that it would sound more American. This under the condition that the old lady wouldn’t ask her to change religions.
Even with all of these issues, he is in a position of power. He is the heir to one of Concord’s biggest fortunes. He gets to go to college. He is destined to run one of the greatest companies in Massachusetts. Amy even teased him because Fred was richer than him, like it was something that didn’t happen often. So his wealth must have been pretty big.
Returning to the March family, it will also serve to prove with their actions how anti racism they were, not just anti slavery. They included this boy as part of their family almost instantly. He becomes Jo’s best friend and Amy’s husband. It is in the book that a lot of mothers look at him as an attractive suitor for their daughters, but I’m sure some other inhabitants looked down at him for being Italian and brown-skinned.
So, my point is, representation matters.
Imagine how much this would mean for brown skinned boys, mixed race boys and parents of those kids to see this character properly cast.
(I’m curious, how many people knew that Laurie is supposed to be brown-skinned?)
Flipping Gender Stereotypes
Laurie in the books is a complex character with both good and bad qualities. He is an orphan living together with his distant grandfather. Laurie was an aspiring pianist. He had no problems becoming best friends with four girls next door. He put snow to Meg´s ankle, saved Amy from drowning and was Jo´s bff. That is what we usually see in the movies but in the books Laurie is much more complicated character. Louisa was ahead of her time. She refused to impose any gender stereotypes to any of her characters. In 19th century context Laurie and his love for music can be seen as a more effeminate trait. Even the way he is lonely in the big old mansion follows the narrative of the 19th century where young women were domesticated and shut down from the social life. In one of my favourite chapters in Little Women camp Lawrence Laurie is compared to a colt, a gun that can go off at any given minute. Colt also refers to an untamed horse. In the beginning of Little Women Jo is also referred to a colt.
No Temper For Laurie (Or For Jo)
In many ways the 1933 film is loyal to the books but it shows the characters through 1930´s lens. This happens with every Little Women film. They are always bound to their time. Both Jo and Laurie lack their aggressive outbursts they have in the books. Douglas Montgomery´s Laurie and Peter Lawford´s Laurie from 1949 both have bit of a temper which is what you can see in the proposal scene but in all adaptations after them Laurie´s temper is missing. In the 1949 version Laurie played by Peter Lawford is one of the most idealized Laurie´s. He has run away from the school. Lied his age to get into army were he got wounded (we can´t see any wounds). He is also extremely kind and charming. Film does not either show Laurie´s and Amy´s time in Europe together.
Little Women fan Dana Parra has criticised Laurie´s casting choices.
"I think another issue I have with Gerwig´s film and really any film with fans that do this is how the cast are put upon these pedestals. There are fans of the fandom and there are fans of the actors and the director. I feel that Gerwig´s film suffers from fans that love either her or her work or the cast and know little about the original story and I feel Laurie is a prime example of having fans that love his actor and not the original character. Timothee Chalamet is a popular up and coming actor. I haven´t seen him in much, so I couldn´t tell you how good of an actor he is but I know he has a fan base and I know that fan base saw Little Women for him. Not just because they wanted to see the movie and we all do that with our favorite actors. When Jo refuses Laurie, because of this fan base you have to wonder are they mad Jo didn´t end up with Laurie or are they mad that Jo refused Timothee Chalamet because that is a huge difference and those are the fans that don´t care about the original story. They are just mad that their favorite didn´t get what they wanted. You could say the same with Peter Lawford too and Christian Bale because you know that the studios are going to try to put some heart-throb in to the role of Laurie to appeal to the love story or to make the movie into more of a love-story than a coming-of-age movie".
Here is a quote from blogger @thatvermillionflycatcher
Why Jo and Laurie don´t end up together or why our expectations of tropes set us up for disappointment
We are used to seeing literature for women as romances or epic fantasy. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those genres. But this perspective sets us up expect and assume some things. For example we expect the main couple in the novel to be introduced to us in the first few chapters. Usually via some kind of meet-cute or meet-ugly.
But Little Women isn´t a romance novel. It features love and marriage but the romance is not the core of the story. We read chapter three where Jo and Laurie meet and we read it as meet-cute. It never crosses our mind to expect a meet-ugly between Laurie and Meg. For example because Meg is not the protagonist and Jo thinks of an arrangement between Meg and Laurie.
Little Women is a strange story if you think it as a romance. Because the protagonist marries a character that appears well into book two but this is not a problem because it is not a romance. Alternative reading is the adventure quest. The heroine is different. Has a new world view and engages in a quest to change her world but Jo isn´t a heroine in this way. If there are two defining characteristics of Jo´s character those are her anger and her fear of change. She doesn´t want Meg to marry Mr. Brooke not because she thinks that marriage is a constricting future for Meg because it would mean change in her family. Meg would no longer live with them. The family dynamics would be totally different and the mere idea terrifies Jo.
Jo´s quest doesn´t fail because there was no quest. Little Women isn´t an adventure novel either. It is as many people like to point out but frequently seem to overlook consequences of a semi-biographical novel. It is the life story of four sisters. A slice of life with everything it brings. Love and romance and some adventures. Yes but the simplicity of every day life. Pain, lost, friendship, family, work, talent and virtues.
Let´s talk about gender
In this episode I will be talking great deal about men and women, masculine and feminine, male and female. So much that some of you might wonder what are my thoughts about gender in general. Gender is a spectrum and fluid spectrum for that. Some people fit to one point at the scale and that is fine. Some people are more fluid and that is fine as well. When I use the word "men" that refers to one particular demographic and they are not people with male parts, beards or beer bellies but simply people who identify as men. Same with women. Not just people with breasts and ability to give birth but people who identify as women. Femininity on other hand is a set of attributes, behaviors and roles generally associated with girls and women. Femininity is made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors. Definition of masculinity is similar. Set of attributes, behaviors and roles generally associated with boys and men. Masculinity as well is made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors. Both males and females can exhibit both masculine and feminine traits. In Little Women especially Louisa May Alcott explored masculinity and femininity through social and cultural factors of her time and it is a very common theme in all of her works.
Louisa May Alcott was born in 29th of November 1831. Her mother Abigail was one of the first social workers in US. Her father Bronson was a religious reformer, educator and one of the leading figures in New England´s transcendentalist movement. Louisa had three sisters; Anna, Lizzie and May. From a very young age Louisa was introduced to the intellectual circles of the time. Likes of Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many Louisa´s family members and friends were abolitionists, suffragettes and women´s rights activists. Louisa´s farther was a controversial figure already during his life time but some of his more respectable aspects was that he wanted his daughters to have a proper education.
Marriage between Abba and Bronson was stormy and argumentative. Often Bronson would refuse to look for work and put his highly spiritual ideas before his own family. Bronson Alcott was a very controversial figure even during his own lifetime. Louisa´s childhood was way less idyllic than Jo´s. From very early on she started to support her family with her writings. In the 19th century context the role of the provider was seen more masculine. There were times when Alcott´s lived in extreme poverty. Louisa´s love and dedication for her mother Abba was fierce and protective. Same way as the Marches the Alcott´s went through hard time together and both Jo and Louisa were protective over their families. In the 19th century puberty began much later on than now days. Part of Louisa´s youth was also time spent in Fruitlands, a spiritual community based on transcendentalist ideas started by Alcott and John Slayne. Some of the rules in Fruitlands was to follow a strict vegetarian diet. Also coffee, tea, milk, alcoholic drinks and warm bath water were banned. Many Alcott scholars believe that the low nutrition might have also effected to Louisa´s hormonal balance.
Three different point of views
As much as we idolize Jo she was drowning into internalized misogyny. Jo and Laurie were brothers. They planned to ran away together, they had good time making pranks and they made fun of the feminine ladies who Laurie used to flirt with in college. One of the best examples of the internalized misogyny is chapter 21. Laurie makes mischief and Jo makes peace. You can read the whole chapter here.
In this chapter Laurie pretends to be his tutor John Brooke and he sends letters to Meg in his name, who he knows Brooke has feelings for.
She was quite right, for the mischief-loving lad no sooner suspected a mystery than he set himself to find it out, and led Jo a trying life of it. He wheedled, bribed, ridiculed, threatened, and scolded; affected indifference, that he might surprise the truth from her; declared her knew, then that he didn't care; and at last, by dint of perseverance, he satisfied himself that it concerned Meg and Mr. Brooke. Feeling indignant that he was not taken into his tutor's confidence, he set his wits to work to devise some proper retaliation for the slight.
Jo´s reactions throughout the chapter however has annoyed plenty of contemporary readers and so have Laurie´s actions.
Jo´s first reaction is to beat up Laurie and to defend Meg´s honor.
"Oh, the little villain! That's the way he meant to pay me for keeping my word to Mother. I'll give him a hearty scolding and bring him over to beg pardon," cried Jo, burning to execute immediate justice. But her mother held her back, saying, with a look she seldom wore...
Seeing Meg's usually gentle temper was roused and her pride hurt by this mischievous joke, Mrs. March soothed her by promises of entire silence and great discretion for the future. The instant Laurie's step was heard in the hall, Meg fled into the study, and Mrs. March received the culprit alone. Jo had not told him why he was wanted, fearing he wouldn't come, but he knew the minute he saw Mrs. March's face, and stood twirling his hat with a guilty air which convicted him at once. Jo was dismissed, but chose to march up and down the hall like a sentinel, having some fear that the prisoner might bolt. The sound of voices in the parlour rose and fell for half an hour, but what happened during that interview the girls never knew.
When they were called in, Laurie was standing by their mother with such a penitent face that Jo forgave him on the spot, but did not think it wise to betray the fact. Meg received his humble apology, and was much comforted by the assurance that Brooke knew nothing of the joke.
Jo stood aloof, meanwhile, trying to harden her heart against him, and succeeding only in priming up her face into an expression of entire disapprobation. Laurie looked at her once or twice, but as she showed no sign of relenting, he felt injured, and turned his back on her till the others were done with him, when he made her a low bow and walked off without a word.
As soon as he had gone, she wished she had been more forgiving, and when Meg and her mother went upstairs, she felt lonely and longed for Teddy. After resisting for some time, she yielded to the impulse, and armed with a book to return, went over to the big house.
When Laurie is scolded by Marmee Jo quickly forgives him and sees the whole thing only as a harmless prank. She has difficulties to understand how much Laurie´s mischief actually hurt her sister. This is what Meg says:
"If John doesn't know anything about this nonsense, don't tell him, and make Jo and Laurie hold their tongues. I won't be deceived and plagued and made a fool of. It's a shame!"
Meg is in an age that if this prank would have turned into a rumor it would have severely hurt Meg´s reputation and John´s as well. Meg´s response is very mature. Considering the time there is very little that Meg can do when something like this happens.
Back at the Lawrences Laurie is lectured by his grandfather.
"No, he would have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I'd have told my part of the scrape, if I could without bringing Meg in. As I couldn't, I held my tongue, and bore the scolding till the old gentleman collared me. Then I bolted, for fear I should forget myself."
"It wasn't nice, but he's sorry, I know, so go down and make up. I'll help you."
"Hanged if I do! I'm not going to be lectured and pummelled by everyone, just for a bit of a frolic. I was sorry about Meg, and begged pardon like a man, but I won't do it again, when I wasn't in the wrong."
"He didn't know that."
"He ought to trust me, and not act as if I was a baby! It's no use, Jo, he's got to learn that I'm able to take care of myself, and don't need anyone's apron string to hold on by."
Jo works as a mediator between Laurie and older Mr.Lawrence. After being forced to apologise to Meg Laurie is now expecting his grandfather apologising him for lecturing him without no reason. He refuses to see any faults in his own actions. Next moment he is asking Jo to go to Washington to see Mr. Brooke and Jo is tempted to go but she is mature enough to see that such trip is Laurie only trying to escape facing his grandfather.
There is of course an actual reason why Laurie´s and his grandfather´s relationship is difficult and why he is constantly looking for attention but that does not adjust his actions.
Mr. Laurence's ruddy face changed suddenly, and he sat down, with a troubled glance at the picture of a handsome man, which hung over his table. It was Laurie's father, who had run away in his youth, and married against the imperious old man's will. Jo fancied her remembered and regretted the past, and she wished she had held her tongue.
Why the feminine sister´s feelings are treated less valid?
One thing I have noticed while doing gender studies on Little Women characters and talking to fans across the world is that this chapter is more than often ignored and the focus isn´t on the prank but in Laurie´s and Jo´s conversation.
"Why didn´t Jo just agreed to go with Laurie to Washington and have fun?"
"Nothing bad happened as long as Jo is happy".
One fan I chatted with said "why care since no one as hurt".
What about Meg?
For many Meg seems to be a less valid person in the story than Jo is and Jo forgives Laurie so aren´t we ab-lied to forgive Laurie as well?
In her analysis of this very same chapter Jan Alberghene brings out many of the similar themes I have presented here.
No matter how much time Laurie spends with Jo, her sisters, or Marmee, Laurie lives in a man’s world. And so do the women, whether grown or “Little.”
Jo´s reaction can feel almost as violating as Laurie´s actions because Jo is the protagonist and even though she is participating to cover up Laurie´s behavior she does not question it (unlike Marmee and Meg do).
The idealization of both Jo and Laurie is so deeply rooted in our culture, this chapter has never been adapted into any of the movies. It would be important to include it. Chapter captures both Jo´s and Laurie´s fast mood changes and their parallel tempers. We also see that Meg is a very strong person (in this case more feminist than Jo who´s growth process is only beginning).
Only adaptation where Laurie makes mischief has been included is the obscure BBC series from the 1970. One can definitely tell that the series comes from the 70´s. Marmee´s first reaction when she sees the letters is to laugh. Which is very off-character. We don´t see Laurie being scolded neither by Marmee or his grandfather. Like in the book Jo does forgive him, when he mopes how difficult life he is living with his grandfather. Meg is portrayed as someone who is overly emotional and over-reacting. In this version John knows what is going on and he sees it as a harmless prank. Once again very off character.
Should Laurie´s actions be censored
This is a quote from @Jodramamarch
"At the risk of alienating my fellow Louisa May Alcott enthusiasts and scholars one of my students has urged me to be thoughtful about the following. Would Theodore Laurie Lawrence be loaded for his actions and behavior by modern standards or would he be censored. I am always hesitant to evaluate actions of a literate characters written over a century ago through the lenses of the present but I do feel it is a question that merits discussion. I am deeply respectful of Louisa May Alcott. Her exceptional work and her remarkable life but the "boys will be boys" latitude that Laurie´s character is given strikes me as odious at several moments throughout Little Women".
Jo does have internalized misogyny. She wants to be a man and identifies more with men, at least in the beginning of the novel and then slowly begins to find the balance between the masculine and the feminine. Other than her mother and her sisters she doesn´t seem to identify or enjoy the company of other women. In the end of the novel when Friedrich comes courting, the narrator says that Jo forgot to compare him to Laurie. Who had been her model of masculinity. When she gets into a relationship with Friedrich, she begins to treat other women with more respect because he does. Same happens with Laurie in his relationship with Amy. He becomes a lot more considerate of other people around him and he even apologizes to Jo in the end of the novel about the way he behaved towards her but that´s never in the films, because Laurie´s character arc has never been adapted.
Why Laurie´s physical features matter
When Jo and Laurie grow up, he takes a role that is almost overly masculine. He low-key tries to encourage her to flirt with him and then he threatens to kill himself if Jo does not marry him. This breaks Jo´s ideas of masculinity the way she knew it. In the book Jo travels to New York, because she gets anxiety to be alone with Laurie, nothing sweet or romantic about that. She even says to Marmee that she needs to leave because she doesn´t like him that way and then in New York she opens her heart to Friedrich and Laurie proposes after Jo has returned. In the movies Laurie proposes before she goes to New York. So you will never get the real reasons why Jo rejected him. She was in love with Friedrich.
When Louisa wrote Little Women, there was discrimination against both German and Italian immigrants. Laurie first becomes friends with the Marches who represent Louisa´s own transcendentalist philosophy of the transnational family but because Laurie comes from a wealthy family he does not face the same level of discrimination as Friedrich´s character does. There has been lots of criticism towards recent Little Women adaptations because they do not include the immigration themes and in some cases they even make fun of them.
Throughout the whole promotional tour of the 2019 film Greta Gerwig complained about Friedrich being German and speaking with a German accent. Louisa May Alcott adored everything that came from Germany and even studied German herself.
This is another quote from @thatvermillionflycatcher
Why Laurie´s physical features matter, how the film and tv adaptations of Little Women consistently ignore the fact that Laurie is described as tall and dark, brown skin with black eyes and black curly hair. It isn´t just about representation, though it is important, but who Laurie is as a character. Why he is the way he is and how his relationship with his grandfather is the way it is.
Laurie´s physical appearance tells us that he is half-Italian and that he looks Italian and Louisa May Alcott make a point emphazising that.
This is what Jo says in Little Women: how I wish I was going to college. You don´t look as if you like it?"
"I hate it! nothing but grinding or skylarking! and I don´t like the way fellows do either in this country".
"What do you like?"
"To live in Italy and to enjoy myself in my own way"
"That is why he has such handsome black eyes and pretty manners"
"Italians are always so nice", said Meg who was a little sentimental"
"He looked like an Italian. Was dressed like an English man and had an independent air of an American"
"For the Italian part of his nature, there was a touch of superstition"
"The pale roses Amy gave him, were the sort of Italian laid in their death hands, never in bridal wreaths and for moment he wondered if the omen was for Jo or himself".
"She watched him for a moment with artistic pleasure, thinking how like Italian he looked, as he laid basking in the sun with uncovered head and eyes full of sudden dreaminess. For he seemed to have forgotten her and fallen into a reverie".
An explanation to why this is so important can be found in Marmee´s explanation:
"Mother, why didn´t Mr Lawrence like to have Laurie play?" asked Jo who was in enquiring disposition. I am not sure but I think it is because his son, Laurie´s father married an Italian lady. A musician, which displeased the old man, who is very proud. The lady was good and lovely and accomplished but he did not like her and never saw his son after he married. They both died when Laurie was a little child and then his grandfather took him home. I fancy the boy who was born in Italy. Is not very strong and the old man is afraid of losing him which made him so careful, Laurie comes naturally by his love for music, for he is like his mother and I dare say his grandfather fears that he may want to be a musician. At any rate his skill reminds him of the woman he did not like and so he glowered as Jo said".
Laurie is an orphan who lost his parents at an early age. Mr. Laurence, who had cut ties with his son, learns that his son has died before they could get reconciled, and that he had a grandchild he had to take care of from then onwards. As he doesn’t know what to do, he keeps Laurie in Europe, attending school there. Laurie was practically an institutionalized child. Mr. Laurence finally hires a tutor for Laurie, and brings him home to live with him. By the start of the novel, they have really known each other for a very short time. Laurie wants to go back to Europe, to tread his roots, to be in the place to which he, by temper and looks, feels like he belongs to. Laurie’s appearance is a constant reminder that he doesn’t quite fit in Concord’s society, and this only changes when the Marches make him one of their own. That’s why he has a mother-son relationship with Marmee. That’s one of the reasons why he is so dejected when Jo refuses him. That’s why he is so lousy at college.
Mr. Laurence, on his side, is terrified of losing Laurie, the same way he lost both his children –both musically inclined, as was Laurie’s mother, of whom Laurie bears the resemblance– (and one can suppose, his wife) at a young age. It is no wonder that he doesn’t want Laurie to play or dedicate himself to music. It is only his story arc with Beth that helps him recover from his aversion to music, and it is under this light how important for him as a character is his offer to Laurie, after the failed proposal, to go to Europe with him, try his art and enjoy himself. Mr. Laurence wants to be there for his grandson and correct somehow what he didn’t do for his son. Laurie isn’t just a standard boy-next-door. He is a character in his own right that cannot be understood properly unless his background is taken into account, because it significantly shapes his temper and the way he relates to other characters in the novels. That’s why it is important for him to be played by an actor who has dark skin, black eyes and curly black hair.
To give you some context Louisa also emphasizes Friedrich being German:
“Being a German, he loved these simple domestic festivals, and encouraged them with all his heart, for they made home so pleasant that the boys did not care to go elsewhere for fun”
When Friedrich´s nephew Emil returns from his sea voyage: he “kissed all the women and shook hands with all the men except his uncle; him he embraced in the good old German style”.
“standing next to his father at the head of the table, folded his hands, reverently bent his curly head, and softly repeated a short grace in the devout German fashion, which Mr. Bhaer loved and taught his little son to honor”.
Thank you for listening. Take care and make good choices.