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Me and Jo March: Locating Queerness at Orchard House

by Anna Burnham | September 21, 2020

There is no stream in the current of my memory that exists without Jo March and Little Women in it. I imagine there must have been a time when I first watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, or a first time when I read the illustrated children’s version of the novel that now lives as a sacred text on a shelf in my parents’ house, but I cannot remember them. There is no time before this story was a part of my internal chemistry, my cultural vocabulary. And there, at the center of that story that has always seemed to be a part of my bones, is Jo, a heroine before her time: headstrong, independent, loud, smart, boyish, moody, antsy, different. For my entire life, Jo March has been a friend, a kindred spirit, a character that exists in some palpable way in a magical space distinct from the page and screen.

In the same way that I can’t remember a time before Little Women entered my life, I cannot remember a time when I did not feel within myself a deep, aching difference. Not even a difference “from my family” or “from other girls,” but a sense that something about me — maybe everything about me, maybe my body, my spirit, my mind, my interests, my entirety — simply did not fit. My adolescence was marked by a sort of constant longing, a frustration at the feminine trappings expected of me as a girl, a desire to burst out of my skin and my world. It was marked by the sense that I was meant for other, better things, that I had outgrown my hometown before I had even grown up myself. I now look back on that difference and name it all as the lifelong signs of the queerness I would recognize, name, and own in my mid-20s. It was always there. I just didn’t have the language for it. But before I had the language for it, I had Jo March.

Every girl who likes to write and is perhaps a bit more drawn to playing outside than to playing at domestic things inside considers themselves “a Jo,” and while I mean no offense to all those other girls, I like to think the kinship I feel with her is special. About five years ago, I developed a “hot take” that Jo March was obviously queer. I thought it was such a hot take that I would spout my theory to whomever would listen, use it as my go-to reply for all those “gimme your best hot take” Twitter threads. I had no idea that there was already a long history of fans unearthing queerness in our most sacred stories and that I was entering into it. Looking back, I realize that I couldn’t name myself as queer without first establishing that my heroine and lifelong companion was, too.

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Winona Ryder as Jo March in Little Women (1994) dir. Gillian Armstrong

There are many screen versions of Little Women, but Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder as Jo remains the most formative for me. It is a roaring-fire-in-the-hearth sort of movie, cozy and soothing as it moves through the seasons of both the year and of the characters’ lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Ryder’s Jo is a classic tomboy — a term that I now, in adulthood, recognize as loaded and normally signalling some innate queerness in young girls, but that at the time I embraced with vigor. She hates “blasted skirts.” She hides from boys at balls that she didn’t want to go to anyway. She “rather craves violence.” She’s eternally disappointed in not being a boy. She crashes through sylvan streams barefoot and free to gather wildflowers. 

Growing up watching this movie, I saw who I wanted to be in her spunkiness, her uniqueness, her wit. As I got older, though, I responded to something less obvious, something deeper and more profound: a sort of deep longing Jo can’t shake, a sense that she does not fit not only in her home, but perhaps anywhere, ever. In a scene right after Jo rejects Laurie (a young Christian Bale), she sits in her frustration and sorrow with her mother, wondering at her fitfulness, her restlessness, her oddity, at how it is that she just feels so different. “I’m ugly and awkward and I always say the wrong things,” she laments. She is lonely, craving. “I love our home but I just can’t stand being here! There’s just something wrong with me. I want to change, but I can’t, and I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.” When I was younger, I thought I was drawn to Jo for her spunkiness; I now think that I recognized my own innate not-fitting in her clumsy ache to be something different, to do something different.

Now, the tomboy-ish qualities I loved in Jo seem like obvious markers of her queerness, but so too does that ache she carries around. Some have posited that the chief characteristic of queerness is a chronic sense of longing. There’s another scene, after Jo has moved to New York to try and make it as a writer, where she dazzles a room of men with her argumentation skills. “You should have been a lawyer, Miss March,” one of them says. “I should have been a great many things,” Jo replies, a stunning note of sadness in her voice. Even in New York, ostensibly living out her dream as a working writer, she thinks with sadness of all that she never was and never can be because of the circumstance of her gender and place in society. In the tumult of my coming to terms with my own queerness, I responded to that longing within Jo because it was also deep inside me.

But Jo is not an inherently sad person, though she has that strain of melancholy. She is fierce, she is loyal. She loves her family and her home in Concord. She goes away, yes, but she returns when her family needs her. She wants to be a writer not to be wildly successful, but because it is something that she must do, that she cannot do without. She buys her sister Beth a new coat with her earnings from a story. She opens a school in Concord at the end of the novel. I think Jo March — in all her messy longing, in all her clumsy return — has been teaching me how to build a life of love, community, and purpose for a very long time.

In Armstrong’s film, that love, community, and purpose is richly shown through the setting of a singular, very real place that also came to mean a great deal to me: Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is not only Jo’s home, but was Louisa May Alcott’s, as well. Like Jo, Alcott grew up in a house called Orchard House on a road heading out of town. You can still visit Orchard House and take a tour there. You can visit her family’s plot in the local cemetery and lay a pen on her stone in gratitude, as so many have done before. Concord is just a 25-minute drive from where I used to live in Cambridge as a graduate student at Harvard. During graduate school, it became my refuge. I was drawn there repeatedly, inexplicably, throughout the seasons. In the summer I made pilgrimages at least once a week to the banks and impossibly perfect waters of Walden Pond (of Thoreau fame) on the far edge of town. In the fall and winter I would leave Cambridge for the entire day and retreat to the Concord Free Library’s reading room to write my master’s thesis. Sometimes I took a mid-day break to go for a run, always making a point to pass by Orchard House. Concord is where I went to think, to write, to wander, to slip into the cool waters of a famous pond, to feel more intentional and in control of my solitude when it crept too close to undesired loneliness.

The tail end of the lifelong process of realizing I was queer overlapped with the length of graduate school. It can’t be a coincidence that I grew attached to the town of Concord at the same time as I was coming to terms with, naming, and living into my queerness. That a stretch of three years that started with the quiet desperation of my “hot take” that Jo March is gay and ended with the writing of this piece brought me, over and over, to the gentle magic of the town imbued with her legend. Perhaps visiting Concord reminded me of Jo’s spirit. Perhaps being there compelled me to not live a life with quite so much unresolved longing as her circumstance had resigned her to. Facing that meant finally, slowly naming that difference I’d felt for so long.

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Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord Massachussetts

When I found myself in Concord over and over, joking with friends who noticed that I just loved pretending I was in Little Women, I was creeping closer toward naming something that I still think only could have happened there. Identifying with a character in a beloved film is a way of expressing parts of who we are in the tumult of adolescence when our language does not yet match the complexity and breadth of what we feel inside ourselves. I recognized a certain sameness between me and Jo years before I could point to either of us and and say “Duh, queer.” Representation can show us a model of something, spark recognition, encourage us to consider a possibility we hadn’t before. When I began asserting to others that Jo March was deeply, obviously queer, I was trying to tell the people around me — I was trying to tell myself — that I was, too.

On my way out of Boston after graduation, I went for one last swim in Walden Pond. I floated in its devastatingly perfect waters, thinking about the marvel of place and history and story. I thought about the little pin on the map of the world that is Concord, Massachusetts, and how I had first visited there in my mind through the page and the screen, and then how it had held me for real as I became something new, something full. I drove past Orchard House. I put on the 1994 soundtrack and cried for a bit as I did. I thanked Louisa. I thanked Jo. I said goodbye. I brought it all with me.

Anna Burnham is a writer, researcher, and organizer who loves talking and thinking about community, religion, public life, social movements, gender, and pop culture. She currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, but if you spend more than five minutes with her, you will quickly learn that she grew up amidst the farmlands of central Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter @ac_burnham.

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