Jo March and Cassandra Mortmain

I think if I could have written any book in history, I would have wanted to write Little Women.

This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Jo March is mostly responsible for my lifelong dream of becoming a writer, which I suppose is something I have in common with a lot of people. 

I first read Little Women so long ago that I’m not sure if I’m physically capable of writing a rational, unemotional response to it. So, to be frank, I’m not going to try. Instead, I’m going to talk about why I love it so much, how it made me want to become a writer, and how it reminds me of another of my all-time favorite books: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

Little Women is one of the few books that evokes a strong emotional response from me every time I reread it. (The tears usually start when Amy throws Jo’s manuscript in the fire, and then they just don’t stop until the end.) I think the reason is because I feel like I know these characters so well. I’ve reread this book every few years for about ten or eleven years now; at this point, the March family feels like my own family. On every read-through, I’ve found myself identifying more strongly with Jo March.

I don’t intend to do a character sketch of Jo March, because it’d be unnecessary for anyone who’s read the book, and if you haven’t read the book then quite frankly you should stop reading this blog and go read Little Women immediately, and then come back when you’ve finished. But I will take a minute to talk about what specifically made me love her more than almost any other character in literature. It’s a short, easy explanation.

The thing I love most about Jo March isn’t her passion, her restless spirit, or her ambition (although I do love all of those things). The thing I love most about Jo March is her relationship with her sister Beth.

I said before that I identify with Jo March. And that’s true, and it always has been. What I left out, though, is that I also identify very strongly with Beth.

That might seem like an impossible claim. If you’ve read the book, you know that Jo and Beth seem like polar opposites. Jo has that endless drive, that resolution to do something different and interesting with her life, that restlessness that never lets her stay in one place for too long. She’s bold, brash, and willing to fight for what she believes in. Beth, on the other hand, is shy and gentle. She has a quiet, caring nature, and a deep contentment that she derives from being at home with the people she loves best. Unlike her sisters, who are all eventually driven away from their home in search of some form of fulfillment, Beth is always filled with an inner peace that comes from the love she bears her family.

The bond between Jo and Beth is probably the strongest of any of the sisterly bonds in the book. Beth admires Jo’s courage and conviction, while Jo relies on Beth’s quiet support to keep her grounded. When (spoiler alert) Beth succumbs to illness, Jo’s grief is too great to be contained. It is what ultimately drives her to write the story of her family, to remember the happiness of the home she grew up in, and particularly the love she shared with her sisters.

Jo and Beth really do seem like polar opposites. I would argue, however, that Jo is not a “complete” character until after Beth’s death (and indeed, neither was Beth). I would argue that Beth represented a side of Jo’s character that Jo could not fully exhibit until she had attained maturity. And of course, in literature as in life, the truest way to gain maturity is through suffering and loss. Beth represents all of the purest aspects of Jo: her love of her family, her hidden gentleness, the caring nature that she usually keeps hidden. Beth is the more vulnerable side of Jo, while for much of the book Jo herself is dominated by her wilder instincts.

Little Women is largely the story of Jo March. And as such, we as readers are privileged with sharing in her joys and losses as she grows towards self-understanding and self-fulfillment, culminating in the “meta-literary” authorship of her masterpiece: Little Women. This self-fulfillment, which Jo’s restless nature is relentlessly seeking for the majority of the novel, would be impossible to achieve without Beth’s death. Only through the loss of this pure, good sister can Jo come to understand the importance of Beth’s values and approach to life. And thus, only through Beth’s death can Jo inherit Beth’s qualities. By the end of the novel, in a way Jo is living not only for herself, but for Beth as well; she is fulfilling her dreams, as Beth always wanted her to, while also devoting herself to helping others and honoring Beth’s memory by following her example.

To me, Little Women, by which I mean the novel Jo March writes following the death of her sister, always felt like a celebration not only of the March family, but peculiarly of Beth’s life. While Meg and Amy and Marmee and Laurie are obviously all important figures as well, Jo’s bond with Beth was of a different nature. Jo is celebrating Beth’s life by celebrating the things Beth knew and loved best: her home, her family, the simple joys and sorrows of her simple life. And woven throughout Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is the love between Jo and Beth, which I think might be the strongest love present in the novel. After all, a main point of the novel is that familial love is just as strong, if not stronger, than romantic love. (By the way, it’s interesting to note that Jo is unable to fully accept the romantic love of any man until after Beth’s death and the subsequent writing of Little Women.)

Jo March made me want to become a writer because she showed me just how difficult writing can be. For much of the novel, Jo writes “thrilling stories” of villains and murderers and damsels in distress. It is only after the death of her beloved sister that she is able to understand herself well enough to put her soul on paper. And that is the quality I admire most about her.

It’s also the thing that reminds me so strongly of another fictional writer. While I first read I Capture the Castle in eighth grade rather than in elementary school, its effect on me has been just as strong as that of Little Women. This is due in large part to its narrator, seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who is one of my other favorite characters from literature.

I Capture the Castle has reached a much smaller audience than Little Women, which personally I consider tragic. To me, it is one of the greatest books ever written. I freely admit that I might be biased by my personal identification with Cassandra. But seriously, if anyone is ever looking for a book that captures what it feels like to be a young girl who suddenly grows up very quickly, look no further.

Cassandra Mortmain and Jo March might not seem to have much in common, at least not at first glance. Jo is the quintessential tomboy, with a drive and an ambition that sometimes weaken her moral certitude. Cassandra, on the other hand, tends to show a quieter sort of strength. She is shy, even gentle, and by her own admission rather awful at being “brisk”, but she will stand by her convictions in the face of any obstacle, often in a wonderfully British way.

I Capture the Castle is told in a very different format than Little Women; while the latter is presented as Jo March’s memories of her childhood, the former is meant to be Cassandra Mortmain’s private journal, so she can “capture the castle” she lives in and the people around her while she attempts to improve her writing skills. This is a goal that she completely succeeds in.

Just like the March family, to me the Mortmain family are old friends. The two families could not be more different, but I love them each as fiercely as a Cassandra or a Jo would. Cassandra’s family is characterized by its eccentricity; with a cynical washed-up author for a father and an overdramatic artist’s model for a step-mother, how could the Mortmains be anything but eccentric? Cassandra’s goal of “capturing” her family introduces the reader to one of the most delightful casts of characters of any novel I’ve read, with some hilarious family stories thrown in that could easily rival any of the March sister shenanigans.

And ultimately, I guess that’s what I love about these two books. In the end, they are all about family. Oh yes, there is romance in each one, and sometimes the romance is allowed to take over for a while, but in the end family is always revealed as the most important theme.

Jo March and Cassandra Mortmain made me want to become a writer. And if there’s one thing they’ve taught me, it’s that the best way to write is to write what I know. As Cassandra puts it, “I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.”

Quite frankly, the prospect of writing down some of my crazy family’s shenanigans is still a little daunting. I mean, we definitely have stories enough to fill a book. There’s the time Grandpa tore his shirt off at dinner, or the time we all started screaming at my sister while she was waving a cake knife around, or any of the countless times my cousins and I have banded together to mess with the “adults” as much as possible.

Maybe someday, I’ll finally write it all down. Since I’ll never actually get to be a Jo or a Cassandra, I guess I’ll have a go at being a Miranda.

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