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Alcott's Laurie

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth, Marmee ... sure the March women are equal in literary fame and stature to the great heroines of Jane Austen or George Elliot, but it struck me while watching Greta Gerwig's new adaptation of Little Women, that the character of the 'friendly and lovable boy next door', Laurie, seems to have been positioned by Louisa May Alcott as equally central to her exploration of the core workings of human existence; by which I simply mean 'people' as they really or naturally tend to be, or something like that. It sounds crazy but the film version of the novel made me think that this was the first time (in a very long time) that I felt I was watching on screen depictions of people who were not ostensibly constructed as 'characters' (replete with conventional flaws, tropes and crises in need of dramatic resolution, etc), but as ... well ... as actual real people! So I went immediately to the source material of Alcott's novel, which I had never read, and was immediately captivated by how convincingly she renders her 'people'.

It helps that in Gerwig's film, Laurie is played by Timothée Chalamet, a young actor of genuine depth and winning naturalness (witness his emotional range as Elio in Call Me by Your Name), but what he is in fact doing is astutely and absolutely channelling Alcott's 'Laurie', directly from the page. Can anyone come up with a more perfect description of the variable, multilayered, individual and yet universally attributable qualities of a young man than the following, direct from Alcott's novel:

"A universal favourite, thanks to money, manners, much talent and the kindest heart that ever got its owner into scrapes by trying to get other people out of them, he stood in great danger of being spoilt, and probably would have been, like many another promising young boy, if he had not possessed a talisman against evil in the memory of the kind old man who was bound up in his success, the motherly friend who watched over him as if he were his own son, and last, but not least by any means, the knowledge that four innocent girls loved, admired, and believed in him with all their heart.

Being only "a glorious human boy," of course he frolicked and flirted, grew dandified, aquatic, sentimental or gymnastic, as college fashions ordained; hazed and was hazed, talked slang, and more than once came perilously near suspension and expulsion. But as high spirits and the love of fun were the causes of these pranks, he always managed to save himself by frank confession, honourable atonement, or the irresistible power of persuasion which he possessed in perfection. In fact, he rather prided himself on his narrow escapes, and liked to thrill the girls with graphic accounts of his triumphs over wrathful tutors, dignified professors, and vanquished enemies. The "men of my class" were heroes in the eyes of the girls, who never wearied of the exploits of "our fellows," and were frequently allowed to bask in the smiles of these great creatures, when Laurie brought them home with him." (P. 299, Penguin edition)


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