Chapter 10: In which masculinity is a construct (when girls do it)
Ahhhh, Chapter 10.
It’s one of the chapters when nothing really happens in terms of plot, but (and you’ll need to excuse me, I’m going to get maudlin) this is one of the few times when the sisters all hang out together without anything Instructive happening, or anyone being nasty (Amy March, I am looking at you).
We get the impression that these girls actually care about each other. How often is that sense-of-happy-sisterhood missing from the other chapters? PRETTY MUCH ALWAYS.
Apparently it is a yearly tradition that the March girls may each take possession of a bit of the family garden plot. Meg is all about beauty, with roses and heliotrope. Jo is practical and curious, trying out new things every year (right now she has planted a zillion sunflowers, to help feed the chickens that the Marches apparently have.) Beth has planted things to please the birds and cats, and Amy has planted things to please herself (even if the bench is “rather small and earwiggy.” Eww.)
And the March girls have cobbled together a secret society, too, because apparently secret societies were fashionable c. 1860. The girls contribute essays and stories and hints, in which they good-naturedly reminded each other of their faults and short-comings. — and this little society must have taken hours out of each week. I spend about three hours just writing this one blog post, after all, and it’s not even hand-written …
Secret societies were very fashionable thenabouts, but (here’s the thing) they were a masculine pursuit. Women were forbidden from joining men’s groups, usually by doctrine (and I imagine this is the origin of the “NO GIRLZ ALLOWED” signs that hang outside so many modern treehouses, eh).
The societies were created for men, by men. Women were excluded as a matter of doctrine as well as practicality — social mores being what they were (and are), it would be Inappropriate and possibly Scandalous for an unescorted woman to hang out with a bunch of men … even if a woman had wanted to join the secret society, she would likely be held back by knowing her reputation would be in tatters afterwards … and that’s assuming she could find a secret society that would admit her company.
Secret societies were a way for middle-class men to escape from women — their presence and their providence, which was the home — and revel in masculinity. Oh the fascinating and mystical secrets that would undoubtedly be revealed in the haze of cigar smoke and scent of mid-price bourbon! Oh the power that could be accumulated in fraternal talks over the billiard table! Oh, to hear the rustle of newsprint and muffled coughs! Retreat into a cloud of smoke and congratulate yourself on being the master of the universe.
For the March girls to play in the country of manhood, they can’t just pin a ribbon to their bodice and scrawl out a quick story; they need to become men — with manly names and manly spectacles and many many descriptions of their masculine selves in the paper. It is “Sir” and “Mr.” and “his manly form”. It is only when the girls assume their own habits and problems that they assume their own genders.
When Meg tumbles down the basement steps, it is Pickwick who
plunged his head and shoulders into a tub of water, upset a keg of soft soap upon his manly form, and torn his garments badly.
Mrs. Beth Bouncer will open her new assortment of Doll’s Millinery next week
N. W. must not fret because his dress has not nine tucks.
Meg (excuse me, I mean Mr. Pickwick!) reads aloud the paper and everyone applauds, and Mr. Snodgrass stands up to plead the case of allowing Laurie into the club:
“Mr. President and gentlemen,” he began, assuming a parliamentary attitude and tone, “I wish to propose the admission of a new member,—one who highly deserves the honor, would be deeply grateful for it, and would add immensely to the spirit of the club, the literary value of the paper, and be no end jolly and nice.”
Jo and Beth want to invite him; Meg and Amy are contrary-minded, arguing that Laurie’s boyishness is not the sort of masculinity they are interested in.
Mr. Winkle rose to say, with great elegance, “We don’t wish any boys; they only joke and bounce about. This is a ladies’ club, and we wish to be private and proper.”
“I’m afraid he’ll laugh at our paper, and make fun of us afterward,” observed Pickwick, pulling the little curl on her forehead, as she always did when doubtful.
Oh no, no! says Jo; he will HELP us! She is afraid (constantly afraid) of being too feminine, too “sentimental”. She needs a man’s presence to control her womanly bent towards femininity.
“Sir, I give you my word as a gentleman, Laurie won’t do anything of the sort. He likes to write, and he’ll give a tone to our contributions, and keep us from being sentimental, don’t you see?”
And everyone agrees that sentimentality is just plain awful, and one boy is better than four girls because his masculinity is not a performance but a god-given RIGHT.
So Jo opens up the closet door, and lo! it is Laurie — who has spent all this time listening to their speeches (and laughing to himself, which is exactly what Meg was afraid of, but nobody mentions that.)
Laurie blames himself because he is the most gentlemanly asshole ever, and Jo points out that SHE is the one who encouraged him to hide in the closet, and Laurie insists it’s his fault, but you’ll forgive me, girls, won’t you?
“I never will so again”
he says. This is a running trait of Laurie: do something bad, apologize: I’ll never do it again! Until the next time anyway.
(Throughout this whole scene, Jo has been gesturing and “clashing” the lid of the WARMING PAN, which must make a racket and also a damn mess, OMFG Jo.)
Everyone is angry at Jo and with damn good reason, because pranks are terrible things, and way to betray everyone’s trust, and this sort of defeats the purpose of SECRET society, and I’m pretty sure no one would have expressed misgivings about Laurie if they knew he could hear them. Of course no one is angry enough to do anything retaliatory like burning her manuscripts (for example) — because Jo is the authorial avatar and her actual wickedness is A-OK I guess?
Laurie introduces himself:
“Mr. President and ladies,—I beg pardon, gentlemen,—allow me to introduce myself as Sam Weller, the very humble servant of the club.”
— although he is fortunate enough to share a gender with his alter ego, isn’t he.
Laurie’s contribution is a mailbox, positioned between their two houses, which will at various times contain
tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden-seeds and long letters, music and gingerbread, rubbers, invitations, scoldings and puppies
— a boggling assortment of delights.
(Nota bene: in this chapter, Hannah is finally given a full name. She is Hannah Brown! Good job, Hannah!)
blog note: this post was meant for last week, but I was sick last week and you’re getting it now. Sorry about that! I’ll play catch-up on Wednesday with Chapter 11 (“It’s For Your Own Good”) so we don’t get behind.
Little Women available for free online from
Project Gutenberg (text)
LibriVox (audio recording)