Little Women and Harry Potter: Jo Rowling is Jo March

Hey, folks, didn’t I write a book about the literary influences shaping the Hogwarts Saga? Yes, I did. It’s titled Harry Potter’s Bookshelf and, forgive me for saying so myself, for a short, little tome with a great big subject — you try to introduce English Literature genres and authors, Chaucer to Tolkien, detective mystery to schoolboy novels, through Harry Potter in less than 60,000 words (really) — it’s not bad. Not comprehensive or even definitive, but a healthy start to the subject of Rowling’s literary influences and how to use her books to enter the worlds of books that shaped her imagination.

Imagine my surprise, though, when watching the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, DVD extras the other night when I heard Ms. Rowling say in ‘The Women of Harry Potter‘ segment that she had “met herself” in a book the first time in Jo March of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming of age story on post bellum America. I didn’t mention Alcott or Jo March once in Bookshelf, and, forgive me, I thought I’d researched her favorites pretty closely.

I was embarrassed and surprised only because I was already working on a post about Little Women and Harry Potter consequent to reading Alcott’s morality tale with my students in Oklahoma City. I was going to assert that it seemed improbable that Rowling hadn’t read the book because of the many parallels and plot point ringers. And then I get to see the woman herself say those words before I finish the argument.

I went back to Accio Quotes this morning to see if I hadn’t missed something in previous searches of Ms. Rowling’s interviews. Sure enough, 1999, an interview with a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch:

Gilson, Nancy. “‘Harry Potter’ Author is Just a Kid at Heart,” The Columbus Dispatch, November 3, 1999

Much of her interest in writing came about because she dearly loved to read. Some of her favorite books as a child included those by Judy Blume, Louisa May Alcott and C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series. She also likes the writing of Roald Dahl, especially Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which she considers “his masterpiece.”

“And I suppose the one book that very much influenced Harry Potter was Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge . . . I liked all the food descriptions and I try to put lots of descriptions about meals into all the Harry books.”

That’s the only Alcott/Jo March reference I found in the whole Accio Quotes catalog. I don’t feel so bad about missing that aside, especially when Miss Alcott is mentioned alongside Judy Blume. In the absence of other mentions in a decade of answers to questions about books and authors she loved, I just let it go.

But Ms. Rowling’s comment on the DVD extras isn’t a throwaway:

You see, I was a plain — and that is relevant! you know that is relevant, that isn’t a trivial thing, especially when you’re a kid — I was a very plain, bookish, freckly, bright, little girl. I was a massive book worm and I spent a significant part of my reading looking for people like me.

Now I didn’t come up with nothing. Y’know, I remember Jo March who had a temper and wanted to be a writer so that was a lifeline. There’s a heroine in a book called Little White Horse that I’ve spoken about publicly who was plain and that was fabulous. “Wow! You get to be a heroine and get not to be a raving beauty..”

But y’know these were pretty slim pickings.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start — being paired with Little White Horse and Elizabeth Goudge immediately puts Louisa May Alcott and her Jo March into very select company. As Ms. Rowling says, Horse is one of the few books she always mentions as a big influence on her as a writer, and, as I explain in Bookshelf, this isn’t a courtesy comment for a forgotten English Great. Horse is in many ways — from the alchemy of sun and moon, magical world inside mundane world, and eyeballs — Harry Potter, Sr. Ms. Rowling has pointed to this influence repeatedly and publicly and a careful reading of Horse rewards the Potter-phile with real treasures (as in, answers to questions like “Whence ‘Luna Lovegood’?”).

Writing up all the connections of Louisa May Alcott, her fictional stand-in Jo March, and Joanne Rowling would take another chapter in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf but let me give you the obvious high points evident after even only a cursory reading of Little Women and Good Wives (often considered the second part of Little Women):

The author is ‘Jo’

To risk stating the obvious, Ms. Rowling’s name is ‘joanne.’ She never uses that name but insists everyone call her ‘Jo.’ She sometimes goes by Mrs. Murray but never Joanne. Why? Her answer has been “No one ever called me Joanne when I was young, unless they were angry.” I can see that.

I think, though, that there is another answer as credible as believing that Ms. Rowling is prisoner of her childhood phobias about “the full name.” She is, after all, fairly well know for her belief, put in Dumbledore’s mouth, that people ought to be called by their real names rather than by pseudonyms with their origins in fear.

She was a young girl searching for an identity or look-alike in fiction. She found it in Jo March, writer wanna be extraordinaire, and she hasn’t let go. Jo Rowling found herself in Jo March, unconventional woman and brilliant writer, and she remains in many ways Jo March to this day. “Call me ‘Jo'” is the opening of almost every interview she gives. Will ‘Miss March’ be okay?

The author of Little Women, Jo March, writes a fairy tale book of half a dozen fantas-tic fairystories.

Again, not to make too much of an obvious connection but also not to pass over it, both Jo Rowling and Jo March write a book of fantastic tales. Miss March’s sister Amy burns the hand-written originals with no copies in Little Women which act of pique launches the several crises of that young woman’s transformation. Jo Rowling illustrates and writes by hand copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard post Deathly Hallows which she gives as ‘thank yous’ to those she felt most responsible for the series’ success. In Hallows it is in understanding the hermetic symbolism, the Triangular Eye,’ in the marginalia of Dumbledore’s copy of these Tales that launches the terrible trio’s pursuit of the Hallows. More on this in a minute.

Jo March writes in her attic with the company of a pet rat named Scrabble

Scrabble is mentioned three times in Little Women – beginning, middle, and end — and if you think that ‘Scabbers’ isn’t significantly and sufficiently assonant with ‘Scrabble,’ I’m afraid there’s no helping you. Peter Pettigrew’s name and Wormtail nickname are hilariously meaningful as readers of this site know too well (both suggest he is deficient in manhood) but his rat name has been a head scratcher. Now we have a hat tip to Jo March’s attic companion, an association that makes a rat in the bedroom seem almost comforting.

Little Women features a self-important female relation named ‘Aunt March’

I know, I know, ‘Aunt Marge’ is Margaret Thatcher, toes to nose, but, really, when you meet Aunt March — and Jo spends her days reading to the rich and wretched spinster — you aren’t much of a Potter fan if you aren’t reminded of the opening chapters of Prisoner of Azkaban. Again, the assonance is unmistakeable and the likeness so close that a hat tip to a favorite author and character’s bane is hard to miss.

Little Women features Four Characters representing the Four Temperaments

This would take a very long post to lay out and I doubt, even after I did, if those committed to the belief that Alcott was writing about her family’s four sisters in a quaint autobiographical morality-laden sketch would be convinced. Let me stick to three chief points:

(1) The author says repeatedly through her characters, especially Marmee the goddess, that the story is to be read as a transparency or allegory. The moral chapters are as see-through at times as Aesop’s Fables but you would be a very foolish reader to leave it at that. The book, after all, is a ring composition turning on Nativity (it begins and ends at Christmas) and Resurrection (Beth and the Father rise from the dead semi-miraculously) and its story scaffolding is Pilgrim’s Progress. The author is all but shouting for her characters to be read as types, a la Jonathan Edwards and, Alcott’s mentor and hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

(2) The four daughters are so different that there is little chance that they had the same mother and father outside of allegory. Jo is flamingly choleric, Beth dipso-melancholic, Amy saccharine sanguine, and Meg all-wet phlegmatic. Jo and Meg are fire and water to one another and selfish, airy Amy and selfless, grounded Beth are equally contraries. Their relations and transformations read like allegories of human change in Christ because that is what the author was after in her readers.

(3) There’s scholarship beyond my speculations to back this up. See Arthur Versluis’ American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions and his Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance, both Oxford University Press, both making the connections between hermetic streams of thought and the thinkers and writers surrounding the Alcott cottage. From the latter book’s Amazon page:

The term “Western esotericism” refers to a wide range of spiritual currents including alchemy, Hermeticism, Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, and Christian theosophy, as well as several practical forms of esotericism like cartomancy, geomancy, necromancy, alchemy, astrology, herbalism, and magic. The early presence of esotericism in North America has not been much studied, and even less so the indebtedness to esotericism of some major American literary figures. In this book, Arthur Versluis breaks new ground, showing that many writers of the so-called American Renaissance drew extensively on and were inspired by Western esoteric currents.

I haven’t read either book (or the third in the set that Versluis has written) but I look forward to it. There is enough in the Little Women text to support what Versluis is after on a much broader front.

Little Women features an Orphan Boy who is the Quintessence

Theodore ‘Laurie’ Lawrence is the effeminate boy with the girl’s name that is the contrary to Jo’s tomboy with guy’s name. He is also a Harry Potter look alike in his relation to Jo as Harry is to his feminine shadow Hermione. By the end of Good Wives, Laurie has been turned into his noble, brilliant self by Jo’s sacrificial denials. Alchemical ‘shipping? All over the place.

The White Rose symbolism of resurrection in Chapter 18

I’m late for dinner and a talk with MuggleNet’s Keith Hawk but I’ll close with a wow. If you’re a Little Women reader, you know how important the white rose is in Beth’s resurrection from the dead and how her recovery is consequent to Amy’s prayers before the icon of the Mother of God at Aunt March’s home. Radical stuff for New England of the post bellum era, believe me, but its mostly Dante. as readers of Deathly Hallows Lectures know, because his beatific visionof God in the Comedia takes the shape of a white rose, a vision that Ms. Rowling refers to as well in the Deathly Hallows epilogue when Albus and Rose get on the Hogwarts Express.

There’s more, believe me, — oh, I want to share the secret, lurid gothic novels and stories Alcott wrote but abandoned to write her March novels — but this I hope is enough to get Potter-philes out of their seats and into a soft, comfy chair with Little Women for a re-read or a first visit. Jo Rowling is in quite a few ways Jo March and her story show the significant influence of Alcott’s significant artistry and esoteric meaning.

Your comments and corrections, as always, are coveted!


  1. Melanie N. Lee says

    Wow! I view the 1994 movie of Little Women at least once a year, and I have read the novel (at least an abridged version of it when I was a child), and it never, never occured to me to compare Little Women and Harry Potter! (Of late, I’ve mentally compared Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Jo March with Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida Kahlo in the movie Frida.) But that alchemy, those personality types, those psychological and spiritual truths, are everywhere, aren’t they? I suppose one day I’ll have to reread Little Women in the light of Potterphilia. Thank you so much, John, for your insights!

  2. Melanie N. Lee says

    Addendum: although I never compared Little Women to Harry Potter, I did mentally sort the four March sisters into Hogwarts houses. Amy is a Slytherin, Beth a Hufflepuff, Jo a Ravenclaw, and Meg a Gryffindor. Amy and Jo could also be Gryffindors, and Meg a Hufflepuff. If you put the entire March family into one house, it would be Gryffindor, fighting the lions of injustice, or possibly Ravenclaw, living out their intellectual ideals.

    John, do you think alchemy is in Little Women, too? For example, is Amy, described in Chapter 1 as “a regular snow maiden”, the White Queen to Laurie’s Red King?

  3. I would certainly have to go back and read the series again, Melanie, to risk an opinion. Not all snowstorms are albedo markers, I know you understand…

  4. Melanie N. Lee says

    Actually, I didn’t understand. I had to look up “albedo”.

  5. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for this great post John! Just researching Little Women’s influence on HP and, as usual, HogPro is the fullest treatment out there…. Just thought I’d add that a year after you wrote this, as I’m sure you know (but it seems worthwhile attaching it to this post), she gave connections her fullest plug yet:
    ‘My favorite literary heroine is Jo March. It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.’ (2012)
    A nice ‘choleric’ link for you there too!

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