“What am I coming for?" he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. "You know that I have come to be where you are," he said; "I can't help it.”
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
When Amy March was a little girl, she had read about the labours of Hercules. They had been in a children’s book which had been given by Aunt March to Meg, which had then passed down through Jo (who declared Hercules a capital fellow) and Beth (who had nodded silently when Aunt March had asked if she’d liked it).
Amy, of course, was the last to read it but had been fascinated by its illustrations. She identified with Hercules because she thought that she too had suffered through countless trials. It took Amy until she was a bit older to realise the labours were actual feats that Hercules had achieved, not just petty grievances; as a child, she merely saw the succession of images of a man in suffering and saw herself in them.
Her love for the labours had intensified as the girls grew older, as one of Jo’s favourite games was for the girls to act out the labours but with further injected violence and intrigue which Jo had written herself. Amy was no writer, but when she was younger, she would write her own pastiche of the labours, with her own terrible labours and tortures inserted.
She would count her trials and grievances and struggles at night. She would always aim for twelve, the same as the twelve labours of Hercules, but she would frequently fall asleep at about the fifth or sixth trial. When she was youngest, most of the labours concerned the day-to-day pains of growing up. Frequently, the trial which had plagued her so devilishly the day before was completely forgotten by the following night’s stocktaking. As she grew older, however, she continued to collect her small grievances.
The first trial, and the true constant of the labours, was her nose. She had a small, flat snub nose and it was the albatross around her neck.
She had developed an obsession with noses as a little girl. She would stare at her sisters’ noses, her mother’s, the noses of her teachers at school. She was frequently scolded for baldly staring at the noses of strangers who came by the house and she took to cataloguing noses in a small book she carried with her.
She was always trying to classify the nose in her head. Is this person’s nose better or worse than mine? Meg’s was better; Jo’s was better; Marmee’s was marvellous and the pick of the lot; and she thought Beth’s was of a piece with hers. She and Jo would carry their little books around - Jo’s filled with fantastical stories full of pirates and princes; Amy’s full of noses.
She had confessed when she was seven to her father that she had considered it and he had the worst nose of anyone she’d ever seen. Jo had called her a popinjay and pulled her hair, and Amy had felt so aggrieved. She really was devoted to her father but it was simply the truth and in her heart of hearts she had always harboured a grudge against him for causing her to have such a terrible nose.
It was just so unjust that her beauty should be spoilt by her nose.
She remembered the first time that she saw Laurie, that night he and Mr Brooke brought Meg and Jo back from the dance. She saw his dark hair, his beautiful clothes, his slight build, the subtlety of his smile. But it was his nose that had captivated her most of all.
Hello, she had said. I’m Amy March. She had mostly been speaking to the nose.
The second was being born poor. She would frequently protest to her sisters that it was unthinkable, unconscionable, immoral that girls like Annie Moffatt, or Kate Vaughan, or Sallie Gardiner, were rich and she was not.
It is ever so unfair, she would say. If I had half their money, I’d buy beautiful muslins, and ribbons for my hair, and canvasses and paints so I could paint anything I wanted any time I want, and a dear little bunny rabbit that I could carry around with me—
Meg, ever practical, would interrupt to say that Annie and Kate and Sallie in fact bought half those things, and Jo would say that Amy didn’t even particularly care for rabbits and then Beth would say that if she had money, she would give it all away, and then Amy would feel like a perfect little fool for having wanted anything at all.
The third was that she was young, and life was unjust for youngest sisters. Amy had always thought that she wouldn’t have done half the wickedness she had done in her life if she’d simply been born earlier, and not always just left at home to seethe and suffer.
The fourth was a little freckle on the right side of her neck which Jo had said made her look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Jo had said it to Amy on All Hallow’s Eve when Amy was nine, and it had made Amy howl and cry all the way from breakfast to supper.
The fifth was that she had beautiful feet but that ladies were required to always wear shoes and so the gentlemen she would meet at dances never had the chance to admire them.
The sixth trial was that she loved art, loved it dearly, but she lacked the vision of the great artists like Monet, Turner and her favourite, Delacroix. She had started her drawing when she was young, with the nose catalogue, but it had deepened as she grew older and started expanding her cultural education.
She had once sat and gazed at Liberty Leading the People for so long her eyes had started to hurt from staring. She had come home excitedly chattering to Aunt March about the colours only for Aunt March to say that it was entirely too French and vulgar and socialist for a young lady to be seeing.
But in a way Amy longed to be great enough that Aunt March thought it vulgar.
She could paint something and it would be lovely and all her sisters would kiss her cheek and tell her she was wonderful and her teachers would praise her care and control of her paintbrush, lightly dusting out the ripples of tulle on a lady’s gown or carving the sun out of the glint of an eye. Even Laurie could tell her that he thought her paintings were quite fine.
But she knew she lacked the genius of someone who could paint what wasn’t there.
Amy painted the world as it was. She would draw compulsively, sketching and refining, then paint little by little, step by step. She drew her sisters, Marmee, Father and his soldiers (including one with the biggest nose she had ever seen); she even forced Aunt March to pose for a portrait holding her little dog once so she could capture the two of them.
But her most studied subject was Laurie.
It is simply because he has fine things and I wish to draw out the fabrics of his waistcoats, and shirts, and handkerchiefs, she would sternly say to herself.
But it was the bones in his face, and the carelessness of his hands, and the elegance of his legs which would rest in her mind long after the silks and velvets and tassels of Laurie’s clothes faded.
If I were a great artist, she thought impulsively on the beach, sketching Laurie as he and Jo chased each other with kites. I would paint him as a great and honourable man, like one of Delacroix’s angels. I would present it to him and he would become that angel and simply fall in love with me right then and there.
It was later, when she was in Paris as Laurie caroused through the nights with strangers and drink and dancing, that she would think to herself bitterly, but I am not a great artist.
The seventh was that she spoke quickly and inexactly, and so was always falling over herself with mispronunciations and malapropisms. Jo would point them out in front of schoolmates, and the other girls, in front of Laurie, and Amy would furiously wonder how Jo seemed to always know what words meant and how they should sound.
The eighth was her wide mouth and decided chin. When they were young, the March girls had an academic understanding of what kissing may entail one day. Jo had always proclaimed that she had no interest in ever kissing any fellows and Amy had hated her for having such a perfect mouth and no desire to kiss anyone when Amy’s was so terribly imperfect.
When Amy was fourteen, she had still never kissed anyone, but she would kiss her all her little charcoal sketches, and oil paintings, and paper mâché sculptures of Laurie, all her Lauries with a sweet short kiss, almost as if there was a chance that one would, as if in a fairytale, become the object of her longings.
The ninth was her love for her sisters. She despaired at how much she loved them, and yet how much more she wished she did.
It had been her distance from them when Beth had first had scarlet fever and Amy was sent away to Aunt March’s that had forced her to first realise how much she loved them.
Later, when she was in Paris, she would open Beth’s letters or see some French stranger who had Jo’s wildness in her eyes or smell the comforting warm rose scent of Meg, and the tenderness she felt in her heart for her sisters would cause her heart to ache.
And yet she felt that she was so wicked, so silly, so undeserving of their love. She would make up stories while she cleaned at Aunt March’s, or played with her parrot, or prowled around the house with Estelle, where she returned home and clasped her arms around their necks and kissed their cheeks and told them that she would never quarrel with them ever again and that they could borrow her favourite hair ribbons and that she would brush Meg’s hair for once rather than Meg having to brush hers and that she would allow Jo to write uninterrupted for hours and that Beth wouldn’t die, she really wouldn’t die, and instead she would sit next to her on the piano and tell her how she really was the finest piano player Amy thought she would ever meet, even better than the fellows in Europe.
Amy would think of these things and her blue eyes would brim with tears at the depth of her love for her sisters. It pained her, really, to feel so much.
The tenth was that she felt so little, by comparison, for Fred Vaughan. He had so many pleasing qualities: plenty of fine suits, a large fortune, a nose which a younger Amy would have rated in the tenth percentile of Concord. He was solid, with an open face and a beautiful sister, and an imposing house and a fine voice. He made especial efforts to show her little affections. People said that he was a gentleman and everything a husband should be.
But at night, she dreamed of Laurie. She dreamed of him taking her in his arms and telling her how he had admired her always, that he had knots in his stomach when he saw her, that she had inflamed his thoughts the way he had hers. She recalled his hands, delicately removing the apron from her waist in her studio; she’d flinched when his hot breath had hit the back of her neck and she’d wished he’d place a kiss on it.
One time, she dreamt that she was at one of those dances she’d missed out on, being always the youngest March. Meg was dancing rather seriously with Mr Brooke in the dream and Jo and Laurie were dancing with gay abandon at the other end of the room, far away from her.
They seemed more like grammar school chums than an eligible young lady and an eligible young man, all exuberance and elbows and smiles so wide that Amy’s cheekbones ached reflexively.
In the dream, each time that she turned around for a twirl, it seemed that Laurie was moving along the line of ladies towards her, swapping from Jo to a series of girls from their youth, one after the other.
Finally, it was Amy’s turn to dance with Laurie and she felt his hands on her waist and her hand, light but confident. He spun her around with a combination of elegance and playfulness that made her heart swoop, same as all the other ladies. But instead of changing partners, they stayed like this, dancing in the middle of the room as the rest of the dancers continued, almost like some clockwork performance.
In the dream, Amy’s heart beat faster and faster even as the music remained steady and their dancing was fluid and controlled. She looked up at Laurie, wishing that the dance didn’t have to stop.
He asked her, Why, Miss March, what is the matter? He squeezed her hand.
She waited until they drew together again, her hand on his shoulder trembling slightly. You are so close.
Laurie smiled, with a devilish look in his eye. He swooped in and for a split second, she thought he could kiss her. Instead, he whispered, I could have been closer.
Amy awoke and knew that she could not marry anyone else.
The eleventh was Laurie’s love for Jo.
She couldn’t bear it. She had loved Laurie her whole life. She had loved him when he had bought her the little lobster to commemorate the unfortunate fete she had organised for her drawing school friends. She had loved him when he promised her at Meg’s wedding that he would behave. She had loved him when he bought all the vases she’d made from horrid May Chester and delivered them to the Marches’ home full of flowers. She had loved the blunt praises he had lavished upon her. She had loved him so much and with such optimism.
When Jo had come back to the house after Laurie had proposed marriage to her, she had been distraught. It pained her to see her sister so hurt at having hurt Laurie, but she cried bitterly for herself, and her childish optimism.
She had prayed night after night as a little girl.
Please let Laurie fall in love with me. I’ll help Marmee in the kitchen tomorrow. I’ll feed my lunch to the birds at school. I’ll practise my sums. I’ll give my nicest bracelet to Beth. I’ll improve my handwriting. I’ll keep my pencils and paintbrushes in my room rather than leaving them in the drawing room and Meg scolding me.
The twelfth and final trial was the greatest. It was Laurie’s love for her. It had taken time; it had been delicately crafted like one of Amy’s paintings. It had been amongst the roses of Valrosa, the gardens of Paris; Apollo and Diana, dancing together.
It was queer, she thought, to be loved so. To have wanted something one's whole life and to receive it. Like being delivered to heaven after a lifetime of penance.
When Amy was in Europe, she met a man from Greece and she’d confessed her childhood obsession with Hercules.
It was horrible to think of how he suffered.
The man had laughed.
My child, the labours of Hercules were labours of love.
Amy and Laurie’s daughter, too, loved Hercules. Amy drew her pictures, taught her Beth’s favourite pieces on the piano, took her to see Daisy and Demi at Meg’s home and read her Jo’s stories. She grew up a proper March girl. After Amy would read to her, she would sleep soundly, no doubt collecting her set of grievances.
Laurie was not a perfect saint; he was known for loudly praising his wife's mouth, and feet, and nose, her dresses, the sound of her voice, her social graces, the style of her dresses. Aunt March had once described his love for her as horribly pagan which Amy had secretly adored. Amy's love, too, never waned, remaining as steady as those two boats in the water pointed in the same direction.
Her labours, she knew, were done. Her daughter had Laurie’s nose.