“I love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up,” she tells Teddy that day on the hill - the autumn sky and grass and trees turning sickly yellow as her childhood sours.
It has regained its rosy glow, if only for an evening as they all gather at Orchard House for dinner to celebrate Jo’s book. Mr. Laurence is stately and congratulatory; Hannah is kind and warm; Meg and John quietly content, little Daisy and Demi chasing each other around the table; Marmee and Father acting as jovial hosts, jabbing at each other playfully; Amy and Laurie unable to keep their hands off each other: arm and arm as they walk in, holding hands under the table, Laurie pressing a kiss to Amy’s cheek when he gets up to retrieve an extra spoon from the kitchen.
Once they have all eaten and move to the living room, satisfied and laughing, Jo runs up to the attic where she has gingerly set aside copies of her prized book she brought back from New York. It is quiet, and she allows herself one moment of stillness in that safe past before flying back down the stairs with her treasure.
Her family teases and congratulates and embraces her, Amy and Meg’s eyes shining a little as they envelope Jo, the three of them enveloped themselves by the familiar bittersweet melancholy of missing a sister.
They settle back down, resuming conversation, occasionally asking Jo an outstanding question about the publication. It is Mr. Laurence, of all people, who asks about the professor - what was his name, Jo?, who visited them. Did she see him in New York? She is surprised it is he who asks, not one of her excitable sisters, until she glances at Laurie and Amy, lord and lady next to each other on the couch, attempting to hide the most wicked grins.
“Yes,” she answers, ignoring them. “I offered him a job teaching at Plumfield.”
Now it is Meg’s eyebrows that rise as she and Amy exchange a glance.
“Wonderful,” their father says. “He was a very interesting man.”
“Yes,” says Jo. “He’ll make a first-rate teacher.”
“And a lovely husband,” Hannah adds, almost too quietly for Jo to hear, but she does, and sees Amy and Laurie look at each other, catches Meg and Marmee share a pleasantly surprised glance.
Jo smiles a little because maybe he would, already such an interesting and loving man, but says pointedly, “I will not be marrying him.”
“I love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up,” she continues, picking up a copy of her book and running her hands along its edges. It’s harsh and she knows it, because her sisters haven’t really lost much liberty. Still, she does not envy apologizing for her financial decisions, or trading away her last name. Miss Jo March , the writer with the large house full of books, is who she wants to be. She is yet to come to a conclusion regarding Friedrich’s role in this play she is currently writing for herself.
He arrives three weeks later, and they pick back up where they left off, like their separation was merely a brief pause in a longer conversation. She meets him at the train station at 9 o’clock and they walk back to Plumfield, turning near the church instead of continuing through town to Orchard House, and it is only then that she allows herself to be loud and excited, kissing him when they get inside, showing him animatedly around the many rooms, and declaring her vision for each one. He hasn’t eaten, so she pulls together some bread and cheese she brought back from Hannah two days before, and they sit in the kitchen. He tells her about sending word to California that he will not be taking the professorship he has been offered, describing how he sent it via the new transcontinental railroad, the product of intense labor by Chinese immigrants in the new state that can send people and goods across the country in just over a week.
“‘My apologies, good sirs, I will not be coming to California to accept the job you have so kindly offered me, instead choosing to teach at an as of yet imaginary school in Massachusetts,’” Jo pretends to write, and Friedrich smiles at her, and says “I do not mind” with such sincerity that Jo is overwhelmed by the intensity of being truly alone with him and the way he looks at her when he says it, with no pretense or hint of grandness or performance, just the truth.
It is just them in the large house for a week or so because even Jo will admit an unmarried woman living alone with a man is something she should avoid if she doesn’t want to ruin the reputation of the school she has not even established yet. She has made a list of the people who will join them: one or two to cook, perhaps some boarders, and at least one person to light the fires and keep at bay the disarray a house will inevitably fall into with Jo as its mistress.
But, for that short amount of time, they are alone, and Jo is happy. After a long day of writing up lessons and attempting to calculate a budget, they stay up late reading in the sitting room where Aunt March once confined her, and she laughs when she tells Friedrich that.
“Perhaps that is the source of your disdain for authority,” he says, and Jo can tell from his tone that he is only half joking.
“I just don’t like to be confined to doing things a certain way,” she responds, considering with some fondness how much she sounds like her young self.
“I know,” he says, and she knows he knows, but he says it gently, not attempting to convince her of anything.
She is turning back to her own book, Love’s Labour’s Lost (because she wants to write a jolly tale next), but she can tell he is still looking at her.
Her glance is enough of a question, and he considers for a moment.
“How does one find it?” he asks.
“What?” her brow furrows.
“Personal autonomy and humanity given a restrictive society,” he clarifies, suddenly elevating language and ideas beyond reminiscence and banter.
Jo thinks for some time.
“I think we just make do with what we have, and…and sometimes we create it for ourselves.” She sits back, still thinking.
She sets Love’s Labour’s Lost on the nearest table and leans forward.
“I don’t think anyone sets out with some grand noble cause, we just grow into it, and we grow into ourselves, and our humanity, and when we are faced with those restrictions, we manage as best we can.”
Friedrich tilts his head to the side a little.
“How do you ?”
“It’s not something you find, more something that you realize,” she starts.
“As with love?” he says, simultaneously stating and asking.
“What do you think?” She counters the introduction of this new topic with a slight smile.
He ponders, his eyes moving around the room to the stately bookshelves, even lingering to read some of the titles of the books that fill them.
“I think one realizes it,” he says, looking at the tall door frame before returning his gaze to her.
Jo sits mostly still, uncharacteristically trying to remain in this very precise and warm moment. How they went from resisting authority to love is puzzling, for those topics seem entirely unrelated, but she doesn’t mind. Their conversations are fluid and curious, and she adores them, mostly.
It is later, after they say goodnight, when she is lying awake in what used to be Aunt March’s grand room, vaguely considering his relative nearness in this big house, that she realizes Friedrich realizes for her they are woven together in some way.
What else is love?
Amy takes up painting again, pushed gently into it by Laurie, bringing herself out of her grief by creation. Jo watches, admiring her vision, how she weaves the golden softness of their girlhood into each work. Laurie watches too, and at first, Jo feels a small ache for the afternoons in the attic when he was just her closest companion, but the way he looks at Amy, with such desire and tenderness, resolves it all. It is without an ounce of bitterness that Jo lets go.
She asks Amy to paint Orchard House, and Amy obliges, choosing the very edge of summer, when the green is at its most brilliant and Concord just begins to blaze with autumn. When Amy gives it to her, Jo attempts to conceal her tears, but Amy looks at her, proud that something she created can bring forth such emotion in her stoic sister, and they embrace, Amy weeping a little too.
She hangs it in the vestibule of Plumfield, bringing a little liveliness and rebellion to the old house. She conjures that in other ways too, using some of her first earnings from her book to buy a small piano like Beth’s at home, and Friedrich plays throughout the day, short pieces as they cross paths trying to prepare the house for students, lengthy and beautiful ones that draw tears of joy from Jo in the evening.
Now it is them, and a cook, and two boarders, and one young lady who minds the fires and the dust, so Jo is more careful, concealing her kisses to empty hallways and the kitchen late at night when she asks him to join her for tea and whatever scraps she can scope out. They play jokes on each other, and write poetry - some others’ words and some their own - on notes they slip under each others’ doors.
This is how it goes for a month or so, mostly undisturbed, Jo enjoying this almost secret. Amy, or Amy and Laurie, and Meg, and Meg and Daisy and Demi, and Marmee or Father stop in, to deliver paintings or say hello, or bring old costumes and trinkets over, until they all conspire to have dinner at Orchard house again because it has been almost two months since they gathered every single one of them together at one time.
Jo obliges, and of course Friedrich comes too. They sit next to each other at the table, but unlike the lord and lady across from them who are inseparable, they are thoughtful and independent, speaking to each other like the partners in education that they are. Amy and Meg watch them like hawks, cornering Jo in the kitchen at some point, trapping her in between them as they take her hand and stroke her hair in sweet sisterly interrogation. Jo says nothing, because there is almost nothing to tell, but she does enjoy their closeness, their caring and silly nosiness.
After dessert, Mr. Laurence asks Friedrich to play the piano, and they sit in the living room listening, like they all have before, and Jo is quietly undone all over again by the music and the gentleness, and how they are all there together, in one way or another.
“I love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up,” she says to Teddy that day on the hill, and she still does. She loved her childhood too, and was not in any hurry to give that up. But if it soured that day, and rotted through when they buried Beth, it blossoms anew now.
Jo mulls over the diction of it: blossom is the wrong word, because it is not the same fruit. Childhood is gone. She can no longer find it, but Friedrich smiles over at her after he has finished playing, and she understands that maybe its most pure essence is not something that can be found, rather something one realizes.
As with love.