What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

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Boston is creating a Literary Cultural District: here are a couple of the places where Louisa May Alcott lived

I am very excited about this since I live an hour out of Boston. There are already many sites in Boston that are related to the Alcotts but having a literary cultural district is very cool. Here is more information about that effort: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/61917-boston-creating-a-literary-cultural-district-spotlight-on-new-england-2014.html

In a quote from the article, the idea grew from a fortuitous conversation:

“The idea for a literary district grew out of a conversation between GrubStreet executive director Eve Bridburg and MCC head Anita Walker when the former bemoaned the fact that even though there is a lot happening culturally in Boston, you don’t often hear about the writers. The goal is to provide a series of walks through Boston’s literary history, while supporting writers and publishers working today. It’s also about including all the literary efforts in the city under one umbrella. “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing so that there’s one place to look for the literary arts,” says Bridburg, who plans to create a website to go with the district. “There’s a lot going on [in Boston] and everybody’s working in their own little silos.””

There are already many sites in Boston that concern Louisa May Alcott. The Alcotts moved so many times in their lifetime that it would be almost impossible to gather all the addresses. We do know, however, that in 1853, they lived for a time on Pinckney Street:

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853
Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess

Pinckney Street boasts other literary residents: “Pinckney Street formed a literary row with the childhood home of Henry David Thoreau at #4, Louisa May Alcott at #20, and Nathaniel Hawthorne at #54.” (from the aforementioned article)

Here is a previous post about a visit to Pinckney Street.

And Louisa bought a fine home in Louisberg Square:

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

 

There are so many other landmarks – King’s Chapel where Abba and her family worshipped, the original site of Roberts Brothers which published Little Women and subsequent books by Louisa, and “The Old Corner Bookstore was the original site of the publishing company Ticknor & Fields, founded in 1832, which published Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emerson, Longfellow, and Thoreau. The Atlantic Monthly also got its start there in 1857.” (Ibid)

Such a wonderful way to tour Boston – can’t wait!

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My writing room dedicated to Louisa May Alcott

Since I recently did a post on being inspired by Louisa’s need for a room of her own, I thought I’d share my room with you.

I claimed my son’s large basement bedroom and furnished it with a love seat, lounge chair and prints made of collages that I created from “The Most Beloved American Writer” series in the Woman’s Home Companion magazine from 1938 which I bought from Ebay (see previous post). The series was written by Katharine Anthony (featuring excerpts from her biography on Louisa May Alcott) with paintings and drawings of scenes from Little Women by Norman Rockwell.

Here’s where I write (I have a little picture of Louisa’s desk on the table):

room of my own

And here’s what I see on the opposite wall:

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-2

Here are closeups of the prints:

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-3

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-1

That room puts me in the zone instantly! I call it my “lair.” I get a lot of work done down there. :-)

What’s your special space like?

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Jo’s Boys – reading the first edition knowing Louisa was alive

Look at what I got at The Barrows in Concord!

jo's boys 1886 aunt jo's scrap bag shawl straps 1872 combined

New meaning

This is the first time that I’ve acquired first editions of Louisa May Alcott’s books. Knowing she was alive when these books were published adds another layer of meaning to the reading. I feel myself transported back to 1886, catching up on the adventures at Plumfield.

jo's boys 1886 edition frontpiece

A poignant reminder

The book begins with a touching preface:

“… To account for the seeming neglect of Amy, let me add, that, since the original of that character died, it has been impossible for me to write of her as when she was here to suggest, criticise, and laugh over her namesake. The same excuse applies to Marmee. But the folded leaves are not blank to those who knew and loved them, and can find memorials of them in whatever is cheerful, true, or helpful in these pages.”

The waning years

jo's boys 1886 edition louisaJo’s Boys was written over a seven year period as Louisa’s health was poor. By the time the book was published, she had moved out of her Boston address at Louisburg Square and was residing at Dr. Rhoda Lawrence’s rest home in Roxbury. Plagued with exhaustion from overwork, stomach trouble and difficulty swallowing among other ailments, Louisa had shrunk to a shadow of herself. A woman of 54, she looked much older in her pictures.

Remembering when

With this in mind, I was struck by the description of Nan in Chapter One, “Ten Years Later.” Nan was the character most resembling Louisa in her girlhood. She was even referred to as “giddy gaddy.” There was a wistful longing in the writing as Louisa recalled her own vigorous youth. It became clear to me that Louisa was describing the antithesis of her own sad situation (italics are mine to illustrate):

“Nan was a handsome girl, with a fresh color, clear eye, quick smile, and the self-poised look young women with a purpose always have. She was simply and sensibly dressed, walked easily, and seemed full of vigor with her broad shoulder well back, arms swinging freely, and the elasticity of youth and health in every motion. The few people she met turned to look at her, as if it was a pleasant sight to see a hearty, happy girl walking country ward that lovely day …”

Reliving her youth

Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters, spoke last summer at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House (see previous post) on the subject of Louisa’s health and its influence on her writing, maintaining that Louisa lived out her fantasy of restored vigor in her later books. The above paragraph is a fine example.

Role reversal

Nan has no time for romance; her focus is on her career. This does not stop Tom from pursing her, but in a most unusual way. In a classic case of role reversal, Tom is the self-sacrificing one, studying medicine so that he can be near to her when he would prefer to study something else. In the opening scene, Nan was “walking briskly” ahead while Tom was “pegging on behind.” He hopes for more (so do I!) but for now they are just good friends.

Past and present

Little Men was full of references to Louisa’s past and I imagine Jo’s Boys will be too. But it will be interesting to see just how of her present is included. So far, in just the first few pages, there is much, including the fact that Jo now has “money, fame, and plenty of the work I love.”

Have you read Jo’s Boys? What did you think of it?

Do you own any first editions of Louisa’s works? How do you feel when you read them?

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A room of one’s own: what if your “room” could be portable?

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susanwbailey:

Louisa’s yearning for private space and her glorious room at Hillside/Wayside always made me crave a special space too. I never dreamed it could be portable!

Here’s a picture of where her room was in the house at Wayside. Nathaniel Hawthorne changed the house after he bought it from Bronson and Louisa’s little room no longer exists. But you can stand in the space where it was. Very cool.

 

Originally posted on Be As One:

What happens when you get the urge to create?

  • Do you retreat to a music studio to write a song?
  • Do you go to your specially designated study to write?
  • Do you paint your latest masterpiece in a light-filled studio?
  • Do you shut the door when you enter your room?

Why do secret hideaway places draw us like magnets?

I wanted a room of my own when I first discovered Louisa May Alcott as a kid. There was an illustration of Louisa in her special room where it was quiet and she could think. When she had finished writing her latest poem or story, she could indulge in her other favorite passion, running, by racing out the door to her room that led outside.

drawing by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

drawing by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Getting away from the noise

Louisa’s family was noisy; quiet and privacy…

View original 399 more words

The Alcotts in my family – my sister is May!

Summer Cottage Porch http://christinehoylehoude.fineartstudioonline.com/workszoom/1433365

I embody a bit of Louisa in my writing and Lizzie in my music; my sister definitely embodies May Alcott Nieriker in her art and her love of the rugged outdoors (as you may know May enjoyed rowing and horseback riding). My sis, Christine Hoyle Houde, just launched her artist website and I am proud to show you some of her work:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can visit her site at http://christinehoylehoude.fineartstudioonline.com/

I couldn’t be more proud.

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Abigail May Alcott’s love was her strength

Following up on my last post on Abigail Alcott, I finished transcribing yet another letter from her to Bronson dated January 4, 1858.

Looking for a reply

abbaLizzie is clearly getting worse, her days winding down until her death on March 14. Abba was her primary caregiver, a crushing responsibility in and of itself. But she was also responsible for keeping the family afloat paying the bills, running the household and paying proper attention to her daughters. One of her lifelines was Bronson and his letters to her; when they didn’t come in a timely fashion she grew frantic:

“It is more than a week since your last and I hardly know were to to direct – but I shall feel safer to send to Cincinnati where you will find our last letter – which I am quite sure you will not think worth the stamp on the face of it – but last week was one of my anxious nervous weeks …” The Houghton Library, Abba to Bronson, letter dated January 4, 1858, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

Her concern was certainly understandable considering Lizzie’s declining health.

A lifeline?

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402I used to be put off by the content of Bronson’s letters in his replies to Abba; so much focused upon his conversations, the people he met and his various successes So little focused on his family. That still offends me but I can see how Abba might have found his stories to be a relief, taking her out of her troubled world for a short time of respite. She certainly seemed interested in what he was telling her (not just because they might translate into much-needed income).

Advice born of experience

In Bronson’s defense, he did often write about Lizzie’s condition, giving his daughter urgent advice on keeping her spirits up while admonishing her to eat, advising her not to take cold baths, and reminding her to get outside for fresh air. Bronson spoke from personal experience about the importance of attending to one’s emotional needs as he sank into emotional turmoil and flirted with insanity a couple of times in his life (most notably after Fruitlands and after the move to Boston after living at Hillside).

The true source of Abba’s strength

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersMuch is made of Abba’s intelligence, knowledge and curiosity. There is no doubt that there would be no Louisa May Alcott the author without Marmee. But while Abba’s vibrant mind was a vital parts of her essence, I believe her true strength came from her selfless love of her family as evidenced in these lines:

“How much trouble there is in the world – and the question is constantly before me ‘Who will show us any good.’ You have letters in Buffalo – on all I put ‘Please forward’ at each place. You cannot write too often for comfort – I try to be hopeful for your sake – cheerful for dear Lizzy’s sake and active for the dear girls who alternate between dramatic and the real condition of things …” (Ibid)

A woman’s power

It was love that gave Abba the capacity to stay afloat. Love that prevented her from succumbing to self-absorption which leads to despair (which can be deadly). Love that gave her the courage to step outside of herself and her dreadful situation, granting her the strength to be hopeful for her husband, cheerful for her dying daughter, active and engaged with her other healthy daughters.

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Intelligence, curiosity, being well-read and well-informed gave Abba purpose, this is true. But it was her love that gave her that heroic strength she needed to last through those many difficult years. Abba’s love molded and shaped her daughters, all of whom went on live productive, purpose-filled, even happy lives. Even Lizzie who died too soon was infused with a sense of purpose right up to her last days.

Grateful daughter, a story for the ages

It is no wonder that grateful daughter Louisa devoted her life to her Marmee and immortalized her in Little Women. Abba deserved every accolade.

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