Day 3 May Alcott a Memoir – Opposites Attract

louisa and may from little women abroad and orchard house

I get it now why Louisa became so close to her sister, May, and it’s because they were opposites. An obvious thought to be sure, but Ticknor’s memoir made that all the clearer to me.

Louisa was complex, conflicted, duty bound, guilt-ridden . . . a rather typical 19th century New Englander from all appearances. She had the extra added blessing/burden of possessing enormous creative energy which creates its own storms.

May somehow broke free and rose above these shackles. Fortunate to be the youngest of the 4, she escaped many of the experiences which scarred Louisa for life (such as Fruitlands). Her father had become less obsessed with documenting every moment of his daughters’ lives by the time she came along; it seemed that his storms were beginning to wind down a bit as she grew up. As the cherub of the family who radiated so much natural light and joy, the family was drawn to her like a magnet to relieve their burdens.

I believe that when Louisa was with May, she could forget herself for awhile and just be herself.
This passage from Ticknor’s book really struck me (pages May Alcott a Memoir pages 94-95):

Ticknor had just described how Louisa and May, while on their grand European tour, had been able to eavesdrop on an opera being performed next door to their hotel. They not only saw the opera, but all the backstage antics as well (as a voyeur myself, I would have loved that!). And they got to see it in their bed clothes! Ticknor then writes:

When an enlightening glimpse of the submerged Louisa Alcott, that fun-adoring, freedom-loving creature who was for over a half a century cribbed, cabined, and confined by her New England habitations. One is at this point tempted to inquire, Might not her brilliant literary gift have blossomed vividly and even luxuriantly could she have had, not days, but years of leisure and emancipation in an environment as lovely and inspiring as this described by her, with gay attire, moonlight on balconies, fine music floating from the throats of prima donnas in filmy robes, and gallant knights in armor? But it was not to be. The moving finger wrote but seven magic letters, and they spelled CONCORD.

Louisa Alcott’s pen was destined to keep alive not great, romantic, or historic personages, but vivid little people of New England, and not all the allurement of the New World could have drawn her from her home life of sacrifice. May could escape from her New England heritage, but not Louisa. [my emphasis]. Yet it is good to think of her, if only for a single night, wrapped in a yellow bedquilt, staring with “rapture” at gallant knights, and hearing them “warble to plump ladies”, while the stage thunder crashed and the philosophy of Concord was forgot.

Aligning myself with Louisa in temperament rather than May, I too would be drawn to such a breath of fresh air. In fact, I am, and I actively seek out May Alcotts in my life to remind me that life is not all work and obligation. The May Alcotts of this world are badly needed as they bring that joie de vivre back into life.

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4 thoughts on “Day 3 May Alcott a Memoir – Opposites Attract

  1. Check out Little Women Abroad, edited by Daniel Shealy. It’s a complete compendium of Louisa and May’s letters home from Europe.

  2. susanbailey says:

    Already on my list! And the list grows longer every day – I just found another book of Shealy’s “Alcott in Her Own Time” which I can’t wait to read. If it weren’t for the fact that a lot of her works that I want to read are online, I’d go broke from this passion. :-)

  3. Mia Ninera says:

    You made a good point about the Alcotts circumstances that allowed the youngest daughter to be a cherub born under a lucky star.
    I think that both Louisa and May had natural charisma, people were drawn to them but for different reasons. Although Louisa didn’t have children of her own she had that “mothery feature” – she had need to be needed, need to take care of those around her. She was needed, her family was dependent on her. May had need to be loved and adored and she had natural grace that made her “likable.”

    I haven’t read Reisen’s Woman Behind Little Women nor Ticknor’s Memoir yet, I want to, ’cause more I read and learn about Alcotts, more I want to know more. :) I read Little Women though, and there is a part in chapter “Calls” where Amy tells Jo:

    “Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones; for they have no other way of repaying the kindness they receive. If you’d remember that and practice it, you’d be better liked than I am, because there is more of you.”

    and Jo replies:

    “I’m willing to own that you are right; only it’s easier for me to risk my life for a person than to be pleasant to him when I don’t feel like it. It’s a great misfortune to have such strong likes and dislikes, isn’t it?”

    But Jo had to face unpleasant cosequences of her sharp tongue and ill manners, for Aunt Carrol changed her mind and instead of Jo, she invited Amy to accompany her to Europe.

    If Amy is modeled after May, then I can see that May instinctively knew how to make people like her, how to fit in society and seize the chance and use advantages she could. And I can see how Louisa paid the price of her determined independence and “I’ll do it myself, I’ll earn money myself, I’ll not depend on generosity of rich.”

    I guess this world admires that attitude in men only, not just back then in 19th century, but nowadays too. :)

    • milonoah says:

      Agreed. I guess you could call May an opportunist, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative. She firmly believed in her vocation and was willing to do what it took to fulfill it.

      It really is fascinating watching how May and Louisa each pursued their vocations. Both had rock solid faith in their abilities and never wavered in their commitment to their vocation. But they each had such different ways of fulfilling their vocations! The one similarity is how pragmatic they both were.

      The deep you get, the more interesting it gets!

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