I am so glad I went on that buying spree a few months ago for books by and about Louisa because now as I plough through Susan Cheever’s book, I actually have at my fingertips the vast majority of sources and stories she mentions. Chapter 4 talks in part about Louisa’s foray into being a paid companion (servant) with her piece, “How I Went Out to Service” and eventually how the eminent publisher James T. Fields responded to it. Ever since I heard about it in Joan Howard’s children’s biography, The Story of Louisa May Alcott, I have been very curious about this piece. It turned out to be different than I had imagined.
To quickly summarize, an older gentleman, the Honorable James Richardson, a lawyer from Dedham, came to Abba’s mission in Boston searching for a paid companion for his sister. He promised lovely surroundings and light work. Louisa presented herself for the position and ended up working herself to the bone for 7 weeks until she finally left in disgust. The gentleman apparently hounded her, following her everywhere, droning on and on in boring monologue or reading poetry to her. At one point she had had enough and an impudent fashion, reminded her employer that she was to be a companion to his sister, not him. Out of spite, Richardson then assigned her all the heavy work to do in and out of the house and furthered her humiliation by insisting that she blacken his boots (apparently one of the most lowly of tasks for a woman – page 360, Alternate Alcott edited by Elaine Showalter). Louisa finally left and to her dismay, found that her employer only paid her $4 for 7 weeks worth of backbreaking work. In anger, the money was returned with Bronson as courier.
Thoughts about the essay
First of all, I would tend to agree with Cheever’s assertion that her employer, depicted as Reverend Josephus in the story, may have had romantic/sexual intentions towards Louisa. He was probably old enough to be her father and Louisa was just 18, in the prime of her youth. There is a section in “How I Went Out to Service” where Reverend Josephus is addressing Louisa which I found rather creepy: ” ‘Nay, do not fly,” he said as I grasped my duster in guilty haste. ‘It pleases me to see you here and lends a sweet, domestic charm to my solitary room. I like the graceful cap, that housewifely apron, and I beg you to wear them often; for it refreshes my eye to see something tasteful, young, and womanly about me . . .’ ” (page 357). In an earlier reference he says, “. . . I hope you will here (referring to his study) allow me to minister to your young and cheerful nature when your daily cares are over. I need such companionship and shall always welcome you to my abode.” (page 353). If I didn’t know better, I would swear he was speaking with his wife.
There are other disturbing elements in this story. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I saw a passage in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott which referred to Louisa’s “Humiliation in Dedham” and how it tapped into and fueled her anger. Stern writes, “Although Louisa subsequently made light of this experience in ‘How I Went Out to Service,’ there can be no doubt that from her humiliation an anger was born that would express itself both obliquely and directly when she sat down to write her blood-and-thunder tales.”
I was also disturbed by the fuss her family made over Louisa’s acceptance of the position, and their lack of faith in her. Louisa devoted nearly 2 pages to the “laughter and lamentation” from her family members. I found it rather odd that they felt it was beneath an Alcott to go out to service; never mind that the family was destitute and Louisa was willing to accept honest work. Proud family indeed!
Finally I thought that when the Reverend Josephus roused Louisa’s ire, she rather deliberately tried to provoke further trouble; it felt like a game to see how far she could push him. She could indeed be prickly which was what I often saw in her alter ego, Jo March.
While I thought the story was a little uneven in the way it was written, it certainly was very revealing if you read between the lines. My curiosity was more than satisfied.
Becoming a professional writer
Cheevers writes that the essay was Louisa’s first serious attempt at a memoir, and the realism that became her trademark (p. 109 Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography). She didn’t feel the essay was successful because there was no real conclusion. She saw a lot of ambiguity in the piece, maintaining that Louisa wasn’t exactly sure what happened or what Richardson’s true intentions were. I agree with this, considering the fact that she was only 18 and naive about the world (incredible when you think of all the hardships she bore, but her family lived in their own bubble). Louisa took Richardson’s word on face value as pointed out in the essay and never suspected anything despite the fact that he wrote several letters before she arrived that she described as “peculiar.” (pg 353 Alternate Alcott). I doubt that she had the savvy or life experience necessary to correctly interpret the confusing signals he sent.
So perhaps “When I Went Out to Service” was not the best piece of writing to show to an established publisher like Fields known for publishing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best seller, The Scarlet Letter. Cheevers believes it was a watershed moment for the emerging writer; that day Louisa became a professional. Fields’ famous statement, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you can’t write,” most likely was the catalyst that propelled her into eventual success. Cheevers quotes Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, supporting her contention: “He [Fields] could hardly have hit on a surer way to stoke her determination.”
In that case, thank the Lord for James T. Fields!