Guest blogger Gabrielle Donnelly (author of The Little Women Letters) shares the meaning of sisterhood. Plus, a book giveaway – Win The Little Women Letters!

I am pleased to present a guest blog by the author of The Little Women Letters, Gabrielle Donnelly.

Recently I reviewed this fine book and had a chance to talk with Gabrielle via email about it. I was intrigued by her biography where it stated that she had no sisters but in fact had 4 brothers! Her portrayal of the Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) and their special interaction felt so authentic that I was sure Gabrielle must have lived it. She shares with us how she created the sisterly dynamics between the 3 sisters, and how she herself longed to have sisters too.

Book giveaway

Be sure and comment on this post and you may win a copy of The Little Women Letters! See details at the bottom of this post.

The cover illustration on my 1989 Penguin Classics edition of Little Women the one from the 1915 edition, the one by Jessie Willcox Smith of the four March sisters grouped together. Although it is an illustration which is often reproduced, it is not one that I personally have ever much cared for. My lovely, joyful, fierce and feisty March girls look glum and strangely fearful here; and three of the four individuals are so very different from the way in which I had imagined them, that the only one I can identify for absolute certain is golden-ringleted Amy. Nevertheless, there is one element to the picture which is unmistakable and true: that these girls, wrapped together, leaning against each other, unquestioningly, trustfully close, are not just friends, but sisters.

The difference between sisters and brothers

I don’t have sisters myself – I have four brothers, which, believe me, is not the same thing at all – and it’s always been a sorrow to me. Women with sisters have an ease with other women which we sisterless will never have. They grew up sharing their life with another girl, comparing each other’s bodies and swapping each other’s clothes, combing each other’s hair and sometimes sharing each other’s bed, invading each other’s space without self-consciousness or hesitation. And it shows itself throughout their lives, in the fluidity of their gestures, the quickness of their sympathy, the way they will, almost unconsciously, hold my hand or stroke my arm or my hair when we are deep in conversation. I was like this as a little girl – most little girls are, I think – but when I reached adolescence, a houseful of boys at home and our stand-offish northern society outside it required me to set boundaries, both physical and emotional. Women with sisters escaped these.

Louisa May Alcott’s sisters

Louisa May Alcott, of course, had three sisters and it is obvious that she adored them. Which is not for one second to suggest that she always found them easy to get along with. You don’t have to read closely between the lines of Little Women discover that she found her elder sister Anna, who turns up in the book as Meg, at times prim and controlling, and pretty youngest Amy a plain old spoilt brat (although Amy and Jo, just like the real life May and Louisa, did grow to be very good friends as adults); and who knows what flaws we would have discovered in the perfect saintly Beth if she had lived, not died? But that’s the point of sisters – they don’t always like each other. In fact, sometimes they want to kill each other, raging with a boiling intensity of fury that we women rarely, if ever, feel for our brothers. Brothers are just too different.

The Little Women Lettters: Where did the Atwater sisters come from?

Author Gabrielle Donnelly

People sometimes ask me how I managed to create the relationships between the Atwater sisters in The Little Women Letters, and the answer is simple. Like many sisterless women, I suspect, I have been studying sisters, both real fictional, for most of my life – reading Little Women and Pride and Prejudice and the biographies of their authors, watching my mother and my Aunt Alicia, and my cousins Binnie and Sue, and my friends Caroline and Sally, and Kerry and Aggie, and Vernay and Cynthia and Sylvia. Studying and watching, and wondering what it must be like – and, oh, yes, envying – and I think I always will.

A yearning . . .

A couple of years ago, when I was visiting London, my friend Patti and I went to the farmers’ market with Patti’s daughters, Harriet and Grace, two absurdly pretty twenty-somethings, one brunette and one blonde. As Patti and I absorbed ourselves in the summer strawberries, Harriet and Grace skipped ahead, laughing at a joke of their own, their arms around each other’s waists.

‘Look at that,’ said Patti, who is also sisterless. ‘Wouldn’t you have loved to have that?’

Now, Patti and I are neither of us lonely women. We’re both happily married, both blessed with a large extended family, and a wide circle of amazing friends of both sexes. Many people would consider us lucky in the richness of our lives, and, quite frankly, many people would be absolutely correct. All the same, I knew immediately, at that bustling farmers’ market on that sunny day, exactly what Patti was referring to.

‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘Yes, I would have.’

And, oh, I would.

Win a copy of The Little Women Letters!

Want to win a copy of The Little Women Letters? I am giving away 3 copies. Simply post a comment and I will pick the winners at random. The giveaway contest closes Tuesday, August 2nd at noon so get your comments in right away!

Why no book displaying May Alcott Nieriker’s paintings?

I’m on vacation this week and no vacation is complete without another tour of Orchard House, this time with a friend who has never been there before.

I must say, I am always impressed at how knowledgeable the guides are at Orchard House. I’ve been there numerous times and always learn something new!

Today I learned that May Alcott Nieriker had painted a baby owl over the fireplace in Louisa’s room because there once stood a grand tree outside Louisa’s window which housed an owl family. Having just heard a great horned owl hooting outside my window the other night, I was intrigued by this little tidbit.

May also painted a more formal portrait/still life of an owl with some books which hangs by Louisa’s bed. I ended up buying a print of the owl over the fireplace.

I made a real point today of observing closely all of May’s artwork in the house. Afterwards I asked people in the gift shop if there were any books which displayed May’s paintings. There is not. Why?

Why is it that the only book available on May besides Daniel Shealy’s Little Women Abroad is May Alcott A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor, a dated memoir? I felt this burning desire to have a book with May’s artwork in it, and I feel a desire yet again to tell her story, or at least read one that is up to date.

Is anyone working on a modern biography of May? Has anyone thought about putting together a book of her drawings and paintings?

Should I consider it even though I know nothing of how to pull it off?

Marmee, the Mother of Little Women

Thanks to the advice of a reader (much appreciated, Gina!), I’ve started reading Marmee, the Mother of Little Women by Sandford Meddick Salyor. Certainly you cannot look at the life of Louisa May Alcott without looking at her parents. There are plenty of works on Bronson but not that much on Abba (“Marmee”).  This 1949 biography reads well and I’m enjoying it so far.

Abba’s father, Colonel May

The book begins by discussing Abba’s childhood. Her father, Colonel May, was a charismatic and well-loved figure. His involvement with the blossoming Unitarian movement and the Rev. James Freeman, a founder of the movement, is noted with a plaque at historic King’s Chapel in Boston. Termed “liberal Christianity” by Salyor, Freeman, a well-loved pastor of the chapel for many years, rejected belief in the Trinity and changed the liturgical service by removing all references to the Trinity and replacing them with God the Father (see wikipedia). Colonel May, a fine singer, was the power behind The Hymnal, published in 1799 for use in the chapel.

Personal connection

King’s Chapel holds a personal memory for  me as my best childhood friend was memorialized there. Kate Ross, an up-and-coming historical mystery writer whose series based on English dandy Julian Kestrel had won acclaim, died all too early from breast cancer. She was the most magical playmate a girl could ever have. We’d spend hours conjuring up imaginary characters and then acting out stories impromptu. We wrote a very melodramatic (and now hysterically funny) play called “Apache Captives” for our girl scout troop.

I always knew Kate would be a writer. Even though she studied ancient Greek at Wellesley College and got her law degree at Yale, I knew she would write. We drifted apart as childhood friends do, but years later, my husband rushed home to tell me Kate was the on the radio! She was on a talk show with the now late David Brudnoy (a legendary talk show host) so I called in! We reconnected on the radio. Later we saw each other and had a wonderful visit. I have her last novel, The Devil in Music, in my library.

Even as I write this, I can see the early appeal Louisa May Alcott had for me with her flair for plays and drama. I loved doing that too. Kate was my Louisa and I was her Anna.

Talent passed down

Later on in the book Salyor describes Colonel May’s artistry as a conversationalist, attracting most particularly the children of the neighborhood to come and listen to his stories.  He would vividly act out characters and I could see immediately where Louisa got her talent.

There was much musical talent in the family – Colonel May with his deep bass, Sam (Abba’s brother) with his tenor, Louisa (her older sister) with a dazzling soprano, and Abba with her alto. Undoubtedly this is where Lizzie got her musical talent. Not much is said about just how accomplished she was but the talent certainly ran deep in the family.

I’m looking forward to getting deeper in this book!

Coming to Concord this summer? Here’s some recommendations

The Wayside, home to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts

I just created a page with personal recommendations of places to visit and things to do while visiting Concord, Massachusetts. The one thing I could not recommend is hotels because I live too close to Concord to have stayed overnight.

Here’s some recommendations for those of you who want to indulge in living history (to me, that’s fun :-)):

Come Visit Concord . . .

Book review: The Little Women Letters captures the essence of Alcott in the here and now

Sigh. Another good friend to bid adieu to. That’s how I felt when I finished The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly. I became very attached to the London-based Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) and their family and friends and appreciated the guiding hand of “Grandma Jo,” aka Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

“New letters” by Jo March

That’s right. In this story, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Marmee are true characters and ancestors of the Atwaters. Lulu accidentally comes upon letters in her parents’ attic by a young Jo as depicted in Little Women, and finds solace, guidance, understanding and camaraderie from her great-great grandmother when she needs it most.

Donnelly obviously loved Little Women and was fully immersed in it as demonstrated by the authentic air of these letters by Jo. It felt like Louisa had written a secret extra set of chapters for Little Women which made these letters seem extra delicious.

Among the most touching were the letters written to “Bethie” after she had died. It struck me as a most logical way for Jo to work through her grief by writing her dear sister letters as if she were here to read them.

Donnelly uses the letters to set up different scenarios in the plot which covers a turning point year in the life of the three sisters.

The Atwater sisters versus the March sisters

Obviously the sisters are fashioned after the little women:

  • Emma is the practically-minded, domestic efficient Meg, who like Meg, has a weakness for the finer things. She is getting married to Matthew.
  • Sophie is the spoiled, blond, curly-haired “drama queen” (she is in fact, an actress) modeled after Amy. Her year is, not surprisingly, full of drama both fun and deadly serious.
  • Lulu is the awkward, too-tall, very intellectually gifted one fashioned after Jo, and finds solace in Jo’s letters. Although she graduated from university with a first class degree in biochemistry, she had no desire to become a scientist and is groping in the dark, trying to find her career path.

Donnelly decided not to have a “Beth” sister which was probably a smart move. It would have been difficult to conjure up a contemporary Beth that would have been believable.

Alike but not exact

Yet, the sisters are not carbon copies. Emma seems less matronly than Meg and keeps some interesting company.

Sophie’s art is in acting, not drawing, and she hasn’t yet quite evolved to the gracious womanhood that Amy attained. But she does show signs of it.

And Lulu has no clue what she wants to do with her life although she is obviously gifted. And no, she is not a writer.

Meeting more characters

Fee and David Atwater, the parents, are an interesting match. Fee is more like Abba Alcott than Marmee, a fierce feminist who lived in a collective as a young woman. Now a family therapist, she originally came from Boston and is the family connection to Jo.

David is a man with the famous British dry wit who swept Fee away from Boston to London for a new life. His long-running joke is to compare her to imaginary wife “Claire,” a woman who questions nothing, asks for nothing, and dotes constantly on David. His work takes him to places all around the world.

There are many entertaining sub-characters, but I will leave it to you to read the book and meet them. Emma’s friend Nigel Manolete, an aspiring shoe designer, is my favorite.

The strength of The Little Women Letters

Author Gabrielle Donnelly

Besides the authenticity of the letters from Jo, my favorite parts of the book were the conversations. This is the first book I’ve ever read where the conversations were so engaging that I didn’t miss the narrative. Dialog is always my least favorite part of any book because they rarely seem to move the story along. No so in this case.

Donnelly has a terrific “gift of gab.” Even though she had many brothers and no sisters, the dialog between the Atwater sisters is very real. Lots of teasing, barbs and wit so typical between siblings pepper the conversations. The humor in this story is well placed and very entertaining.

Perfect summer read . . . any movie plans?

The Little Women Letters is the perfect summer read. As mentioned in a previous post, it’s the one book I’ve read at the gym that made me forget about the pain and sweating of doing the elliptical. I will sure miss this friend!

I hope plans are in the works for a movie. It would be perfect for the Lifetime channel.

Check out Gabrielle Donnelly’s website and read the interview – it’s very informative.

Have you read The Little Women Letters yet? What did you think?

The core of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism explains her timelessness

After writing yesterday’s post on Polly’s modern sensibilities, I thought about what Louisa May Alcott’s core belief was which motivated her feminism, and why she was so effective in imparting it.

Autonomy

My conclusion? Louisa’s feminism was based on autonomy – the right of every woman to be autonomous,  the freedom for each woman to realize her true potential as a whole person. And even as I write this, I reflect back on Sarah Elbert’s essay on Moods where she incorporated Louisa’s transcendental upbringing into the mix.

Transcendentalism played a crucial role

As crazy as her father Bronson could be, he certainly associated with some very fine people (Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, etc.). He also managed to have a brilliant idea or two. ;-)

Transcendentalism focused on individual development which involved introspection and scrutiny. Crucial to that development was the intimate connection with something greater than Self  by reconnecting with the natural world. God was to be found in that world but not as He had been traditionally understood.

But did Transcendentalism truly include women?

Since the vast majority of transcendentalists were male, they did not necessarily promote the same kind of individual development for women. It was probably too much to ask that they totally divorce themselves from the thinking of the day (especially when it benefited them so directly!).

A role model

However, Margaret Fuller spent many years giving ‘conversations’ to promote the idea of education for women. Her informal gatherings gave women some of the very few chances they had to learn, to reflect, and to share ideas on realizing their individual vocations. She presented quite a glamorous figure and was someone the then teen-aged Louisa admired and wished to emulate. Legend has it that when Louisa reflected on her life, making her 3 wishes at the wishing wheel located in the meadow above Hillside, that she wished for fame and travel – a life like Margaret Fuller’s.

Her upbringing influences her writing

So it makes perfect sense that all this seeped into Louisa’s writing, becoming an on-going theme. Much as she complained about writing “moral pap for the young,” these stories did much to promote her thinking that all women deserved a chance to be all they could be, leading deeper, more meaningful lives. It was far more than “moral pap”: it was a way of educating and influencing young girls, showing them that there were, in fact, choices they could make in their lives.

Timeless messages

Louisa did a lot of public campaigning for women through her attendance at national conferences, and she set the example by being the first woman to vote in the local Concord election. She courageously served as a Civil War nurse when the profession had just opened to women. And of course her tenacity in carving out a life as a best-selling literary spinster speaks volumes.

In the end however, it’s the simple and subtle messages inherent in her writing to children that continue to stand the test of time.  Just about every woman pioneer since Louisa’s era remembers reading Little Women and they point to Jo March as a pivotal inspiration.

Re-embracing feminism

Since I met Louisa long before I met Jo, Louisa is my pivotal inspiration. She was very much outside the mainstream and so am I (though in a quieter way); she gives me greater pride and confidence in that fact. Now that I am meeting her family of characters for the first time, I find it possible to re-embrace feminism; she has brought me back to its purer roots. Certainly the different political gains are important (the right to vote being crucial) but in the end, it’s really about a woman being given every chance to realize her full potential, just as every man is given that chance.

Louisa’s writing  makes me laugh, cry and think, and gives me a safe haven. This is one crazy and chaotic time that we’re living in – how wonderful that an author who lived 150 years ago could offer inspiration and safety to me, and to so many others too.

Was the “Old-Fashioned Girl” actually modern?

It’s interesting how the supposedly old-fashioned Polly is actually more modern than the sophisticated Fanny. That’s if you think in 21st century terms.

In the Shaw household, the acquisition of wealth and keeping up with fashion are both considered “sophisticated” and desirable, whereas purposefulness and little kindnesses are considered “old-fashioned.” Yet, as Louisa May Alcott points out in An Old-Fashioned Girl, these old-fashioned qualities are more consistent with a woman who knows who she is and how she should fit in the world.

A life of purpose

Louisa, of course, was very purposeful, perhaps to a fault. She was fortunate in knowing what she was meant to do at a very early age, and her unusual upbringing actually nurtured that vocation. She certainly was a woman ahead of her time.

It’s obvious that she disapproves of the idle and shallow lives she believes privileged (aka “kept”) women of her time are leading. Each time she writes of the privileged few who grow up with all the pretty things they could ever want, there is a decided air of disapproval hovering over them. This was true in “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”, chapter 9  Little Women, where Meg learns that having many pretty things and being “dolled up” were not all they were cracked up to be.

This disapproval is also apparent also  in An Old-Fashioned Girl where Louisa describes a family (the Shaws) that is so wrapped up in material things that they forget how to be loving to each other. As a result, the family members are unhappy with themselves and each other, and have no clue as to why.

A self-absorbed family

In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa describes a group of people who are self-absorbed, and each member acts out their self-absorption in various ways:

  • Mr. Shaw is so consumed with making money that he barely knows his children. He particularly ignores his son, Tom.
  • Tom, ignored by his father, creates constant mischief as it is the only way he can get any attention. Of course the attention is negative, only reinforcing Tom’s actions.
  • Little Maud is spoiled, whining and complaining about every little thing, taking to screaming when she doesn’t get her own way. As a result, she is a real irritant to the rest of the family.
  • Fanny is only interested in becoming sophisticated and leaving girlhood behind as quickly as she can. Her purpose is shallow and her days spent in idleness. From what I’ve read so far, her goal in life is to marry someone like her father who can continue to provide her with the privileged life she is accustomed to, and feels entitled to.

Polly’s presence and “old-fashioned” ways challenge this family. Louisa takes chapter 4, called “Little Things” to lay out her case.

A breath of fresh air

What does Polly do that is so different? She is not consumed with herself but reaches out to others. And this gives her purpose. In the course of the chapter she:

  • Plays with Maud who is bored (and acting out as a result); Polly ends up teaching her how to sew. This draws Fanny into the act as well even though she declares with a superior air that she hasn’t played with a doll for “ever so long.”
  • This act impresses Fanny who admits that life is pretty dull without Polly who seems to be busy all the time.
  • Seeing his daughters busy with purpose, Mr. Shaw is drawn out of himself, commenting that “Polly has been making sunshine for you to-day.”
  • Polly ends up reaching out to Mr. Shaw by showing affection. She walked with him on the way to his office, and at evening, would wait for him and have his slippers out. These little acts of kindness were not submissive acts, but acts of affection that succeeded in drawing Mr. Shaw out of his shell. As a result,
  • Mr. Shaw begins to pay attention to Tom and notices when he has done good work with his oratory homework. In turn,
  • Tom behaves better and thinks better of himself.

From the mundane to the sublime

This is one of the things that I love so much about Louisa May Alcott. She takes the mundane things of life (such as little kindnesses) and elevates them to the sublime. These kindnesses are no longer mundane because they improve the lives of those touched by them. They are not submissive acts because they are done out of free will with the purpose of bettering the lives of others.

Purpose and kindness

Purposeful and kind acts are done by a free and independent girl named Polly. This sense of independent purpose is hardly “old-fashioned” – it’s modern and has only been realized by women at large in the last two or three generations.

Polly’s purpose and kindness will save her from being a “kept” woman, bored and frustrated, with no sense of thought or introspection and therefore, no clue as to how or why she would feel that way.

Again I see that subtle mix of feminism and spirituality from Louisa. It’s a powerful combination, written nearly 150 years ago, that inspires even now in the 21st century.