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.
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?
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.
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!