I went to Concord yesterday afternoon full of anticipation at meeting an email friend in person. I’ve met many such email friends and it’s always a thrill. Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters has become such a friend through stories exchanged about our favorite felines, and our favorite author.
Little did I know how many other wonderful women I would meet later at Gabrielle’s presentation and book signing at Orchard House:
All the attendees of Gabrielle’s Meet and Greet were Orchard House staff members!
Talk about being able to indulge in my passion – this was like feasting on prime rib and chocolate mousse. But I digress . . .
Tea at the Colonial Inn
The afternoon began with two new friends meeting over tea, coffee, lobster and crab bisque and a delicious rice dish at Concord’s historic Colonial Inn. Gabrielle is a delight and the conversation was lively and stimulating. It’s the first time I’ve been able to truly share my passion about Louisa with someone equally as passionate. It was wonderful.
Walking through the front door of Orchard House
It was dark by the time we made our way to Orchard House for Gabrielle’s presentation and I have to say it was a bit of a mystical experience to walk through the front door, just like so many of the Alcott family friends had done in years past.
In Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography, Susan Cheever wrote,
” . . . the Alcott family began to receive visitors. Their Monday night open houses featuring bowls of Bronson’s apples were often crowded with old friends like the Hawthornes and the Emersons.” (page 125)
And now I could experience such a visit and with people who have devoted much time and effort to make Orchard House the magical place that it is to visit.
Learning more about Gabrielle Donnelly
and The Little Women Letters
Seated around the dining room in chairs, we all listened intently as Gabrielle described her background: growing up in the 50s and 60s with four boisterous brothers, and taking refuge in Little Women. She described the book which she read again and again as her “comfort reading” and “consolation reading,” brimming with intelligence and warmth.
So when she learned of the opportunity to compete for the chance to write The Little Women Letters, she jumped at it.
Bringing Little Women to the 21st century
An editor at Simon and Schuster, Lydia Newhouse, came up with a way to bring the classic tale of the four March sisters into the current day: following the lives of three sisters who were influenced by letters from their great-great-grandmother, Jo March. Several writers competed for the opportunity to pen the new novel; Gabrielle, along with other writers, submitted a completed first chapter, and hers was chosen.
In a scant six months’ time, Gabrielle completed all her research and wrote the book. Immersing herself in Little Women and its sequels, Gabrielle took on the mind and heart of the March sisters, leaving behind a legacy of letters for the current family, the Atwaters, to dig through. Second sister Lulu, the most like Jo, derived great comfort and benefited from the wisdom of these letters.
Going beyond the end of the story
Gabrielle described how she imagined beyond the ending of the last book, Jo’s Boys, with Jo having a surprise daughter in her 40s. She read to us the first letter from Jo to Amy describing the experience:
My daughter has arrived in this world, and bless the infant, she is the reddest and the squallingest baby you ever did see! We both had a hard time of her birthing, but she came through like a trump, and when they laid her upon my breast she looked up at me with her little sharp gray eyes, and nodded with a decided air, as if to say, “There no! I don’t think we’ll be doing that again, Mamma, and I for one rejoice to know it.( page 1)
She imagined Jo as no longer being famous as a writer, and happy at the prospect. Because she was no longer famous, the Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) didn’t know anything about her except what they heard from their mother, Fee, an ardent feminist. In the end, “Grandma Jo” would have a profound effect on Lulu, giving her needed direction in her life.
I posted a review of the book where you can find out more about this delightful story.
The work of writing The Little Women Letters
The Little Women Letters created a unique situation with regards to research. Gabrielle needed to immerse herself in Louisa May Alcott’s writings while also researching contemporary London life where the story is set.
She described how Louisa’s writings were full of detail on all things domestic so that she could write the March sister letters with an authentic voice. She even mentioned the necessity of gently but firmly tussling with her editor to keep some of the typical slang of the period in the letters so that readers would come to believe Jo or Meg or Amy wrote them.
Although born and bred in London, Gabrielle knew that her many years of living in the United States would necessitate connecting with young Londoners to get a sense of life there now. Her many years of journalism coupled with great connections provided her with the knowledge she needed to create the Atwater family.
Meeting the Atwater family – a reading from The Little Women Letters
Gabrielle then read from pages 14-16 of the book, introducing the connection between Jo March and the Atwater family through an amusing and lively conversation between the sisters. We all applauded at the end of the reading.
The Orchard House staff and their vast knowledge
The evening concluded with a lively discussion about the Alcott family where I picked up some interesting bits of trivia:
- Margaret Lothrop, daughter of Harriet Lothrop (aka Margaret Sidney, author of the Five Little Peppers series and owner of The Wayside) transcribed Lizzie Alcott’s journal from her days at The Wayside (known then as Hillside). Lizzie’s journal is said to be the most complete record of life at Hillside. The transcription has been typed up and is available in the Orchard House archives.
- John Pratt, often imagined to be as “dull” as John Brooke in Little Women, actually enjoyed going to parties and socializing. Anna, because she was going deaf, did not like to go out but would eagerly listen to her husband’s descriptions of social events. Although a bookkeeper, John had an artistic side as he enjoyed acting (that’s how he and Anna met), so he was hardly dull like John Brooke.
- Anna did not die of a broken heart after her sister Louisa and her father Bronson passed away within a couple days of each other. She developed some kind of medical condition over the years and died rather suddenly while doing housework.
- There is an unpublished and apparently very moving letter by Anna describing Louisa’s last visit with Bronson. This is the source of the short conversation between the two:
“Father, here is your Louy,” Alcott said gently. “What are you thinking of as you lie there so happily?” With his final feeble gestures, Bronson took Louisa’s hand and said, “I am going up. Come with me.”
Her answer, “Oh how I wish I could.” Her father kissed her. “Come soon,” he said. (pge. 252, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever)
A magical time comes to an end
Gabrielle ended the evening with a book signing, and before leaving, everyone posed for the picture above in the parlor. We left Orchard House as the first flakes of snow were falling, heralding an early winter. It only added to the magic.
I enjoyed immensely the time I spent with Gabrielle and look forward to growing our friendship. And being able to spend such quality time at Orchard House . . . ah yes, Nirvana.
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