Intimate letters

Well, I haven’t finished it yet but I wanted to share the second anecdotal volume I got from the Worcester Public Library, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest, published in 1914.

Origin of the book – inspired by Jo

Both women felt compelled to compile this little book after a day (and all night long) pilgrimage to Concord and Orchard House. Jo March had been a strong influence in their lives:

“In the case of the two editors, both from early childhood found their inspiration in Jo. One, patterning after her idol, sought success in a stage career, beginning to “act” before a mirror, with a kitchen apron for a train and a buttonhook for a dagger. The other, always with a pencil in hand, first copied Jo by writing ‘lurid tales’ for the weekly sensation papers, and later emerged into Newspaper Row.”

Fruit of the pilgrimage

After visiting Orchard House and pouring over the actual journals and letters of the family, the authors asked permission of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Society to reprint some of the material. After encountering some resistance (“And, asking, they were refused, because of a feeling that the letters and journals were intimate family records, to be read, not by the many, but by the few. This same sentiment withheld the dramatization of “Little Women” for many years.”), Bonstelle and De Forest were finally granted permission after arguing that the Alcotts were public personalities and therefore the intimate family letters and journals belonged to the world.

And thus we have, I believe, the first volume to reveal these letters (except perhaps  for Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals, though I am not sure because I haven’t read her book yet).

Value of the book

Although the book is overly sentimental, there is a lot of value in these letters, especially if you learn to read between the lines.

While I haven’t yet finished the book, I’ve read enough to see the striking difference in tone between the letters Bronson  Alcott wrote to his eldest daughter Anna, and the ones he wrote to Louisa.

Good daughter, bad daughter

Many have said that Anna was Bronson’s favorite for she best represented his personality. She also affirmed his theories about children and the  Divine that resided in them.

Louisa, on the other hand, threw a monkey wrench into those theories.

What resulted was a lifelong silent battle between father and daughter as the daughter sought to live her life authentically while the father tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. The result was a frustrated father and a daughter with a skewed self-image, burdened with guilt.

Bronson writes of Anna, “She is happier, more capable of self control, more docile and obeys from love and faith. She has fine elements for excellence, moral and intellectual.”

And he writes of Louisa, ” “Louisa is practical, energetic. The first imagines much more than she can realize; the second, by force of will and practical talent, realizes all that she conceives—but conceives less; understanding, rather than imagination—the gift of her sister—seems to be her prominent faculty.”

No problem there. But then we get into the letters. Here’s one he wrote to Anna (bold is my emphasis):

Lettters to Anna

“For Anna
1839

You were once pleased, my daughter, with a little note which I wrote you on Christmas Eve, concerning the birth of Jesus. I am now going to write a few words about your own Birth. Mother and I had no child. We wanted one—a little girl just like you; and we thought how you would look, and waited a good while for you to come, so that we might see you and have you for our own. At last you came. We felt so happy that joy stood in our eyes. You looked just as we wanted to have you. You were draped in a pretty little white frock, and father took you in his arms every day, and we loved you very much. Your large bright eyes looked lovingly into ours, and you soon learned to love and know us. When you were a few weeks old, you smiled on us. We lived then in Germantown. It is now more than eight years since this happened, but I sometimes see the same look and the same smile on your face, and feel that my daughter is yet good and pure. O keep it there, my daughter, and never lose it.

Your Father”

Gentle instruction

In these little excerpts from a second letter, Bronson offers instruction to Anna:

“First-Your Manners. Try to be gentle . . . Love is gentle: Hate is violent . . . Second: Be Patient . . . Patience is, indeed, angelic; it is the Gate that opens into the House of Happiness . . . Third: Be Resolute: Shake off all Sluggishness, and follow your Confidence as fast as your feelings, your thoughts, your eye, your hand, your foot, will carry you. Hate all excuses: almost always, these are lies. Be quick in your obedience . . . Resolution is the ladder to Happiness . . . Fourth: Be Diligent . . .  Halfness is almost as bad as nothing: be whole then in all you do and say.” (I particularly love the wisdom of being resolute!)

A study in contrasts

And now, notice the difference in tone as Bronson addresses Louisa (this was given to her on her birthday – bold is my emphasis):

“For Louisa
1839

My Daughter,

You are Seven years old to-day and your Father is forty. You have learned a great many things, since you have lived in a Body, about things going on around you and within you. You know how to think, how to resolve, how to love, and how to obey. You feel your Conscience, and have no real pleasure unless you obey it. You cannot love yourself, or anyone else, when you do not mind its commandments. It asks you always to BE GOOD, and bears, O how gently! how patiently! with all endeavors to hate, and treat it cruelly. How kindly it bears with you all the while. How sweetly it whispers Happiness in your HEART when you Obey its soft words. How it smiles upon you, and makes you Glad when you Resolve to Obey it! How terrible its punishments. It is GOD trying in your soul to keep you always Good.

You begin, my dear daughter, another year this morning. Your Father, your Mother, and Sisters, with your little friends, show their love on this your Birthday, by giving you this BOX. Open it, and take what is in it, and the best wishes of

Your Father.

Beach Street,
Friday morning, Nov. 29, 1839.”

On a mission to save

You can see in the illustration all the use of capital letters, exclamation points and underscores revealing the amount of emotion that went into this letter. Bronson was on a mission with Louisa to save her soul: his own words indicate that he felt it his vocation to save all children: “I shall redeem infancy and childhood, and, if a Saviour of Adults was given in the person of Jesus, let me, without impiety or arrogance, regard myself as the Children’s Saviour. Divine are both missions.”

A spirit Bronson could not accept

While I believe his intentions were rooted in love for Louisa, it’s obvious he could not accept her as she was. The willfulness, stubborn tendencies, mood swings, temper, etc. flew in the face of his theories of children as home to the Divine Spirit. This second daughter to him was more like the devil, and he felt compelled to save her.

A father in tune with his children

Yet, there is much to admire about Bronson as a father. His affinity with the childish mind and the attention to the details of their lives is unusual, more maternal than paternal. He knew exactly what made a child tick as shown in this letter to Louisa. She had run away from home (apparently she was with her grandfather – no explanation of how she got there) and he was trying to coax her back (bold is my emphasis):

“Cottage, Sunday June 21st,
1840.

We all miss the noisy little girl who used to make house and garden, barn and field, ring with her footsteps, and even the hens and chickens seem to miss her too. Right glad would father and mother, Anna and Elizabeth, and all the little mates at School, and Miss Russell, the House Playroom, Dolls, Hoop, Garden, Flowers, Fields, Woods and Brooks, all be to see and answer the voice and footsteps, the eye and hand of heir little companion. But yet all make themselves happy and beautiful without her; all seem to say, “Be Good, little Miss, while away from us, and when we meet again we shall love and please one another all the more; we find how much we love now we are separated.”

I wished you here very much on the morning when the Hen left her nest and came proudly down with six little chickens, everyone knowing how to walk, fly, eat and drink almost as well as its own mother; to-day (Sunday) they all came to see the house and took their breakfast from their nice little feeding trough; you would have enjoyed the sight very much. But this and many other pleasures all wait for you when you return. Be good, kind, gentle, while you are away, step lightly, and speak soft about the house;

Grandpa loves quiet, as well as your sober father and other grown people.

Elizabeth says often, “Oh I wish I could see Louisa, when will she come home, Mother?” And another feels so too; who is it?

Your
Father.”

Attention to detail

His  notice of such detail endeared him to me. Yes, he was manipulating his daughter (and often this manipulation became dangerous) but how many fathers take the time to notice these little things in the lives of their children? This is usually the mother’s strength (and in this family, it was).

This is just a taste of Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott. It doesn’t appear to offer much at first glance, but if you’re a detective like me, there is a lot to find.

Have you ever read any of the letters and/or journals of the Alcott family? What was your impression?

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10 thoughts on “Intimate letters

  1. [...] his family. Yet, his many of his educational reforms were stellar, and as we’ve seen in a previous post, he had an unusual understanding of the childish mind. With that in mind,  I love to know your [...]

  2. jbee says:

    I *think*, but I’m not positive, that she was sent to her grandfather because Abba was about to give birth to May, and Louisa was too much for Abba to handle that late in her pregnancy (especially after the miscarriages and other issues Abba had had recently). I can’t remember where I read that. May was born about a month after that was written. I could be remembering it wrong, though.

    • susanwbailey says:

      That is true, I have read that in Matteson’s book. I think the authors of Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott got a bit confused with the facts. Louisa was certainly known to run away from home but she was in fact sent to her grandfather’s at the time you suggest.

  3. jbee says:

    Oh, and I am halfway through Little Women Abroad, the collected letters of LMA and May when they were in Europe. I am enjoying it, but it is slow reading because of the footnotes, so I’m taking it in small doses. It is interesting to read the letters and compare them to the anecdotes in Shawl Straps (she used the letters to write Shawl Straps).

  4. Jillian ♣ says:

    These letters made me misty-eyed — especially those to Anna. I don’t think he was all bad, though he simply didn’t understand Louisa. I think in some ways, with the daughters he understood, he must have been a very good father.

    • susanwbailey says:

      I agree. He showed an unusual tenderness towards his children. See, this is why these anecdotal books have their value. They’re frustrating because there are no footnotes and there is a lot of heresay and speculation. But at the same time, it presents impressions by average people of extraordinary ones. In the end I am getting a much more well-rounded look at Bronson especially. And I’m getting details on the “lesser knowns” like Anna and Lizzie. There’s a lot on Anna that I plan to share soon from both books.

      I actually went back to the Worcester Library today and asked if I could buy these books since they had fallen off the radar. They said they couldn’t sell them because it being a city library and it being the 2nd or third largest city in our state, that it is a repository for such old books. That satisfied me and at least I have the e-books. :-)

    • susanwbailey says:

      p.s. I am also getting the impression from the Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott that the authors felt that Bronson’s attempts to form Louisa into a more conventional woman was quite acceptable for the time and they appear to admire him for it. We have a very different perspective today, having greater respect for those who don’t fit the mold (though it’s certainly not a perfect world!)

  5. QNPoohBear says:

    The public library has a copy of this book! I’ll have to look for it next week. I have an 1890s copy of Life, Letters, Journals and I must have read some excerpts from Louisa’s childhood journals at some point. It’s always fascinating to read first hand accounts. I love diaries!

    • susanwbailey says:

      Me too. Yesterday at Houghton Library I read some of Anna’s early diaries and photographed a copy of Lizzie’s diary from Hillside so I could pour over it. They remind me of my mother’s childhood diaries.

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