My 3 days with Louisa (part 5): Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

My last of three days with Louisa was spent in the most intimate fashion, buried in papers written by the hands of her sisters and father at the Houghton Library at Harvard Square in Cambridge.

What is Houghton like?

Unlike Harvard’s main library, the Grand Dame known as Widener, Houghton is the little sister tucked away behind the Dame. It is formal, yet cozy.

All are welcome

Registering for a pass was simple and quick; Houghton truly welcomes anyone with a sincere desire to learn. After receiving my card, I was ushered into the reading room which was filled with students and scholars lost in research.

Seeing Lizzie’s diary

At last I would get to see what I had been longing for: Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s diary at Hillside. Except for a few short letters, this diary is the only record of length from the “shadow sister.” She began writing it at age eleven.

Difficulty getting beneath the surface

Biographers have had a hard time cracking the nut that is Lizzie. Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women writes:

“The third Alcott daughter is impossible to pin down. She appears never to have asked anything of anybody or of life itself.” (pg. 140, ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)

Commenting directly on the Hillside dairy, Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts Biography of a Family writes:

“One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling and never find it.

So it is too with the girl herself. It was all hidden behind the serene countenance, the robust rosy features and the evasive blue eyes …” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Perhaps they were looking for the wrong thing.

What I saw

I haven’t yet poured over all of Lizzie’s diary but the reading so far has told me this much:

  • Lizzie liked order in her life.
    Anna wrote in her diary, “”I think I love order and so does my sister Elizabeth.” (from Scituate July 1839, Monday the 25th, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library).
  • Her small, precise and consistently neat handwriting portrays a little girl who was self-contained and conscientious; it suggests a very even temperament (just my opinion, I’m no handwriting expert!)
  • Math was one of her favorite subjects.
    Although I’ve only read a few pages so far, she mentions several times doing “sums in Division.” She writes, “I came into studies and did a few sums in Division. I like to do them very much. It does me some good to do them.” (Hillside, Concord, June 24, 1845, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library)
    Lizzie was said to be good at playing the piano; often musicians are good mathematicians. The understanding of music theory comes a lot more easily to a mathematical mind. This is why I call my math genius husband the “official” musician in our house because of his thorough knowledge of music theory. Math baffles me, and so does music theory which is why I play music strictly by ear.
  • Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

    She loved flowers and dolls.
    Lizzie writes of picking flowers and playing with her “dollies” on numerous occasions in her diary. I disagree with Bedell that she showed no “reaction” in her writings; her reactions were subtle. It was plain to this reader anyway that Lizzie appreciated beauty and derived pleasure from picking and studying flowers (recall the Botony report she wrote for Louisa’s family newspaper, The Olive Leaf).

  • She enjoyed observing the world around her and wrote precise notes.
    For a girl who supposedly didn’t have a lot to say, Lizzie wrote detailed entries in her diary.
  • She was very happy at Hillside.
    Lizzie doesn’t have to say that she was happy – it is obvious in the day-to-day rhythm of activities that she describes. Again the even temperament is very evident.
  • She looked upon keeping a journal as a daily homework assignment rather than as a way to express herself; I wonder if she would have done it were it not required of her.
    Several times she mentions writing in her journal because her father asked it of her. Her diary ends with “I now have finished my journal and am going to give it to Mother.” She had fulfilled her obligation.

Intensely private

The open sharing of journals and diaries between family members was commonplace yet Lizzie was uncomfortable with the idea, often refusing. Bedell writes,

“She was too shy to read her earnest, noncommittal little record, even to her parents and sisters.” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Is there a possibility that the more ordinary Lizzie was intimated by the genius that surrounded her? I know how I am around my older sister whom I revere for her take-charge attitude and capableness – I become like mush and always defer. Lizzie, I get you!

A developing theory

These are certainly not earth-shattering (nor original) revelations. It does however, fuel a theory I’ve been simmering in my head: Lizzie was a normal girl of average ability surrounded by, buried by, intense genius. Biographers are looking for that same spark that flickered in Anna, bloomed in May and roared like a bonfire in Louisa. Surely since Lizzie came from the same stock, she’d have that spark of brilliance too.

Not necessarily.

In my household of four, we have three members who are somewhat eccentric and artistic, obsessing over our passions. We live in our own worlds.

The fourth member is the opposite. She has her finger on the pulse of this world and keeps us grounded in it.

Perhaps Lizzie played that role too. I look forward to finding out more as I continue to read her diary.

In the next post I want to share things I found in Anna’s diary. It makes me want to go back for a lot more in my next visit to the “Holy Grail” that is Houghton Library. :-)

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17 thoughts on “My 3 days with Louisa (part 5): Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

  1. Gina says:

    I would love for them to publish her diary for those of us who can’t make it up there. I’ve always wanted to read what she has to say. You maybe right, she might have just been average and I daresay that would make one feel a little shy and withdrawn. I wonder what her life would have been life if she had lived. Im guessing she would have stayed with her parents and taken care of them. But maybe not, perhaps she would have been a good housewife.

  2. SilverSeason says:

    Susan, thank you so much for this information about Lizzie. From your account she reminds me of my middle brother, now deceased. Surrounded above and below by noisy and assertive siblings who were very good at school (when they cared to be), he was the quiet and reliable one, utterly loyal in his affections. Also orderly, like Lizzie. He was a guardian angel to our parents in their last years. There are such people in large families. Now he is gone too and I miss him terribly.

  3. Gina says:

    Susan, I know the YA book your are talking about. :)

  4. Sounds like a great trip. I like your observation re people perhaps looking for the wrong thing, missing what is there, and agree, there often is that quieter person among the more “creative” whose strength can be overlooked.

  5. jama says:

    I so appreciate your sharing your thoughts about Lizzie. It’s totally understandable how she would feel overshadowed by her siblings, and if shy and introverted to begin with, moreso. There’s so much more to her than meets the eye. :)

  6. JaneGS says:

    I’ve always put Beth in the “too good to be true” camp, but Lizzie really sounds like a lovely person, regardless of whether she was touched by the spark, she knew what was important to her and her family. I enjoyed your close reading of her journal–good insights.

  7. Betty Dean Holmes says:

    Do you know about the family staying in Swampscott one summer because of an ailing child? No doubt Lizzie.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Oh yes and especially because of the fact that my mom and her family lived in Swampscott for many years. I wish I knew where Abba and Lizzie had stayed and where on the beach they would lie to take in the salt air.

  8. QNPoohBear says:

    Glad to hear you are learning to love Special Collections Libraries. Most of them are open to the public (or by appointment). Every day feels like a treasure hunt.

    • susanwbailey says:

      They are the BEST. They are indeed a treasure trove. I’m looking at libraries in a whole new way. I work in Wellesley MA within walking distance of Wellesley College and I walk there during my lunch breaks. Such a beautiful campus (puts Harvard to shame). I walk by the library and wonder what treasures lie inside.

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