Unpublished Letters: A long letter from Lizzie Alcott to the family from the Sewall household in Boston

Here is a long letter from Elizabeth Alcott, written just before she and Abba left for the North Shore. They are staying at the home of Tom and Mary Sewall in Boston. It was written on August 6, 1857.

The letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

Again, while most of this letter was legible (despite the fact it was written with a pencil!), there were some words I could not make out and I’ve indicated as such with either “…” if I couldn’t read it at all or (?) if I questioned the word. I have not corrected spelling but make correct punctuation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dear Family,

from commons.wikimedia.org

Boston in 1857, from commons.wikimedia.org

Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn, but as it cools more will not stay so long, but mother says it looks very inviting there and I am to eat fish and get well. So far pretty well with me, not homesick one grain, ‘tis so quiet here, my nerves are not disturbed. It is breakfast time now, mine will be chicken, which I rather like best of all, though I have had beef, steak once, and muttan broth which I find has done me much good. I have had but one of the old distressed times, and hope there’ll be no more. Mary [Sewall] is kindness itself, and wished to spend some money of Fannie’s for me, has given me out of it a nice bottle of Native Wine, and Tom gave me some dyspepsia biscuits which I can eat a little of soaked. Then I have eaten a few blackberries, oranges and yesterday Tom brought me some delicious Bananas. I have only had one lazy morning when I laid in bed, but like a sensible girl have usually risen at seven to breakfast at the open window, breathing the salt air. I dress, undress, comb out my hair, unpack my trunk, pack it again, eat a little, play a little, and as a great variety take a stitch or two. Tom [Sewall] and mother and I play checkers of an evening or I lie and dose on the sofa till nine when the Sewells retire and Ma and I go to our couches also. Mother is the lovingest, and kindest of nurses to me, (cannot make out word) every little want and cannot do enough it seems. It seems a stupid way for her to be spending her summer but she seems content. We cannot see but a little of the waterfront from our window as large, stable is home built, and the street is contoured (?) some way very pretty stylish houses. I took a little walk to the end of the street and surveyed them not knowing they were there. We see the house cars going most every minute on the bridge, and past them driving from the depot. The Doctor will see me before I go to L. [Lynn] and I’m quite sure he’ll say I look some better, but I grow very thin indeed but gaining strength makes up for it and I think of being weighed before going. Aunt Connie is so pleasant I shall probably make her a little visit. William and Robie Stearns board near, he came in one evening and Mary means to have some whist some evening here. They are very scraggly funny boys. Mary gave me a nice silver (something) of fannies. –She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food, watching every morsel as if it were too dainty for my consumption but is so thoughtful too, making me little nice saucers of sago with wine in it and sometimes reading loud. We really have had funny days, they will be quite different at L. [Lynn] I guess, but as pleasant I dare say.

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

I am making many a pretty mat for her (can’t make out the word) and amuse myself waiting for meal times which do not come very often to me now.  The daguerreotypes are often looked at, and quite a treasure. You have been very good about writing, and Father’s one (?) letter is treasured by one much with its loving words and advice to me. Dear he grows thinner on my account tell him if so I shant write any more letters, or (can’t make out the word) mother and he will not know how I am at all. It must seem so good not to have to run every minute to my bell or hush all the time. I know you miss your little skeleton very much don’t you. I am not homesick and Ma lives in comparative closeness (?) at any rate is enjoying the quiet. She is going to roam about a little this morning, to the Dr’s and  (can’t make out the word) Shaws, who I hope will give her some goodies or cash for me. I kiss Tom every night, and he is very tender of me and kind. I feel so bad about the hurried little hug which I had from father. I was so confused with the many faces that I barely realized we were off. A woman put her head in very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long. She stared her fill and not discomposing myself at all I stared at her. She soon retired to (something) perhaps, Mr. Stone was politeness itself and inquired often if I was comfortable or if he could do anything. I reposed quite nicely at my ease and though my head ached did not feel as much as I thought. Ate my chicken with a relish and troubled myself about nobody. Mother darkened the window with our shawl and we were in a little house (?). Tomorrow will be an era for me. I take a warm salt water bath and it seems long to wait, but I let things take their time and am as dosy (?) & patient as possible. I have been three hours writing this, in little pieces, but my eyes do not serve me well, somedays not any enough to read your letters. I read father’s myself however, and it came quite unexpectantly yesterday, & I rejoiced. You can’t write too often, will not Abbie sometimes. 6 o’clock I had a beautiful warm bath, and oh it was so good. I felt much refreshed, it was just I wanted. Ma gave m a divine scrubbing and all was done quick, and they sent me to bed. I had a nap, and felt better, well enough to write a little more. Miss Hinkley came in, and was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me, she will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit. I shall eat my tea now and cannot write more in my letter. Evening mother want to Panorama and met some friends. Mary read to me a dosy (?) story. Friday morn – I feel pretty bright this morning. I tried a broiled tomato for breakfast, relished much, am getting so tired of meat, wish I could change for other. George W is coming to see me. It’s a lovely morning. Boston seems quite pleasant. I shall take a little walk onto the corner of the mall just peep about a bit I think as the common is delightful. Tom asks me often to go. The weather is fine, very cool & delightful. We shall go I guess on Monday & think you will not yet get another letter from me in Boston. Goodbye dear folks, write often to your little skeleton and make her happiness. I am not quite so blue as I imagined I might be which is a gain.

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16 thoughts on “Unpublished Letters: A long letter from Lizzie Alcott to the family from the Sewall household in Boston

  1. SilverSeason says:

    What an interesting letter — and good material for your continuing study of Beth. The word you interpret with ? as “dosy” may be cosy, a word LMA uses in her journal (she spells it cosey) so it may have been a family expression.

    Also, I note that they are feeding her lots of meat/fish/chicken to build her up. I wonder what the vegetarian Bronson thought of that!

  2. Gina says:

    Interesting letter. I also picked up on the meat eating. I wonder just how thin she really was.

  3. Mabel says:

    “I don’t care for the old cactus a bit.” — Ha! There’s the Lizzie I guessed was behind those quiet eyes. :)

  4. K. Martin says:

    I really loved this. Thank you. Lizzie’s comes to life in a way that the many family biographies made seem impossible. I actually cried while reading this. There is a sense of quiet liveliness, a sense of humor, and tenderness. She is also much more social than we have been lead to believe! Wonderful discovery, Susan. I also agree with the suggestion that “dosy” might be “cosy”?

    • susanwbailey says:

      I cried too. The way she described Abba’s care for her reminded me so much of the way my mother cared for me whenever I was sick and it made me miss her. And yes, she was much more social. Beth March is a character, not the real person. She’s based on a real person but her character is shaped for the benefit of the story.

      • K. Martin says:

        Very true, but the fictional “Beth” is the fullest depiction of her we’ve ever been given. She is so often dismissed or mysterious in the nonfiction. I think its wonderful that you are helping to bring her to light.

      • susanwbailey says:

        There is so much more to all these people than we normally hear. Anna is so much more nuanced than Meg and May was far more interesting as an adult woman than Amy was. Jo is an exciting character but just a shadow of the real person. A friend was telling me how Thoreau is always portrayed as this curmudgeon who disliked people and yet he had a real affinity for children (as evidenced by the dollhouse he constructed for the Emerson children and Louisa’s infatuation for him, and the resulting Flower Fables). I love burying myself in the letters of these people, reading their handwriting on paper they chose, complete with spelling errors and scratched out words. You really start to move in and live with these people when you read their own words. I’m concentrating right now on Lizzie, Anna and Abba but I look forward to reading Louisa’s letters in her own hand and May’s as well (May’s handwriting is tough like Abba’s, I saw a sample at the Concord Library. But the more you read the writing, the more you figure out the pattern. I used to be able to only make out just a bit of Abba’s writing and now I can make out almost all of is, depending on the letter.)

      • K. Martin says:

        It is a wonderful experience to get to know them one on one (as much as that is possible). I’ve worked with May’s letters at Houghton (from Europe) – wonderful stuff!

  5. anna says:

    More letters please – very interesting insight into the writers’ worlds!!!

  6. Jillian22 says:

    A great letter- Lizzie is really fascinating. She has the dark humor of her family- referring to herself as “the skeleton” made shivers run down my spine. I agree with your comment above, about how reading these letters makes you realize the characters they’re based on are only shadows of the real people. Every one of them is multi-faceted, and I love discovering that through their own words. Thank you for posting these, Susan!

    • susanwbailey says:

      Yes, the “skeleton” reference (which other family members use too) is loaded! What’s fun about reading Lizzie’s own words is that you don’t expect her saucy comments which makes them funnier. I read in one of the Louisa bios that Louisa had mentioned how Lizzie wrote funny letters. She portrayed Beth as quirky and I’m guessing that part is true about Lizzie.

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