What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

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16 thoughts on “What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

  1. Gina says:

    Are there any writings by Lulu about the family? I remember reading that Louisa ate meat often n I have no idea where I read that.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Good question re: Lulu, I will look over my list from Houghton and see if there are any writings. The only thing I am aware of is the last interview with Lulu when she was around 90 with Madelon Bedell. I will look that up and summarize that in a future post. And yes, Louisa did definitely eat meat. I’ve read that in several places (I’m wondering if it was from Madeleine Stern’s bio). Louisa knew how to live it up, albeit discreetly.

  2. I should think that after Louisa’s childhood, she’d eat meat any chance she could get! What an interesting post. The real May Alcott was a very much more interesting woman than Amy ever was, and a highly talented artist too – I’ve always been struck that, while Louisa allowed Amy to grow out of her brattiness, she never quite managed to allow her to be a good artist, which suggests that even Louisa was not above a touch of sibling rivalry. There’s a wonderful memoir of May Alcott by Caroline Ticknor – read it and get to know an amazing, alive, fierce and passionate woman.

    • susanwbailey says:

      I always wondered how May felt about her portrayal in the Little Women series. First a spoiled brat and then a gracious lady but with a lot of the life sucked out of her. Considering that May proved she was serious as a professional artist and, considering she had two pieces accepted for the Paris Salon, I am surprised Amy wasn’t allowed to enjoy some of that success too. Maybe she felt that it was too controversial for a children’s series to portray a woman like May who was strong, independent and very modern.

  3. Leandra says:

    I would like to know what happened with Lulu`s father.
    I think Lulu and May could have been a very good team, but what about the father?
    If May was so talented, and Lulu wasn’t, there was no envy between them.

    • susanwbailey says:

      The father, Ernst (aka Ernest) Nieriker reclaimed Lulu when Louisa died although Lulu preferred to remain with Anna with whom she had truly bonded. In an interview with Madelon Bedell when Lulu was in her 90’s, Lulu mentioned Anna as the one she loved. Louisa was sickly when she took care of Lulu and she was also a working woman. It’s sad though because of all the stories Louisa wrote for the little girl. After Louisa died, Ernst decided he wanted Lulu back and according to Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, there was a spat over the inheritance money. Ernst thought that Lulu should have received half of the inheritance while Louisa divided her money between Anna and her boys and Lulu. Lulu was ashamed of her father for fighting over the inheritance and was very upset by his unkind comments towards Anna whom she regarded as the only mother she had ever known. A sad story.

      • Leandra says:

        Thanks!!!! It’s difficult to me find information about Louisa, in my country she is not very known (only for Little Women, “Mujercitas”). We don`t have books about her life. Your blog is very nice, good, great, fantastic, for me

      • susanwbailey says:

        Thank you, glad I can help out.

  4. Gina says:

    Oops. I should have said I think Lulu said that Louisa ate a lot if meat.

    I had heared also that there was an issue of money. It would be very interesting to read about Lulus feelings towards her father as she grew up. Did he remarry? Did Lulu write to Anna? I don’t believe she saw her again, correct?

    • susanwbailey says:

      Correct. I don’t think she corresponded with her either, at least it didn’t sound that way in her interview with Bedell. If I recall correctly, I don’t think she said a lot about her father (probably because she wasn’t asked) but she did say she was unhappy with him for going after the money and for the things he said about Anna.

  5. Margaret says:

    My daughter (Charlotte, named after that other great 19th c woman writer!!) just finished playing Amy in a fantastic production of Little Women: the Musical in a nearby town. She was determined that her Amy not be the stereotypical ‘spoiled brat’ Amy (alas, somewhat implicit in the way the musical is written), and worked hard to give her a subtler, denser maturity, esp. after the infamous ‘burning of Jo’s ms.’ scene. I (and others who saw the show) felt she succeeded. Perhaps her vision was closer to May herself than to the sometimes too-easily-dismissed version of Amy we see in some versions.

  6. jbee says:

    For another hint at what May’s life as an artist, wife, and mother would have been like, take a look at “Diana and Persis,” an unfinished work of Louisa’s. She wrote four chapters with May and herself as models for the main characters. After May’s death she was unable to continue writing it, but it is another interesting look at how Louisa envisioned May’s life. It is sad to read, seeing how hopeful Louisa was for May, and knowing what comes next.

    There are a couple of versions of the story. One is a book published in 1978 by Sarah Elbert, but the version I have is included in the collection “Alternative Alcott,” edited by Elaine Showalter. Showalter’s introduction is also very interesting, and in it she maintains that Elbert printed the chapters in the wrong order, changing the meaning of the story.

    It has been a little while since I’ve read it, so I don’t remember too many of the details, but it was definitely a worthwhile read. The collection also contains a number of other interesting works, including “Happy Women,” an essay about four independent spinsters, herself included, so if you have an opportunity to read it, I recommend it!

  7. Gina says:

    isn’t May’s Flowers also about May also? I tried to read it, but it wasn’t very good. :(

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