Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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Personalizing Louisa through the reading of Little Women

Little Women

Responding to my request, I am pleased to present a guest post by Jillian author of the A Room of One’s Own blog. Jillian is exploring the classics and using her blog as a journal, sharing her reactions and insight. As a new student to the classics, I depend heavily on Jillian’s blog to guide me to good reading, and she has never let me down. I know you will appreciate her unique point of view on Louisa’s most successful and far-reaching work, Little Women.

Reading Little Women – a guest blog by Jillian
A Room of One’s Own

When Susan asked me to write a guest blog for her lovely Alcott site, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly talk about — though I was keen to contribute a few words, since I’m all about spreading the Alcott love.

Anyone visiting this blog has either read something by Louisa May Alcott or is curious to meet her. That’s one of the things I truly love about literature — that potential to unite us. Those of us who have read Little Women share the experience of it. We can exchange glances and know that Jo, that Meg, that Amy and Beth lived their lives within our souls for a while. Louisa’s Little Women has been a shared memory between strangers from all over the world for over a century.

I can’t tell you anything about Alcott that Susan hasn’t already said better. (Indeed, when I have a question about Alcott, I generally seek her out.) I’m certainly no expert on Louisa, or her family, or her century, or Transcendentalism. I’ve read one biography and a couple of her shorter works: Hospital Sketches and “Transcendental Wild Oats.” So I can’t even give you a very thorough review of her library.

But I can tell you who my Louisa is.

Before 2010, I had barely heard of Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t care about Concord, though I was fascinated by the Civil War. My interest pulled to the South, though. To Tara and the searing apart of Atlanta — action and all that. (My favorite book is Gone With the Wind.) I certainly never intended to read Little Women. I was a busy, on-the-go 21st century person, more inclined to enjoy the movie than the novel. I added it to my classics project list more as an “I should read this” item than a wish list book that I yearned to explore. It seemed like something I should have read as a little girl, and having not read it felt like a gap. I’d enjoyed the 1994 movie and figured Little Women was a good enough place to start with the classics.

A lot of people have expressed irritation when they read Little Women – not only for a certain turning point in the story which makes me chuckle and applaud Jo March (if you’ve read it – you know!), but for the very “littleness” of the book. I don’t mean that it is itself little, for my copy weighs in at 502 pages. I mean that this century seems to yearn for action, adventure, a snappy opening, a protagonist with an excrutiating decision to make at once, and LOTS of tension.

fashionweekadventures.com

Little Women isn’t like that. More, it’s a window into the world of women in nineteenth century New England. The book is quite didactic – something that bothers some people. Especially in the early chapters, the book seems to focus on how to be a proper little woman and grow up to be a proper wife. But what people miss, I think, is Marmee. A woman who pulls to her daughter Jo early in the novel, sharing with her an inexplicable anger and desire to fight that the other sisters, and Jo’s father, don’t understand. Just like one could read Pride and Prejudice as a love story and miss the side story about Charlotte Lucas, I think one can read Little Women as a didactic novel and miss the nuance in the Jo story.

Little Women is separated into chapters that read like short stories: days in the lives of the March girls and what they faced in 19th century Concord. The stories aren’t so much about plot – as they are warmth and love and survival as women in a world that wanted women to be quiet, be useful, be relatively ornamental, and well… be little. See, that’s what I remember most about Little Women: as much as it felt didactic, there was Jo. Awkward, cranky, boisterous, clumsy, loud Jo who wanted nothing more than to live up to those didactic standards and couldn’t. She is a contrast, and so too, is Little Women. It’s a foundation of who one “should” be as a proper New England woman, written through the eyes of four sisters: an artist, a wife, a musician, and a writer. And oh, that writer — how she doesn’t fit! She loves her sisters, and as slow-rolling as the story is to start, it gets to you, when you realize that this world was Louisa’s, and that sweet Beth was her sister, and that this didactic outpouring is the very world she lived in, and that the writer produced the very book laid open on your 21st century lap.

The title itself gives me shivers. One could read “Little Women” as a commendment of littleness, or one could read it as the very world into which Jo, and likewise, Louisa, had been sat. She adored that world, I think. But she wasn’t quiet, she wasn’t predictable, and she wasn’t little. So the novel reads as a sort of tribute to the place Louisa couldn’t make her own: a world of giving sisters who laugh and hug and dream and try to stay alive while Jo sits insolently gazing out the snow-crusted window, her willful chin working as ardently as it can to stay small and proper and level while her ravenous soul pulls to war and Laurie and running and loudness, and Marmee.

The thing about Little Women is – it stuck with me. Not just the lessons, but the story, the sisters, the sense of comfort and safety and snugness that is Louisa’s novel. I’ve read over sixty books since then, and still I pull to Alcott’s work. Still I count it as a favorite.

My Louisa is a fighter — not so very different from me or Scarlett O’Hara or Mr. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (which surely Louisa read by night in lamplight.) She’s a product of her century and all that she read and all that she lived. While Atlanta was being ripped apart by fire, Louisa was in Massachusetts — writing. She lived that world that I find so fascinating. She lived it from the Northern side, sat between Thoreau and Emerson, under the roof of Bronson Alcott, surrounded by sisters. Little Women is her side of the story — how she coped, and how her three very different sisters faced the same world.

I read that publisher James T. Fields dismissed her work as insignificant once, and advised her to, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” Oh, that makes me angry. I remember learning, as I explored her world, that while she is certainly didactic in Little Women, she is that way because she was told to do it. Apparently books about being a proper wife were what sold, in the nineteenth century, by women writers. And that’s what was expected of Louisa. She wanted to write about ghosts and mystery and thrilling stories, but the men of that world wanted her to write about how to be a proper little woman. What absolutely endears me to Louisa — is that she gave them that. But within it, she gave them Jo March — herself, her soul, a little woman who could not fit into that world, and who desperately yearned to be good enough.

That girl is my Louisa.

This March I intend to re-read Little Women to see what more I can ring from it, and to enjoy alongside it Geraldine Brook’s March and Alcott’s own sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boy’s.

I don’t think I’ll ever again be satisfied with “just the movie.”


Jillian blogs at A Room of One’s Own, where she journals her exploration through classic literature.

What was the 19th century equivalent of the Ladies Home Journal?

I’m in trouble. There’s an antique store right down the street from my house and already I’ve found two big thick books, one dated 1866 and the other, 1878. The bug of collecting antique books is beginning to take hold!

As I read more and more about Louisa May Alcott, her family and her works, I have become increasingly interested in what made the typical 19th century woman tick.

Of course, there are many versions of “typical.” You have:

  • wealthy women of the Gilded Age (much like the Shaws of
    An Old-Fashioned Girl)
  • poorer women (like Polly of An Old-Fashioned Girl and the March sisters of Little Women)
  • immigrant women
  • black women
  • European women . . .

It’s hard to nail down the “typical” woman. Yet there were publications that depicted the ideal woman and taught women how to emulate that model. And there were how-to books on how to achieve perfect womanhood.

I found two very different books which tackled this issue. They are Godey’s Lady’s Book for 1866 and The Mirror of Womanhood (second edition 1878) by Rev. Bernard O’Reilly. One book addresses the image of the perfect woman through fashion and culture while the other through religion (in this case, Catholicism).

As I deepen my knowledge of Louisa’s work and life, I look forward also to deepening my understanding of 19th century women.

Godey’s Lady’s Book 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book was probably the Ladies Home Journal of its day (or perhaps all those types of magazines combined). Wikipedia describes it in this way:

The magazine was published by Louis A. Godey from Philadelphia for 48 years (1830–1878). Godey intended to take advantage of the popularity of gift books, many of which were marketed specifically to women.[1] Each issue contained poetry, articles, and engravings created by prominent writers and other artists of the time. Sarah Josepha Hale (author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) was its editor from 1837 until 1877 and only published original, American manuscripts. Although the magazine contained work by both men and women, Hale published three special issues which only included work done by women.

At its zenith, the publication boasted having 150,000 subscribers. It was the most popular journal in its day, even at a pricey $3 per issue.

Godey’s Lady’s Book refused to get involved in any way with politics and thus made the mistake of totally ignoring the Civil War. This decision cost the journal one third of its subscribers.

Godey's Fashions for January, 1866

Gorgeous fashions

What immediately struck me as I flipped through the book was the beauty of the illustrations – gorgeous full color foldout fashion plates protected by onion skin paper, and detailed black and white engravings. It is a treasure trove of lovely artwork with exquisite detail, showing off the beauty of the fashions of the day. It made me wonder what our legacy will be, what with emails, photographs and videos replacing these carefully drawn illustrations.

It will be interesting to thumb through the various articles, poems and music that Godey’s offers. At some point Louisa and her sisters probably thumbed through these journals, desiring the dresses, bonnets and jackets (we know that Meg desired finery). Louisa made no secret of the fact that she appreciated fashion, often window shopping when she was in Boston.

I think of Louisa using Godey’s to describe the fashions worn by the Shaws and all the ladies of privilege in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The Mirror of True Womanhood gilded cover

The Mirror of True Womanhood

I often read that Beth in Little Women was the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman, a model of moral perfection. Amy, of course, worked so hard at becoming a true lady, exhibiting grace, taste and little kindnesses towards others.

The Mirror of True Womanhood - beginning of the Table of Contents

Religious themes

This made me want to find out more about what made the perfect woman. It was with that thought that I picked up The Mirror of True Womanhood, published in 1878. I didn’t realize at the time when I purchased it that it was actually geared towards Irish Catholic women and therefore would have a lot of religious overtones (of which I am familiar with, being Catholic).

Hard to be different

But undoubtedly there are universal themes in this book that would apply to the idea of perfect womanhood, the kind that Beth and Amy epitomized. Louisa exhibited ambivalence towards this model, especially in the character of Jo March. She herself grappled much with being a working spinster, sometimes reveling in the independence, while at other times feeling left out and lonely.

Models from the past, and present

At any rate, reading sources from the day about what makes the perfect woman should prove interesting. I shall keep in mind what today’s magazines and media offer as images of the perfect woman. While women have certainly come a long way from the 19th century, I have a feeling I will find many similarities with regards to attitudes about fashion and appearance. We shall see.

In the meantime, enjoy the slide show of the fashion plates and contents of these books.

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