Cynthia Barton’s Transcendental Wife on the life of Abigail Alcott a must read

Reading Eve LaPlante’s duo biography on Abigail and Louisa in Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, I kept seeing references to a little-known book about Abigail titled Transcendental Wife by Cynthia Barton, published in 1996. Having just finished the book, I can see why LaPlante and other Alcott scholars return again and again to this book.

Just about Abigail

transcendental wife cynthia barton0001Transcendental Wife is difficult to find but well worth the effort. Devoted to the life of Abigail May Alcott, Barton writes with economy staying laser focused on her subject which is Abigail alone. If you want to find out more about Louisa, you won’t find it here, at least not directly. By learning about Abigail, you will see how and why Louisa emerged to be the woman and writer she is now known to be.

No victim

The unintended tendency of biographers has been to portray Abba as a perennial victim of her difficult husband Bronson. Barton instead emphasizes Abigail’s hard fought victories, revealing a woman strengthened in her sense of self through adversity. The grueling poverty endured by the family as a result of a failed utopian experiment (Fruitlands) and a husband unable and/or refusing to support his family serves to hone Abba into a strong and independent woman. Once doubting her abilities to support her family both financially and emotionally, she emerges the victor.


abbaIn Barton’s description, Abba is, in fact, complicit with Bronson. She loved him to the end, for his principles and his dedication to them, and as a man. This was despite her many misgivings about his schemes and his inability to provide for the family. But as Barton pointed out during Abba’s stint as a social worker in Boston, Abba was equally dedicated to her principles and like Bronson, “failed” in her employment because of those principles: “Neither she nor Bronson would compromise their ideals. Both had found suitable work [he as headmaster of the Temple School, she as a social worker]; both had failed because of ‘the false requisitions of society …’” (Transcendental Wife, pg. 153)

Equal standing

Abba’s growing confidence in her abilities allowed her to evolve to a position of equality with her husband in every respect. Once worshipping Bronson’s morality and spirituality as a disciple, she grew to understand that her own practical brand of morality, of philanthropy, was equal in goodness to his mystical ideals. She was just as committed to reform as he. They both practiced their principles in the extreme, often placing their family in jeopardy, he condemning them to poverty, she exposing them to small pox and scarlet fever.

The ultimate reformer

abbaThe most compelling chapter in the book documents Abba’s work as a social worker, laying out a relentless and powerful argument demonstrating her commitment to reform. Abba’s view of reform gave the poor a name. They were not the masses, they were individuals who came into her home and partook of her bread. They were the young girls counseled to avoid a life of prostitution in favor of honorable employment. They were the hard luck cases, those who were out of work due to their own fault. They were even the much maligned Irish who, once Abba came to know them individually, were worthy of a new start.

A life well lived

Barton uses the last chapter to show the success of Abigail’s struggles. Pouring herself into her girls, she was able to take great pride in their success as useful, productive and happy women: Anna, content and competent in her chosen domestic life, Louisa, world-famous author and dutiful daughter, fulfilling her promise to care for her mother to the end, and May, accomplished artist, happily married and independent living her dream in Europe.

Deeply loved

abba graveAbba carried Lizzie in her heart, longing to be buried next to her in Sleepy Hollow. That wish was eventually granted. Louisa recalled a visit to the cemetery, “Among the tall grass over her breast a little bird had made a nest. Empty now, but a pretty symbol of the refuge that tender bosom always was for feeble and sweet things. (Ibid, pg. 172)

Transcendental Wife can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble but it is pricey. It’s worth the cost however if you are seriously interested in the Alcott family; I highly recommend this book as essential reading. It is cited by many Alcott scholars and for good reason.

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

New book: Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy: it’s gorgeous!

I just received my copy of Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy and I was stunned by the beauty of the book!

LW Shealy1 combined

Don’t be fooled by the cover -
it doesn’t begin to tell the story.

This is a gorgeous oversized edition (9.6 x 9.3 x 2 inches) with an elegant choice of typefaces. It is filled with color plates, letters written by Louisa and her publisher Thomas Niles and commentary on each page which enhances the reading experience.

Informative essays

Shealy introduces the book with an interesting essay about the extensive revisions made to the text between its original publication in 1868 and the revised version in the 1880s. In many respects the revisions were a response to negative criticism about the slang Alcott used throughout the book being a poor example for children! Fortunately Shealy uses the original text which is more vibrant and real.

Life turned into classic fiction

A second essay includes photos of each of the main players from the Alcott family. Alcott drew from the deep well of her personal life to bring Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee and Laurie to life. Shealy includes analysis of the era, fascinating anecdotes and great trivia.

Here is a summary from Amazon about the book:

LW Shealy2Little Women has delighted and instructed readers for generations. For many, it is a favorite book first encountered in childhood or adolescence. Championed by Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Theodore Roosevelt, and J. K. Rowling, it is however much more than the “girls’ book” intended by Alcott’s first publisher. In this richly annotated, illustrated edition, Daniel Shealy illuminates the novel’s deep engagement with issues such as social equality, reform movements, the Civil War, friendship, love, loss, and of course the passage into adulthood.

The editor provides running commentary on biographical contexts (Did Alcott, like Jo, have a “mood pillow”?), social and historical contexts (When may a lady properly decline a gentleman’s invitation to dance?), literary allusions (Who is Mrs. Malaprop?), and words likely to cause difficulty to modern readers (What is a velvet snood? A pickled lime?). With Shealy as a guide, we appreciate anew the confusions and difficulties that beset the March sisters as they overcome their burdens and journey toward maturity and adulthood: beautiful, domestic-minded Meg, doomed and forever childlike Beth, selfish Amy, and irrepressible Jo. This edition examines the novel’s central question: How does one grow up well?

Little Women An Annotated Edition offers something for everyone. It will delight both new and returning readers, young and old, male and female alike, who will want to own and treasure this beautiful edition full of color illustrations and photographs.

I am hoping to get permission to show you some of the inside of this book. Stay tuned …

If you love Little Women, you will want this edition as a keepsake to pass down to future generations.

Click to Tweet & ShareNew book: Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy: it’s gorgeous!

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Companion volume to Marmee and Louisa includes newly discovered private writings

As mentioned in a previous post, a new dual biography on Louisa and her mother is coming out in November called Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante. LaPlante’s website indicates that previously undiscovered private papers were found which form the basis of her book. These papers are being made available through a companion volume called My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother.

The description on reads as follows:

Edited by award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante, a collection of the letters and diaries of Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Abigail—a forward-thinking feminist whose advice and example profoundly shaped her famous daughter

In this riveting compilation of Abigail May Alcott’s previously undiscovered and unexplored private writings, biographer Eve LaPlante annotates the letters, poems, recipes, and diaries of the real-life inspiration behind “Marmee” of Little Women, one of the most famous mother figures in American literature.

This companion volume to LaPlante’s groundbreaking Marmee & Louisa covers everything from writing (Abigail’s own ambitions as well as her daughter’s) to family life and the expectations of society. Full of wit and charm, Abigail’s private letters offer a moving, intimate portrait of a woman intellectually ahead of her time who found herself trapped in an unrewarding marriage and who would transfer her wisdom and ambition to her talented daughters, Louisa most of all.

In beautiful prose (a biographer once pointed out that “In some ways, Abby was a better writer than her more famous daughter”), this fantastic new collection lays bare the unparalleled love that Abigail held for her family, in the process restoring a powerful female voice too long lost to history.

As indicated by one of our readers, LaPlante will be featured at the Orchard House Summer Conversational Series taking place July 15-19.

I’ll be there, how about you?

The excitement grows … :-)

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New book on Louisa and Abba

Yet another new book is coming out about Louisa and this time it pairs her off with her mother. Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante is due out November 6, 2012 according to

LaPlante reveals how Abigail May Alcott (Marmee) was the true force behind Louisa’s writing success. Drawing upon old and new sources  (previously undiscovered family journals and letters), she portrays Abba as the strong, assertive pioneer feminist that became one of the country’s first social workers. Dispelling forever the myth that Bronson was the main influence, LaPlante shows Abba to be Louisa’s champion, encouraging her daughter to write and pursue her dream.

The most tantalizing aspect of this new work is the discovery of new primary sources, especially journals previously thought destroyed. This eager reader hopes those journals belong to Abba for Abba was considered by some to be an even better writer than Louisa.

Marmee & Louisa can be found on and; you can read much more about this upcoming book on LaPlante’s website.

I just pre-ordered my copy and I can’t wait!

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Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

It feels like a lifetime since I started reading March by Geraldine Brooks a little over a month ago. Between this work and The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, my way of thinking has gone through a transformation. Fortunate, because otherwise, I never could have appreciated March.

Opening the mind

Historical fiction has proven to be a game-changer, slowing opening my mind like a can opener struggling over a can of tuna fish. My black and white approach to the world is changing as I learn how to embrace the shades of gray that life often is.

It takes a lot more courage to live in a gray-shaded world. March has shown me that.

Not for the faint of heart

As stated in a previous post, Geraldine Brooks’ writing is aggressive: poking, prodding and shaking the reader out of complacency. March is not a leisurely spring read.

The book opens with a letter March is writing to Marmee and the girls, taken from Little Women. Quickly the story moves from “sweet words” to gruesome descriptions of battle and desperate escape. Right away March is placed in a compromising position in his effort to save a dying soldier, eventually having to let him go as they struggle together to cross the river. This is only one of many events that will torment March with guilt.


As in Little Women, March is portrayed as an idealistic minister and dedicated abolitionist. Brooks recalls her motivation for writing March in an article by Linda Sickler of the Savannah Morning News:

“I was interested in what happens to idealists at war, people who go to war because of highly idealistic beliefs, but then find their ideals challenged by the very nature of war,” Brooks says. “I was thinking about this in the context of the Civil War.

“Then I remembered the absent father in Alcott’s novel, about whom we hear very little, except that he has enlisted to minister to the Union troops,” she says. “It seemed to me he would be an excellent vehicle through which to explore this question.”

March and Bronson Alcott

Brooks delves into the life of Bronson Alcott as the means of fleshing out March. It’s the obvious choice and a perfect one to boot: Bronson is the poster boy of impractical idealists.  In an interview for the PBS American Masters documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, Brooks admitts to an “immense soft spot” for Bronson. She also points out the difficulty of living day-to-day with such an idealist but contends that “they’re the ones that make the moral strides that lead humanity forward in its thinking … [Bronson] moved the bar to where we’ve all caught up with him now.”

Drawing upon real life

Bronson’s life story, beginning with his youth at Spindle Hill, followed by his career as a peddler, and culminating with his vocation as an educator and reformer, shapes the life of March. Brooks uses this history to create a convincing story of a loss of innocence and a fall from grace.

Ongoing themes

March explores several themes including the horror and insanity of war, the loss of innocence through moral failure, the meaning of courage and the necessity of compromise.

Interpretations of war

I couldn’t help but make a comparison between Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and March when it came tothe descriptions of war, injury and death. Disquieting and disturbing, Brooks paints the consequences of war with a broad brush of senselessness and cruelty while Louisa manages to draw out nobility and meaning in the midst of the chaos. Undoubtedly the eras in which these two works were written explain the differences in interpretation but I found myself longing for the comfort that Louisa provides.

Innocence lost

March’s loss of innocence and its consequences constitute the heart of the book. The clash of idealism with reality is violent, and the result is that the idealist is quickly reduced to a very frail man with feet of clay.

Not only are March’s values challenged in the public arena with the war and slavery, but in the private as well with regards to fidelity. Although March is deeply in love with his wife Marmee, he is also in love with a slave woman he meets in his youth, Grace Clement. Having met her on one of his peddling trips, he now keeps a lock of her hair along with the locks of Marmee and his daughters, in an envelope close to his bosom.

The meaning of courage

Lapses in courage haunt March as well. Fear and his instinct for survival undercut his idealism, resulting in two deaths and great suffering for others. In lamenting his own weakness, March recalls the daughter with the deepest capacity for courage, his little Mouse, Beth.

Overcoming her extreme shyness, Beth befriends a slave girl, Flora, hidden in the March home. Beth is the only one Flora will open up to. As a result of the strong bond between them, Beth summons the courage to protect her by standing up to the magistrate who wants to take Flora away.

Through the examples of March and Beth, Brooks demonstrates the need for self-sacrifice as the only means by which courage can be drawn. March discovers to his deep shame and horror that he does not have that capacity. Impractical idealist that he is, he never takes into account how lofty ideas will play out in the arena of life.


March is not the only character who is all too human.

Part One of the book is narrated by March but switches to Marmee’s voice in Part Two since March is lying desperately ill in the hospital. Marmee, as depicted in Little Women, goes quickly to Washington to be by his side. It is here that she too discovers the idealist with the feet of clay.

She learns of his relationship with Grace by meeting the woman in person. Marmee learns through Grace of the horrors her husband faced during his service, details of which he never conveyed in his letters.

His compromises with regards to fidelity and truth leave Marmee feeling betrayed and angry. Soon, however, she finds that she too must compromise on the truth when it comes time to write to her girls of their father’s progress. It is this questioning of herself that causes Marmee to compromise on her anger and rededicate herself to her husband. Recognition of mutual brokenness ultimately preserves the union.

The verdict?

March is a compelling, albeit uncomfortable, read. Brooks does a masterful job of integrating the history of the Alcotts along with the story of Little Women to create a multi-layered, epic story with deeply moving characters. Every element of this story is painted in shades of gray, challenging the lofty idealism of the characters often portrayed in black and white terms. The true strength of the characters lies in their ability to adapt to the changing landscape. Fidelity is challenged but not sacrificed.

I am a reader who is evolving. March has proven to be an important stepping stone to a more sophisticated and critical approach to reading. It is an excellent companion to Little Women, providing a decidedly adult approach. It broadens and deepens the story of the March family.

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Abba Alcott’s contribution – behind every great woman stands a mother

You know how they say that behind every great man is a great woman? How about behind every great woman? In studying the life of Abba Alcott through the reading of Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer, there indeed was a great woman behind Louisa May Alcott. She was a mother whose vitality, intelligence, resourcefulness, support and example shaped one of the great authors of our time.

Excellent lineage

Abba, coming from May, Sewall and Quincy stocks, possessed great intelligence and a fighting spirit. She had a heart for others and their plights. These traits served her well through her difficult life.

Louisa of course, immortalized Abba as Marmee in Little Women and she was all those things. But Abba was also a pioneer in many ways, paving the way through her example of womanly autonomy and independence, all motivated by love.

Talent passed down

Louisa came by her writing talent honestly. Salyer describes Abba as a gifted wordsmith in her own right with a rich background of storytelling in her family:

“Abba was a born storyteller. She had once had aspirations to be a writer. Perhaps she should have been. It was her talent that Louisa inherited, her ingenuity, the vigor and dash of style which Abba could show at times but seldom did. It was certainly Abba’s suggestions and encouragement that helped make Louisa’s books. Alcott has told us that many of Louisa’s plots were suggested by her mother’s recital of incidents she recalled. Abba knew, too, many of Colonel May’s stories; and after her mother’s death Louisa sent Sam for her grandfather’s notebooks, from which she derived many more suggestions.” (page 75, Marmee, the Mother of Little Women).

Budding actress

Abba also had a flair for the dramatic and even nursed ideas of becoming an actress when she was a child (pg. 110). Anna and Louisa, of course, loved to stage plays and Abba fully supported them, knowing it was a good way to channel energy and imagination as well as stress. Undoubtedly, this proved to be an important coping mechanism through the difficult early years the family faced.

The May household was always filled with friends and neighbors eager to listen to Colonel May weave his stories. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

A mind for reform

A lesser known facet of Abba’s life is her pioneering work as a relief worker. With Bronson unable (or unwilling) to work for a living wage, she became one the first modern social workers out of necessity. Her family was often nearly as poor as the people she served. Salyer writes glowingly of  her work which showed a marked flair for organizing while caring for the poor from her heart. :

“For two years Abba continued her noble work. How noble it really was, only those could tell to whom she personally ministered. Her reports, vivid and vigorous as they are, cannot begin to show all she accomplished and all she learned. She came to know how true had been some of the portrayals of London slum life which she had before thought overdrawn and oversentimentalized. Louisa saw some of what to her mother had become familiar, and Abba later recalled scenes and incidents that Louisa used freely in her books, notably in Work[: A Story of Experience]” (pg. 148)

From mother to daughter

Louisa learned from her mother’s example and developed a passion for reform, seeking pragmatic rather than philosophical solutions. She worked for women’s suffrage both on a national stage and in her hometown of Concord (being one of the first women to vote). She would visit prisons and homes for orphans. She often signed her letters, “Yours for reform always.” And her writing, especially on the juvenile level, sought to expose young people to reformist ideas, especially about women (see post on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

These are just a few examples of the profound nature of Abba’s influence on Louisa.. She is the finest example of a mother who poured herself into her children and saw great results. Abba was very gifted and in today’s society could have enjoyed great success professionally. However, she used her gifts just as well, if not better, by pouring herself into her family.

Is there someone in your life who has stood behind you and made you great? “Great” has many definitions . . . think about it. :-)

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“Love your duty”

Continuing on with Marmee, the Mother of Little Women*by Sandford Meddick Salyer:

Louisa bound to duty

I think everyone can agree that Louisa May Alcott was a duty-bound woman.

Duty motivated and justified her need to write for money (molding her into the professional that she was known and respected for). Duty bound her to her parents and their care, giving her an easy excuse to avoid marriage (which was something she wanted to avoid anyway).

Duty bound her to her sisters, caring financially for Anna and her boys after John Pratt died by writing Little Men and giving all earnings to them, and helping Anna buy her own home. She paid for May’s trips to Europe enabling her to realize her dream as a serious artist.

Perks and costs

Duty is not always a bad thing – it supplied Louisa with purpose and contributed greatly to her drive for success.

But duty is demanding and she sometimes chaffed at it. Feelings of resentment often mixed in with the pleasure of providing for her family. It can be seen in her journal entries. She obsessed over her duty, and at times, became a prisoner of it.

Inevitably it caused her to sacrifice her personal artistic growth for the financially rewarding work that would support her family.

Still, there were perks – Louisa did enjoy indulging in her own comforts.

Duty’s beginnings

So where did this sense of duty come from? Not from far away . . .

” . . . I press thee to my heart, as Duty’s faithful child.”

On page 70 in Marmee, the Mother of Little Women, Salyer writes:  ” . . .’Love your duty and you will be happy.’  Abba’s text for herself . . . Now she found ways of making her girls, who after all were quite human children, love duty, too – even when eight years old. All their lives they loved it, and when Louisa was a woman, her father in his sonnet to her could give her no higher praise for the great sacrifices she had always made than to call her ‘Duty’s faithful child.’ “

Personal musings

I wish I could have better imparted Abba’s teaching about duty to my children (now grown) but I didn’t come to appreciate it myself until I was much older.

It’s is such an onerous word to so many (like obedience and submission). I find now that duty and obligation can be my friends, freeing me from the slavery of emotions which are fleeting. Duty moves me to do the right thing even if I don’t feel like doing it, and in the long run, it’s always the best decision.

While my husband and I did take advantage of our children’s desires to “help” when they were little, putting them to work right away (and now they help without balking), they don’t truly appreciate yet the value of duty.

How duty serves

Duty served Louisa well except on those occasions when she obsessed over it and took it too far. In my exposure to 19th century writings, duty was all important then. The pendulum has now swung way over to the other side. Yet in middle age, I am finding, like Louisa, that duty is good.

Duty signifies discipline (another word with an onerous connotation) and discipline is good, bringing order to your life. You can’t accomplish anything significant without it. Only the most disciplined athlete goes on to the Olympics. Dreamer that I am, discipline, duty and hard work have been hard fought for once I recognized their true value.

I’m hoping now, like Louisa, that I will be able to apply duty to those dreams closest to my heart, and move them out of the dream realm into reality.

What are your feelings about duty and obligation?

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Continuing with Marmee, the Mother of Little Women: tantalizing look into Lizzie Alcott

Quite a while ago I promised to write more on Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer and as usual, I got sidetracked (have to stop going to the library! :-)). As I mentioned before in my first post, this book was a very pleasurable read chock full of information. Salyer did his homework. It read more like a memoir but nevertheless, I learned a great deal about how Abba, and family life, shaped the two most successful Alcotts, Louisa and May.

Windows into Lizzie

I also got some tantalizing new tidbits about third sister Lizzie (Beth in Little Women), known as the “shadow sister” because she was so meek and mild. Lizzie is a total mystery to me. All the other sisters candidly spoke of themselves and were sufficiently introspective in their journals and letters while Lizzie showed no introspection, her journal entries being very plain and factual. Here’s a sample:

From Lizzie’s journal

Sunday, 19 April [1846] … Father walked in the woods with us.  We saw some pretty trees to set out in the yard at home.  I read in the “White Rose” and cleared out my trunk..  We went on the hill to see the rainbow, it was very beautiful.  Abba [May]and I went to the brook.  I sewed a little in Louisa’s room.

Monday 20…I picked blue violets and dandelions.  At ten I came into school and wrote my journal for Sunday and this morning.  I did some sums in long Division and read a piece of poetry with father.

Tuesday 21 …It was a beautiful evening. I made my bed and cleared mother’s room…I sewed some before I came into school and drew this little map of our place, but could not do it very well so father helped me about it.

From Madelon Bedell’s footnotes, p 247-8. Full text in Houghton Library, Harvard University, Alcott Pratt collection (my thanks to Harriet Reisen for sending this to me).

Did Lizzie hide something behind a sly smile?

Who was Lizzie?

Was she the odd one out, not having that quality of introspection? Or was she so very painfully private that she never dared show her inner self? When she died, she did not go peacefully into the night as Louisa described in Little Women. In death as she never did in life, Lizzie showed anger and frustration, lashing out at family members (described vividly in Martha Saxton’s biography Louisa May: A Modern Biography and also in Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography). Did she feel her painful, lingering death was unjust given that she had been so good in life? We will never know. Death has a way, however, of unmasking the truth and it leads me to believe there was more to Lizzie than met the eye (Madelon Bedell in her biography The Alcotts: Biography of a Family apparently felt that way too with her caption under Lizzie’s one known picture mentioning a “sly smile.”).

Lizzie did, however, come by her peaceful and serene manner honestly and not just through Bronson. Salyer notes on page 23 that Abba’s sister Eliza was very much like Lizzie (in fact, Colonel May thought that Abba and Bronson had named Lizzie after Eliza even though she was really named after Elizabeth Peabody).  Bronson called Lizzie his “psyche”, his soul mate (or better yet, a perfect reflection of himself.)

A description

Dr. Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis in his book, Alcott Memoirs, described each of the Alcotts. As a young man going through school, Willis boarded often with the Alcotts; in fact Marmee practically adopted the orphaned Lew.  Salyer quotes Lew on page 120:

“So also was that of Elizabeth as far as the beauty of that spiritual nature could be captured in words. Willis’ picture agrees with all the others that we have of her: ‘She was possessed of an even, lovable disposition, a temperament akin to Mr. Alcott’s – indeed, more than akin, since it was a very counterpart. Under any and all conditions she was a sunny and serene as a morning in June. Her appearance was that of a typical Puritan maid. She loved music, played the piano with more ease than any of her sisters and with something of real appreciation.’ “

Was music her expression?

There are two kinds of musicians – the technicians (like my husband) who read and write down music easily and can comprehend musical theory. They usually have mathematical minds. Then there are the ear people (like myself) – we can’t read as well because our ears pick up the music faster than our minds can comprehend the theory. We are not mathematicians. I had read somewhere that Lizzie showed possible mathematical ability (note the mention of long division in her journal entry) so that would lead me to believe she was more like my husband. One thing is for sure though: music is an emotional experience, to the player as well as the listener. My husband and I, although we approach music very differently (and have very different tastes) both feel music intensely. Can I assume also that Lizzie nurtured an inner life through her music? Was that her way of expressing her inner life, all the while keeping it a secret? Again, we will never know (though I plan on exploring this further).

This is why I found Marmee, the Mother of Little Women so enjoyable, because it contained such rich (and to me), new information about all the Alcotts. It was way more than a pleasant memoir about Abba.

In future posts, I will dig deeper into the heart of this book.

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Book recommendation: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women by Gloria Delamar

The last time I went to Concord I feasted at the Concord Free Public Library and took out 4 books that are usually hard to come by. One of them was Jeannine Atkins’ Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands and another was Louisa May Alcott and Little Women by Gloria Delamar. I had originally taken out the latter because of chapter called “Louisa’s lyrics to songs.” As a singer and songwriter, that caught my eye. I had only intended to read that section of the book but ended up deciding to read the whole thing. I am really glad I did!

Delamar’s book is quite unique. She devotes the first half to a biography of Louisa, which I just finished. Then she does a treatment of Little Women, citing reviews of the time plus past and more current critical analysis. The last section (which includes the chapter on lyrics) discusses her legacy.

I have read 7 biographies on Louisa and foolishly thought there was no more to learn. Wrong again! I am learning that each biographer has their own style, point of view, and particular interests which allows for new facts and theories to arise. Delamar seemed especially interested in Louisa’s poetry and her work for women’s rights. After reading this section, I developed a whole new appreciation for Louisa’s verses as a form of self expression. And I learned new details of her very active work for women’ rights. According to Delamar, it was a mission as dear to her as writing.

Delamar’s foreward was also of interest as she spelled out the various ways a biography can be written:
  • recollection (with first hand knowledge of the subject, i.e. Ednah Dow Cheney’s book)
  • psychological interpretations (Martha Saxton’s method which I believe was over the top)
  • taking facts and fictionalizing the subject (which makes for more informal reading) and finally
  • making it a synthesis of carefully researched and documentable events, authentic dialog, and fiction techniques.

She chose the final method. It read very well and reminded me of Madeleine Stern’s treatment in Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. As in Stern’s book, Delamar presented a balanced picture of Louisa where she appears to have enjoyed parts of her life, and even experienced satisfaction in her skill as a juvenile writer. Because the facts of Louisa’s life are so interesting, there’s really no need to add anything further.

I have never been a big fan of poetry but I enjoyed Louisa’s in the context in which they were presented. Delamar sketched the back story for each poem which made it more meaningful. I was very moved by verses Louisa wrote about family members, most especially her poem on May shortly after her death. She also wrote two lovely poems about  her father which revealed a deep love and understanding of the man. Her poem in memoriam for Marmee was outstanding too. It again  leads me to conclude that some of Louisa’s best work centers around death. Death has a way of stripping away all masks, pretense and defenses. Those who have experienced the death of a loved one and were not afraid to embrace it often find it to be a transforming experience that exposes one’s vulnerability. For those who can express it, death can lead to great insight. Thus, Louisa’s understanding of death and her ability to embrace it despite the pain it caused produced her most honest and poignant writing (for example, in Hospital Sketches, chapter 4, “A Night”).

Louisa worked hard for women’s rights and Delamar presented many new details. For example, several biographers have written briefly about Louisa working to register women to vote in Concord for the upcoming school committee election. We usually hear about Louisa’s frustration at trying to get women to register. Delamar gave further details on how 20+ women registered, and 20 actually voted. The men allowed them to vote first and after the women voted, declared the election was over. Only the women’s votes were counted. Quite a show of support from the men!

So often we read of Louisa “despising” Little Women and writing “moral pap for the young.” While this likely is true, Delamar presents another angle, of an author who discovered she could learn to adjust her style to suit young readers and who took satisfaction in her skill. Louisa is shown to have appreciated the influence she had on young people with Delamar presenting touching letters from young readers. In one case a family of 5 girls and 2 boys started their own newspaper much like the Pickwick Papers from Little Women. The Luken sisters asked Louisa if she wanted to subscribe and she gladly said yes and even contributed pieces to the paper. There were several correspondences shared. Louisa knew she was making a difference in the lives of these girls thus promoting the cause of independence for women through this small act.

Louisa was big-hearted and took after Marmee in her desire to do good for others. Besides her many charitable acts, her writing was a way of giving.

The biographical section concludes with her death and a poem about love which shares her own thoughts. When I finished this section, my head was full of Louisa as I pondered her poems. I gained a great deal of insight into her heart and mind.

“Just the facts, m’am” is a famous line from the old Dragnet TV series. Sometimes the facts alone and the writer’s words are enough to paint a deep and lively portrait.

p.s. After writing this post, I look up Gloria Delamar and discovered she’s a poet! That explains a lot. :-)

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Book Review: “Becoming Little Women”

An experiment in a utopian community that only lasted seven months should have easily been forgotten in history, even if it included historically important people. Yet the fascination with Fruitlands continues as evidenced by Richard Francis’ book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia which came out this year. There is no doubt that Fruitlands was a cathartic experience for young Louisa May Alcott.

Fruitlands for children

Considering the extraordinarily complex and bizarre nature of the thinking behind Fruitlands, I was quite surprised to find a children’s book written about that very subject. Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins is an engaging fictional account based on the writings of Alcott family members.

The essence of Fruitlands

Atkins presented the philosophy behind Fruitlands in a concise and simple manner that children could understand (and adults could benefit from). Founded by Transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Englishmen Charles Lane, Fruitlands was meant to help those living in the community to achieve divine perfection through simple living and high-minded thinking. The diet and methods of farming were devised to avoid any action that would support the slavery of humans, and of animals. The community was to live as one family where the children would have many “fathers” and “mothers”; the bonds of human love and family were discouraged in favor of the “consociate” family, meant to achieve a higher, divine form of love.

Becoming Little Women opens with the Alcotts and Lanes moving from Concord to the Fruitlands farm in Harvard during a dreary rain storm. It is a fitting beginning for an experiment not only doomed to failure, but also perpetrating one of the most traumatic crises to strike the Alcott family.

Louisa at 10

Atkins paints a picture of a ten year-old Louisa, full of life, vigor, imagination and stamina. She sits in an apple tree spinning stories and poems while eating apples. She races through woods and fields with her sisters and William, the son of Charles Lane. She dreams up and performs dramatic plays with her sister Anna as a way of releasing the tension of the experience of Fruitlands which was growing darker by the day. Atkins shows a conflicted Louisa, struggling with her temper and tongue, trying to force the square of a vigorous temperament to fit into the circle of her father’s concept of serenity and perfection.

Tragic character portrayal

Becoming Little Women‘s study of characters truly propelled the story. I appreciated her portrayal of the tragic William, abandoned by his mother to be raised by the remote, grim and self-absorbed Charles Lane. There is little written about this young boy so Atkins takes literary freedom to infuse life into him. The result is a believable and sad portrait of a child whose father has little or no regard for him, and who eventually abandons him to a Shaker community for a time. William fades into history and we never know what became of him, but Atkins makes you feel for him and wonder if he ever knew happiness or love. Louisa, in typical big-heartedness, embraced and befriended him, offering him the sisterly affection he had never known.

Anna as a flesh-and-blood young girl

Atkins also fleshed out Louisa’s older sister Anna. Often portrayed in real life as saintly and the mirror image of her father, Atkins digs into Louisa’s portrayal of her as Meg in Little Women, rounding her out as sometimes vain, envious of others, and competitive with Louisa for the approval of her parents. Anna emerges as a believable girl of twelve with a vibrancy often missing from other accounts.

Marmee’s trial

Abba Alcott or “Marmee” is painted as the endless workhorse, carrying the true burden of Fruitlands while the men wiled away endless hours in high-minded talk. Many accounts of Fruitlands paint Abba as the reason why the experiment failed because of her fierce devotion to her immediate family. Atkins paints a realistic portrait of Abba, heroic in her efforts, yet stressed,  bitter and often desperate as she tried to reach Bronson and bring him back down to earth to face reality. Women being so restricted in their actions as they were in this era, Abba is shown constantly pushing the edge of the envelope to save her family, even considering separating from her husband to save her children.

Grown-up issues for children

I felt vested in these people as they struggled through this experiment in utopian living. Fruitlands was more like Purgatory than Eden, and through these vibrant characters, I felt their joys and conflicts, tensions and traumas.

Atkins deals with the very grown-up issues of family conflict that can lead to separation, the struggle to live up to parental expectations, and the consequences of living with people who have little regard for the needs of others. Most of what happened in the story felt authentic and age appropriate although there was one event which felt a bit too “current” and too adult for a children’s novel.

Learning from children’s books

I enjoy reading children’s novels because of their ease of reading (the big type helps too!) and I often learn a great deal from them. It was, after all, a children’s novel that introduced me to my passion for Louisa in the first place (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard). :-)

Therefore I highly recommend Jeannine Atkin’s Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands as an enjoyable read and a way to feel the experience of Fruitlands and mid 19th century living.

In my next post, I will share an interview with Jeannine, finding out more about how she fleshed out these characters and came to write a children’s book about a difficult subject.

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