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 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.
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.
In 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)
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
The 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.
Abba 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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