Recollections of Louisa May Alcott by Maria S. Porter, longtime friend in later life

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

Louisa May Alcott had numerous friends and admirers. Being writers themselves (or children of famous writers such as Julian Hawthorne, see previous post), these friends and admirers provide us with what I think are the most colorful biographical sketches of Louisa. No scholar can truly capture what a contemporary (especially a friend) can reveal through their personal anecdotes. The “facts” they present are likely colored by the person’s great esteem for Louisa but if one reads between the lines, a lot of great information can be gleamed.

Girlfriends

Maria S. Porter, fellow abolitionist and feminist, was a close friend of Louisa’s in the last twenty years of her life (see Daniel Shealy’s excellent book, Alcott in Her Own Time). While she goes over Louisa’s history, citing in particular Louisa’s experience going out to service at eighteen (which inspired “How I Went Out to Service”, see previous post), Fruitlands and Louisa’s feelings about her parents, I found the most interesting parts to be specific recollections from Porter about Louisa.

Shades of Jo March

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

This story, told by Louisa as the two “floated down the Concord River” on a moonlit summer evening sets the stage for a classic Jo moment in Little Women:

“ ‘When I was a girl of eighteen or thereabouts,” she said, ‘I had very fine dark brown hair, thick and long, almost touching the floor as I stood. At a time when the family needs were great, and discouragement weighed heavily upon us, I went to a barber, let down my hair, and asked him how much money he would give me for it. When he told me the sum, it seemed so large to me that I then and there determined I would part with my most precious possession if during the next week the clouds did not lift.’” (“Recollections of Louisa May Alcott,” pg. 9; from Recollections of Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier and Robert Browning by Maria S. Porter)

The clouds did indeed lift with financial help coming from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

A time of service

Louisa’s eighteenth year was an eventful one. It was the year she went out to service.  Louisa’s family (especially the well-to-do members) was up in arms over her taking this position. She recalled to Porter,

“ ‘I don’t care. Every kind of work that is paid for is service. It is rather a downfall to give up trying to be a Siddons or a Fanny Kemble, and become a servant at the beck and call of people; but what of it?” “All my highly respectable relatives,’ said Louisa, ‘held up their hands in holy horror when I left the paternal roof to go to my place of servitude, as they called it, and said, ‘Louisa Alcott will disgrace her name by what she is doing.’ But despite the lamentations and laughter of my sisters, I got my small wardrobe ready, and after embracing the family, with firmness started for my new home.’” (Ibid, pg. 12)

Porter commented that the experience was so painful that Louisa rarely discussed it and when she did, “it was with heightened color and tearful eyes.”

Aided by humor

Another painful family experience, Fruitlands, was taken more in stride. Here Louisa’s wonderful sense of humor prevailed with the writing of Transcendental Wild Oats. Porter wrote how “Louisa’s eyes would twinkle as she described the strange methods at Fruitlands!” Humor would provide Louisa with a port in the storm through her often tumultuous life.

Love of acting

Porter went on at length about Louisa’s love for Dickens, citing a particular character favorite, Mrs. Jarley whom Louisa often impersonated.  Porter, aware of Louisa’s lifelong love of the theater writes,

“I was so fortunate as to persuade her to take the part of Mrs. Jarley in the waxwork show. It was a famous show, never to be forgotten. People came from all parts of New England to see Louisa Alcott’s Mrs. Jarley, for she had for years been famous in the part whenever a deserving charity was to be helped in that way. Shouts of delight and peals of laughter greeted her original and witty descriptions of the ‘figgers’ at each performance, and it was repeated every evening for a week.” (Ibid, pg. 20)

Gossip!

Porter admired Louisa’s keen insight into character, commenting that was “almost ruthless in her denunciation of society.” I love imagining Louisa making this comment:

“Society in New York and in Boston, as we have seen it to-night, is corrupt. Such immodest dressing, such flirtations of some of these married women with young men whose mothers they might be, so far as age is concerned, such drinking of champagne – I loathe it all! If I can only live long enough I mean to write a book whose characters will be drawn from life. Mrs. — [naming a person present] shall be prominent as the society leader, and the fidelity of the picture shall leave no one in doubt as to the original.” (Ibid, pg. 22)

Those of you better versed in Louisa’s canon than I: did this scene make it into a story? Which one? And if so, I wonder if Mrs. – recognized herself?

Advice for the newest member of the school committee

Louisa was delighted when Porter was elected to the Melrose school committee in 1874. She of course, made a suggestion,

“I rejoice greatly thereat, and hope that the first thing that you and Mrs. Sewall  propose in your first meeting will be to reduce the salary of the head master of the High School, and increase the salary of the first woman assistant, whose work is quite as good as his, and even harder; to make the pay equal. I believe in the same pay for the same good work.” (Ibid, pg. 22)

I bet that went over well!

A last impression …

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

The last time that Porter would see Louisa was when her father was dying. Bronson, Anna and her family were living in the Louisburg Square home in a fashionable part of Boston but Louisa was living in Dunreath Place, a rest home run by good friend Dr. Rhoda Lawrence. Porter’s impression of Louisa’s appearance is telling,

“On Thursday morning, March 2, I chanced to be at the house, where I had gone to inquire for Mr. Alcott and Louisa. While talking with Mrs. Pratt, her sister, the door opened, and Louisa, who had come in from the Highlands to see her father, entered. I had not seen her for months, and the sight of her thin, wan face and sad look shocked me, and I felt for the first time that she was hopelessly ill. After a few affectionate words of greeting she passed through the open doors of the next room.” (Ibid, pgs. 27-28)

… and the last words

Porter was the recipient of the last letter ever written by Louisa. It was in response to a photograph of May that Porter had sent her. It was written likely on March 3:

“DEAR MRS. PORTER, Thanks for the picture. I am very glad to have it. No philosophy is needed for the impending event. I shall be very glad when the dear old man falls asleep after his long and innocent life. Sorrow has no place at such times, and death is never terrible when it comes as now in the likeness of a friend.

Yours truly,

L. M. A.

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

P. S. I have another year to stay in my ‘Saint’s Rest,’ [her name for Dunreath Place] and then I am promised twenty years of health. I don’t want so many, and I have no idea I shall see them. But as I don’t live for myself, I hold on for others, and shall find time to die some day, I hope.” (Ibid, pg. 28)

She got her wish sooner than she thought.

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Thanksgiving memories from one of Abba Alcott’s best friends, and an interesting parallel with Little Men

Lydia_Maria_Child

Lydia Maria Child

One of Abigail Alcott’s best friends was author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. A successful children’s author in the mid 1800s, Child is best known for a poem about Thanksgiving, part of which is set to music:

Here is an image from her three volume book called Flowers for Children, of the first few stanzas:

lydia marie child thanksgiving 1844

You can read the entire poem here.

Didactic tales for children by Lydia Maria Child

juvenile miscellanyUndoubtedly the Alcott children had to have read Child’s works since the families were so friendly with each other. Flowers for Children, a collection of Child’s favorite stories and best known articles from her successful juvenile magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, contain moralistic stories for children. Didactic tales for youngsters were the norm for the day and Louisa was influenced by them in her own writing for children.

Could this story have influenced Little Men?

christ child and the poor childrenIn reading the first story, “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children,” I was struck by the many similarities between this story and Little Men. “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” is the story of a group of very poor and disadvantaged children, some of whom are turning to crime. Heinrich and his little sister Gertrude come from a dysfunctional family where the father is a mean drunk and the mother taken to fits of insanity. Wolfgang is the neighborhood bully. We encounter the Christ-Child at Christmastime when Heinrich and Gertrude receive a rare gift of money; they purchase apples, nuts and green boughs to create a Christmas tree. Gertrude offers thanks to the Christ-Child for providing the means. Unfortunately, Wolfgang spoils everything by stealing the apples and nuts from the children.

The gift of money had been provided by an older man who runs a home for orphans with his wife. Eventually the three children become a part of that home, working at trades to earn their keep and contributing to the family home. Heinrich and Gertrude’s parents eventually join them. Wolfgang struggles with trying to resist his formerly evil ways and falls from grace on numerous occasions, only to be forgiven and taken back by the community. Eventually he reforms his life.

Interesting parallels

littlemen03I’m sure already you can see the similarities between this story and Little Men. For me,

  • Heinrich reminded me of Nat. Both are sensitive boys.
  • Gertrude resembled Bess in appearance but reminded me more of Daisy because of her eternal optimism and innocence.
  • I instantly thought of both Dan and Jack when introduced to Wolfgang: Dan because of Wolfgang’s physical build and willfulness and Jack because of what he did (he stole Tommy’s money and let Dan lie about it to protect Nat) and because of his contrition.
  • “Father” and “Mother” in the story instantly brought to mind Professor Bhaer and Mrs. Jo. The god-like quality of “Father” made me think of Bronson. Plumfield was not unlike this home for orphans.
  • The camaraderie of the poor children smacked of all the boys at Plumfield along with Daisy and Nan.

Undoubtedly, stories like “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” were a common part of the reading diet of the Alcott children. It just struck me as amusing that the very first story I pick up mirrors Little Men in so many ways.

Many of you are far more knowledgeable than I am about the
didactic literature of Louisa’s time, and the influences on and origins
of Little Men -
What other stories might have influenced Louisa May Alcott in her writing of juvenile tales (besides her own)?

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Reading is a love affair. Just ask Bronson Alcott.

pilgrim's progressBronson Alcott’s favorite book of a lifetime was John Bunyon’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He discovered it when he and his cousin William had begun to search through the homes of their neighbors for discarded books in order to create their own library. As a small child, tracing his letters in the sand on the floor,  his mind became “fired with the love of letters.” Visiting his uncle Tilly, Bronson saw his first wall full of books. The lifelong love affair had begun.

He found his true love while assembling his library with  William. He wrote the following about it when he was nearly forty:

christian from pilgrim's progress“O charming story! dear delightful book! This book is one of that few that gave me to myself … It is associated with reality. It unites me with childhood and seems to chronicle my Identity, How I was rapt in it How gladly did I seat myself, after the days labours on the farm, in the chimney niche, with the tallow candle in my hand, and pore over its enchanting pages until late in the night! That book was incorporated into the very substance of my youthful being, I thought and spoke through it.” (from The Alcotts: Biography of a Family by Madelon Bedell, pg. 11)

How well Bronson expressed the love story with books that we as readers experience. My little “chimney niche” is the corner of the couch where I have a reading lamp and a stack of pillows to lean on as I read. I also have a special reading chair in my son’s old room in the basement, an overstuffed Laz-e-boy recliner, when I really want to retreat from the world.

Bronson passed down his love to his children, helping to form one of the world’s most beloved writers of children’s books. If that is his only legacy (and it’s not), that’s a fine one indeed.

Where is your “chimney niche?” What book(s) did you read as a child that became your true love?

Have you read The Pilgrim’s Progress? What did you think of it?

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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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Louisa the rabid fan

Louisa May Alcott hated being famous. Or so she said. Stories abounded of how she often masqueraded as a maid before answering the door at Orchard House to discourage would-be fans. She knew that readers imagined her looking like the dashing young Jo with her two tails of chestnut hair flying behind her when in fact, she was old, frail and sickly.

Benefits and pitfalls

Louisa guarded her privacy jealously and didn’t appreciate the attention of her fans. Still, the fame she had acquired had its benefits, allowing her to meet many of the most prominent writers and reformers of her day.

The object of Louisa’s hero worship

She may have abhorred hero worship but that didn’t stop her from indulging in it herself with her favorite author, Charles Dickens.

Having gratified myself in hero worship through this blog (and having acted on it with numerous visits to Orchard House), I had to smile when I read of “A Dickens Day,” a piece Louisa wrote which became a part of Shawl-Straps, a memoir of her time in Europe.

Touring Dickens’ London

Here Louisa details her sight-seeing trips around London to places immortalized in the books of Charles Dickens.

Sairey Gamp in front of her house

Madeleine Stern in Louisa May Alcott A Biography writes of Louisa seeing the street where Sairey Gamp had lived. Sairey Gamp was one of Louisa’s favorite characters and she often assumed the role to bring humor into difficult situations. Sairey Gamp was in constant demand at the Union Hotel Hospital where Louisa served as a Civil War nurse.

Stern writes,

“The genial Mr. Tyler [Louisa’s guide in the city] was delighted to find that to Louisa St. Paul’s was the place where Ralph Nickleby set his watch, and Westminster Abbey the home of the maid of honor in Mrs. Jarley’s waxworks.” (pg. 158, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Louisa filled her notebooks with such references to Dickens which she later turned into “A Dickens Day.”

Louisa the pilgrim

I have to admit I know little of Dickens so I didn’t recognize most the references Stern made to Dickens characters and sites. But as a fellow hero worshipper, I can surely empathize with the feelings Louisa must have had visiting those places. She went on her pilgrimage just as we have.

Watch what you wish for!

Charles Dickens

Louisa had the one privilege I and other Alcott enthusiasts will never have – meeting the author in person. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky! Louisa was less than enthusiastic seeing Dickens in person. Stern writes,

“… the magic was gone, and in its place was only the foppishness of a red-faced man with false teeth and the voice of a worn-out  actor … there was nothing genuine about him.” (pg. 157, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Louisa was deeply disappointed and, as much as she still loved his books, she would never be able to shake the image of the man.

Respect for her fans?

Perhaps that’s why she herself was so sensitive about the perception her fans had of her. Why dash the image of Jo March, replacing it with a curmudgeon, sick and frail? Let the fans have their dream.

Louisa was probably too hard on herself but as much as she claimed to dislike her fans, she apparently respected them. And she knew who paid the bills!

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comReading Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine Stern is part of my Louisa May Alcott Summer Challengeare you a part of this challenge and if so, how are you doing?

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The boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life

From the pages of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag comes an intriguing memoir of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life, “My Boys.”

From one “boy” to another

Louisa had always preferred the company of boys and wished she had been born one herself.  She particularly favored the age when boys were “regarded as nuisances till they are twenty-one.” Enjoying the rough and raw edges of adolescent boys, she writes:

“I like boys and oysters raw; so, though good manners are always pleasing, I don’t mind the rough outside burr which repels most people, and perhaps that is the reason why the burrs open and let me see the soft lining and taste the sweet nut hidden inside.”

Finding acceptance

Louisa herself was certainly rough and raw and found acceptance with boys that age that she didn’t find with her own peers. Her manner was considered “queer” (her word) by most who felt she didn’t fit the mold of a Victorian woman but boys readily embraced her queerness. In Louisa, they found a friend and intimate confidant who embraced and accepted them. It was a way of accepting herself.

Fact or fiction?

“My Boys” was written after Little Women and probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no way of verifying the facts. However, the story reveals a warm and bighearted woman who, despite her desire to remain single, did on occasion, require the intimacy of a close friendship.

Let’s meet some of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life:

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Frank

Frank was Louisa’s first “well-beloved” boy. Meeting him at the age of seven, he became her constant playmate. He insisted on testing her mettle with a bit of bullying, trying his best to make her cry “by slapping my hands with books, hoop-sticks, shoes, anything that came along capable of giving a good stinging blow.” It was with great pride that Louisa did not, and he respected her for it: “‘She’s a brave little thing, and you can’t make her cry.”

Beginning with Frank, Louisa competed with any boy who was up to the challenge. She prided herself with being able to drive a hoop as tall as she around the Boston Common better than any boy.

Frank ultimately broke her little heart through betrayal, breaking up the friendship. Yet despite the pain, Louisa remembered him fondly in the story.

Christy

Here was a boy in whom Louisa could place her confidence. She met Christy while visiting relatives away from home and found him to be a tremendous source of solace. Punished by the matron for being naughty, she is banished to the garret to ponder her sins. Being Louisa, she lashed herself endlessly with guilt. Christy offers sweet solace:

“Seeing the tragic expression of my face, he said not a word, but, sitting down in an old chair, took me on his knee and held me close and quietly, letting the action speak for itself. It did most eloquently; for the kind arm seemed to take me back from that dreadful exile, and the friendly face to assure me without words that I had not sinned beyond forgiveness.”

Augustus

Louisa refers to “Gus” as her “first little lover, and the most romantic of my boys.” Fifteen at the time, she was again visiting, away from her family. Gus was seventeen and made overtures, inviting her to go berry picking. They discussed novels and poetry, and he serenaded her with his accordion while out boating.

Louisa speaks of him in a very soft and sentimental manner; it sounds like a typical summer romance. They kept in touch from time to time after parting but tragically, Augustus died young. It made me wonder if the relationship would have continued, perhaps matured, had he lived.

Alf Whitman

Louisa met Alf later in life, she being considerably older than he. He was motherless and thus, she reached out as a caring Mama. They met during her tenure with the Concord Dramatic Union (now the Concord Players), performing as Dolphus and Sophy Tetterby in the “Haunted Man” by Charles Dickens. They formed a fast and lasting friendship even after he married and had children, she always referring to Alf as Dolphus in her letters.

Certainly the two connected through their mutual interest in acting, acting being one of Louisa’s strongest passions.

According to Louisa, Laurie was based on a combination of Alf Whitman and Ladislas Wisniewski.

Alf is considered one of the inspirations for Laurie in Little Women. Louisa writes to Alf, “… I put you into my story as one of the best & dearest lads I ever knew! “Laurie” is you & my Polish boy “jintly” [sic jointly]” (from The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; associate editor Madeleine Stern).

Louisa’s Polish Boy, Ladislas Wisniewski

“Laddie” is the boy that invites the most speculation. At twenty, Laddie was thirteen years Louisa’s junior when they met in Vevey, Switzerland during Louisa’s first trip to Europe. Although again, the affection appears motherly on Louisa’s part (and he even referred to her as his “little Mamma”), it is obvious this boy meant the most to her.

Louisa’s service as a nurse in the Civil War heightened her motherly instincts, attracting her to young men who had served, especially those who were sickly. Laddie had served in the Polish Revolution and was suffering from a respiratory illness that was possibly life-threatening.

Laddie was something of a prankster, appealing to Louisa’s sense of humor. His skill as a pianist spoke to her heart.

The two companions found ways to communicate despite the language barrier: she struggled with French while he learned  English. Theirs was a warm and intimate relationship sharing their interests and passions.

The fortnight that the two spent in Paris had tongues wagging. Some scholars believe Louisa might have had a full-blown romance with Laddie.  Certainly being escorted by a young man without a chaperone all around the romantic city was daring (although she defends the action as proper, citing her age).

Louisa writes poignantly of their parting:

“… I drew down his tall head and kissed him tenderly, feeling that in this world there were no more meetings for us. Then I ran away and buried myself in an empty railway carriage, hugging the little cologne bottle he had given me.”

Laddie was to be, in part, the inspiration for Laurie (as shown by Laurie’s ability as a pianist, his European background and experiences, and his pranks).

Why adolescent boys?

So why was Louisa attracted to adolescent boys? As previously stated, she found a kindred spirit in boys this age and they accepted her wholeheartedly. With boys, she could be herself.

Her infatuations with Emerson and Thoreau offer a second explanation: safety. As a young girl “in love” with older men, she could enjoy her innocent and private fantasies without ever having to act out on them. Later, as an older spinster, she could seek out the intimate male companionship she desired without having to consider marriage and all its pitfalls.

In both cases, she never had to tread into the dangerous territory of sexual relations.

It is ironic that her younger sister May also engaged in a relationship with a younger man (Ernest Nieriker) and ended up marrying him!

Recalling the massive crush I had on my French teacher in middle school, I can attest to the satisfying nature of a fantasy relationship. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity to become friendly with this man but I deliberately kept my distance, thus preserving the fantasy. It remains a pleasant memory.

Why do you think Louisa sought out the company of teenage boys?

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Brontë Sisters Power Dolls!

Hah! Louisa would have loved this:

I wish these action figures actually existed, great idea!

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