One year old today! Celebrating with a special gift for you!

I recently watched again the PBS film Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women  and thoroughly enjoyed it.  To see Louisa portrayed on the small screen is just as thrilling as ever. This reminded me of how I started my blog 1 year ago today after reading the book. What a wonderful year it has been with all of you, my readers.

Writing this blog has opened up a whole new world of reading and writing, and has given me, the first time, a way to indulge in my passion for history and biography. My vision is expanded and  my mind sharpened by the exercise. And I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of writing.

I have loved reading, writing and learning about Louisa,  members of her family, and the Concord Transcendentalists. The more I read, the more I want to know!

I would never have guessed that in the span of a year I would meet and/talk to/correspond with authors and scholars like Daniel Shealy, Harriet Reisen, Amy Belding Brown, Gabrielle Donnelly, Susan Cheever, Kelly O’Connor McNees, Richard Francis and Jeannine Atkins. Meeting Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, and Nancy Porter, director of the aforementioned film, was a tremendous pleasure too.

And I’ve found wonderful blogs such as A Room of One’s Own, Silver Threads, Joyfully Retired and many  more, introducing me to the Classics. I will never forget the thrill of reading Gone With the Wind. :-).

I never would have dreamed that I would have had the opportunity to attend the ALA workshop for the Louisa May Alcott initiative  and meet so many other Alcott enthusiasts and scholars. And I will never forget the day I held in my hands letters written by my favorite author. Being able to touch her handwritten words is frankly, beyond words.

This blog has certainly opened up my life. Thank you so much to all of you who have read, commented and supported this blog. My learning deepens, my joy grows fuller and my reading binge continues. Thank you!!

168 posts, 14,337 views, 615 comments . . . Happy 1st Birthday, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion! May there be many more to come.

A birthday gift – for you!

And as I celebrate this day, I would like to give away a gift to one of you – this beautiful notecard from Orchard House featuring a painting by May Alcott Nieriker of a screech owl baby, painted over the fireplace in Louisa’s room (I learned on my last trip that there used to be a big tree outside Louisa’s window that house a family of owls – May painted one of them).

Simply comment on this post and I will pick a winner at random. Contest ends Monday at noon.

Long live Louisa May Alcott!

An interview with Amy Belding Brown, author of Mr. Emerson’s Wife

1. What inspired you to write a fictional account of Lidian and Waldo Emerson?

It took me a long time to decide to write a nocel about Lidian and Waldo.  At first, I just had a lot of questions about Lidian, especially about why she was relatively absent from so many biographies of her husband, so I did a lot of research just to satisfy my curiosity.  Then I began writing poems about Lidian, and short fictional scenes.  When I finally realized I really wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about Lidian, I discussed my options with my agent, and she was the one who encouraged me to write a fictional account rather than straight biography, because that’s what I most enjoy writing.

2. Is Mr. Emerson’s Wife your first book? What made you decide to take on such a project and how long did it take to research and write it?

Actually I wrote several novels before I wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife. Most of them weren’t very good, but a couple were published as light-weight romances back in the 1980′s when my children were young.  (They’re out of print now.)  Mr. Emerson’s Wife was my first foray into historical fiction and I became totally obsessed with it.  I loved doing the research and weaving it into scenes that made the characters come alive in my head and on the page.  I guess the only reason I took it on was because it was so absorbing and after awhile I beame obsessed with bringing Lidian out of the shadows.  It took me about nine years to research and write and revise – but of course I was doing other things, too, including getting my MFA degree.
3. Does a fictional account require the same level of research that a non-fiction or biographical account requires? How is it different writing a novel versus a biography?

Well, I haven’t written a straight biography, but I would say that a good work of historical fiction requires nearly as much research as a biography does.  One difference is that, as a novelist, I let my curiosity lead me.  And, of course, I also allowed my imagination to “fill in the cracks” of the historical record.  There’s so much of anyone’s life that’s hidden from public view, and, while the non-fiction historian can speculate, he or she must be very cautious about putting out information that isn’t documented or verified.   I tried to stay within the historical record for the most part, but I allowed myself to fully imagine many details of personal relationships that were never documented.

4. The balance between sticking to the facts and venturing into your imagination must be delicate. What gives you the confidence to take off from the facts into your imagination?

I don’t know if it’s confidence or folly.  :-) Seriously, though, I think it’s simply the novelist’s drive to fully understand the characters – from the inside out.  I think many of us, when we read a biography on someone who interests us, do the same thing, though we may not think of it as fictionalizing.  For example, we may read about the Alcott family moving so often from one place to another and think about the toll that took on Mrs. Alcott – we may imagine how exhausted she must have been, perhaps as we recall our own experiences of moving.  So my “confidence” comes from a belief that the human experience is universal and that we can understand each other (over time and space) by extraoplating from our own experience and empathizing with someone in different circumstances.  In other words,  putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – which is, fundamentally, an act of the imagination.  (And also a spiritual discipline, in my opinion.)
5. Mr. Emerson’s Wife was more than a love story or a story of fancy about famous real-life characters. What other elements did you weave into the story? For example, was it a commentary on marriage?

Yes, I conceived it as the story of a long-term marriage.  A story about how a woman negotiates the disappointments and challenges of marriage over time.  One thing that struck me as I researched and wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife, was that these people – just like us – changed over time.  So evaluative statements about them may only apply to a few years of their lives.  And I believe the same was true of the  Emerson’s marriage – some biographers say it was “happy” – and I think that is basically true of its last two decades.  But it was pretty rocky from about 1837 to 1850.  In fact, I think Lidian and Waldo might likely have separated if they’d lived in another time and place.

The other thing the book is about is Lidian’s inner conflict.  It’s the same fundamental conflict reflected in Little Women (which is why I think Louisa May Alcott’s book is timeless) – the conflict between domesticity and independence, between a woman’s mind and her heart.  I frankly think this is an inner conflict for most women, even today.  I don’t see Lidian as just a victim of her husband’s domination.   (In fact, Emerson was, for his day, unsually respectful of women.)  But I think she struggled with herself – torn between what she felt was her “duty” and what she felt as her “calling.”  Brenda Ueland, in the 1930′s addressed this issue when she wrote (addressing women), “Menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”  But how many of us put aside our creative work to clean the bathtub?  We may have shining tubs, but at what cost?

6. Have you written a new book? What is it about and when can we expect to see it?

I have written a new novel.  It’s set in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War in 1676, and revolves around the story of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity by Native Americans at war with the English settlers and her reentry into Puritan society.  One of the reasons I wanted to write about the Puritans was to explore the mindset the Transcendentalists were rebelling against.  It turned out to be fascinating.  The manuscript is currently with my agent.

Visit Amy’s website at http://amybeldingbrown.com

Meeting Amy Belding Brown, author of “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

I had the privilege yesterday of meeting author Amy Belding Brown who as you know, wrote the historical novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife , based upon the lives of Waldo and Lidian Emerson and their relationships with Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and other famous Transcendentalists.

Sharing lattes together at a local cafe/country store, Amy and I found we have a lot of interests in common, among them being the history of religion in New England. She has researched this subject extensively (specifically Puritanism, aka Calvinism, now the United Church of Christ, or the Congregational Church, and Unitarianism) so naturally I was an eager listener. I’ve blogged several times about wishing to discover more about Transcendentalism and why it had such an impact, given that it is pretty hard to nail down. Learning about what religion was like in earlier times is critical to that understanding.

Receiving her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts in 2002, Amy work for a few years at Orchard House, thus being privy to its many treasures. She now teaches writing to freshmen students at Worcester and Fitchburg State Universities. I appreciated her remarks in this regard, that she felt she could make more a difference in the lives of students from state universities rather than teach at more prestigious private schools. That’s the true heart of a teacher.

She also teaches at the Worcester Institute for Senior Education, and writes in her spare time, having  just finished a book on King Philip’s War (find out more about King Philip’s War here).

I had to ask Amy if she favored Thoreau in some way as I felt he came off better in than Emerson did in Mr. Emerson’s Wife; she wouldn’t admit to “liking” Thoreau better (which was what I asked) but admitted that his writings were easier to relate to. I agree.

We discussed how Mr. Emerson’s Wife was far more than a potentially tragic love story between two people who could never get together; it was really a commentary on marriage, both in the 19th century, and now. There are many truths in the married life of Waldo and Lidian that apply to married couples today. This, I believe, is the true and more universal appeal of the book (although the love story is very compelling).

We spoke too about the lost writings of Madelon Bedell who wrote an outstanding scholarly biography called The Alcotts Biography of a Family back in 1980 (I was lucky enough to get a promo copy from the newspaper office I worked for :-)). This was the first of a two volume work; unfortunately she died of cancer before the second book was completed. Harriet Reisen was able to track down Bedell’s papers, specifically the last known interview with the then 96 year-old Lulu Nieriker (the only living person to have known Louisa May Alcott personally) shortly before she died in 1975 (see her grave here). That interview is documented in Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women.

At a later date, I am going to interview Amy more specifically about Mr. Emerson’s Wife; she is buried with school work right now so we’ll have wait until after exams in May.

One of the main reasons why I started this blog was to meet other enthusiasts and this has come true in ways I could never have imagined. After only 9 months on the web, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion has introduced me to many fascinating people and the richness of the written word which I had lost after my childhood. This venture has brought me more joy than I could have dreamed of and we’re just beginning!

Final Thoughts on “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Reading the last few words, I slowly closed Mr. Emerson’s Wife and felt a welling up inside of emotion. I was so tied to the character of Lidian Jackson Emerson that I felt they were her emotions too.

This is how Amy Belding Brown’s book hit me. I lived inside of Mr. Emerson’s Wife for the last couple of weeks, crawling inside the head, the skin and the heart of Lidian Jackson Emerson. I loved Mr. Emerson as she loved him, felt the bitter disappointment and anger of promises not kept, and swooned over Henry David Thoreau, sensing the touching of souls as he and Lidian grew closer to each other.

A growing appreciation for words

There are times when I am so grateful I am a slow reader! Although this book could be read very quickly, it shouldn’t be. I savored every line, for the first time really appreciating the art of writing and how beautifully words could express thoughts, feelings and actions.

The value of words has been on my mind a lot lately. In my spiritual reading, I read how Jesus Christ is known in the gospel of John as The Word. In a book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, the Orthodox priest writes about idle talk and how words can be as equally life affirming and devastating, and how we as humans are the only creatures gifted with the ability to make words. It’s an awesome gift that carries a solemn responsibility.

Books like Mr. Emerson’s Wife fill me with desire to savor more words, and to commit more words to paper (and computer). I am eternally grateful to Meg North who suggested on her blog that aspiring writers should have their trusty notebook and favorite pen with them at all times. I do (in fact I have separate notebooks for different things I’m researching, and each has its own favorite pen). I love composing on the computer but there’s something very organic and cool about writing with a pen and getting the smudged ink on my fingers.

But I digress. I’d like to offer some final thoughts on Lidian Jackson Emerson and her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as imagined by Amy Belding Brown (with a lot of historical facts to back up her theories).

Among my top favorite books

Mr. Emerson’s Wife is the most emotionally engaging book I’ve ever read and ranks right up there with my other top 3: Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Little Women. Gone With the Wind was a sweeping epic with fascinating characters and a take on the South by a true southerner which challenged some of my perceptions about the pre and post Civil War South. It was the most fun I’d ever had reading. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the right book at the right time as my children were the same age as Harry, Hermione and Ron (and my Stephen is like Harry). That synchronicity will unfortunately never happen again. And I reveled in the domestic spirituality, sisterhood and semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women.

An honest commentary on marriage

Mr. Emerson’s Wife moved me so because Brown made Lidian, Waldo and Henry leap off the pages straight into my mind and heart. They truly were flesh and blood people to me, navigating the complexities of marriage, friendship, life, death and love in Victorian New England. Brown wrote an honest and balanced commentary on marriage which not only applied then, but applies today. Despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed an unusually happy marriage for the last 32 years, I could still keenly identify with some of the trials that Lidian went through with Mr. Emerson (as she called him). The world still revolves around the man on occasion in this ‘enlightened’ age. Yet, because of this book, I felt compelled to remark to my husband  how truly lucky I was to have him as my lifelong companion; I came to appreciate our marriage even more.

Awakened feminism

This book awoke in me a renewed care and concern for women and their place in the world. The political nature of feminism today long ago turned me off to women’s issues (particularly the obsession with Pro Life/Pro Choice – I am Pro Life). When I was a young mother, I felt left behind by feminists, feeling undervalued as a mother and wife. While reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, I sensed that my eyes were opening, seeing things around me (even in my own family) that told me the battle for women’s rights (particularly in the area of health) is far from over. I feel a much stronger obligation to guide my 22 year old daughter in the right direction, making sure that she is tending to her education and her development. Fortunately she already has a strong sense of herself and does not base her entire existence upon having a man in her life (even though she is in a serious relationship with a wonderful young man).

Lidian’s struggles

Lidian struggled with a brilliant and revered husband who was often cold and indifferent (and yet entertained the vivacious Margaret Fuller on regular occasions, inviting her to live in their home, and taking long walks at night with her, both lost in discussion). She competed with the memory of a young, beautiful and saintly first wife whom Emerson spoke of frequently in a voice filled with grief and loss. Her own excellent mind and creative energies were subjugated to her husband’s whims and demands with little regard to her needs. Suffering much injustice, her frustration at times was very high (especially when she had to hold her tongue) and I felt that frustration keenly. A successful marriage, of course, does take two and Brown subsequently, does not place all the blame on Emerson as Lidian could wield a sharp tongue and could be demanding and unforgiving in her own way. She also made the mistake of being lost in her children at the expense of her husband. Marriage is, if anything, a delicate balance.

Lidian and Waldo experienced several devastating losses in their married life, beginning with the death of Waldo’s younger brother Charles, Henry’s brother John, and culminating with the loss of their first-born son Waldo at the tender age of 5. Grief can sometimes bring couples together but in this case, it drove them apart. Emerson’s reaction to grief was to shut down and shut out the world, losing himself in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, while Lidian needed to express her feelings. This along with other things caused her to turn to Henry David Thoreau for consolation and friendship.

Thoreau came across as a much warmer man than I had imagined even though he was also equally brilliant, complex and contradictory. I had always thought of him as so solitary that he never formed really close relationships but he obviously did. And rather than give away too much of the story, I leave you to find out for yourself by reading this wonderful book.

Ready to read more

I am not ready yet to leave the world of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller and plan on reading more about each of them. I am intrigued by Emerson’s motivations for abandoning traditional Christianity and the ministry in favor of developing his own way (which did not necessarily lead to God). And I’m getting more and more interested in Thoreau and what makes him tick. I am grateful to any book that deepens my desire to learn.

Finally, as I continue to read Louisa May Alcott’s Moods, I am struck by the irony of how that book is also about one woman loving two men (men based on Emerson and Thoreau). Unfortunately Moods now rings a little hollow as the characters are not so deeply developed and the writing is strained and over-thought. I will still finish Moods but I don’t expect it to affect me in the same way. I only wish Louisa had discovered her realistic writing style when she wrote this story.

Be sure and visit Amy Belding Brown’s website – she details how she wrote the book and shares stories about the many influential (and unsung) heroines of Transcendental Concord.

and p.s. I may get the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown over the weekend for coffee and conversation, stay tuned . . .

Highlights from “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown has really caught my imagination. I find myself living it in my head when I’m not reading it and I don’t recall a book having done that to me before. What’s really funny is that there are several things going on in my life that relate in some way to the material I’m reading, so it’s like the Perfect Storm.

Here are some highlights:

1. This is the last paragraph of Chapter 4. How’s this for a great line?

“In that instant I discovered the secret to pleasing Mr. Emerson. He required a discerning admiration. He loved me not for my nobility or intellect but for the man he saw reflected in my eyes.”

If that doesn’t describe perfectly what marriage was all about during that period and throughout history, and perhaps life too: the universe revolves around the man. Is that still true today? Yeah, I think so . . .

2. From Chapter 6: On Lidian’s honeymoon night, an observation:

“I placed them [the comb and pins from her hair] on my bureau, as was my habit, though with a sharp awareness that the furniture was no longer mine. Mr. Emerson owned it now, as he owned everything that belonged to me – as he owned even me, in my own flesh and person.”

Amy  Belding Brown has such a great talent for stating chilling and profound thoughts in a subtle and gentle way, making those thoughts all the more powerful and haunting.

3. Chapter 7 had the most wonderful discourse between Lidian and Bronson Alcott. It was fascinating to ‘see’ Bronson through the eyes of someone else, especially a woman, as his charisma especially attracted them. You’ll just have to read it yourself but trust me, it’s delicious. :-)

4. Chapter 8, another great line:

“It struck me that the most demanding and onerous task required by marriage was the silencing of my tongue.”

That, from a 32 year old woman who had classified herself as an obstinate spinster before marrying. Lidian didn’t give up her independence without much inner struggle.

Apart from the sense that this book is giving me about marriage in 19th century New England, I am also getting a stronger sense of what made Ralph Waldo Emerson tick. Brown maintains that Emerson didn’t handle loss well. He sustained tough losses in his life including the death of his younger brother Charles, and the death of his first wife Ellen after only 18 months of marriage (which was apparently never consummated because of her ill health). Her passing especially devastated him on many levels and moved him away from his traditional belief in the Christian faith (and towards Transcendentalism – his mother declared that he turned from being a believer to a seeker after that loss). He even disturbed the grave of his wife in order to look into the casket (at the suggestion of his mother) to help him come to grips with reality.

What I observed, however, was how he ‘retreated’ from life by spending so much time in his study reading (which, as we readers know, acts as an escape), studying and writing. When the issue of abolition came up (Lidian was passionate about this subject), he sidestepped it as if he were unwilling to confront the ugliness of the issue. He preferred the life he could create in his head, rather than the real life around him. In his case, it produced a body of classic, thought-provoking work but at what cost?

In her subtle way, Brown makes it very plain that as enlightened as Emerson was, the world still revolved around him. Perhaps more so, because he fancied himself  a seeker finding a new way that would benefit the world.

I am enjoying seeing Ralph Waldo  Emerson as a flesh and blood man with his faults and frailties. Brown really helps me get into the heads and hearts of these very real people.

I know a lot of this book is fiction but I’m told the research is impeccable and as such, I can trust what I’m reading. Can’t wait to read more!

Learning more about 19th century life for women with “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

As a follow-up to American Bloomsbury, and in an effort to continue to build on knowledge of life in New England for women in the 19th century, I’ve started reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown, at the advice of a friend (good advice!). This is a beautifully written book that attempts to fill in the gaps with plausible scenarios regarding the complicated marriage and relationship between Lydia Jackson (aka Lidian Emerson), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. It reads in the first person like a historical novel and I’m enjoying the ride very much.

I’m finding that this reading is having a pragmatic effect on my work as a public speaker in the Catholic church. I’ve been asked (along with my partner) to give a half day retreat musing on the topic, “What defines beauty in the eyes of God for women?” and I am reading a couple of books for research purposes to prepare my portion of the talk we will give. One of those books is called The Authentic Catholic Woman by  Genevieve Kineke (if you want to see more details about this branch of my reading, I invite you to visit my spiritual blog at www.susanbailey.org/blog), and as I read, my immersion in the 19th century and the plight of women came flooding into my mind. Oftentimes I am at personal odds with feminists of today because I think we have gotten off message. It seems like it’s only about power, often at the expense of our unique identity as women. Louisa’s efforts with women’s suffrage reminded me of why I still do want to be active in promoting the dignity and rights of women (especially in educating my own daughter) but I would like to avoid the political nature of groups like NOW.

It’s so wonderful to see the connections, and the value, of studying our history. For one thing, it reminds me that it was not long ago (in fact in my own generation) that women did not enjoy the freedoms they enjoy today. We’ve come a long way! But there is a lifetime of history to undo and much work still needs to be done. The spiritual reading I’m doing points out how the world’s view of men and women is badly distorted, and people have taken great advantage of that in many ways.

I look forward to my research for this half day retreat, especially since it brings in the reading I’m doing for this blog.

Oh and by the way? The woman that hired us is a big Louisa fan! God is good. :-)

So far in Mr. Emerson’s Wife, Waldo has just purposed to Lidian, ironically through a letter. How perfect! As you may know, Emerson’s first wife, Ellen Tucker, was his true love and there would be no one to replace her. Lidian strikes me as more of a companion, a functional wife, rather than the true love that was Ellen. According to Brown, Lidian was very reluctant to get married and understood very well the sacrifices women had to make to become wives (in essence, giving up their own individual lives). She was 30 and did not want to marry. Waldo proved to be very persuasive.

I feel the pangs inside as I read this, knowing that their marriage turned out to be far less than she had hoped it would be. But I look forward to getting deeper into this story.

Stay tuned . . . :-)