My writing room dedicated to Louisa May Alcott

Since I recently did a post on being inspired by Louisa’s need for a room of her own, I thought I’d share my room with you.

I claimed my son’s large basement bedroom and furnished it with a love seat, lounge chair and prints made of collages that I created from “The Most Beloved American Writer” series in the Woman’s Home Companion magazine from 1938 which I bought from Ebay (see previous post). The series was written by Katharine Anthony (featuring excerpts from her biography on Louisa May Alcott) with paintings and drawings of scenes from Little Women by Norman Rockwell.

Here’s where I write (I have a little picture of Louisa’s desk on the table):

room of my own

And here’s what I see on the opposite wall:

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-2

Here are closeups of the prints:

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-3

woman's home companion the most beloved american writer katharine anthony norman rockwell-1

That room puts me in the zone instantly! I call it my “lair.” I get a lot of work done down there. :-)

What’s your special space like?

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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

bronson-abba

Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1953 to 1958. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.

bronson-abba

Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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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.

Download the entire article

Maria S. Porter’s recollections are available her for download.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD.
They were obtained from archive.org.

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Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part three: Can you tell what’s real and what is made up?

Little Women  has been called autobiographical because Louisa May Alcott used so many episodes from her own childhood and that of her family to create the story. But where does fact end and fiction begin? Or does it even work like that?

Stern says, “Fact was embedded in fiction, and a domestic novel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood.”

True or False?

play and amy and joLet’s have a little quiz, True or False – is the following a real episode or fiction? Warning: the answer isn’t always black and white so pick True if it’s more black than white and False if the opposite.

Copy the entire list and then put TRUE or FALSE after the statement and we’ll compare notes.

  1. Hannah the servant
  2. The Christmas play (“The Witches’ Curse, an Operatic Tragedy)
  3. Amy burns Jo’s manuscript
  4. Marmee’s temper
  5. Amy falling through the ice
  6. Jo pinching Meg’s papered locks before the ball
  7. Meg being dressed up as a doll at Annie Moffat’s
  8. Amy bewailing her pickled limes
  9. Beth receiving the piano from Mr. Lawrence
  10. Mr. March’s illness
  11. Jo sells her hair.
  12. Beth wasted away and died peacefully.
  13. Jo published her first story, “The Rival Painters.”
  14. Amy writes her own will.
  15. Jo rejects Laurie’s love.

Answers in the next post. Good luck!

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part one

madeleine stern lmaI have always maintained that Madeleine B. Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography is the standard bearer. Tracing the life of Louisa the writer, Stern gives penetrating insight not only into Louisa’s life, but her very essence as a writer. As a writer myself, I have found much wisdom in these pages and have marveled at Louisa’s ability to “simmer a story” in her head while fulfilling duties around the house, and then sitting down later to spill it out, completed on paper, without editing. I try emulate the simmering part, at least, often working out what I want to write vocally as I am driving (yes, I’m one of those crazies you see on the highway, arms flying, face animated with talk. I love my hour long commute!).

The birth of Little Women

little women norton versionRecently I was going through Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) and found Stern’s brilliant chapter on the creation and writing of Little Women. I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I knew I just had to share what I found with you.

Oliver_Optic_-_All_AdriftStern relays the facts of the birth of Little Women, how Thomas Niles of Roberts Bros. urged Louisa to try her hand at a girl’s book, hoping to duplicate the runaway success of the “Oliver Optic” series for boys. I had always wondered why he approached Louisa as she didn’t have any direct experience in writing for juveniles and Stern reveals why:

“She [Louisa] have proved her ability to report observations in Hospital Sketches; she had indicated her powers of appealing to juvenile readers in her editorship of  Merry’s Museum. Could not Miss Alcott combine both talents in a domestic novel that would reflect American life for the enjoyment of American youth? (pg. 434, Little Women, Norton Edition).

Louisa’s unique abilities

merry's museum 1868Louisa saw no trick in writing for children: simply tell the truth. Describe life as it is, using the real language of children (slang and all). For Louisa, it was a simple calculation. Wisely deciding to write what she knew, she drew upon the rich history of her own childhood.

A model family

Stern describes Bronson’s ideal of the “happy, kind and loving family, a home where peace and gentle quiet abode.” (Ibid, pg. 435). Little Women was to be the depiction of that ideal home. Although the Alcott home life was often be fraught with anxiety and chaos due to poverty, there was plenty to build upon in Little Women based upon the ideal that they attempted to live. On occasion, that ideal did play out.

Knowing their angels

Bronson and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in Louisa’s ability to relate to children; Waldo, who had seen a teenaged Louisa tell stories to his children, had called her the “poet of children, who knew their angels” (Ibid). Certainly Bronson had something to gain by Louisa’s agreeing to write the story as Robert Bros. promised to publish his book, Tablets, if she agreed. But he had urged her for years to write good stories for children as the nurturing of the minds of the young was nearest and dearest to his heart. If he could no longer do it, perhaps his daughter could take up the mantle through her gift with a story.

Where to begin

Stern writes, “The door was Hillside’s.  Could Louisa open it, recover those despised recollections of childhood, and find in the biography of one foolish person the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the universal history?” (Ibid)

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

We shall see. To be continued.

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The first biography: Louisa May Alcott The Children’s Friend by Ednah Dow Cheney

The first book to be released on the life of Louisa May Alcott was Ednah Dow Cheney’s Louisa May Alcott, The Children’s Friend. A sweet and romanticized account of Louisa’s life, this book was geared for the countless fans of Little Women and children of all ages.  Cheney, a longtime friend of the family (who had been sweet on Bronson) was entrusted with Louisa’s letters and journals which she edited and released in her adult version of Louisa’s life known as  Louisa May Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals.

Louisa May Alcott, The Children’s Friend was released in 1888, the same year that Louisa died. I was lucky enough to acquire an original copy (see previous post) from The Barrow in Concord and so can share sample pages from the book with you:

louisa may alcott the children's friend frontpiece

inside cover

louisa may alcott the children's friend title page

orchard house

sleepy hollow

to a robin

Louisa’s first poem

a song from the suds

To Lulu from Bronson

To Lulu from Bronson

Memoriam for Abigail May Alcott

Memoriam for Abigail May Alcott

You can see the book in its entirety here.

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Book Review: Fruitlands Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan

fruitlands louisa may alcott made perfectOne of you (Julie) gifted me with a wonderful book and once I picked it up, I could not put it down. The book, geared for older children, is called Fruitlands Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan.

A lost diary

The premise of the book is based on Louisa’s diary kept at Fruitlands. This was her first diary and sadly, only a few pages survive. They were miraculously found in the wall of the Fruitlands house years ago. Gloria Whelan maintains that Bronson destroyed much of it as he had also destroyed Anna’s kept during that time.

A tale of two diaries

Whelan through the power of storytelling restores it. But, she not only restores it, she presents two diaries, one written for public consumption as was the custom in the family, and one kept secret. In the first entry of the secret diary Louisa writes, “In the first diary there will be Louy, who will try to be just what Mother and Father would wish. In the second diary there will be Louisa, just as she is.”

Knowing that privacy was in short supply in the lives of the Alcotts, I had to work a bit to accept the premise but once I did I was swept into this book.

Real children

512 moving to fruitlands (socrates bust)Whelan is the writer I wish to be. She is a masterful storyteller, revealing so much through the details, dialog and actions of the characters. She fleshes out each child by comparing how they’d respond to a situation. From Louisa’s secret diary:  “Lizzie is good-natured and listens patiently to all the questions that Father puts to us. Anna tries hard to give the correct answers, but sometimes when the questions are difficult she pleads a headache and slips away. I say what comes into my head and know at once it is a foolish answer. I wish I could learn to keep my silence.”

Big sis Anna

Anna normally considered the “good girl,” the counterpart to Bronson, is cast in a somewhat unflattering light. She did indeed exhibit Bronson’s ways, especially his penchant for being judgmental. She did everything she could to please him at the expense of her sisters. Typical of an older sister, she never failed to lord it over Louisa and point out her faults.

Little sis Lizzie

Lizzie is Louisa’s safe haven. Whelan presents a flesh and blood little girl that we could truly love through the gentle actions, words of encouragement and total acceptance that she offered to everyone. In her public diary entry, Louisa recounts being rude to Mr. Lane (a common occurrence): Mr. Lane then talked with us upon the subject that all men are equal. I was rude and impertinent, for I asked Mr. Lane if we are all equal, why should be always be the one to tell us what to do? Even Mother was angry with my rudeness. I cried and begged Mr. Lane’s pardon.” In the private diary entry she recounts crying into her pillow and how “Lizzie crept over and put her arm around me. Anna asked, “Louy, why must you always say just what you think?”

A rich and complex child

512 louisa contemplatingThrough these diaries, Whelan paints a detailed picture of a complex child, acutely aware of her surroundings and compelled to speak her mind despite the consequence. I found myself engulfed in her soaring imagination as she organized games with the other children, pretending to be fairies, witches and characters from Shakespeare. Often Louisa would explore her darker side through the parts she chose to play making me think of the potboilers and thrillers she’d indulge in as an adult, stories ironically that would keep the family financially afloat.

A room of one’s own

from essitolling.wordpress.com

from essitolling.wordpress.com

Whelan described an exquisite place outdoors that Louisa claimed as the room of her own where she could write and think: “I found a weeping willow tree. It stands close to the river, and its overhanging branches form a curtain. When I pushed the branches aside, there was a leafy tent I could craw inside and be invisible to all … The breeze gently moves the trailing branches this way and that, so that first one part of the land is visible, and then another. It is as if pages in a book of pictures are being turned for me.”

Building tensions

fruitlandsThe best part of this book was the “slow burn:” the building desperation, not only of how the extended family would survive but Louisa’s own desperation with herself and all the criticism she took from the adults. I could feel the weight of the oppression on her as she was undermined again and again by her father and Charles Lane.  Whelan creates a keen sense of claustrophobia not only physically with the dwindling supplies and the fierce winter closing in, but psychologically as the community shrinks in membership and slowly breaks down into chaos.

Public and private

There were times when the choice of language and the conclusions drawn by Louisa seemed too mature for a girl of 10, despite her “old soul,” but in most cases, the diary entries rang with Louisa’s voice. What truly propelled the book was the ploy of first featuring Louisa’s entry for the masses followed by the entry from her heart. I couldn’t wait to read further and find out her take on the story.

The greatest complement I could pay this book? It ended far too soon. I’m reading it again. Thanks, Julie!

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Letter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore

lizzie alcott2Work is progressing, albeit slowly, on my book project. I am enjoying all aspects of the process from the thinking and planning while I drive (I’m one of those crazies that talks to myself all the time), to the research, to the paragraphs percolating in my head, to the final writing. I’m falling more in love with my characters if that is possible. I enjoy their company and their voices inside my head.

Sources in the writer’s own hand

Primary sources are vital to historical research; I was taught this by my seventh grade social studies teacher. I remember feeling excited when she explained that our textbooks would include original writings from those who formed and shaped our country. I’ve never lost that thrill of reading something written long ago, especially when you can read the person’s own handwriting.

Worth the effort

Lately I’ve been immersed in letters written by Abba to Bronson, her brother Samuel Joseph, and her daughters Louisa and Anna. I had requested and received PDF scans of several letters from the helpful librarians at Houghton Library and felt like I had won the lottery! The beauty of PDF files is that they can be easily enlarged, a necessity since Abba’s handwriting is so difficult to read. My respect for the tenacity of Eve LaPlante went up tenfold as I struggled over each word. Her compilation, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother is truly the product of blood, sweat and tears, making it all the more valuable.

north shore swampscott MAFrom sister to brother

One such letter, addressed to “My dear Brother” is dated August 25, 1857, written from Lynn, Massachusetts.  Abba had taken Elizabeth to an area known as the North Shore so that her daughter could experience the supposed healing effects of the ocean. My mother was born in Lynn; her family (the Breeds) was established in the seacoast city in the 1630s. She grew up in Lynn and neighboring Swampscott, another town where Abba and Elizabeth stayed during their sojourn. This is of personal importance because Abba cites a Dr. Newhall from Lynn as treating Lizzie during their stay. Because there were many marriages between Breeds and Newhalls over the years, I have a strong suspicion that I may be related to Dr. Newhall. I am currently researching that possibility and will report back if I find that we are kissin’ cousins. :-)

Looking for answers

Abba wrote the following to Samuel Joseph regarding Lizzie’s condition (note that I couldn’t make out all the words and therefore left some out. I have corrected some small punctuation errors):

littlewomen00alcoiala_0421We have been in Lynn now about three weeks – Lizzy’s vacillating condition has left me from day to day in doubt what to write about … The first week was warm and pleasant and the change was grateful to her – she eat [ate], slept and lived more naturally than I have known her to do for 6 months – but the last two weeks have been cold, rainy, dispiriting me and her – and most unfavorable for her. Dr. Newhall (Charles’ Dr.) thought it best to remove her immediately back – thinks her lungs are slightly diseased and that the comforts of house and the society of her family are now all important … Aunty Bond sent Dr. Charles [Windship] down – he gives a different opinion … that Lizzy is in every way failed – but that she has no not even incipient disease of the lungs – her nervous weakness operates on the brain and lungs … pathetically – that another week of fine weather may produce a most salient effect – for I remain till next Mon. This will prove the experiment a gain or a failure – it will end (?) my faith in human science and my pocket of human dreams. I work on as hopefully as I can … such a scientific must – it seems to me the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess. (AMA to SMJ 25 August 1857 fro MS Am 1130.9 (25), Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Inspired by her surroundings

After writing such a distressing account, she waxes philosophical as she contemplates the scenery:

ocean wavesThe change of scene has been very beneficial to me. I had become morbidly apprehensive … in judgment and action. The very sight of the ocean has restored me to a sense of marginal (?)  power. From our … irritations, our faithless anxiety bubbles (?) before the immensity of ocean, the grandeur of rocks (?), … the feel that order, and Beauty, love and power around, that it is the order of Supreme law – the beauty of sublime art – the love of uniform (?) good will – the Power of eternal Night. Our own dependence it is so apparent – our helplessness so unmistakable we exclaim … from pure instinct truly a Lord liveth – and loveth! (Ibid)

Reading that made me think of how often she and Bronson, especially in the early days, must have sat together, sharing similar thoughts.

From iconic Marmee to real mother

Reading Abba’s letters in her own hand transforms her from the literary icon of Marmee to a flesh and blood person. Often I feel like I am reading letters written by my own mother or grandmother when I read hers. I recall from Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother that LaPlante described the poor condition of Abba’s eyesight so I can understand why her handwriting might be difficult to read. It’s amazing she could write letters at all considering the condition of her eyes!

That helpful Houghton librarian sent me a final tantalizing tease in her email, to quote: “there are a lot of other letters that deal with Lizzie’s collapse and the sojourn to the North Shore.”

Meat for the starving dog. Stay tuned …

Click to Tweet & ShareLetter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore http://wp.me/s125Rp-5637

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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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Book review: Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy

I am delighted when Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters (see previous post) offered to review this wonderful new edition of Little Women. Ed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

560 LW Shealy1There are two ways to read Daniel Shealy’s new annotated version of Little Women (Belknap Press, $35.00): the sensible way and the irresistible way. The sensible way is to open at the beginning, and read through to the end, checking the footnotes as you go. That is the sensible way.

Every detail you could ever want

The irresistible way, is to open at the beginning … read the first couple of footnotes … realize that this book will tell you every single thing that you have ever wondered about in the background to Little Women … and proceed on a wild treasure hunt of March family trivia that will take you zig-zagging across the text until your head spins.

  • Was the town where the Marches lived really based on Concord? (No – although there are similarities between the Marches’ house and Hillside, the Alcotts’ house when the daughters were teenagers, the house in the book is quite specifically located in a ‘suburb’ of Boston while the more rural Concord is 18 miles away.)
  • What really were pickled limes? (Precisely what they sounded like, and, inexplicably, hugely popular with nineteenth century schoolchildren).
  • What was the game called ‘Rarey’ that Laurie played with his horse while Amy sketched him? (Not a game at all, interestingly: there was famous horse whisperer of the time called John Rarey, whom apparently Laurie was emulating).
  • Did May Alcott, the real life inspiration for Amy March, ever really sleep with a clothes pin on her nose? (Yes, and was less than delighted to have had this fact immortalized in print).

Many ways to read

The bad thing about reading the book the irresistible way is that it will leave you dazed and giddy, with your mind stuffed with far too much information properly to process. The good thing is that, after you have suitably sown your Alcottian wild oats, you will then have the time to go back and read the book the sensible way to see what you’ve missed.

For the fan and the scholar

Quite simply, the book is the Little Women lover’s dream come true. It’s physically imposing, with pages that are nine inches wide and divided into two columns: the text of the book runs through the two inner columns, while the outer are devoted to the footnotes. And what footnotes they are. There is something in them for everyone, from the neophyte who needs to have it explained that that beloved Alcottian adjective ‘decided’ means ‘determined’ in modern English, to scholars of all levels, of literature, of history, of women’s studies, of social studies, and of just plain fun.

Pages 246-247 - the footnotes are in red, the book text in black. The exquisite design of this book is exemplified through the choice of type (note the lovely drop cap at the beginning of the chapter) and the quality of the paper. From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Pages 246-247 – the footnotes are in red, the book text in black. The exquisite design of this book is exemplified through the choice of type (note the lovely drop cap at the beginning of the chapter) and the quality of the paper.
From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Serious facts, fun trivia

Information comes trivial and weighty, and the skill with which all of it is woven around the text is exemplary.

A chance comment of Marmee’s that she doesn’t want the girls to ‘delve like slaves,’ leads to a concise, but full, outline of the antislavery movement.

Similarly, the information that Meg’s husband John Brooke went to fight in the Civil War and was wounded – although we are told that the real life John Bridge Pratt did not go to fight at all – provides an opportunity for some sobering paragraphs on the ‘horrific’ human cost of the War on the population in general.

Louisa and her alter ego, Jo

Louisa’s real-life literary career is recounted alongside Jo March’s fictional one; and no less meticulousness is given to detailing the various fashionable fineries with which all sisters adorn themselves throughout the book. Louisa’s views on marriage are expounded, as are her views on women’s emancipation; Bronson Alcott’s philosophy is given its due airing, as is a history of salt cellars, a recipe for beef tea, and a completely delightful anecdote which I had never heard before, about a visit to Boston by the then Prince of Wales in 1860, during the course of which he captured the heart of Louisa and a friend by winking to them flirtatiously as he passed by in a carriage.

Classic illustrations through the ages

Pages 336-337 features a delightful depiction of Amy, foot stuck in plaster; illustration by Frank Merrill, 1880 version. From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Pages 336-337 features a delightful depiction of Amy, foot stuck in plaster; illustration by Frank Merrill, 1880 version.
From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Nor are the treasures of this book confined to its words. Running through the pages is a veritable wealth of illustrations, ranging from historical photographs of Louisa, her family, and the time she lived in, to book illustrations from different editions of Little Women, to stills from the various movies.

You will flick from Norman Rockwell’s no-nonsense depictions from 1937, to Frank Merrill’s elegant pen and ink figures from 1880 (my personal favorite is of Jo wearing glasses and addressing the Pickwick Society), to the sweetly wistful sisters of Barbara Cooney from 1955.

You will find stills of Katharine Hepburn as Jo in 1933, Christian Bale as Laurie in 1994, and a lavishly made-up Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949.

Picture, pictures and more pictures

Along the way you will chance on other joys – the warmly welcoming interiors of the magnificent Orchard House museum in Concord, a Victorian mourning locket, an old playbill, a group of early suffragettes, or sometimes, just because it’s pretty, an illustration of a sweet pea or a dahlia. Amy would approve wholeheartedly.

Totally worth it

This book is not a casual purchase: priced at $35.00 and weighing in at a whopping 4.2 pounds, it is not something you’ll be slipping into your basket on the spur of the moment. But for the person in your life who loves or could learn to love Louisa May Alcott, and who you think deserves a special treat – be it your daughter, your best friend or even (why not?) yourself – it is worth each penny of cost and each ounce of weight several times over.

Gabrielle Donnelly is the author of the novel The Little Women Letters, published by Touchstone.

Click to Tweet & Share: Gabrielle Donnelly (The Little Women Letters) reviews the new annotated Little Women, edited by Daniel Shealy http://wp.me/p125Rp-1sC

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Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!