My 3 days with Louisa (part 5): Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

My last of three days with Louisa was spent in the most intimate fashion, buried in papers written by the hands of her sisters and father at the Houghton Library at Harvard Square in Cambridge.

What is Houghton like?

Unlike Harvard’s main library, the Grand Dame known as Widener, Houghton is the little sister tucked away behind the Dame. It is formal, yet cozy.

All are welcome

Registering for a pass was simple and quick; Houghton truly welcomes anyone with a sincere desire to learn. After receiving my card, I was ushered into the reading room which was filled with students and scholars lost in research.

Seeing Lizzie’s diary

At last I would get to see what I had been longing for: Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s diary at Hillside. Except for a few short letters, this diary is the only record of length from the “shadow sister.” She began writing it at age eleven.

Difficulty getting beneath the surface

Biographers have had a hard time cracking the nut that is Lizzie. Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women writes:

“The third Alcott daughter is impossible to pin down. She appears never to have asked anything of anybody or of life itself.” (pg. 140, ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)

Commenting directly on the Hillside dairy, Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts Biography of a Family writes:

“One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling and never find it.

So it is too with the girl herself. It was all hidden behind the serene countenance, the robust rosy features and the evasive blue eyes …” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Perhaps they were looking for the wrong thing.

What I saw

I haven’t yet poured over all of Lizzie’s diary but the reading so far has told me this much:

  • Lizzie liked order in her life.
    Anna wrote in her diary, “”I think I love order and so does my sister Elizabeth.” (from Scituate July 1839, Monday the 25th, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library).
  • Her small, precise and consistently neat handwriting portrays a little girl who was self-contained and conscientious; it suggests a very even temperament (just my opinion, I’m no handwriting expert!)
  • Math was one of her favorite subjects.
    Although I’ve only read a few pages so far, she mentions several times doing “sums in Division.” She writes, “I came into studies and did a few sums in Division. I like to do them very much. It does me some good to do them.” (Hillside, Concord, June 24, 1845, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library)
    Lizzie was said to be good at playing the piano; often musicians are good mathematicians. The understanding of music theory comes a lot more easily to a mathematical mind. This is why I call my math genius husband the “official” musician in our house because of his thorough knowledge of music theory. Math baffles me, and so does music theory which is why I play music strictly by ear.
  • Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

    She loved flowers and dolls.
    Lizzie writes of picking flowers and playing with her “dollies” on numerous occasions in her diary. I disagree with Bedell that she showed no “reaction” in her writings; her reactions were subtle. It was plain to this reader anyway that Lizzie appreciated beauty and derived pleasure from picking and studying flowers (recall the Botony report she wrote for Louisa’s family newspaper, The Olive Leaf).

  • She enjoyed observing the world around her and wrote precise notes.
    For a girl who supposedly didn’t have a lot to say, Lizzie wrote detailed entries in her diary.
  • She was very happy at Hillside.
    Lizzie doesn’t have to say that she was happy – it is obvious in the day-to-day rhythm of activities that she describes. Again the even temperament is very evident.
  • She looked upon keeping a journal as a daily homework assignment rather than as a way to express herself; I wonder if she would have done it were it not required of her.
    Several times she mentions writing in her journal because her father asked it of her. Her diary ends with “I now have finished my journal and am going to give it to Mother.” She had fulfilled her obligation.

Intensely private

The open sharing of journals and diaries between family members was commonplace yet Lizzie was uncomfortable with the idea, often refusing. Bedell writes,

“She was too shy to read her earnest, noncommittal little record, even to her parents and sisters.” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Is there a possibility that the more ordinary Lizzie was intimated by the genius that surrounded her? I know how I am around my older sister whom I revere for her take-charge attitude and capableness – I become like mush and always defer. Lizzie, I get you!

A developing theory

These are certainly not earth-shattering (nor original) revelations. It does however, fuel a theory I’ve been simmering in my head: Lizzie was a normal girl of average ability surrounded by, buried by, intense genius. Biographers are looking for that same spark that flickered in Anna, bloomed in May and roared like a bonfire in Louisa. Surely since Lizzie came from the same stock, she’d have that spark of brilliance too.

Not necessarily.

In my household of four, we have three members who are somewhat eccentric and artistic, obsessing over our passions. We live in our own worlds.

The fourth member is the opposite. She has her finger on the pulse of this world and keeps us grounded in it.

Perhaps Lizzie played that role too. I look forward to finding out more as I continue to read her diary.

In the next post I want to share things I found in Anna’s diary. It makes me want to go back for a lot more in my next visit to the “Holy Grail” that is Houghton Library. :-)

Click to Tweet & Share: Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal http://wp.me/p125Rp-17p

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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

Why is Louisa’s voice so powerful in my life? A childhood recollection

It’s been slow at work the last couple of days so I’ve been able to indulge in reading and research (one of the best perks of my job). It gave me a chance to revisit one of the first biographies I read on Louisa, Louisa May Alcott by Katharine Anthony. Published in 1937, it was one of the early biographies aimed at adults.

I’ve been considering submiting a proposal to Orchard House’s annual Summer Conversational Series, the theme being “Legacy of a Powerful Voice.” There is no doubt Louisa’s voice has been powerful in my life but I never could really pinpoint why.

Anthony’s biography reminded me, especially with the chapter on Louisa’s years at Hillside.

The happy years

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

Hillside has always been my favorite period in Louisa’s life. There was stability, harmony, joy and freedom, even some normalcy in the life of the family. She herself refers to the Hillside years as the happiest. It is during this period that I see parallels between her and me that explain why she speaks to my heart so powerfully.

A room of one’s own

The first was Louisa getting her own room. A space to call one’s own was important to both of us. I finally got my own room at around the same age and it meant the world to me. Going through my “horse phase” at the time unlocked my creativity and I expressed it in a variety of ways, beginning with filling my new room with pictures of horses that I drew.

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

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was my favorite book and love of that story spurred me on to write my own sequel. It was such fun writing that book that I wrote others. I had also discovered my other favorite book, The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard and I pictured the illustration of Louisa sitting in her “Poet’s Corner” writing stories. I felt a kinship with her.

Best friends

Anthony mentions that one of Louisa’s best friends was a neighborhood boy, Cyrus Hosmer whom she had met earlier while staying at the Hosmer Cottage. Louisa spoke of him fondly saying, “Cy was a comrade after my own heart.” My first best friend was also a boy who lived next door. While Louisa and Cyrus enjoyed wild physical escapades, Dolph and I enjoyed our adventures through our imaginations. Dolph was exceedingly intelligent,  having an imagination that just wouldn’t quit. We could entertain each other for hours on end. Every other friend seemed boring by comparison.

Playacting

Louisa first started acting back at Still River (just after Fruitlands). Illustration by Flora Smith.

Like Louisa I loved putting on plays.  I organized all the theatricals and while we didn’t have Hillside’s barn, we did have our basement.. We’d stage our favorite fairy tales  (mine was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where I played the Wicked Queen).

Spies, stories and fashion

As I grew older, this playacting continued through a friendship with the smartest girl in the school who matched Dolph in the imagination department. The other kids made fun of her (and I had too) because she was so unusual but once I got to know her, I knew we would enjoy many an adventure. Playing the part of exotic British spies a la Diana Rigg in The Avengers, Kathy and I would spend whole days acting out impromptu TV episodes. We wrote plays together, and we pretended we were fashion designers, designing our own book of exotic clothes.

Tomboy in name only

I only wished I had been athletically inclined like Louisa. I wasn’t well coordinated and it made me very cautious when it came to climbing trees and other physical activities. I envied Louisa’s daring but alas, could only live her escapades in my dreams.

Hillside as a haven

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

After re-reading Katharine Anthony’s biography, I could see why Louisa counted her years at Hillside as her happiest. It was the one time in her life when she could truly be herself, and it was before she would take on the heavy mantle of family provider.

Anthony used the words “fierce,” “hoyden,” and “wild” to describe Louisa; I would say she had a personality that was bigger than life. She was permitted to live a life that freed her as much as possible from convention and duty. Free to run and romp, she had the license to work out her physical and emotional energies. She was also given space to indulge in her rich inner life which produced a flurry of stories and plays. Nature’s expanse and beauty continually revived her spirits, and best of all, her dear family was living in harmony.

I too had those advantages. Around the same age as Louisa, I reveled in mine as she did in hers.

Joan Howard’s biography became very dog-eared. Every time I read the chapter on Hillside I would relive those happy memories. I would then finish the book and dream bigger dreams.

What’s your connection to Louisa?
How has her voice been powerful in your life?


Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter