Remembering my mom with the words of Louisa May Alcott

Today (April 22, 2015) marks the fifth anniversary of my mother’s passing. But it’s not a sad day. Like Louisa, I have a firm belief in the hereafter. Like Christie Devon in Work, I too have seen “signs” that my mother is still very close to me (see previous post).

In those first weeks after my mother’s passing when I was too numb to cry I found Louisa. The one thing that broke through that wall of numbness was reading Louisa’s words in my mother’s copies of her books, personalized with her name plate.

There was Little Women with a copyright of 1911.

little women combined

There was An Old-Fashioned Girl from the 1920’s with the most exquisite color plates.

an old fashioned girl combined

There was Aunt Jo’s Scrap-bag, Volume 6 with my favorite of Louisa’s short stories, “The Dolls’ Journey from Minnesota to Maine.”

aunt jo's scrap-bag combined

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

Now, five years later with many wonderful books read and much writing done, I think of my mother with heartfelt love and and a few tears,  knowing that somehow her spirit guided me to Louisa, along with the beloved Friend that lives inside of me.

Happy anniversary, Mommy.

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Thoughts on Little Women the second time around–seeing Jo in a new light

I have just finished my second reading of Little Women. Both times I have listened to the free audio book on Librivox.com. The first time around wasn’t too bad until I got into the crux of Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer in chapter 46. The reader unfortunately had such a loud and grating voice that it totally ruined that chapter for me.

A dramatic reading

This time around I found a dramatic reading of the book which was done almost to perfection. The narrator (who also took on the role of Jo) was superior in every way. All the main parts were done well although it took awhile to accept Laurie’s voice.

Never fails to please

It is amazing how much this book yields in multiple readings! It’s a different book each time. But then you long-time fans know that already, don’t you? For some of you, it’s a yearly habit. I can certainly see why.

Changing view of Jo—her rite of passage

WinonaJoMarchThe first time I read Little Women I was put off by Jo and favored Amy. Jo was frankly rude, obnoxious and self-absorbed at times (part of being a teenager) and because I had spent so much time with her real life counterpart, Jo seemed a shadow of Louisa.

From this second reading I have a much better sense of Jo. Her rite of passage from the awkward teenager who never wanted to grow up to the mature and more sober woman of twenty-five moved me. Louisa did an outstanding job of tracing Jo’s journey to maturity and revealing some of herself in the process. Her grief over the loss of Beth and how she carried on in the aftermath transformed her heart, making it ready to love someone beyond her immediate family.

A perfect match

jo marchMany readers see her capitulating to marriage but I don’t see it that way. I still maintain that Professor Bhaer was the perfect match for her (and I’ve often entertained the idea that he was Louisa’s ideal for a husband who for her, did not exist in real life). Jo grew to be a better writer for having grown within herself, writing from that true place in her heart. (Oh, and by the way, Jo mentioned a few times that Laurie disapproved of her writing).

A quiet revolution

jo and professor bhaerShe and Fritz lived the companionate marriage that Louisa dreamed of and wrote about in Work A Story of Experience. Jo and Fritz shared everything, from meaningful work to family life. This in and of itself was a quiet revolution, illustrating a marriage between equals. I had missed the fact in my first reading that Jo actually was the one to plant the first kiss! Loved that. How like our Jo!

Ever present spiritual guide

jo and bethLittle Women began to shed light on a burning question I have entertained since I got interested in Elizabeth Alcott. Louisa often mentioned that her late sister Lizzie was her “spiritual guide” but she never detailed any of that in her journals or letters. I wondered then how that idea manifested itself in her life. Of course her books provide the answer. From chapter 40 on when Beth dies, I began see how real life Lizzie influenced her older sister. And I intend to go over those chapters carefully (especially 40 and 42) to find out more.

A treasure trove

little women in the garretThere is so much treasure to unearth between the lines of this book. And many universal themes, themes that do apply to today if you work at it a little bit. Thank goodness for places like Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House where the spirit of Little Women is kept alive for generations to come.

Speaking to you and me

little women 190I am late to Little Women, very late. Most of you are probably saying, “Of course! Duh!” This book has spoken to you throughout your lives. In my late fifties, it is now speaking to me.

That’s the mark of a true classic. Little Women is no mere “children’s” book. It’s a book for every age.

Your thoughts?

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Remember this painting of The Wayside where the Little Women actually grew up? Artist Joyce Pyka sends us an update

You may recall an artist’s rendition of The Wayside, originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott after the home was purchased with Abba Alcott’s inheritance.

Although Orchard House is the physical setting for Little Women, artist Joyce Pyka, like many of us Alcott fans, knows that many of the childhood stories of the girls took place at Hillside.

Pyka has been revealing her envisioning of The Wayside with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie in various stages:

Little Women 10 26 2014 fixed by Joyce Pyka

dog

detail laurie

Here’s the latest version:

640-wayside clearer 3 31 2015

Pyka reports that the painting should be done by summer and yes, prints will be available for sale. Sign me up!

Here are previous blog posts on the painting.

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Meet today’s version of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy from “The March Family Letters”

In part two of my behind-the-scenes look at “The March Family Letters,” we meet the March Sisters through a series of questions I posed to them:

meg marchMeg

What is your line of work?
As well as working towards a bachelor’s in engineering, I supplement my income by tutoring lower years.

Would you consider yourself to be excessively busy?
Incredibly. But it will be worth it in the end.

How long did you have to pin your hair back to cover up Jo’s mistake? I’m amazed you loaned her your dress after that debacle!
I had to hide my hair for weeks. It was very inconvenient.

And I am amazed at myself too; I don’t know what I was thinking. But it worked out because Jo managed to return the dress to me in a surprisingly flawless condition.

Finally, what is your view regarding and career, marriage and children? How do you intend to juggle/balance all of these?
I believe it is possible to have it all. I intend to work hard at my career to earn enough so I may be financially stable and can enjoy the finer things in life. I will marry an independently wealthy husband and between the two of us, I will be able to settle down comfortably and raise our children.

jo marchJo

What is your true ambition?
I want to be able to use what I love to not only support my family, but also to make a difference. The last thing I want is to be stuck doing something with my life that I’m not completely passionate about.

Have you ever been in love and if so, with whom?
I have dated in the past, but saying I was ever in love would be a huge overstatement.

Do you see yourself falling in love?
I mean, it’s possible that I might in the future, but it’s really not something I can picture happening to me at this point.

Do you have hopes of being famous someday?
Being famous isn’t a goal of mine, but I hope that one day my films will make a meaningful impact.

How do you feel about marriage and motherhood, and do you see it as a part of your future? How will you feel if one of your sisters marries first?
Marriage and motherhood are all well and good for some people (and no disrespect to those who choose that path), but I don’t really think it’s for me. I admire my mother and father immensely for all the work and love they put into raising us, but I don’t have a desire to do it myself. It definitely wouldn’t bother me if one of my sisters were to marry first, but I would want them to wait until they’ve had time to experience life as their own person separate from a relationship.

beth marchBeth

How do you feel around family and friends?
I love my family very much so of course being around my family then makes me happy. They have a way of making me feel like everything will be okay as long as we have each other.

Do you daydream?
When I listen to music I often get lost in the story the music creates for me.

How does music speak to you, and does it speak for you sometimes?
A lot of the time music does speak for me. It is my way of expressing the things I don’t know how to say with just words. One of the most amazing things about music is the way it connects people. The fact the same lyrics can mean so many different things to so many different people, and yet it brings those people together is one of the many things that makes music so beautiful.

amy marchAmy

Do you hope to become a successful artist, one who can make her living by creating and selling her art?
I do indeed have aspirations of being a successful artist, for I fear that keeping my talents to myself would be a terribly selfish thing to do. I think the world is in need of a fresh perspective and a powerful young female artist, and I am here to provide.

What art medium are you most talented at?
I prefer drawing in ink-based tools as to properly master them you must be quite sure of your talents and your instincts. And I believe that is what is best captured by my work, an instinctive confidence in the undiscovered and the imperfections of aesthetics.

Does your art have any particular message?
I try to most dubiously depict the supernatural in order to create a commentary on our society’s absurd beauty standards, and its phobia of aberrate social constructs. The mere concept of “social norms” irritates me to my core, as I believe we are all but visitors on this planet, and thus we cannot conceivably adhere to arbitrary rules made up by years of bias and misinformed history. I am appalled that my sisters and I will face challenges and discrimination as persons whom would fall under the category of “non-traditional” identities, because I think each of us offer our own unique beauty and talent to the world.

Are you drawn to the bohemian life?
I cannot say that I am, though I will recognize the challenge the ideology presents.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I see myself at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and at the top of my class, perhaps while doing a fellowship.

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A modern take on Little Women: Behind the scenes of the YouTube series, “The March Family Letters”

I’ve been so enjoying The March Family Letters and I hope you have been too. Naturally, I was curious to learn more about how it came about.

the march family letters header

I recently had the pleasure of chatting via email with the series producer and showrunner Sarah Shelson; in part one of the interview she shares how the series came to be and how the March sisters were re-imagined for the present day.

What made you decide to produce this series? What is your connection to Little Women?

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).I have loved the Little Women novel ever since I was little. It was one of my mom’s favourite novels as well. I love how unique all the sisters are and their bond for each other, I love Marmee’s loving advice and I love the way that when I would reread the book, it was like returning home. I wanted to produce this series because I selfishly wanted modern little women to exist. There are also a lot of themes in the original novel that were appealing to me to explore from a modern perspective.

Were you concerned at all with re-imagining the March sisters for the twenty-first century? How did you decide on the various physical and character traits for each sister? For example:

  • Why did you imagine Meg as a workaholic and perfectionist?
  • Why is Beth portrayed as sullen as well as thoughtful when in the original story she was cheerful?
  • Why does Amy wear glasses?
  • Why is Jo a blond?

Very concerned! The March sisters are such beloved characters that we wanted to make sure that we were true to the spirit of the characters in the novel. So that’s how we decided on the character traits. By looking at the original novel and imagining how the character’s desires and journeys translate into the modern age. As for physical traits, these were less important to us than an actor’s ability to portray the character well. To address your specific questions:

the march family letters

In the novel, Meg is a hard worker and aspires to behave like the higher class. Our Meg has had a lot of pressure put on her by being the oldest child and having to take care of her sisters a lot. Just like in the book, she is very driven to realize her dreams and follow through on her plans. She hasn’t learned yet that she doesn’t need to try so hard all the time.

Beth hasn’t been on camera much yet, so I think the audience has only seen a small glimpse of her. And cameras make Beth nervous, so in the first couple videos we see her, her behaviour is shaded by that. As the series goes on and Beth becomes more comfortable on camera, we’ll get to see her open up more.

march family letters episodes 4 and 5

Amy aspires to be taken seriously and be treated like an adult. She has adopted the hipster aesthetic and behaviour to try to come across as more mature. In her eyes, the glasses complete the ensemble. We call her our little faux-hipster.

Jo is a blonde for the simple reason that the actress we cast for her is a blonde. We are both a low budget web series and a project filmed over a long period of time. It wouldn’t be fair to our actors to ask them to dye their hair for the role and we don’t have the resources to pull-off a convincing wig.

What kind of research did you need to do in order to get into the heads and hearts of the sisters?

little women in the garretReading the original novel more times than I can count was definitely high on the list. I also spent a lot of time reading commentary on the book and its characters. The sorts of critiques people have had about it, interpretations of the characters, thematic analyses, that sort of thing. And the last bit of big research I did was for character aspects that I don’t have any lived experience for. For example, I don’t have social anxiety, but it was very important to me that we portrayed Beth’s social anxiety in an authentic way. So I read a lot of information sites as well as first person accounts from people sharing their own experiences.

How long did it take to get The March Family Letters into production? What characteristics were you looking for in your actors? How did you decide on YouTube as the place for viewing the series?

the march family letters logoIt’s been a long journey to production! We decided to produce the series pilot in December 2013. We released that video in March 2014. And then we didn’t start filming the main series until October 2014. And we’re still in production right now, filming the second half of the series! For our actors, we looked for people who were passionate about the project, were comfortable addressing the camera directly, had energies that complimented and contrasted each other, resembled sisters and of course, brought the characters to life the way we envisioned. And finally, YouTube seemed like the best place to distribute the series because of both the engagement opportunities, our target audience’s familiarity with the platform, and the fact that our series has such strong ties to YouTube video styles.

Should the series prove successful, are there plans for a sequel?

For sure! This current run of episodes won’t take us through the whole ‘Little Women’ novel and we would love to get the chance to adapt the whole story.

Stayed tuned!

In part two of this interview, I get to ask questions of the sisters themselves! Coming soon …

Put this at the end of every blog post:

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Available for pre-order: The Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson

Author John MattesonI am pleased to announce The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller.

This volume will contain over 200 illustrations. It is being published by W. W, Norton and Company, the same group which published the popular Norton edition of Little Women.

You can pre-order your copy now from Norton or from Amazon. It contains an amazing 668 pages! The book is expected out in the Fall of 2015.

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Little Women in a changing world: Chapter Two of The Afterlife of Little Women– “Waxing Nostalgic 1900-1930,” part one

In the early twentieth century the world was changing at a breathtaking rate. As a country we moved onto the global stage with the Great War. Dazzling technological innovations created time- and work-saving devices along with new entertainment venues. Medical breakthroughs promised longer and healthier lives. Now that day-to-day survival was no longer the all-consuming task, people had time for leisure, to think and to create.

How did Little Women fare in this changing world?

Beverly Lyon Clark, in her book, The Afterlife of Little Women, indicates that people were already waxing nostalgic about Little Women even though the book was only thirty-two years old by 1900. Adults generally found the book to be “old-fashioned” while children continued to love it. (pg. 42).

Do you consider Little Women to be timely despite its age? What about the book transcends time?

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenDespite the book’s enduring popularity, Little Women was not held in high esteem by scholars mostly because children’s literature had not yet attained any status. (pg. 43). Yet G. K. Chesterton notes that there are “few women in England, from the most revolutionary Suffragette to the most carefully preserved Early Victorian, who will not confess to having passed a happy childhood with the Little Women of Miss Alcott.” (pg. 48). The universal appeal of Little Women speaks to Louisa’s genius, a genius nurtured by an upbringing combining progressive ideas with traditional values.

What are the universal themes of Little Women? Why does it still speak to you today?

gamaliel bradfordIn his essay, “Portrait of Louisa May Alcott,” Gamaliel Bradford was one of the few who praised Louisa’s artistry: “The worshippers of art for art’s sake may sneer at her but the great poets don’t necessarily deserve much more of our gratitude than those who make our souls forget by telling charming stories.” (pg. 53-54). Clark notes that Bradford observed that Louisa may have been motivated more out of a sense of duty rather than love to help her family out of poverty.

Do you consider Little Women to be a work of art? Why or why not?

Yet it is the safer traditional values of home and family that maintained the book’s popularity, generating the spinoffs of a Broadway play, two silent films and several novel series. With World War I jading the population, Little Women was likely seen as a return to “the good old days” despite being considered “too sweet” by many in the tumultuous twenties (pg. 49).

The adaptations began with children’s books. Clark writes, “If ‘publishers complain of the scarcity of good books for girls, and their readers say that no successor to Louisa Alcott has yet to come to view,’ then one approach was to reframe Little Women.” (pg. 58). She lists Seven Little Australians (1894) by Ethel Turner, Sisters Three (1900) by Jessie Mansergh, The Little Women Club by Ames Taggart, Four Little Women of Roxby, or The Queer Old Lady Who Lost Her Way (1926) by May Hollis Barton, and the four books in Gabrielle Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-14).

three little womenOf these books Clark found the Three Little Women series to be the “most interesting in how it addresses the cultural moment even as it attests the continuing significance of Little Women … For it harbors inconsistencies that speak to cultural contradictions at the beginning of the century, especially those associated with the occupational opportunities available to the New woman and the continuing expectations of domesticity, at a time when Alcott might be called ‘one of the finest of pioneer American business girls.'” (pg. 62)

A detailed analysis of this series, along with other adaptations and spinoffs (including the Broadway play as we shall see, and the silent films) begs the conclusion that while Louisa was lauded, she was not to be imitated.

What I found most interesting in Clark’s analysis was the differing interpretation of “littleness” in Alcott’s book and Jackson’s. Frances Armstrong has noted that for Alcott littleness at times entailed diminishment but at other time was a means to greatness. In Jackson’s novels–with their “little girls,” “little mothers,” “pretty little rooms,” “trembling little fingers”–diminishment is the rule.” (pg. 67)

Did Jackson miss the deeper spiritual dimension of littleness as described by Alcott? Beth was indeed “little” but she demonstrates largeness in her example of courage with the Hummels, literally risking her life to comfort the dying baby. Her tending to headless doll Joanna provides a metaphor for a more public caring of the disabled, aka, the “least of these.” In exploring the spiritual dimension of littleness, Alcott uncovers its greatness. Judging from Armstrong’s remarks, Jackson appears to have missed that point entirely, reflecting a more secular approach to the story.

How do you think Louisa viewed “littleness?” How do you feel about the character of Beth?

In part two of this post, I will discuss the Broadway play (which, by the way, is available for free through Google Play Books; it’s called “Little Women: A Comedy in Four Acts” by Marion de Forest) and silent films, and the creation of the Orchard House museum home.

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