What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

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Abigail May Alcott’s love was her strength

Following up on my last post on Abigail Alcott, I finished transcribing yet another letter from her to Bronson dated January 4, 1858.

Looking for a reply

abbaLizzie is clearly getting worse, her days winding down until her death on March 14. Abba was her primary caregiver, a crushing responsibility in and of itself. But she was also responsible for keeping the family afloat paying the bills, running the household and paying proper attention to her daughters. One of her lifelines was Bronson and his letters to her; when they didn’t come in a timely fashion she grew frantic:

“It is more than a week since your last and I hardly know were to to direct – but I shall feel safer to send to Cincinnati where you will find our last letter – which I am quite sure you will not think worth the stamp on the face of it – but last week was one of my anxious nervous weeks …” The Houghton Library, Abba to Bronson, letter dated January 4, 1858, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

Her concern was certainly understandable considering Lizzie’s declining health.

A lifeline?

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402I used to be put off by the content of Bronson’s letters in his replies to Abba; so much focused upon his conversations, the people he met and his various successes So little focused on his family. That still offends me but I can see how Abba might have found his stories to be a relief, taking her out of her troubled world for a short time of respite. She certainly seemed interested in what he was telling her (not just because they might translate into much-needed income).

Advice born of experience

In Bronson’s defense, he did often write about Lizzie’s condition, giving his daughter urgent advice on keeping her spirits up while admonishing her to eat, advising her not to take cold baths, and reminding her to get outside for fresh air. Bronson spoke from personal experience about the importance of attending to one’s emotional needs as he sank into emotional turmoil and flirted with insanity a couple of times in his life (most notably after Fruitlands and after the move to Boston after living at Hillside).

The true source of Abba’s strength

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersMuch is made of Abba’s intelligence, knowledge and curiosity. There is no doubt that there would be no Louisa May Alcott the author without Marmee. But while Abba’s vibrant mind was a vital parts of her essence, I believe her true strength came from her selfless love of her family as evidenced in these lines:

“How much trouble there is in the world – and the question is constantly before me ‘Who will show us any good.’ You have letters in Buffalo – on all I put ‘Please forward’ at each place. You cannot write too often for comfort – I try to be hopeful for your sake – cheerful for dear Lizzy’s sake and active for the dear girls who alternate between dramatic and the real condition of things …” (Ibid)

A woman’s power

It was love that gave Abba the capacity to stay afloat. Love that prevented her from succumbing to self-absorption which leads to despair (which can be deadly). Love that gave her the courage to step outside of herself and her dreadful situation, granting her the strength to be hopeful for her husband, cheerful for her dying daughter, active and engaged with her other healthy daughters.

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Intelligence, curiosity, being well-read and well-informed gave Abba purpose, this is true. But it was her love that gave her that heroic strength she needed to last through those many difficult years. Abba’s love molded and shaped her daughters, all of whom went on live productive, purpose-filled, even happy lives. Even Lizzie who died too soon was infused with a sense of purpose right up to her last days.

Grateful daughter, a story for the ages

It is no wonder that grateful daughter Louisa devoted her life to her Marmee and immortalized her in Little Women. Abba deserved every accolade.

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Answers to the Little Women quiz; information needed on a late 19th-century British version of Little Women

Results of True/False Quiz

beth playing pianoI see some of you tried the True/False quiz of what was real and what was made up in Little Women. No one got 100% but you were very close! Here are the answers:

  1. Hannah the servant FALSE – The Alcotts could not afford any servants in those days
  2. The Christmas play (“The Witches’ Curse, an Operatic Tragedy) TRUE – this play is actually a composite of actual plays written and performed by Louisa and Anna.
  3. Amy burns Jo’s manuscript FALSE
  4. Marmee’s temper TRUE
  5. Amy falling through the ice FALSE
  6. Jo pinching Meg’s papered locks before the ball FALSE
  7. Meg being dressed up as a doll at Annie Moffat’s FALSE
  8. Amy bewailing her pickled limes TRUE
  9. Beth receiving the piano from Mr. Lawrence TRUE – in Harriet Reisen’s book Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, Lizzie received a piano as a gift in Walpole, NH when she was twenty from Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows (see chapter 9 in the book)
  10. Mr. March’s illness FALSE – Louisa was writing about her own illness her Civil War nursing stint
  11. Jo sells her hair. FALSE but it was based on something true, that Louisa had all her hair cut off during her illness after the Civil War
  12. Beth wasted away and died peacefully. FALSE Lizzie (aka Beth) did waste away but she was in tremendous pain, was often quite anxious, and even went through a spell where she rejected her family and wanted to be left alone (Anna said in a letter that Lizzie had called her “horrid.”)
  13. Jo published her first story, “The Rival Painters.” TRUE
  14. Amy writes her own will. TRUE? Not sure on this one (I know, I shouldn’t have included it if I didn’t know the answer!)
  15. Jo rejects Laurie’s love. FALSE

LIttle Women, British volume, 1898

Here are some pictures from an exquisite British version of Little Women which even includes the dedication to the reader on a lovely sticker.  The only thing I can be sure of is that the illustrations are done by Frank T. Merrill, who illustrated the American version,  copyright of 1880 and renewed by Louisa’s adopted son John Pratt in 1896. Note that the text had been edited for this version, leaving out some of the slang and smoothing out some of the language.

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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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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 …

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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.

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New book: Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy: it’s gorgeous!

I just received my copy of Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy and I was stunned by the beauty of the book!

LW Shealy1 combined

Don’t be fooled by the cover -
it doesn’t begin to tell the story.

This is a gorgeous oversized edition (9.6 x 9.3 x 2 inches) with an elegant choice of typefaces. It is filled with color plates, letters written by Louisa and her publisher Thomas Niles and commentary on each page which enhances the reading experience.

Informative essays

Shealy introduces the book with an interesting essay about the extensive revisions made to the text between its original publication in 1868 and the revised version in the 1880s. In many respects the revisions were a response to negative criticism about the slang Alcott used throughout the book being a poor example for children! Fortunately Shealy uses the original text which is more vibrant and real.

Life turned into classic fiction

A second essay includes photos of each of the main players from the Alcott family. Alcott drew from the deep well of her personal life to bring Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee and Laurie to life. Shealy includes analysis of the era, fascinating anecdotes and great trivia.

Here is a summary from Amazon about the book:

LW Shealy2Little Women has delighted and instructed readers for generations. For many, it is a favorite book first encountered in childhood or adolescence. Championed by Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Theodore Roosevelt, and J. K. Rowling, it is however much more than the “girls’ book” intended by Alcott’s first publisher. In this richly annotated, illustrated edition, Daniel Shealy illuminates the novel’s deep engagement with issues such as social equality, reform movements, the Civil War, friendship, love, loss, and of course the passage into adulthood.

The editor provides running commentary on biographical contexts (Did Alcott, like Jo, have a “mood pillow”?), social and historical contexts (When may a lady properly decline a gentleman’s invitation to dance?), literary allusions (Who is Mrs. Malaprop?), and words likely to cause difficulty to modern readers (What is a velvet snood? A pickled lime?). With Shealy as a guide, we appreciate anew the confusions and difficulties that beset the March sisters as they overcome their burdens and journey toward maturity and adulthood: beautiful, domestic-minded Meg, doomed and forever childlike Beth, selfish Amy, and irrepressible Jo. This edition examines the novel’s central question: How does one grow up well?

Little Women An Annotated Edition offers something for everyone. It will delight both new and returning readers, young and old, male and female alike, who will want to own and treasure this beautiful edition full of color illustrations and photographs.

I am hoping to get permission to show you some of the inside of this book. Stay tuned …

If you love Little Women, you will want this edition as a keepsake to pass down to future generations.

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