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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What is “Buzz”? From Little Women, Chapter 3

Quick question: In Chapter 3 of Little Women, “The Lawrence Boy,” Jo and Meg are playing a game of Buzz while waiting for Hannah to come for them. Anybody know anything about this game? Is it a card game?

jo and laurie

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part four: The All-American Novel makes a cherished dream come true

COVERLittle did Louisa May Alcott know that when she wrote Little Women, her classic book based upon her own family life and their “queer” adventures, she was writing the story that was on the heart of all Americans.

Universal family

It was time when American yearned for its own literature, its own family. The March family was quintessential New England and yet their story transcended New England, having, as Madeleine Stern put it, “a more universal reality than that of a single village.”

The emerging adolescent

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenCharacters were composites, real people sprinkled with fiction. For the first time teenaged readers met themselves: adolescent characters navigating through the daily trials and triumphs, emerging into adulthood.

Four different journeys

Meg begins her own family with John. Jo strikes out on her own as a working woman and writer, living far away from home New York City. Amy evolves into a woman of grace, leaving behind selfish impulses and eventually leading Laurie to his better self. Beth was not destined to enter the world of adults but left behind an example and a spirit that guided her sister Jo to a place where she could reconcile her ambitions with her love of family.

Universal home

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

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

Stern writes, “Then the families of the nation might open the door of Hillside to find not the Marches, but themselves waiting within. Under the roof of one New England home, they would see all the homes of America.”

Surviving manuscript

Writing at astonishing speed (completing one chapter each day), Louisa filled the lined blue papers with a story “that knew no bounds of geography, no limits of time.” Some of this manuscript survives, ready for viewing in the Special Collections room at the Concord Library.

Determined spinster

Louisa_May_AlcottPart two of Little Women, dubbed Good Wives, was written not at Orchard House but in Boston on Brookline Street. The demands of readers were great, such was the price of success, a success she had dreamed of since being a teenager herself. Yes, the girls would marry even though she wished that Jo could have remained like herself, a “literary spinster.” It was not from lack of suitors. George Bartlett, a fellow actor in the local theatricals, offered his help in reading the proofs of the first part of the book and his help was gratefully accepted. His attentions upon the “chronic old maid,” however were politely rebuffed.

A fancy hotel and a simple story

FileHotelBellevue-Boston-BlueBook1905.pngMoving with May into the new Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street, Louisa continue work on the second half of the book while receiving her first royalties totally three hundred dollars for three thousand copies sold. Here she relived the pain of Lizzie’s death, brought Amy and Laurie together in a boat they would pull together and had Professor Bhaer serenade Jo with the song Louisa herself had sung for Mr. Emerson.

Dream come true

Stern writes, “Devoutly Louisa hoped that the new year of 1869 would bring to the Orchard House a happy harvesting from the tears and laughter she had sowed in the book where she had found her style at last.” It would come to pass with a harvest pressed down, shaken together, and running over, as it says in the scriptures. “The long-standing hurts were healed, the reception of the March family into the hearts of New England proved a timely restorative to one who had created that family.”

Dreams do come true (just ask any Red Sox fan!).

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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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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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