Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part two: Lots of borrowing

little women in the garretLouisa May Alcott was never bashful about borrowing from previous stories to flesh out Little Women. Several short stories set the stage for the classic: “The Sisters’ Trial” (four sisters, Leonore, Agnes, Ella and Amy facing going out to work to deal with the family’s poverty), “A Modern Cinderella” (depicting Anna and John as Laura and Di), “In the Garret,” a poem featuring Nan, Lu, Bess and May, and “Living on an Omnibus” which introduced the poor Hummels (pgs. 435, 437, Little Women Norton Edition, from Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine B. Stern).

Dull?

Mining her vast storehouse of memories, Louisa transcribed her childhood, mixing fiction seamlessly with fact to create a compelling story. Both she and Thomas Niles, her publisher, felt the book was “dull” after the first twelve chapters, but Niles’ niece and other children who read the manuscript had different ideas. Louisa may not have enjoyed the creative satisfaction of churning out Little Women as she had with her A. M. Barnard thrillers, but her pen was creating sheer lightning in the guise of simple truth and family devotion.

Laurie’s composite

Characters and settings from the book were composites of real people and events. Stern writes of Laurie:

Laurie would inherit from Ladislas [Wisniewski, Louisa’s love interest from her first tour of Europe] his curly black hair and big black eyes, his musical skill, and his foreign background, while Alf [Whitman, a lifelong friend from Louisa’s theater days] would endow him with high spirits and a sober kind of fascination. (Ibid, pg. 436).

laurie2

A stew of plays

“The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy,” performed by the March sisters on Christmas night consisted of the following:

She [Louisa] would take Hagar from “The Unloved Wife,” Hugo from “Norna; or, The Witch’s Curse,” Zara from “The Captive of Castile,” and miraculous potions from “Bianca,” evolving a composite melodrama entitled “The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy.” (Ibid)

comic tragedies2-horz

Personal letters and writings

Mr. March’s letters came from Bronson’s writings while living at “Concordia” (just before they embarked on Fruitlands) while Marmee’s notes to her daughters originated from jottings in the girls’ various journals. Louisa’s “The Olive Leaf,” a family newspaper created while the family lived in destitution in Boston as a means of entertainment, became “The Pickwick Portfolio,” carrying with it the various Dickensian characters. (Ibid)

Real? Fiction? Who cares?

What was real and what was fiction? Did Amy (May) really burn Jo’s (Louisa’s) manuscript? Did she really fall through the ice? Did Anna have the experience of Meg, being dressed up like a doll by her wealthy friends? Stern writes,

It scarcely mattered. Fact was embedded into fiction, and a domestic noel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood. (Ibid, pg. 437)

Mining for gold

The deeper one digs, the more universal will be the concept. This is advice I was given from a successful writer. And while Louisa may have felt she was only regurgitating old memories, she was in fact, digging deep into a mine and producing gold. It merely took representing adolescent girls as they really were, warts and all.

Much more to come …

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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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Personalizing Louisa through the reading of Little Women

Little Women

Responding to my request, I am pleased to present a guest post by Jillian author of the A Room of One’s Own blog. Jillian is exploring the classics and using her blog as a journal, sharing her reactions and insight. As a new student to the classics, I depend heavily on Jillian’s blog to guide me to good reading, and she has never let me down. I know you will appreciate her unique point of view on Louisa’s most successful and far-reaching work, Little Women.

Reading Little Women – a guest blog by Jillian
A Room of One’s Own

When Susan asked me to write a guest blog for her lovely Alcott site, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly talk about — though I was keen to contribute a few words, since I’m all about spreading the Alcott love.

Anyone visiting this blog has either read something by Louisa May Alcott or is curious to meet her. That’s one of the things I truly love about literature — that potential to unite us. Those of us who have read Little Women share the experience of it. We can exchange glances and know that Jo, that Meg, that Amy and Beth lived their lives within our souls for a while. Louisa’s Little Women has been a shared memory between strangers from all over the world for over a century.

I can’t tell you anything about Alcott that Susan hasn’t already said better. (Indeed, when I have a question about Alcott, I generally seek her out.) I’m certainly no expert on Louisa, or her family, or her century, or Transcendentalism. I’ve read one biography and a couple of her shorter works: Hospital Sketches and “Transcendental Wild Oats.” So I can’t even give you a very thorough review of her library.

But I can tell you who my Louisa is.

Before 2010, I had barely heard of Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t care about Concord, though I was fascinated by the Civil War. My interest pulled to the South, though. To Tara and the searing apart of Atlanta — action and all that. (My favorite book is Gone With the Wind.) I certainly never intended to read Little Women. I was a busy, on-the-go 21st century person, more inclined to enjoy the movie than the novel. I added it to my classics project list more as an “I should read this” item than a wish list book that I yearned to explore. It seemed like something I should have read as a little girl, and having not read it felt like a gap. I’d enjoyed the 1994 movie and figured Little Women was a good enough place to start with the classics.

A lot of people have expressed irritation when they read Little Women – not only for a certain turning point in the story which makes me chuckle and applaud Jo March (if you’ve read it – you know!), but for the very “littleness” of the book. I don’t mean that it is itself little, for my copy weighs in at 502 pages. I mean that this century seems to yearn for action, adventure, a snappy opening, a protagonist with an excrutiating decision to make at once, and LOTS of tension.

fashionweekadventures.com

Little Women isn’t like that. More, it’s a window into the world of women in nineteenth century New England. The book is quite didactic – something that bothers some people. Especially in the early chapters, the book seems to focus on how to be a proper little woman and grow up to be a proper wife. But what people miss, I think, is Marmee. A woman who pulls to her daughter Jo early in the novel, sharing with her an inexplicable anger and desire to fight that the other sisters, and Jo’s father, don’t understand. Just like one could read Pride and Prejudice as a love story and miss the side story about Charlotte Lucas, I think one can read Little Women as a didactic novel and miss the nuance in the Jo story.

Little Women is separated into chapters that read like short stories: days in the lives of the March girls and what they faced in 19th century Concord. The stories aren’t so much about plot – as they are warmth and love and survival as women in a world that wanted women to be quiet, be useful, be relatively ornamental, and well… be little. See, that’s what I remember most about Little Women: as much as it felt didactic, there was Jo. Awkward, cranky, boisterous, clumsy, loud Jo who wanted nothing more than to live up to those didactic standards and couldn’t. She is a contrast, and so too, is Little Women. It’s a foundation of who one “should” be as a proper New England woman, written through the eyes of four sisters: an artist, a wife, a musician, and a writer. And oh, that writer — how she doesn’t fit! She loves her sisters, and as slow-rolling as the story is to start, it gets to you, when you realize that this world was Louisa’s, and that sweet Beth was her sister, and that this didactic outpouring is the very world she lived in, and that the writer produced the very book laid open on your 21st century lap.

The title itself gives me shivers. One could read “Little Women” as a commendment of littleness, or one could read it as the very world into which Jo, and likewise, Louisa, had been sat. She adored that world, I think. But she wasn’t quiet, she wasn’t predictable, and she wasn’t little. So the novel reads as a sort of tribute to the place Louisa couldn’t make her own: a world of giving sisters who laugh and hug and dream and try to stay alive while Jo sits insolently gazing out the snow-crusted window, her willful chin working as ardently as it can to stay small and proper and level while her ravenous soul pulls to war and Laurie and running and loudness, and Marmee.

The thing about Little Women is – it stuck with me. Not just the lessons, but the story, the sisters, the sense of comfort and safety and snugness that is Louisa’s novel. I’ve read over sixty books since then, and still I pull to Alcott’s work. Still I count it as a favorite.

My Louisa is a fighter — not so very different from me or Scarlett O’Hara or Mr. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (which surely Louisa read by night in lamplight.) She’s a product of her century and all that she read and all that she lived. While Atlanta was being ripped apart by fire, Louisa was in Massachusetts — writing. She lived that world that I find so fascinating. She lived it from the Northern side, sat between Thoreau and Emerson, under the roof of Bronson Alcott, surrounded by sisters. Little Women is her side of the story — how she coped, and how her three very different sisters faced the same world.

I read that publisher James T. Fields dismissed her work as insignificant once, and advised her to, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” Oh, that makes me angry. I remember learning, as I explored her world, that while she is certainly didactic in Little Women, she is that way because she was told to do it. Apparently books about being a proper wife were what sold, in the nineteenth century, by women writers. And that’s what was expected of Louisa. She wanted to write about ghosts and mystery and thrilling stories, but the men of that world wanted her to write about how to be a proper little woman. What absolutely endears me to Louisa — is that she gave them that. But within it, she gave them Jo March — herself, her soul, a little woman who could not fit into that world, and who desperately yearned to be good enough.

That girl is my Louisa.

This March I intend to re-read Little Women to see what more I can ring from it, and to enjoy alongside it Geraldine Brook’s March and Alcott’s own sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boy’s.

I don’t think I’ll ever again be satisfied with “just the movie.”


Jillian blogs at A Room of One’s Own, where she journals her exploration through classic literature.

Guest blogger Gabrielle Donnelly (author of The Little Women Letters) shares the meaning of sisterhood. Plus, a book giveaway – Win The Little Women Letters!

I am pleased to present a guest blog by the author of The Little Women Letters, Gabrielle Donnelly.

Recently I reviewed this fine book and had a chance to talk with Gabrielle via email about it. I was intrigued by her biography where it stated that she had no sisters but in fact had 4 brothers! Her portrayal of the Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) and their special interaction felt so authentic that I was sure Gabrielle must have lived it. She shares with us how she created the sisterly dynamics between the 3 sisters, and how she herself longed to have sisters too.

Book giveaway

Be sure and comment on this post and you may win a copy of The Little Women Letters! See details at the bottom of this post.

The cover illustration on my 1989 Penguin Classics edition of Little Women the one from the 1915 edition, the one by Jessie Willcox Smith of the four March sisters grouped together. Although it is an illustration which is often reproduced, it is not one that I personally have ever much cared for. My lovely, joyful, fierce and feisty March girls look glum and strangely fearful here; and three of the four individuals are so very different from the way in which I had imagined them, that the only one I can identify for absolute certain is golden-ringleted Amy. Nevertheless, there is one element to the picture which is unmistakable and true: that these girls, wrapped together, leaning against each other, unquestioningly, trustfully close, are not just friends, but sisters.

The difference between sisters and brothers

I don’t have sisters myself – I have four brothers, which, believe me, is not the same thing at all – and it’s always been a sorrow to me. Women with sisters have an ease with other women which we sisterless will never have. They grew up sharing their life with another girl, comparing each other’s bodies and swapping each other’s clothes, combing each other’s hair and sometimes sharing each other’s bed, invading each other’s space without self-consciousness or hesitation. And it shows itself throughout their lives, in the fluidity of their gestures, the quickness of their sympathy, the way they will, almost unconsciously, hold my hand or stroke my arm or my hair when we are deep in conversation. I was like this as a little girl – most little girls are, I think – but when I reached adolescence, a houseful of boys at home and our stand-offish northern society outside it required me to set boundaries, both physical and emotional. Women with sisters escaped these.

Louisa May Alcott’s sisters

Louisa May Alcott, of course, had three sisters and it is obvious that she adored them. Which is not for one second to suggest that she always found them easy to get along with. You don’t have to read closely between the lines of Little Women discover that she found her elder sister Anna, who turns up in the book as Meg, at times prim and controlling, and pretty youngest Amy a plain old spoilt brat (although Amy and Jo, just like the real life May and Louisa, did grow to be very good friends as adults); and who knows what flaws we would have discovered in the perfect saintly Beth if she had lived, not died? But that’s the point of sisters – they don’t always like each other. In fact, sometimes they want to kill each other, raging with a boiling intensity of fury that we women rarely, if ever, feel for our brothers. Brothers are just too different.

The Little Women Lettters: Where did the Atwater sisters come from?

Author Gabrielle Donnelly

People sometimes ask me how I managed to create the relationships between the Atwater sisters in The Little Women Letters, and the answer is simple. Like many sisterless women, I suspect, I have been studying sisters, both real fictional, for most of my life – reading Little Women and Pride and Prejudice and the biographies of their authors, watching my mother and my Aunt Alicia, and my cousins Binnie and Sue, and my friends Caroline and Sally, and Kerry and Aggie, and Vernay and Cynthia and Sylvia. Studying and watching, and wondering what it must be like – and, oh, yes, envying – and I think I always will.

A yearning . . .

A couple of years ago, when I was visiting London, my friend Patti and I went to the farmers’ market with Patti’s daughters, Harriet and Grace, two absurdly pretty twenty-somethings, one brunette and one blonde. As Patti and I absorbed ourselves in the summer strawberries, Harriet and Grace skipped ahead, laughing at a joke of their own, their arms around each other’s waists.

‘Look at that,’ said Patti, who is also sisterless. ‘Wouldn’t you have loved to have that?’

Now, Patti and I are neither of us lonely women. We’re both happily married, both blessed with a large extended family, and a wide circle of amazing friends of both sexes. Many people would consider us lucky in the richness of our lives, and, quite frankly, many people would be absolutely correct. All the same, I knew immediately, at that bustling farmers’ market on that sunny day, exactly what Patti was referring to.

‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘Yes, I would have.’

And, oh, I would.

Win a copy of The Little Women Letters!

Want to win a copy of The Little Women Letters? I am giving away 3 copies. Simply post a comment and I will pick the winners at random. The giveaway contest closes Tuesday, August 2nd at noon so get your comments in right away!

The Little Women Letters promises to be a great summer read!

Summertime is here and I’ve lucked into some wonderful summer reading. I just started The Little Women Letters, the fifth novel by Gabrielle Donnelly, a British writer. The story is set in modern day London and tells the story of three sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) who are direct descendants of Jo March. The middle sister, Lulu (guess who she’s modeled after) discovers a treasure trove of letters from and to Jo. Apparently these letters have a profound affect on her life and the lives of her sisters, but I’ve only just started this book. I do know that it’s been a long time since a book captured my imagination so much that I lost track of time at the gym! Definitely a fun read.

I’m always amazed at how an author can muster up the confidence to attempt to write authentically in the voice of another. So far Donnelly is doing this really well. She perfectly captures the style and sentiment of Louisa May Alcott’s writing and as a result, the letters whisk me back to Little Women in a flash (so glad that I read that book recently so that it’s still fresh). It’s great to be back with Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie.

I have to get this book back to the library in 2 weeks so I need to read fast! I’ll let you know how it goes. I think I’m going to feel sad when it’s done.

Take a tour of the final resting place of the Alcotts

There’s a terrific article on the Concord Patch written by a licensed Concord tour guide, Harry Beyer. He takes you on a tour of the Alcott family plot at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Here’s a teaser from the article:

Louisa May was an active abolitionist, helping to shelter runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. She was also an early feminist. Protesting the exclusion of women from Concord’s 1875 Centennial parade and ceremony at Old North Bridge (the celebration at which Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue was unveiled), she wrote “It was impossible to help thinking, that there should have been a place for the great granddaughters of Prescott, William Emerson, John Hancock, and Dr. Ripley, as well as for … the scissors that cut the immortal cartridges” for the shot heard round the world. “It seemed to me that … the men of Concord had missed a grand opportunity of imitating those whose memory they had met to honor.”

Here’s the link to the article where you can read more and see the grave markers for each family member.

I thought it was very curious (and very cool) that of all the biographies written about the Alcotts, Beyer recommends Madelon Bedell’s book, The Alcotts Biography of a Family. I’d love to know why . . . I left a comment on the post inquiring, hopefully he’ll answer.

What makes Orchard House such a compelling historical site?

Here’s a great essay by Klara Stephanie Szlezák where she concludes that staging is critical to the success of an historical homestead. Kudos to Orchard House for the brilliance of its staging which so beautifully captures not just the era Louisa May Alcott lived in, but her home, her family and her classic, Little Women.

The first few paragraphs are here for you to read; there is a link at the end to the rest of the article.

“Welcome to Our Home!”: Staging Practices at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Klara Stephanie Szlezák

1. 399 Lexington Road, Concord, MA: Historic House, Writer’s Abode, Tourist Site1

In March 2009, the popular travel guide series Lonely Planet published a volume called New England Trips providing a broad range of themed itineraries through the six New England states. One of these itineraries is called “Literary New England,” leading the traveler on a three- to four-day trip with stops at libraries, inns and tearooms named for famous writers, as well as at houses where New England writers used to live, thus taking into account the long tradition and central role of literary tourism in New England. One of the writers’ houses that the guide suggests for a stop is the Alcott family’s house in Concord, Massachusetts. With over 50,000 visitors per year (Orchard House Website), the Alcotts’ former house, officially called Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House,2 is one of the most popular and successful literary sites. The Lonely Planet invites the traveler to visit there with the following comment: “Louisa May Alcott wrote her famous semiautobiographical Little Women in her home Orchard House, which is now part of a small estate of historical buildings called Louisa May Alcott Homes” (New England Trips 53). This short note establishes two major facts about Orchard House: one, that it is a house where a famous writer wrote a famous book;3 and two, that it is a historical building and thus of general interest.

What the guidebook text does not say about Orchard House, and what seems much more noteworthy for the purposes of a cultural analysis, is that one of the house’s major functions is that of a stage. When it comes to determining the cultural significance of the house and the ways in which it functions in a twenty-first-century tourist landscape I would argue that both its literary association and its historicity are mere prerequisites and preconditions for the staging of traditions. I argue that the staging of traditions is a central characteristic of the house and lies at the heart of present-day interest in the house and thus its survival in times when many comparable sites struggle severely to stay open.4

Click here to finish the article

An interview with Amy Belding Brown, author of Mr. Emerson’s Wife

1. What inspired you to write a fictional account of Lidian and Waldo Emerson?

It took me a long time to decide to write a nocel about Lidian and Waldo.  At first, I just had a lot of questions about Lidian, especially about why she was relatively absent from so many biographies of her husband, so I did a lot of research just to satisfy my curiosity.  Then I began writing poems about Lidian, and short fictional scenes.  When I finally realized I really wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about Lidian, I discussed my options with my agent, and she was the one who encouraged me to write a fictional account rather than straight biography, because that’s what I most enjoy writing.

2. Is Mr. Emerson’s Wife your first book? What made you decide to take on such a project and how long did it take to research and write it?

Actually I wrote several novels before I wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife. Most of them weren’t very good, but a couple were published as light-weight romances back in the 1980’s when my children were young.  (They’re out of print now.)  Mr. Emerson’s Wife was my first foray into historical fiction and I became totally obsessed with it.  I loved doing the research and weaving it into scenes that made the characters come alive in my head and on the page.  I guess the only reason I took it on was because it was so absorbing and after awhile I beame obsessed with bringing Lidian out of the shadows.  It took me about nine years to research and write and revise – but of course I was doing other things, too, including getting my MFA degree.
3. Does a fictional account require the same level of research that a non-fiction or biographical account requires? How is it different writing a novel versus a biography?

Well, I haven’t written a straight biography, but I would say that a good work of historical fiction requires nearly as much research as a biography does.  One difference is that, as a novelist, I let my curiosity lead me.  And, of course, I also allowed my imagination to “fill in the cracks” of the historical record.  There’s so much of anyone’s life that’s hidden from public view, and, while the non-fiction historian can speculate, he or she must be very cautious about putting out information that isn’t documented or verified.   I tried to stay within the historical record for the most part, but I allowed myself to fully imagine many details of personal relationships that were never documented.

4. The balance between sticking to the facts and venturing into your imagination must be delicate. What gives you the confidence to take off from the facts into your imagination?

I don’t know if it’s confidence or folly.  :-) Seriously, though, I think it’s simply the novelist’s drive to fully understand the characters – from the inside out.  I think many of us, when we read a biography on someone who interests us, do the same thing, though we may not think of it as fictionalizing.  For example, we may read about the Alcott family moving so often from one place to another and think about the toll that took on Mrs. Alcott – we may imagine how exhausted she must have been, perhaps as we recall our own experiences of moving.  So my “confidence” comes from a belief that the human experience is universal and that we can understand each other (over time and space) by extraoplating from our own experience and empathizing with someone in different circumstances.  In other words,  putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – which is, fundamentally, an act of the imagination.  (And also a spiritual discipline, in my opinion.)
5. Mr. Emerson’s Wife was more than a love story or a story of fancy about famous real-life characters. What other elements did you weave into the story? For example, was it a commentary on marriage?

Yes, I conceived it as the story of a long-term marriage.  A story about how a woman negotiates the disappointments and challenges of marriage over time.  One thing that struck me as I researched and wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife, was that these people – just like us – changed over time.  So evaluative statements about them may only apply to a few years of their lives.  And I believe the same was true of the  Emerson’s marriage – some biographers say it was “happy” – and I think that is basically true of its last two decades.  But it was pretty rocky from about 1837 to 1850.  In fact, I think Lidian and Waldo might likely have separated if they’d lived in another time and place.

The other thing the book is about is Lidian’s inner conflict.  It’s the same fundamental conflict reflected in Little Women (which is why I think Louisa May Alcott’s book is timeless) – the conflict between domesticity and independence, between a woman’s mind and her heart.  I frankly think this is an inner conflict for most women, even today.  I don’t see Lidian as just a victim of her husband’s domination.   (In fact, Emerson was, for his day, unsually respectful of women.)  But I think she struggled with herself – torn between what she felt was her “duty” and what she felt as her “calling.”  Brenda Ueland, in the 1930’s addressed this issue when she wrote (addressing women), “Menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”  But how many of us put aside our creative work to clean the bathtub?  We may have shining tubs, but at what cost?

6. Have you written a new book? What is it about and when can we expect to see it?

I have written a new novel.  It’s set in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War in 1676, and revolves around the story of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity by Native Americans at war with the English settlers and her reentry into Puritan society.  One of the reasons I wanted to write about the Puritans was to explore the mindset the Transcendentalists were rebelling against.  It turned out to be fascinating.  The manuscript is currently with my agent.

Visit Amy’s website at http://amybeldingbrown.com

Rediscovering the late Madelon Bedell, author of The Alcotts Biography of a Family

I just ordered a bunch of new books and needed to rearrange my book shelves to get everything to fit. In the midst of the rearranging, I pulled out my copy of The Alcotts Biography of a Family and discovered a promotional photo of the author, Madelon Bedell, and an interview released by the publisher’s public relations division. Bedell has been on my mind since I found that her papers are now safe at Orchard House. Her biography of the Alcott family was a powerhouse  – a truly scholarly work published in 1980 that revealed at that time, many new and interesting facts and insights about the family. And yet this work is largely ignored by the public and is out of print (though fortunately available on the internet). Those in the ‘know’ appreciate its worth (and cite her work in theirs); I wanted to introduce you to Ms. Bedell in hopes that some of you will think about reading her book.

It’s tantalizing to think of those papers stored at Orchard House, including the only known interview with May’s daughter, Lulu Nieriker Rasim. Will someone perhaps take those papers and finish the work that Bedell was unable to do? I’d love to see it done . . .

Meanwhile, meet Madelon Bedell.

(This interview was part of a promotional package released by Clarkson N. Potter Inc./distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.)

1.    How did you develop the idea of doing a biography of the Alcotts? And why did you choose to do a family biography instead of concentrating on only one member – Louisa May Alcott, or her father, Bronson Alcott, for instance?

My original idea was to do a series of critical essays on the image of women in the fiction of certain great women authors. I had in mind, Collette, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, and Louisa May Alcott. I decided to start with Alcott because I felt she would be the easiest to handle.

I found her life to be so fascinating that I decided to do a biography of her instead. As part of my research, I began also to study her father, Bronson Alcott. I found him so fascinating that I changed my mind again, and decided to do a dual, father-daughter biography. I worked on this project for some time, but I found it impossible to keep my spotlight focused on these two and their relationship with each other. The other Alcotts kept crowding in. Especially Abby Alcott, the mother, who would not stay in the minor role I had assigned to her, but insisted on intruding herself at nearly every point, sometimes overwhelming the action. After about two years of this kind of struggle, I gave in and decided to do the entire family.

2.    In your prologue, you state: “To find oneself in the lives of other people, long dead, why is this so entrancing an idea? It is the same for both reader and writer of biography, I am convinced: the need for self-validation . . .” If this means that biography explains ourselves to ourselves, how does the Alcott family explain the modern American family?

First of all in many specific ways. There are Bronson’s “infant diaries,” those astonishing records of his pioneering practices in child rearing, which forecast those of today. There’s the marriage of Bronson and Abby, both powerful personalities, a union of peers, in every way; unique then, still unusual today. And the all-female family with its ideals of feminism and independence for the daughters, all that is very modern.

But beyond that, the history of the Alcotts – which turns at every point, on the struggle to maintain the family unity against an inimical society – explains the ideal by which we measure our own families: the American family as a “haven in a heartless world.” Many of our strictures against the contemporary family stem from our disappointment in its failures to meet that ideal, I believe.

Moreover, the basic theme of the book – Bronson Alcott’s struggle against his family – his individualism versus their communalism – is a very modern one. The desire of each member for personal fulfillment meets up with and often must contend with the needs of the family as a whole – don’t we all face this problem, parents and children alike?

3.    The Alcott family history is supposed to be the true story behind the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Exactly how close is the book to real life?

Astoundingly so. The cast of characters is the same. Just substitute Bronson and Abby Alcott and their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and Abbie May, for the Reverend and Mrs. March and their four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. There’s hardly an incident in Little Women that doesn’t recall or explain an event in the Alcott family.

What’s more interesting, perhaps, are the points where the novel departs from the real life story. There’s a lot of sentimentalization. The Marches aren’t as poor as the Alcotts – they employ a maid, for example. Nor are they are radical in their social views. The crisis in the family life, which occurred when the Englishman, Charles Lane, tried to separate Bronson from his family, is never referred to.

But I think the most important departure from reality is the departure of the father from the book. The figure of Bronson Alcott dominated the Alcott family scene in real life. In the book, the Reverend March is a pale imitation, who isn’t even present most of the time. When Louisa wrote up the family legend, she turned the family into an all-female society headed by a matriarch, thus removing the riveting sexual tensions which permeated the real scene. In Little Women, for all its realism, you have a fantasy – an adolescent fantasy where women never have to deal with the politics and passions of sex as the Alcott women did.

4.    The Alcotts has been cited as a work of unusual scholarship, filled with new material and fresh insights on this family and the nineteenth century in general. What is this new material and how and were did you find it?

All over the place! Basically, however, it’s material on the characters of Bronson and Abby Alcott which throws a new light on their marriage. I found them both to be much larger personalities than had been supposed. Previous biographers, inspired no doubt by Little Women and its (false) relation to the genteel tradition, had cast them as sexless, passive idealists, who weren’t very interesting.

But I found Bronson to be a driven person, obsessed by sex, who sometimes wrote erotic poetry and conceived a passion in middle age for a woman half his age, Ednah Littlehale; and before that may have had a homosexual attraction toward his English follower, Charles Lane, which, incidentally, his wife was aware of. And Abby herself, her feminism, her radical social theories, her drive for power, her unusual gift for love, all that is exposed for the first time, too.

As for the material behind this – it’s all in their diaries and letters, some 200 volumes of them, stored all these years at Harvard University. You can’t just skim these, unfortunately, but must turn yourself over to them, become the person yourself as you read him or her, and live with them, as they were in their times.

But, then must discard about 90% of all that wonderful material you have discovered, push aside those note cards – keeping them only for reference – and write the story as if it had come from your own mind, fresh and new. To be able to do that is the real challenge of biography.

5.    Your book deals with the various social movements of the nineteenth century of New England – feminism, health reform, the advent of child psychology and the cult of the child, Transcendentalism, the anti-slavery movement, utopian socialism, progressive education. What among these has survived today?

You’ve just named them all. The first half of the nineteenth century was the time when American liberal ideology was formulated. All these movements and the ideas of human growth and liberation, which they represent, were born then.

Our history goes in cycles and so these ideas are apt to go underground for a while and then surge forward again. The 1960’s were almost a repeat of the 1840’s, for example. The movement against the Vietnam War was characterized by the same moral fervor as was the anti-slavery movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The scene at the end of The Alcotts when Bronson Alcott takes part in the storming of the state house to rescue a runaway slave might well have taken place in the 1960’s – just substitute a draft register for a slave and the action and all the tumultuous feelings surrounding it are the same.

Or take such ideas as the current interest in holistic medicine. Except in its details it might be a replay of the health reform movement of the 1800’s in which the Alcotts were active. So, too, with feminism (Abby Alcott headed up a petition for women’s suffrage) and of course utopian socialism. Bronson Alcott’s commune at Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, was a forerunner of similar groups that exist today.

6.    This is the first volume of your biography of the Alcotts. What will the second book be, and how will you approach it?

This first book deals primarily with the marriage of Bronson and Abby Alcott, and the childhood of the four daughters. The father is the central character (although the mother is the hero), and the theme is the founding of a family – the creation of a legend.

The next volume will deal with the adult lives of the four daughters, and focus on Louisa. The first book was also a social history of the antebellum – pre-Civil War – period in New England. The next one will be a similar account of the postwar period, showing how all those reform movements we talked about in the previous question, were overcome in the baronial capitalism of the Gilded  Age: how Bronson Alcott’s spiritual transcendentalism evolved into his daughter Louisa’s quite material, albeit enlightened capitalism.

7.    Which member of the Alcott family is your favorite?

If I had one, I would never tell anyone, not even myself. A biographer is like a parent. He/she must never play favorites, or the goal – the lives to be nourished and developed – will be lost.

The Alcotts Biography of a Family in hardcover was 416 pages in length and sold for $15.95. I wonder what the price would have been today . . .

Final Thoughts on “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Reading the last few words, I slowly closed Mr. Emerson’s Wife and felt a welling up inside of emotion. I was so tied to the character of Lidian Jackson Emerson that I felt they were her emotions too.

This is how Amy Belding Brown’s book hit me. I lived inside of Mr. Emerson’s Wife for the last couple of weeks, crawling inside the head, the skin and the heart of Lidian Jackson Emerson. I loved Mr. Emerson as she loved him, felt the bitter disappointment and anger of promises not kept, and swooned over Henry David Thoreau, sensing the touching of souls as he and Lidian grew closer to each other.

A growing appreciation for words

There are times when I am so grateful I am a slow reader! Although this book could be read very quickly, it shouldn’t be. I savored every line, for the first time really appreciating the art of writing and how beautifully words could express thoughts, feelings and actions.

The value of words has been on my mind a lot lately. In my spiritual reading, I read how Jesus Christ is known in the gospel of John as The Word. In a book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, the Orthodox priest writes about idle talk and how words can be as equally life affirming and devastating, and how we as humans are the only creatures gifted with the ability to make words. It’s an awesome gift that carries a solemn responsibility.

Books like Mr. Emerson’s Wife fill me with desire to savor more words, and to commit more words to paper (and computer). I am eternally grateful to Meg North who suggested on her blog that aspiring writers should have their trusty notebook and favorite pen with them at all times. I do (in fact I have separate notebooks for different things I’m researching, and each has its own favorite pen). I love composing on the computer but there’s something very organic and cool about writing with a pen and getting the smudged ink on my fingers.

But I digress. I’d like to offer some final thoughts on Lidian Jackson Emerson and her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as imagined by Amy Belding Brown (with a lot of historical facts to back up her theories).

Among my top favorite books

Mr. Emerson’s Wife is the most emotionally engaging book I’ve ever read and ranks right up there with my other top 3: Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Little Women. Gone With the Wind was a sweeping epic with fascinating characters and a take on the South by a true southerner which challenged some of my perceptions about the pre and post Civil War South. It was the most fun I’d ever had reading. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the right book at the right time as my children were the same age as Harry, Hermione and Ron (and my Stephen is like Harry). That synchronicity will unfortunately never happen again. And I reveled in the domestic spirituality, sisterhood and semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women.

An honest commentary on marriage

Mr. Emerson’s Wife moved me so because Brown made Lidian, Waldo and Henry leap off the pages straight into my mind and heart. They truly were flesh and blood people to me, navigating the complexities of marriage, friendship, life, death and love in Victorian New England. Brown wrote an honest and balanced commentary on marriage which not only applied then, but applies today. Despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed an unusually happy marriage for the last 32 years, I could still keenly identify with some of the trials that Lidian went through with Mr. Emerson (as she called him). The world still revolves around the man on occasion in this ‘enlightened’ age. Yet, because of this book, I felt compelled to remark to my husband  how truly lucky I was to have him as my lifelong companion; I came to appreciate our marriage even more.

Awakened feminism

This book awoke in me a renewed care and concern for women and their place in the world. The political nature of feminism today long ago turned me off to women’s issues (particularly the obsession with Pro Life/Pro Choice – I am Pro Life). When I was a young mother, I felt left behind by feminists, feeling undervalued as a mother and wife. While reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, I sensed that my eyes were opening, seeing things around me (even in my own family) that told me the battle for women’s rights (particularly in the area of health) is far from over. I feel a much stronger obligation to guide my 22 year old daughter in the right direction, making sure that she is tending to her education and her development. Fortunately she already has a strong sense of herself and does not base her entire existence upon having a man in her life (even though she is in a serious relationship with a wonderful young man).

Lidian’s struggles

Lidian struggled with a brilliant and revered husband who was often cold and indifferent (and yet entertained the vivacious Margaret Fuller on regular occasions, inviting her to live in their home, and taking long walks at night with her, both lost in discussion). She competed with the memory of a young, beautiful and saintly first wife whom Emerson spoke of frequently in a voice filled with grief and loss. Her own excellent mind and creative energies were subjugated to her husband’s whims and demands with little regard to her needs. Suffering much injustice, her frustration at times was very high (especially when she had to hold her tongue) and I felt that frustration keenly. A successful marriage, of course, does take two and Brown subsequently, does not place all the blame on Emerson as Lidian could wield a sharp tongue and could be demanding and unforgiving in her own way. She also made the mistake of being lost in her children at the expense of her husband. Marriage is, if anything, a delicate balance.

Lidian and Waldo experienced several devastating losses in their married life, beginning with the death of Waldo’s younger brother Charles, Henry’s brother John, and culminating with the loss of their first-born son Waldo at the tender age of 5. Grief can sometimes bring couples together but in this case, it drove them apart. Emerson’s reaction to grief was to shut down and shut out the world, losing himself in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, while Lidian needed to express her feelings. This along with other things caused her to turn to Henry David Thoreau for consolation and friendship.

Thoreau came across as a much warmer man than I had imagined even though he was also equally brilliant, complex and contradictory. I had always thought of him as so solitary that he never formed really close relationships but he obviously did. And rather than give away too much of the story, I leave you to find out for yourself by reading this wonderful book.

Ready to read more

I am not ready yet to leave the world of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller and plan on reading more about each of them. I am intrigued by Emerson’s motivations for abandoning traditional Christianity and the ministry in favor of developing his own way (which did not necessarily lead to God). And I’m getting more and more interested in Thoreau and what makes him tick. I am grateful to any book that deepens my desire to learn.

Finally, as I continue to read Louisa May Alcott’s Moods, I am struck by the irony of how that book is also about one woman loving two men (men based on Emerson and Thoreau). Unfortunately Moods now rings a little hollow as the characters are not so deeply developed and the writing is strained and over-thought. I will still finish Moods but I don’t expect it to affect me in the same way. I only wish Louisa had discovered her realistic writing style when she wrote this story.

Be sure and visit Amy Belding Brown’s website – she details how she wrote the book and shares stories about the many influential (and unsung) heroines of Transcendental Concord.

and p.s. I may get the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown over the weekend for coffee and conversation, stay tuned . . .