“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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A visit with fans from abroad gets us the “wonk” tour: Did you know these tidbits about Orchard House?

You never know what a house can tell you! No matter how many times I visit Orchard House, I always learn something new.

Last Friday I had the privilege of meeting longtime email friends from Paris, France. Charline Bourdin, the author of the first French biography of Louisa May Alcott and the webmaster of a French Louisa May Alcott blog is visiting the United States for the first time. Accompanied by her friend Pierre (who is fluent in English), their purpose was to make a pilgrimage to various Alcott-related sites. First stop: Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Lizzie’s melodeon

Seraphine or Melodeon? You decide ... from http://www.dejean.com/maynard-workshop/concord/index.html

Seraphine or Melodeon? You decide … from http://www.dejean.com/maynard-workshop/concord/index.html

Our tour guide was an elderly woman with a deep knowledge of the family. For example, I learned that Lizzie’s melodeon in the dining room was the one given to her at age 20 by Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows when the family was living in Walpole, NH. Harriet Reisen had mentioned this story in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women and I always wondered if the instrument survived. Eve LaPlante’s book, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother had mentioned the acquisition of a seraphine which is similar in appearance to a melodeon (see previous post). It gave me a special thrill to know that I could see the melodeon that inspired the story of Mr. Laurence’s gift of a piano to Beth. It’s one of my favorite parts of Little Women.

Nieriker-Pratt-Alcott connection

ernst and lulu

Did you know that descendants of Lulu Nieriker are still in touch with Anna Alcott Pratt’s descendants? Reisen had mentioned some trouble between the families because May’s husband Ernst had wanted a larger piece of Louisa’s inheritance. Lulu mentioned in an interview with Madelon Bedell (see The Alcotts: Biography of a Family) that she felt closest to Anna so undoubtedly it was her efforts that maintained the connection.

Direct connection to May Alcott Nieriker

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House met us at the end of the tour, eager to meet the French couple who had traveled so far to tour the house. Jan has established an International Circle of Little Women fans and was delighted to know that Charline and Pierre came from Meudon, a town just outside of Paris where May lived and studied art, eventually getting one of her paintings into the prestigious Paris Salon.

The New Castle at Meudon

The New Castle at Meudon

An Orchard House tour guide, Karen Goodno, had a chance to visit Meudon in search of May’s residence and we got to see her photos. She believes she found the house where May and Ernst lived. Charline and Pierre knew the area well and were very excited.

Jan was thrilled at the offer from Charline and Pierre to begin forging a relationship between Orchard House and the town of Meudon not unlike the sister city relationship Orchard House already enjoys with Nanae Town in Japan. They will stay in contact and work on this.

The “wonk” tour

orchard house in winterAfter a lively conversation Jan gave us the “wonk” tour. See if you knew these interesting facts (and no fair if you worked at Orchard House!):

  • We saw the attic with the secret finished room, the split chimney (done by Bronson) that had been tearing the house apart, the bug-ridden beams (now replaced), and the entrance to the attic over the tenant house addition. Jan noted that that attic still contains nails in the beams showing evidence of fur where dead animals had been hung.
  • I was unaware of the tenant house addition (which had been a separate house on the property that Bronson moved over with logs underneath and attached to the main house – rooms include the gift shop, kitchen, May’s art studio and May’s bedroom). Bronson certainly had a habit of doing that considering he had done the same at Hillside. A portion of a crucial support beam on the second floor by May’s room had been removed to make room for the addition. Jan opened a small door in the ceiling to reveal a steel reinforcement beam shaped in a curve to reconnect the two portions of the beam, running behind the wall.
  • I was also unaware that the foyer had been expanded though upon learning that, I was not surprised. I had always thought it unusual that the foyer was so generous in size. That expansion created the split chimney. The front door was originally much closer to the staircase, and the stairs were to the left of their current position. The chimney had been behind the stairs so Bronson split the chimney so he could move the staircase. He then expanded the foyer so that his wife could have a grand entrance for the family home.
    We smiled at the thought. Bronson was no engineer but he knew how to aesthetically please.
  • The second floor hallway is sporting new wallpaper. The original print was found and samples still existed. It had a unique semi-gloss sheen that was no longer made, except at one wallpaper factory in France! They publicized their partnership with Orchard House in supplying the wallpaper.

The tour was dreamy and I was on air, never expecting so many delights. Charline taught me a very important lesson that day: it’s okay to ask! Most likely the answer will be “yes!”

We were then off to Fruitlands for a lovely lunch at the Café and a tour of the Fruitlands house. More on that in the next post.

Where is Anna Alcott Pratt’s grave?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACharline posed an interesting question over lunch: Is Anna buried in the Alcott family plot or is she buried in the Pratt plot? Both are at Sleepy Hollow. She couldn’t find the stone and I can’t remember. Comment if you know the answer.

I miss my dear French friend already! I hope we can see each other again soon.

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My 3 days with Louisa (conclusion): Windows into the past, and a lasting memento

When I requested Lizzie’s diary at Houghton Library, I received a thick, bound volume full of many treasures.

Some of those treasures included Anna’s childhood diaries.

Anna is an engaging writer

While Lizzie’s writings read more like lists, Anna’s read like little stories.

Anna was very faithful about keeping her journal and lamented if she missed a day. Sometimes she missed several, and she’d lament about that.

Scenes from her past

What particularly struck me were the scenes she described, opening little windows into the past. Here she describes a walk with Lizzie:

from Boston, Wednesday, October 23, 1839 - “I had a pleasant walk on the Common with Elizabeth and the Rufoellis this morning We played hide behind the trees. The leaves were fallen, and were brown and yellow.” (MS Am 1130.9 (24), Alcott Pratt collection, Houghton Library).

Lively descriptions

This description of a trip from Boston to Scituate on the stage was colorful:

from Scituate to Boston, Wednesday, Septmber 28, 1838 – “The stage came for us this morning and took us and all our baggage. There were a good many passengers inside and on the top. We saw some Indian women at Hingham near where the Steam Boat stops. They had long hair and loose gowns and rings in their ears. One of them was making a basket. It was pleasant sailing in the steam boat. I was glad when we got to our house in Boston, and saw the Russells and the Duttons. Everything seemed strange to me about the house. We played in the garret with Elizabeth and Mary Russell, as we used to before we went to Scituate.” (Ibid)

Visits with the relatives

Living in Boston, there were many visits with Grandfather May, Uncle Samuel May, cousin Louisa Greenwood and Aunt Lucretia. Here she describes a picnic the family attended:

from Scituate, Thursday, September 12, 1838 “We went to a Pic Nic on Afranipit this afternoon, Father, mother, Uncle Samuel, Aunt Lucretia and Louisa went with me, It was four or five miles. The tables were in a grove near the road, and spread with cakes, apples, peaches, melons, raisins and other good things, I liked the music. Uncle Samuel made a short speech to the people. They stood still to hear him. In the evening we played and told stories at Uncle Samuel’s. We came home in the dark. Father carried Elizabeth in his arms.”(Ibid)

Fodder for stories

It occurred to me as a writer that Anna’s stories and descriptions set up great scenes. I could definitely see a children’s writer especially making good use of these sources.

Handwriting tells its own story

Anna’s handwriting, like Lizzie’s, is very neat and consistent. Lizzie’s letters are upright while Anna’s slant; her handwriting flows more easily than Lizzie’s.

Anna’s journals are beckoning me back for further study.

A final note

My three days with Louisa May Alcott were a dream come true. The sense of fellowship created during those conversations at Orchard House was tremendously satisfying and the visit to Houghton was the perfect follow-up. I look forward to my vacation at Christmastime to visit the library again, and to see Orchard House adorned for the holidays.

A lasting memento

I have to share with you my thrilling memento from my days with Louisa: a personal autograph in my copy of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father from John Matteson. He is aware of the work done here at Louisa May Alcott is My Passion and offered a wonderful word of encouragement.

You can imagine it took a while for my feet to touch the ground after reading this: :-)

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The vacation of my dreams: 3 days with Louisa May Alcott

What’s your dream for the ultimate summer vacation?

Is it a trip to a new and/or exotic place?

Is it time all to yourself to do whatever you wish?

How about both?

That’s been my dream for many summers and this year, it came true.

New and exotic places

Back in June, our whole family (including two twenty-something children) traveled to Los Angeles to visit with my brother-in-law and his wife. He directs for The Simpsons and has been with the show approximately fifteen years. We did Disneyland, the whole Hollywood thing, and caught up and reconnected with each other. It was wonderful and I still miss them both very much.

Then there was this week.

Doing whatever I wished

I had four days off all to myself as my husband’s vacation time was used up. I indulged in my passion and spent a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation.

It far exceeded all my expectations and stoked the fire of my passion all the more.

How does one spend a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation? If you live near Concord and Cambridge, that’s easy!

Summer Conversation Series

I spent the first two days at Orchard House for their annual Summer Conversation Series. Speakers included Eve LaPlante, (whose new book, Marmee and Louisa The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother will be a blockbuster) and John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.

I will offer individual posts for these two speakers. Their presentations just blew me away!

Becoming part of the family

I got to reconnect with my dear friend Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters and made many new friends.

The best part was being able to spend two days with people as passionate about Louisa as I am. I felt like I was at home.

The picture features, L to R, front: Sylvia Willis and Gabrielle Donnelly; back: Lis Adams, director of Education at Orchard House, and Jan Turnquist, Executive Director.

Affirmation

Feeling incredibly empowered and affirmed in my writing with regards to this blog and the book project I’ve undertaken, I felt like God was shouting at me, “Yes, yes, you can do this, I want you to do this!”

The Summer Conversation Series far exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to share with you highlights from LaPlante’s and Matteson’s presentations.

Detour to Walden

Having taken my kayak, the Sylvia Yule with  me for the trip, I stopped at Walden Pond to observe the place where Henry David Thoreau made his mark.

The pond is small and the water pristine. I saw the cove where Thoreau had built his little house and marveled at the beauty.

The day was incredibly hot and every nook and cranny of the pond was filled with swimmers. Several people were swimming across the pond.

I too did my share of swimming,  never wanting to leave the warm and clear water.

I will have to come back and walk the trail and see the pile of stones where  Thoreau’s house once stood.

The Holy Grail – Houghton Library

Next it was the long-awaited trip to Houghton Library at Harvard University. I have longed to go there ever since I visited the Special Collections room at the Concord Library (see previous posts, part one and part two).

Shaky knees!

I was excited and scared all at once. Harvard is the home to some of the greatest scholars in the world. Who was I to go visit their library? I was surprised when I got to the train station and found my knees literally shaking! (It didn’t help that station had a huge, long, drop to the bottom where the subway was and the escalator was excruciatingly slow! I felt like I did sitting in a seat in the back row of an old theatre, where you feel pitched forward, really to fall into the audience. It was terrifying!)

The grounds where giants walked

Arriving at Harvard, I felt a surge wash over me as I thought of all the great minds that had walked the campus, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. The courtyard was crowded with students and visitors from all over the world.

They are now my family

Little Women illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Upon arriving at the library, I sat down in the reading room and ordered the first batch of papers that I wanted to read.

The first time I read papers handwritten by Louisa (back at the Concord Library), it felt mystical, spiritual. This time as I read diaries by Anna and Lizzie, it felt like I was reading the words of family members.

And I knew The Alcott family was now an integral part of my family.

Details coming …

In the next post, I’ll share details of Eve LaPlante’s reading of her new book. Mark November 6 on your calendar (and not just because it’s Election Day!) – her book will be available then.

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“A Memorable Evening at the Alcotts’ House” as recalled by Edward W. Emerson

I recently picked up a lovely volume from the library entitled Louisa May Alcott An Intimate Anthology, put together the by New York Public Library using materials from their archives.

What’s inside

The book contains stories and essays Louisa wrote about herself, excerpts from her journals, intimate poetry, short stories and recollections from friends.

Resistance
is futile … :-)

Although I already have much of what is in here, the book is so aesthetically pleasing with its squarish size, typography and illustrations that I know I’ll be visiting Amazon soon!

Who says print books are dead? Much as I love ebooks, there is still something very charming about a book like this.

Impressions from a neighbor

That being said, an essay by Edward W. Emerson, son of Ralph Waldo, caught my eye. What would be his impressions of his extraordinary neighbors, the Alcotts?

The home

Rare photo with the elm tree, from The Louisa May Alcott Collection at Brigham Young University http://net.lib.byu.edu/scm/alcott/adaptations.html

He obviously admired Orchard House and the simple elegance the Alcotts brought to it. Describing it as “extremely picturesque” with a “superb elm” which served as a “great parasol in summer,” he went on to describe the orchard of apple trees, “pink and white in May, and red and yellow in September” which gave the house its name.

The interior of the home was distinguished with plain and unpretentious décor. As an example, he described the windows as uncluttered with the usual array of curtains, shades and blinds which blocked the sun. Instead they were adorned simply with “pretty muslin curtains, made out of old party dresses:; the trees outside “temper[ed] the light.”

The sisters

An interesting side note is Edward’s description of Louisa for he obviously thought her to be the most physically attractive despite her boyish manner:

Louisa at the gate, drawn by May Alcott, from Louisa May Alcott An Intimate Anthology

“Louisa was very fine looking, had the most regular features of the family, and very handsome, wavy brown hair like her mother’s. She had always a rather masculine air, and a twinkle woke constantly in her eye at the comic side of things, a characteristic that carries many persons through hard experiences that crush or sour others. Her talk was always full of little catches from her favorite Dickens.”

He described Anna as “plain” with a sweet disposition and a quick sense of humor “without the ingredient of tartness that Louisa’s sometimes had.” May, “the darling of the family” was a “tall, well-made blond, the lower part of her face irregular, but she had beautiful blue eyes and brilliant yellow hair.”

“A memorable evening at the Alcotts’ house”

Edward elaborated on something I’ve longed wanted to know about: what was it like to spend an evening with the Alcotts? Biographies mention how the family would entertain neighbors on a weekly basis. What was it like to go over to Orchard House for a visit?

A typical visit to Orchard House began with a hearty greeting from Abba. Edward lauded the fact that everyone remained together calling it “bad taste” the way that young girls often slipped off to other rooms with their callers.

Parlor and dining room where gatherings took place. Courtesy of http:www.louisamayalcott.org

Enter Louisa

Louisa displayed her wicked wit and theatrical flair, appearing in costume as colorful characters from plays she had written. May, in high spirits, would play the piano encouraging raucous singing and dancing. As the evening wore down, “short stories on the porch might follow as twilight deepened into dark, and they were sufficiently ‘creepy.’”

Fun and games

The Alcotts loved their games such as pin-running and bean bag tossing. Edward remarked that to “play for a prize was unheard of. We played for fun, the best of prizes, and thus there was no unwholesome excitement …”

Young Edward with his mother Lidian

Warm memories, useful lessons

Reminiscing on those days, Edward celebrates the simple way that the Alcotts lived, noting that “Great pleasure may be had very simply and cheaply.” He continues,

“The family whose beautiful life I celebrate first made themselves happy in adversity by their methods, and later hundreds of others. One trait remains which I have hardly emphasized enough. I have never known a family who equaled the Alcotts in generosity, even in their poverty.”

Amusements

Is it possible to imagine a time without TV, video games, computers and mobile devices? Edward thought life in his time was becoming increasingly complicated even in household life and amusements. Imagine what he would have thought with the ways we entertain ourselves today!

Next time the power goes out, think about Orchard House, a warm gathering of neighbors, and simple games, songs, dance and stories that passed the time so pleasantly.

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Happy Birthday, Orchard House!

Today marks the official 100th birthday of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House as a museum. On May 17th, Carrie Hoyle (my maiden name, not sure if we’re related), secretary of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association sent a letter to John Alcott Pratt, son of Anna and adopted heir of Louisa, inviting him to Orchard House for its official opening.

Authentic homestead

As noted on the Orchard House website, no major structural changes were made to the house after the Alcotts vacated it, and approximately 80% of the furnishings are theirs. It makes for a very authentic tour experience, especially with different drawings and paintings on walls throughout the house by artist sister May.

Birthday activities

If you’re lucky enough to live near Concord, there are festivities taking place all weekend long at the museum including vintage dancers, 19th century children’s toys and games, silhouette artist, apple press/cider making, thematic tours, 1912 living history portrayers, birthday cake and popular 1912 refreshments. May27 activities also include a Centennial Legislative Proclamation and Postal Stamp Cancellation Ceremony.

Take a tour

If you can’t make it to Orchard House, you can take a virtual tour of each room!

The celebration continues

There are other events taking place in June including an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz’s photos from her book, Pilgrimage . Be sure and visit the Orchard House website to download a complete calendar of events.

My first visit and the aunt who changed my life

Here’s a picture of my first visit to Orchard House in 1963 when I was 7 (I’m the kid with the pigtails). My Aunt Petty (in the back row) gave me the children’s bio, The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard which started this whole love affair with Louisa. :-) Thanks Aunt Petty!

Front row: My brother Tommy, me, my sister Chris
Back row: cousin Diane, Aunt Petty, Uncle Harold, my mom

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Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

A trip to a warehouse bookstore in the middle of nowhere produced a great find! I had just about given up the hope of finding something interesting until this book caught my eye:  Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985, edited by Anne M. Lyell.

What is so significant about Nonquitt? This is where Louisa May Alcott spent her summers in the last years of her life. This book was such a great find because of new pictures of Louisa, her nephews, the cottage she rented and the summer home she eventually purchased.

The book devoted a short chapter (chapter 9, pages 94-97 – all references come from these pages unless otherwise noted.) to Louisa with anecdotal stories of her summers in the southeastern Massachusetts seacoast town near New Bedford.

What brought Louisa May Alcott to Nonquitt?

Recollections from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian suggest that Louisa came to visit the family and fell in love with Nonquitt. He writes:

“I was spending a summer at Nonquitt and she came to visit a friend. I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda. She was tall, rather rustic looking, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her checks somewhat thin, her big, black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony.”

Louisa was in her late forties at the time, obviously showing the ravages of her constant battle with her health. Remembering how vibrant she once was, it is sad to read how much her poor health had aged her.

Renting the first cottage

Louisa rented a house in 1881, sharing it with her niece, then 2-year-old Lulu (daughter of younger sister May who had passed away soon after childbirth). Her older sister Anna also summered at the cottage with her two teenage sons, Fred and John.

Anna’s memories

Anna writes, “I went to Nonquit[t] where Louisa had a cottage, a lovely green paradise which offers everything one can wish. Here I rested, and for fun got up theatricals (as usual), charades, etc., and grew quite young and festive, and enjoyed my lark so much I didn’t not want to come home . . . we [Louisa and Anna] take turns and so keep our boys there eight or ten weeks.” (pg. 141, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, e-book version).

Still in love with the theatre

Louisa, Anna and sons Fred and John took active part in the summer theatricals (Fred and John are shown in the above picture). Having never outgrown her love of the theatre, Louisa wrote and rewrote scripts and took on the jobs of coach, scenery designer and stage manager.

Summer paradise

Louisa rarely did any serious writing while summering in Nonquit. Mostly she took great pleasure in watching her little niece, Lulu:

“My poppet is a picture of health, vigor and delightful naughtiness. She runs wild in this fine place with some twenty other children to play with – nice babies, well-bred, and with pleasant mammas for me to gossip with.” (from a letter to a friend, 1882)

The Pied Piper of Nonquitt

An anecdote from the New Bedford newspaper speaks of Louisa often out walking with her red parasol in hand, followed by a group of children (she was, of course the famous “Miss Alcott” by this time). The newspaper goes on to say:

“There seemed to be a certain magnetism about her that drew the little ones to her, and it was a familiar sight to see the famous writer seated on her porch, or on a rock on the beach, a dozen or more children grouped around her, while she told children’s stories to them . . . Then when a demand would be made for the retelling of some one particular story, she would purposely change some character or some situation in it. The children would immediately correct her, and tell to her in their own way, the stories she had previously related to them.”

Always writing . . .

Even though Louisa came to vacation in Nonquitt, she could never stop writing. She contributed several short stories to the local paper, the Nonquitt Breeze.

Buying her piece of paradise

In 1883, Louisa purchased her own property,a cottage at the northeast corner of Narragansett and Central Avenue (presently called Old Wharf Road). She recorded in her journal on June 24:

“To Nonquitt with Lulu and K. and John (Pratt), Fixed my house, and enjoyed the rest and quiet immensely. Lulu wild with joy at the freedom . . .” In July she wrote, “Restful days in my little house, which is cool and quiet, and without the curse of a kitchen to spoil it . . .”

Louisa took her meals at the local hotel.

Failing health

By the end of 1885, Louisa was troubled by vertigo and rheumatism. It was then that she began to destroy letters and journals that she didn’t want prying eyes to see.

June of 1886 was her last visit to Nonquitt before poor health settled in. In a letter to Mary Mapes Dodge (friend, and editor of St. Nichoas Magazine where many of her books had been serialized), Louisa writes:

“Lu and I go to Nonquitt next week; and after a few days rest, I will fire up the old engine and see if it will run a short distance without a break-down.”

She fought against her ill health and finished her last book, Jo’s Boys.

The fate of Louisa’s cottage

In 1888, Louisa died and the nephew she adopted, John Pratt Alcott, inherited the Nonquitt house. In 1907 it was sold to John’s brother Fred who added on to the house.

In 1945 it was moved one block and is owned as of 1987 by Daniel Strohmeier.

The store where I found the book

So where did I find this book?

The store is known as the Book Bear in West Brookfield, MA. They are decidedly old-fashioned, not accepting credit cards and not doing email! They do have a website (click on the name) so you can get an idea of what they have.

I definitely will be visiting again soon!

Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985 is available online through Amazon and other outlets (the link leads to Amazon). I look forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book.


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Fleshing out Anna Alcott Pratt

Friends and biographers of Anna Alcott Pratt are so busy singing her praises as a loving and selfless daughter, wife and mother that is was hard to find more substantive information. That is, until I came across Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott. Co-authors Jessie Bonstelle and Marian deForest offered journal entries from Anna’s childhood revealing more of her inner life.

Loved even spiders??

Anna’s passages were direct and sweet (I made sure to copy them exactly rather than correct spelling or grammatical errors). Always her father’s daughter, she demonstrated his (and her) love of all of God’s creatures: “We watched a little spider and gave it some water to drink.”

What  made Anna tick?

These next two passages helped me understand what made Anna tick (note: bold is my emphasis):

“Mother went to Boston and Louisa and I cleaned house all day. I love order above all things and I take great pleasure in seeing all neat about the house.”

 “I find I accomplish so much more when I have a plan and certain times for certain things. I never can do things without order. I like to have something planned for every moment of the day, so that when I get up in the morning I may know what to do.”

May wasn’t the only sister to appreciate beauty

Like Meg, Anna appreciated beauty in many forms. In this entry, referring to a book called Miss Bremer’s Brothers and Sisters, Anna writes,

“It is most beautiful such a happy family. I think Miss Bremer would make a lovely mother the mothers in her books are so sweet and she has beautiful ideas about family’s. I love to read natural stories.”

Anna’s appreciation for beauty transcended material things (not so obvious with Meg):

“I read one of Krummacher’s parables in German. I think they are very beautiful, the language is so elegant. I love to hear beautiful words and these stories are told so simply and are full of such sweet thought.”

Vanity, vanity …

A touch of vanity is revealed as she lamented about turning old someday:

“I think it is a dreadful thing to grow old and not be able to fly about . . . it is horrid to think about being an old woman wrinkled and blind. I wish I could keep young forever. I should love to live among those I love and be with them all the time.”

“Silly Stories”

I can see here why Louisa would keep her potboilers a secret from all members of her family:

” . . . Louisa read me a very silly story called “The Golden Cup.” I think there is a great deal of nonsense written now a days, the papers are full of silly stories.”

Dreams and …

Anna, like many pre-teen girls, had her dreams:

I sometimes have strange feelings, a sort of longing after something I don’t know what it is. I have a great many wishes. I spent the day in the usual manner, sewing and studying. In the evening Louisa and I walked through the lane and talked about how we should like to live and dress and imagined all kinds of beautiful things.”

… Aspirations

In a separate entry,

“As for me I am perfect in nothing. I have no genius. I know a little of music, a little of French, German and Drawing, but none of them well. I have a foolish wish to be something great and I shall probably spend my life in a kitchen and die in the poor-house. I want to be Jenny Lind or Mrs. Seguin and I can’t and so I cry.”

Jenny Lind (L) and Mrs. Sequin (R)

A woman of her time

Anna did end up becoming a “household drudge” (her words) but embraced the life willingly. She grew into a graceful, serene and loving wife and mother, fitting easily into the life of women of her time. Memoirs penned by friends (Clara Gowing, Llewellyn Frederick Willis) emphasized again and again her giving nature, her value as a friend, her loyalty as a daughter, and her commitment to her boys.

Love above all

Whether she was raising her children, caring for her aging father and ailing sister, or dealing with a public eager to see “Miss Alcott” or learn from the Sage of Concord, Anna did it all with great love and without complaint, earning the esteem of all who knew her.

Anna ultimately lived the life she chose to live.

If you want to learn more about Anna Alcott Pratt, here are some interesting links:

Were you surprised at Anna’s ambitions? Do you think the character of Meg March does her justice?

Meet the real Meg March

Ever wonder about the woman who inspired the character of Meg March?

About Meg

In Little Women, Meg is the oldest of the March sisters and in all respects, the most mainstream member of the family. She is pretty, dutiful and virtuous, almost old for her age.

Fancy dress

Meg’s major flaw is her yearning for material wealth now that her family is poor. She is cured of this desire when she visits her wealthy friends Sallie Gardiner and the Moffat girls and indulges in the shallow life of the well-to-do. All dolled up for a party, she faces the disapproval of Laurie and recognizes the hollowness of vanity and the value of simpler living.

Meg marries a man as virtuous as herself – hard-working poor John Brooke. They have two children and create a loving home; Meg lives the life of the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman.

Based upon Louisa May Alcott’s oldest sister Anna Alcott Pratt, Meg is prettier but her real-life counterpart was more interesting.

Getting to know you

Born on March 16, 1831 and the eldest of the Alcott sisters, Anna was the most studied baby in history. Her philosopher-educator father Bronson, eager to prove his theory about the divine nature of children, observed her in a scientific way, recording her physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development in the minutest fashion.

Pleasing her father

Infant Anna, always eager to please, picked up on this vibe; her mother Abba noted that Anna “seems as if she is conscious of his observations, and were desirous of furnishing him with an item for his record.” (The Alcotts As I Knew Them, Clara Gowing, p. 43).

Love of acting

Anna inherited her father’s peaceful nature with such a retiring manner that “no one meeting her casually would ever imagine the amount of sentiment and romance in her nature.” (Gowing, p. 107). She loved the theatre and could have been an accomplished actress had she the ambition (partial deafness later in life made acting very difficult though she never lost of love of it).

She and Louisa shared this love of acting, writing plays together and entertaining the family with tableaux and original melodramatic plays such as “Norna, or The Witch’s Curse.”

Unexpected rewards

Although she never pursued acting professionally, it still granted her many rewards, the best being meeting her future husband, John Bridge Pratt. They played the romantic leads in “The Loan of a Lover” and soon became lovers themselves.

Both she and Louisa were powerhouses on the stage but Anna faded into the background once off the stage. She preferred to defer to others and bask in their success.

Love of words

writing

Anna’s abilities weren’t limited to acting. Several books mention her writing skill and her ability to easily learn foreign languages. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson quotes family friend Llewellyn Frederick Willis (from his Alcott Memoirs ) regarding Anna, “Skilled in learning languages and a thoughtful writer, she perhaps exceeded all her sisters in terms of her pure intellectual gifts.”

Anna however, lacked ambition. Matteson continues, “Unlike Louisa, however, she lacked the confidence to try to publish them. Her excellent mind was ‘shown more in the appreciation of others than in the expression of herself.’ ” (p. 210 of the ebook).

A quick portrait

Matteson also writes of Anna,

“She was the most even-tempered and amiable of the four. Her sense of humor was keen but without Louisa’s tartness. While she partook enthusiastically in the game of her friends and sisters, her zest was tempered with a sense of dignity. She was more beautiful in her graceful bearing than in her physical features.”

More to come …

In my next post, I will share lesser-known facts about Anna including journal entries she made as a girl that reveal a dreamy pre-teen full of yearning (and even a desire to be famous). We’ll find out in part, what made Anna tick.

Are you finding Anna to be more interesting than Meg March? What did you think of Meg as a character in Little Women?


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Intimate letters

Well, I haven’t finished it yet but I wanted to share the second anecdotal volume I got from the Worcester Public Library, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest, published in 1914.

Origin of the book – inspired by Jo

Both women felt compelled to compile this little book after a day (and all night long) pilgrimage to Concord and Orchard House. Jo March had been a strong influence in their lives:

“In the case of the two editors, both from early childhood found their inspiration in Jo. One, patterning after her idol, sought success in a stage career, beginning to “act” before a mirror, with a kitchen apron for a train and a buttonhook for a dagger. The other, always with a pencil in hand, first copied Jo by writing ‘lurid tales’ for the weekly sensation papers, and later emerged into Newspaper Row.”

Fruit of the pilgrimage

After visiting Orchard House and pouring over the actual journals and letters of the family, the authors asked permission of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Society to reprint some of the material. After encountering some resistance (“And, asking, they were refused, because of a feeling that the letters and journals were intimate family records, to be read, not by the many, but by the few. This same sentiment withheld the dramatization of “Little Women” for many years.”), Bonstelle and De Forest were finally granted permission after arguing that the Alcotts were public personalities and therefore the intimate family letters and journals belonged to the world.

And thus we have, I believe, the first volume to reveal these letters (except perhaps  for Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals, though I am not sure because I haven’t read her book yet).

Value of the book

Although the book is overly sentimental, there is a lot of value in these letters, especially if you learn to read between the lines.

While I haven’t yet finished the book, I’ve read enough to see the striking difference in tone between the letters Bronson  Alcott wrote to his eldest daughter Anna, and the ones he wrote to Louisa.

Good daughter, bad daughter

Many have said that Anna was Bronson’s favorite for she best represented his personality. She also affirmed his theories about children and the  Divine that resided in them.

Louisa, on the other hand, threw a monkey wrench into those theories.

What resulted was a lifelong silent battle between father and daughter as the daughter sought to live her life authentically while the father tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. The result was a frustrated father and a daughter with a skewed self-image, burdened with guilt.

Bronson writes of Anna, “She is happier, more capable of self control, more docile and obeys from love and faith. She has fine elements for excellence, moral and intellectual.”

And he writes of Louisa, ” “Louisa is practical, energetic. The first imagines much more than she can realize; the second, by force of will and practical talent, realizes all that she conceives—but conceives less; understanding, rather than imagination—the gift of her sister—seems to be her prominent faculty.”

No problem there. But then we get into the letters. Here’s one he wrote to Anna (bold is my emphasis):

Lettters to Anna

“For Anna
1839

You were once pleased, my daughter, with a little note which I wrote you on Christmas Eve, concerning the birth of Jesus. I am now going to write a few words about your own Birth. Mother and I had no child. We wanted one—a little girl just like you; and we thought how you would look, and waited a good while for you to come, so that we might see you and have you for our own. At last you came. We felt so happy that joy stood in our eyes. You looked just as we wanted to have you. You were draped in a pretty little white frock, and father took you in his arms every day, and we loved you very much. Your large bright eyes looked lovingly into ours, and you soon learned to love and know us. When you were a few weeks old, you smiled on us. We lived then in Germantown. It is now more than eight years since this happened, but I sometimes see the same look and the same smile on your face, and feel that my daughter is yet good and pure. O keep it there, my daughter, and never lose it.

Your Father”

Gentle instruction

In these little excerpts from a second letter, Bronson offers instruction to Anna:

“First-Your Manners. Try to be gentle . . . Love is gentle: Hate is violent . . . Second: Be Patient . . . Patience is, indeed, angelic; it is the Gate that opens into the House of Happiness . . . Third: Be Resolute: Shake off all Sluggishness, and follow your Confidence as fast as your feelings, your thoughts, your eye, your hand, your foot, will carry you. Hate all excuses: almost always, these are lies. Be quick in your obedience . . . Resolution is the ladder to Happiness . . . Fourth: Be Diligent . . .  Halfness is almost as bad as nothing: be whole then in all you do and say.” (I particularly love the wisdom of being resolute!)

A study in contrasts

And now, notice the difference in tone as Bronson addresses Louisa (this was given to her on her birthday – bold is my emphasis):

“For Louisa
1839

My Daughter,

You are Seven years old to-day and your Father is forty. You have learned a great many things, since you have lived in a Body, about things going on around you and within you. You know how to think, how to resolve, how to love, and how to obey. You feel your Conscience, and have no real pleasure unless you obey it. You cannot love yourself, or anyone else, when you do not mind its commandments. It asks you always to BE GOOD, and bears, O how gently! how patiently! with all endeavors to hate, and treat it cruelly. How kindly it bears with you all the while. How sweetly it whispers Happiness in your HEART when you Obey its soft words. How it smiles upon you, and makes you Glad when you Resolve to Obey it! How terrible its punishments. It is GOD trying in your soul to keep you always Good.

You begin, my dear daughter, another year this morning. Your Father, your Mother, and Sisters, with your little friends, show their love on this your Birthday, by giving you this BOX. Open it, and take what is in it, and the best wishes of

Your Father.

Beach Street,
Friday morning, Nov. 29, 1839.”

On a mission to save

You can see in the illustration all the use of capital letters, exclamation points and underscores revealing the amount of emotion that went into this letter. Bronson was on a mission with Louisa to save her soul: his own words indicate that he felt it his vocation to save all children: “I shall redeem infancy and childhood, and, if a Saviour of Adults was given in the person of Jesus, let me, without impiety or arrogance, regard myself as the Children’s Saviour. Divine are both missions.”

A spirit Bronson could not accept

While I believe his intentions were rooted in love for Louisa, it’s obvious he could not accept her as she was. The willfulness, stubborn tendencies, mood swings, temper, etc. flew in the face of his theories of children as home to the Divine Spirit. This second daughter to him was more like the devil, and he felt compelled to save her.

A father in tune with his children

Yet, there is much to admire about Bronson as a father. His affinity with the childish mind and the attention to the details of their lives is unusual, more maternal than paternal. He knew exactly what made a child tick as shown in this letter to Louisa. She had run away from home (apparently she was with her grandfather – no explanation of how she got there) and he was trying to coax her back (bold is my emphasis):

“Cottage, Sunday June 21st,
1840.

We all miss the noisy little girl who used to make house and garden, barn and field, ring with her footsteps, and even the hens and chickens seem to miss her too. Right glad would father and mother, Anna and Elizabeth, and all the little mates at School, and Miss Russell, the House Playroom, Dolls, Hoop, Garden, Flowers, Fields, Woods and Brooks, all be to see and answer the voice and footsteps, the eye and hand of heir little companion. But yet all make themselves happy and beautiful without her; all seem to say, “Be Good, little Miss, while away from us, and when we meet again we shall love and please one another all the more; we find how much we love now we are separated.”

I wished you here very much on the morning when the Hen left her nest and came proudly down with six little chickens, everyone knowing how to walk, fly, eat and drink almost as well as its own mother; to-day (Sunday) they all came to see the house and took their breakfast from their nice little feeding trough; you would have enjoyed the sight very much. But this and many other pleasures all wait for you when you return. Be good, kind, gentle, while you are away, step lightly, and speak soft about the house;

Grandpa loves quiet, as well as your sober father and other grown people.

Elizabeth says often, “Oh I wish I could see Louisa, when will she come home, Mother?” And another feels so too; who is it?

Your
Father.”

Attention to detail

His  notice of such detail endeared him to me. Yes, he was manipulating his daughter (and often this manipulation became dangerous) but how many fathers take the time to notice these little things in the lives of their children? This is usually the mother’s strength (and in this family, it was).

This is just a taste of Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott. It doesn’t appear to offer much at first glance, but if you’re a detective like me, there is a lot to find.

Have you ever read any of the letters and/or journals of the Alcott family? What was your impression?

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