Don’t miss the special exhibit of rare artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

On Thursday I toured Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was anxious to see the artifacts pictured in The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson and took a vacation day to see them as November can get swallowed up in holiday preparations.

If you live anywhere near Concord and can get to this exhibit, do so. The artifacts are on display only through the month of November.

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

I made a complete list of the artifacts on display. I wish I could show you pictures but taking photos is prohibited at Orchard House; you will need to get a copy of The Annotated Little Women.

Here goes:

In the kitchen:

  • First editions of Hospital Sketches and Little Women
  • Original photos of the Hosmer cottage known as Dove Cote and Orchard House (the one with the unique fence built by Bronson).

In the dining room:

  • A quote from Louisa, handwritten, circa 1869
  • An autographed dance fan including the autographs of Louisa, May and Ellen Emerson.

In the parlor:

  • Three Pickwick Club badges
  • A display dedicated to Anna and John including the original marriage certificate and photographs

In Louisa’s room:

  • Louisa’s homeopathic medicine kit (including a list of ailments treated by the medicines)
  • A lock of Louisa’s hair
  • Sketches of Louisa by May, one familiar (“The Golden Goose”), one not (she has a cat at her feet)
  • A photo of Alf Whitman sitting on the half moon desk
  • Original versions of publicity photos of Louisa circa 1870, 1875, 1880, and two from 1887.
  • An ad for Little Men
  • A sculpture by Daniel Chester French of two owls cuddling–this artifact was acquired just three weeks ago.

In May’s room:

  • Tracings May did of drawings by John Flaxman circa 1857; she then copied the tracings around the moldings of the windows
  • Original watercolor of Ernest Nieriker by May in their Meuden salon – the color was especially brilliant.
  • Original photograph of Alice Bartlett and May.

In the hallway under Lulu’s portrait:

  • An original copy of Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply by May Alcott Nieriker

In Bronson and Abba’s room:

  • Lizzie’s sewing kit, given to her by her father on her twenty-first birthday in 1856, It was surprisingly compact and featured a lovely inscription by Bronson.
  • A little book of Abba’s “Recipes and Simple Remedies” plus two original photos, one I had not seen before taken in 1850 but it is so small that it would be impossible to reproduce. The other was familiar, circa 1858.
  • Sketches of Frederick Pratt by May, one on a rocking horse and the other, playing Lizzie’s melodeon.
  • Small photos of John Pratt as a baby and toddler
  • Original photo of Lulu in the carriage

The best was saved for last–in Bronson’s study:

  • May’s original sketch of Bronson
  • Various original photos of Bronson
  • Original lithograph of the Temple School in Boston
  • And a display containing:
  • A lock of Lizzie’s hair with a tiny inscribed note in her perfect penmanship
  • Another lock of Lizzie’s combined with a lock of Bronson’s
  • Lizzie’s New Testament, an exquisite tiny book which originally belonged to Bronson–he gave it to Lizzie and then it was bequeathed to May.
  • Bronson’s copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, also a tiny book (though a little bigger than the New Testament and a lot thicker) with beautiful engraving

I was grateful for being in a small group so that I could examine each artifact freely. My only wish is for the lighting to have been better as it was a cloudy day and I wanted to see every detail (how I wish I had had my super duper reading glasses!).

I must say that all the different artifacts belonging to Lizzie that were given to her by her father (and especially the two locks of hair entwined) told me much about the special relationship between Bronson and his Psyche.

Don’t miss this great exhibit!

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Fun, surprises and inspiration at John Matteson’s book signing of The Annotated Little Women

This past Sunday, November 8, a group of Alcott enthusiasts had the distinct pleasure of attending a book signing and reading with John Matteson, the editor of The Annotated Little Women at The Concord Bookstore.


louisa may alcott played by Jan TurnquistAs he was about to speak, we were greeted with a surprise guest, “Louisa” (aka Jan Turnquist) herself! She seemed flummoxed at first by our presence and then astonished as she learned we were about to hear about a gorgeous and rich version of her classic novel. We all smiled knowingly. She saw the book and was pleased at the beauty of the volume and then caught sight of Matteson who introduced himself and kissed her hand.

kissing the hand of louisa may alcott

It was a sweet and humorous moment, a great way to begin this reading.

The connection of family

john matteson talksMatteson went on to speak of his personal connection to Little Women, and how the importance of family brought him to know and write about the Alcotts. He shared of his years as a struggling grad student, married and with a daughter. He became a stay-at-home dad all the while wondering how he would advance in his career as he saw colleagues publishing papers and making names for themselves. This season of waiting would end up becoming a rich time of formation.

Approached for a book project

Publishing his first essay in 2001 in the New England Quarterly (an essay which had nothing to do with the Alcotts), Matteson was approached by a literary agent who wanted to discuss a book project. Matteson had no particular book in mind but the agent in his wisdom, continued to work with him. A book on nineteenth century Utopian communities was decided upon and Matteson began his research by visiting Fruitlands where he first encountered Bronson Alcott. As they say, the rest is history.

Family parallels

eden's outcasts bigMatteson was fascinated by Bronson and decided to write the book about him. As he researched the family, he came to know Louisa and saw some amazing parallels between his life and that of Bronson, both teachers and “quixotic” fathers intimately involved in the raising of strong, “verbal” daughters; for one thing, the age difference between father and daughter were nearly the same (off by just seventeen days).

And thus, the idea of Eden’s Outcasts, a biography of Bronson and daughter Louisa, was born. It would go on to win the Pulitzer prize. Quite a feat for a first book!

How The Annotated Little Women came to be

Annotated-LITTLE-WOMEN_978-0-393-07219-8The love affair between Matteson and the Alcotts continued with his work on The Annotated Little Women. Published by Norton, Matteson was approached by the company to produce this book which is part of their ongoing series of annotated classics. Originally thinking the book would be a simple project, it ended up being an intense and amazing discovery of endless and fascinating connections between the fictional world of the March family and the reality of the Alcotts.

Intimate connections

No other book, not The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland nor any other classic can boast the intimate connections that Little Women can. There are no silver slippers from Oz but there are real artifacts from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The coffers were opened to Matteson revealing astonishing links: Meg’s (Anna’s) wedding dress, Louisa (Jo) and Lizzie’s (Beth) sewing kits, May’s (Amy’s) foot cast, Abba’s (Marmee) chess set … the list goes on and on; Matteson connected such artifacts to actual passages in Little Women. These artifacts, not normally available for public viewing, are on display at Orchard House during the month of November. Photographs of these mementos appear throughout The Annotated Little Women.

Stories and more stories

reacting to miss alcott

photo by Kristi Martin

Matteson told fascinating stories about some of the other 220 illustrations in the book. He cited a passage where Amy, writing from Europe, described a purple dress (which she thought horrid) worn by the Empress of France. Matteson then gave the background: how a chemist discovered the color of magenta, how the Emperor Napoleon III had won a military victory in the town of Magenta, and how the Empress wore magenta dresses in honor of husband whenever she could to honor him in public.

He spoke about the seemingly random inclusion of a photograph of a queen from Hawaii whom Louisa happened to spot during her trip to Europe–Amy writes of this in her letters home to her family.

Personal story that resonates

By far the most interesting connection was the inclusion of a precious artifact belonging to Matteson, a simple autograph of Bronson with the phrase, “Follow the Highest!” (found on page 347). Earlier in his talk Matteson spoke of an unfavorable review of Eden’s Outcasts by Publisher’s Weekly, leaving him feeling dejected. It took the wisdom of his then thirteen-year-old daughter to remind him of his reason for writing the book: because he had something unique to say and people needed to hear it.

Looking out intently at his audience, he urged us all to do the same: “Follow the Highest!” Many of us left that book signing with far more than an autograph inscribed in our books.

a cherished signed copy

photo by Kristi Martin

Thank you John Matteson for retaining that true teacher’s heart so present in the spirit of Amos Bronson Alcott.

p.s. Don’t miss the special exhibit of artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House only through the month of November. See locks of hair from Louisa and Lizzie, Abba’s chess set, Lizzie’s sewing box and New Testament, and more!

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May Alcott gets her due! Review of Little Woman in Blue written by Jeannine Atkins

I am so pleased to present this extensive review by Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters:

The first thing to remember when you start to read Jeannine Atkins’ marvelous novel, Little Woman Blue (She Writes Press, September 15), is to forget Amy March. Amy, the spoiled youngest of the March family of Little Women, who burned Jo’s books in a fit of childish pique, was at best questionably talented as an artist, and ended up – wouldn’t she just – marrying rich and dashing Laurie and leading a very nice life, thank you, as a Victorian lady who lunched, is nowhere to be seen here. Instead, you’ll meet the real woman behind Amy, Louisa’s sister May.

little woman in blue

And what a thoroughly splendid woman May Alcott was. A talented artist and committed free spirit, she both taught and studied art throughout her life; in Concord, she was an early teacher of Daniel Chester French – having for their first meeting in equal measure entranced the teenaged boy and shocked his staid mother by riding her horse clear onto their front lawn – before taking herself off to Europe to study as a painter; in Paris, she was friends with Mary Cassatt and had a still life exhibited at the esteemed Paris Salon of 1877; along the way, she met and married a handsome younger man, and, briefly, led the sort of life many women still only dream of today, emotionally fulfilled and artistically satisfied – and living in the French countryside, to boot – before dying, tragically young at 39, from complications following childbirth.

You’d have thought that this, of all women, would be a woman after Louisa’s own heart – and so she undoubtedly would have been had she not enjoyed the mixed blessing of being Louisa’s younger sister. In Atkins’ wonderfully rich and layered book, she charts the relationship between the two sisters, abundant with affection, with frustration, with rivalry, with miscommunication, with dismissal on the one side and yearning for recognition on the other, and finally, with full and unconditional love as Louisa prepares herself to raise the baby daughter that May had left to her.

In a delicious melding of historical fact and the author’s imagination, May springs to life in the pages of Little Woman Blue as the sort of woman you’d have loved to have as a friend, filled with goodness, with hope, with energy, and with passion for her art; she struggles through New England winters dreaming of Europe and artistic glory; she helps to nurse Louisa when she returns home deathly sick from the Civil War; briefly – and enthusiastically – romances Julian Hawthorne before she realizes that he will never respect a “lady painter”; coolly fights off a case of sexual harassment in an art class; and finally flings herself joyously into the bohemian circles of Paris and London, living her short life to its fullest for every single day that is allotted to her.

And yet, and yet – try as she may, she cannot win respect from her elder sister. There is no question, either in historical record or in Little Woman Blue, but that Louisa and May Alcott loved each other profoundly. Nevertheless, throughout the book, and in a way that will be instantly familiar to every person who has an elder sibling, Louisa dismisses May. She repels her overtures of friendships, telling her, curtly, that “sisters should have some secrets.” She either forgets, or had never troubled herself to find out, that it was May who bore the brunt of nursing her back to health during her illness. For all the intensity of her attention to Lizzie’s needs, she completely fails to see – what the author most delicately and tenderly depicts – how painfully lonely it must have been for May in the family after Lizzie had gone, with the crucial eight-year age gap separating her from Louisa and Anna, and the idealized ghost of the lost sibling reminding her at every turn of her own human imperfections. Worst of all, when she writes Little Women, she writes her youngest sister into it, not as the person she is, but as the character once described in a letter by the real life May as “that horrid stupid Amy.” When the May of this book complains to Louisa about Amy March, saying, “I wanted you to know me,” Louisa replies dismissively, “We’re sisters. Of course I know you.” The point that Atkins is making is that, really, for much of the book, Louisa doesn’t know May at all.

Atkins was a presenter at this past summer's Conversational Series at Orchard House.

Atkins was a presenter at this past summer’s Conversational Series at Orchard House.

Atkins is a generous writer as well as an observant one, and as the novel progresses, May is allowed to grow in self-confidence and Louisa in recognition of her sister’s qualities, although the suggestion is strong that – as happens all too often – Louisa never fully appreciated May until it was too late.

This is a truly lovely book, a timeless study of two sisters set against the rich and vivid backdrop of nineteenth century New England, London and Paris, and one you will carry in your heart for a very long time after you have finished reading it.

Note: You can order Little Woman in Blue today on Amazon. I. LOVED. this book!

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New book in the works on Little Women


Anne Boyd Rioux, author and a member of the Louisa May Alcott Society, has just been given a grant to write her new book called Reading Little Women.: The History of an American Classic. As you will see from her post, she was quoted in a recent article in the Washington Post about making scholarly writing more accessible to the public (I posted this article on my blog’s Facebook page). Anne has an email list you can join to keep up to date with this exciting project. I look forward to hearing more!

Originally posted on Anne Boyd Rioux:

Last week I learned that I will be receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write my next book, Reading Little Women: The History of an American Classic. The grant comes from the NEH’s new Public Scholar program, which generated some media attention, including this Washington Post article, in which I am quoted. I am thrilled to be able to begin work on a project that is very close to my heart.

Little Women--2

I have been inspired by two recent books that can best be described as the “biography” of a book: Michael Gorra’s The Portrait of a Novel (about Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady) and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. They were both highly enjoyable accounts of how those classic novels were written and how they impacted the authors’ and others’ lives. As Little Women nears its 150th birthday in 2018, I…

View original 248 more words

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

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

meg marchMeg

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

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

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

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

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

jo marchJo

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

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

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

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

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

beth marchBeth

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

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

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

amy marchAmy

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

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

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

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

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

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Update on Wayside/Little Women artist depiction by Joyce Pyka

Joyce Pyka, the artist depicting The Wayside in the context of Little Women (see previous post), has posted an update for her painting — check out the interesting new details she has added:

detail laurie


Here is the painting with these sketches:

painting as of dec 2014

Check out her website for all the details.

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard house to Launch Kickstarter Campaign in September for Documentary Film

From the official press release:

(Concord, MA) This fall will be a busy one in Concord at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. Orchard House is most noted for being home to the talented Alcott family, and as the place where Louisa May Alcott wrote andset her beloved classic novel, Little Women. But, the house is also rich in history dating all the way back to the 1600’s. To enhance their mission of sharing this history, the house is embarking on a documentary film project.

To fund this project Orchard House hopes to raise at least $150,000 by running a Kickstarter
funding campaign, which officially launches on September 17th.

Watch a preview video here:
KickstarterBanner-1 560

Tremendous legacy

Orchard House is one of the oldest, most authentically-preserved historic house museums in America, and brings the Alcott legacy in the fields of literature, art, education, philosophy, and social justice to life every day.

Unique tour experience

Named Best Literary House in New England by Yankee Magazine this June, Orchard House offers highly acclaimed tours, unique living history events, curriculum-based educational programs, and irreplaceable original family furnishings and archives. Annually, more than 50,000 visitors from all walks of life and every corner of the globe experience Orchard House — and discover what it means to be ‘home’.

24-orchard house

A chance to share stories

“We’re so delighted to begin this project” says executive director Jan Turnquist, “there are many stories to be told about Orchard House. While we won’t have the time to tell all of them, the documentary will certainly be a positive tool for us to share many of them and to engage generations of supports – old and new – from around the world.”

26-orchard house

First time on film

The history of the house, its inhabitants, and supporters have not been the subject of a documentary before. Once made, the film will offer highlights from each period of the house’s more than 300 year history and feature interviews with celebrity supporters of the house, such as Annie Leibovitz and John Matteson. Along with executive director Turnquist, the Orchard House Board of Directors and its many dedicated staff and volunteers are looking forward to this opportunity for progressive outreach.


For more information on
Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House:

Executive Director, Jan Turnquist
Louisa May Alcott House Orchard House
399 Lexington Road
Concord, Massachusetts 01742