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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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Peeks into May Alcott’s Paris


Jeannine Atkins’ historical novel on May Alcott called Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott is now available from Amazon. She posted a wonderful write-up on May’s time in Paris with artist peers such as Mary Cassatt through books she used to research her book. Be sure and order Jeannine’s book on Amazon and remind yourself to write a review—it will give her book a great boost on Amazon and let others know about it.

Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters is writing a review as we speak and I will add my thoughts too. Let’s just say we are really excited! In the meantime, enjoy this peak into May’s past in Gay Paree!

Originally posted on Views from a Window Seat:

During the years of writing Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, I was delighted to catch sight of May wherever I could. Most often this was in biographies that focused on her sister Louisa May Alcott and sometimes their parents, Abigail and Bronson. I also came to know May from memoirs of nineteenth century neighbors, such as novelist Julian Hawthorne and sculptor Daniel Chester French. I was delighted to find May in two novels by contemporary women that feature Mary Cassatt. Both May Alcott and Mary Cassatt were expatriate painters in Paris at the same time and became friends. I liked to imagine walking in on one of the Thursday night soirées at the Cassatt family home in Montmartre, or listening in as May and Mary rode in a horse-drawn carriage through an elegant park.


One book that gives a fictional peek into their lives in 1870’s…

View original 577 more words

Summer Conversational Series for Wednesday, July 15

Wednesday’s presentations proved to be lively, poignant and brain-busting!


L to R, Gabrielle Donnelly, Jeannine Atkins and Kristi Martin

Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters, spoke on Louisa’s trips to Europe in her presentation titled, “Our Foreign Correspondent Louisa May Alcott’s Travels Through Europe.” She read extensively from Shawl Straps (Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag) and had the room in stitches. Gabrielle has a unique quality for tapping into Louisa’s humor; she read descriptions of various people Louisa met on the train and the writing literally leaped off of the pages! She also offered wonderful insight regarding themes in Little Women and the complex relationship between Louisa and youngest sibling May.

little woman in blueJeannine Atkins continued on the theme of May with her presentation, “May Alcott Painting a Way Home.” Jeannine has written a splendid historical fiction novel about May which will be coming out this September; it is titled Little Woman in Blue. Her talk featured many of May’s sketches from Concord Sketches, a book that can only be viewed in the Special Collections at the Concord Public Library. She continued on the theme of sibling rivalry, focusing on the dynamic between older and younger sister. In a poignant ending to her talk, Jeannine read Louisa’s poem, “Our Madonna;” Jeannine was not the only one with a lump in her throat after that reading.

Kristi Martin presented a scholarly paper on “The Wilderness of Books Literary Concord,” drawing a history of how Concord came to be the home of so many distinguished authors, and how the homes of these writers became museums, attracting people from around the world. Kristi brings a unique experience to her work having been a tour guide at just about all the house museums in Concord. Her knowledge is vast and the presentation dense with wonderful information. Unfortunately my slow brain could not take notes fast enough so I only offer a general summary of this fine talk.

Here are my notes from Wednesday: notes for wednesday 7-15-15

Steven Burby was kind enough to send along his presentation that he gave on Monday; I will read it over on Friday and comment on it.

Unfortunately I cannot attend the Thursday presentation by John Matteson; if anyone has notes they wish to share please send them to me at

I do have a little surprise however which I will post tomorrow.

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Summer Conversational Series taking place this week

The Summer Conversational Series is taking place all this week at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The theme is “Heaven in the Mind:” The Spirit of Place in Transcendental Concord. I will be going to the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions.


I believe registration is still open–here is information on topics and who is presenting (scroll down a bit to see).

Last year I was remiss in not sharing all that I learned at the series because frankly, I was awash in notes! It occurred to me that all I really need to do is summarize and make my notes available to you for download. That is what I will be doing this year so that you will not miss out.

A call out to those of you attending:

If you are taking notes, could you please share them with me so I can, in turn, share them with all of you? I would love to have all the days covered. Write to me at

Notes from 2014

Rose_Peckham_-_Abigail_May_Alcott_Nieriker_(d._1879)I include here all of last year’s notes for your perusal–Notes from Summer Conversational Series 2014. These include notes from other participants who graciously sent their notes to me. One of my favorite presentations which I wish I had written about was Anne-Laure Francois’ excellent talk on May Alcott–now you can see for yourself.

This is my fourth year attending the series; it is the highlight of my summer. Getting together with Alcott friends is the best!

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