Fiction or non-fiction? How should I tell the story of Lizzie?

Note: Although I had promised a series of posts on women’s health in the nineteenth century, I need to postpone those posts until I clear up a problem with citing an important source. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I thought I would share this with you.

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Doing a book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott presents a problem: how do you get inside the head of someone who was so private? While one can speculate by “reading between the lines” when pouring over family letters, it’s hard to fully explore the private line in a biographical setting.

At one time, I was considering doing a fiction book (like Jeannine Atkins’ wonderful Little Woman in Blue) but decided against it because I am not a fiction writer. I read very little fiction, preferring biographies and essays. It seems to me one ought to be immersed in fiction to write fiction.

However, I did try my hand at it with a couple of attempts. This piece was going to be the introduction to a fiction book and I thought you’d like to see. I have another one, less finished, that I’ll show you in the next post.

I have to admit, I enjoyed writing these pieces. Maybe I will continue writing them if only to prime the pump for the real thing.

Here goes:

Prologue

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

I’m hovering over my body laid out on the bed. Where has my hair gone? My face is so thin, hollow and pale. I look like a skeleton. At least the pain is gone. I see my mother and sister gazing up at me. There’s a look of wonder in their eyes although their cheeks are wet. Louisa is looking at Marmee and she’s saying, “What did you see?” I wonder where I am going, I hope it’s someplace with lots of flowers and sun. And music! Will I hear angels singing where I am going?

I thought I wanted to leave but now I’m not sure. The pain was terrible, even the ether didn’t help. Poor Father, he tried. I just couldn’t look at his face so consumed with sadness and worry. I just couldn’t look.
I don’t want to leave my family. Not just yet. I want to see what happens next. Will Anna marry John Pratt? From what she told me, he’s a very nice man. Funny too. Anna deserves someone nice.

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Amy March from Little WomenWill my little Abby May become a famous artist someday? I want to see! Her drawings and paintings are so wonderful. She loves pretty things just like I do but she knows how to capture and keep them forever on paper. I can only remember.

And Louy. My Lu. I shall miss her so. She made me feel alive. She was so unafraid and me, well, I never wanted to leave the house. She will write a great book one day, I imagine lots of great books. Her head is always so full of stories.

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersDear Marmee … oh Marmee, don’t cry! It wasn’t your fault. Those children, they were so sick. I wanted to help too. I wish I had been stronger, for you. You are my hero! How I wish I could sit in your lap right now, lean my head on your bosom and murmur “I love you.” Because I do. How could I not? You showed me what it means to be kind and giving. There was nothing you wouldn’t or couldn’t do.

Father, Father! You and I, we are one. I didn’t understand your words but your heart and mine, we were one. You were like Jesus to me. I wish I could snuggle close to you right now and tell you that. How I will miss your sweet, quiet voice. When you’d talk to me, it was like being outside in the sun, so warm, so peaceful.

lizzie alcott graveMy dear family! I have to leave now. God is good, I’m sure; He will let me watch over you. Keep my memory, let that console you. Come and visit me at Sleepy Hollow. Under the shade of the big elms we can be together.
I want to tell your story. My family, what a story! Lu, you have to tell it. I will help you. I will fill your mind with sweet memories. Oh yes, I know, we had it hard sometimes. I remember that gnawing in my belly and the only thing to fill it was that dry graham. I never told Father but I didn’t like it. It was like eating paper. But it was so sweet how he used to shape it into my favorite animals. It didn’t make it taste any better but the love he put into it made it sweeter somehow.

Lu, please tell our story, won’t you? Walk with me through the years, through those funny plays you and Anna used to put on that had us laughing, crying and shouting for more. Encore! Now that I am gone from this earth, maybe I can get inside your mind and watch the birth of your stories. I was always amazed at how you could stew on stories, cooking them to perfection while chopping vegetables in the kitchen. That head of yours was always so busy!
I hope there are kittens in Heaven. Remember all my kittens? So soft and furry, I loved hearing them purr. Maybe I will see all my pussycats again, running around in Heaven.

Did you know what went on inside of me? I know, I wasn’t good at sharing. I had many thoughts, many feelings but I was afraid to share. You and Anna, you were so smart! You had so many great thoughts to share. Father and Mother, they liked listening to your journals. I know they wanted me to share too but I just couldn’t. I was selfish, clinging to them as I did. And our family, we had hard times. I didn’t want to add to that with my little crosses. Sometimes those crosses got heavy though. This last cross was especially heavy. I died on this cross. Does that mean now that I am like Jesus?

What will God look like? Everything is very bright around me. How I wish I could tell you, shout to the world how happy I feel at this moment even as I say goodbye to you. Oh but dear family, I am not gone from your hearts.

Lu, I know you are the storyteller but I want to tell our story too. Now that I am well, I am free. For some reason, I no longer feel afraid to share what’s inside of me. I have so much that I want to tell you. May I tell you?

Marmee, Lu, there’s a mist around me, is that what you see? You are watching me rise up to Heaven, just as Father said I would. Isn’t God good to give you this glimpse of me, well, happy, ready to take on my brand new life. Father used to read the Holy Bible to us, remember? I’m glad he did that because I got to hear the word of God. It was hard to understand then but now I understand it all. I am rising up to God just like it says in the Bible: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” I never knew what incense was; I think Father said it was like smoke. Smoke goes up into the air. But now I am a mist. Marmee, Louisa, you’re getting smaller and smaller. I wish I could reach out my arms to you for one last goodbye. My mist will stay with you, cover you like a sweet, light blanket on a summer’s night. Wrap myself around you. Remember me.

And I will remember you.

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Coming attractions for 2016

Teasers for the new year … coming soon. :-)

beth doll combined

Beth doll, bequeathed to me by a special friend for inspiration

 

Beth doll, bequeathed to me by a friend for a special inspiration

My Christmas gift, and a great find.

 

how to study art cheaply3-560

May, the author and cheerleader

Reading this now ... eye-opening!

Reading this now … eye-opening!

Stay tuned!

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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.

Surprise!

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!

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.

lydia

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

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