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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A feminist manifesto: wrapping up Work A Story of Experience (part two)

“…Work is an expression of Alcott’s feminist principles and a major effort toward synthesizing in popular, readable form the broad set of beliefs encompassing family, education, suffrage, labor and the moral reform of social life that defined feminist ideology in the nineteenth century.” (pg. 191 from Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine Stern)

So writes Sarah Elbert in the introduction to the 1977 edition of Work: A Story of Experience.

Message brought into the open

Such beliefs had already been hinted at in Little Women and An Old-Fashioned Girl  (most especially the latter). Now confident of her bully pulpit, Louisa put them forth in adult form using her life experience as the means.

Transcendental influence

According to Elbert, the influence of Transcendentalism with its belief in self-reliance and individual improvement as the means to a better society loomed large in Louisa’s brand of feminism. This is most evident in the last chapter of the book, “Forty” where Louisa sends a lady of fashion, Bella Carroll, on a mission to educate her friends on leading a more purposeful life through deliberate conversation and reading (see previous post).

From personal to universal

parker and power

Rev. Theodore Parker (left), the prototype for Rev. Power

In Work Louisa was able to fashion a personal search for meaning through a tale with universal appeal. Elbert points to the Reverend Theodore Parker, a radical preacher (see previous post) whose sermons, “The Public Function of Woman” and “Laborious Young Women” deeply inspired Louisa at a time when she was at her lowest point. He became the Rev. Power in the story whose words, practical assistance and guidance led Christie from her despair into a new life full of purpose.

In the beginning

christie and aunt betseyChristie Devon was a pioneer of sorts. As an orphan freed from taking care of aging parents, she opted for independence over marriage announcing to her Aunt Betsey that (taking words from the Seneca Falls Convention – Ibid, pg. 193) “there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence.” She then proceeded to knead her bread most vigorously, “kneading the dough as if it was her destiny, and she was shaping it to suit herself …” (Chapter 1, Work A Story of Experience from

War brings change

Elbert saw this as a symbolic gesture marking a farewell to the rural way of life, a narrow way which for generations had so shaped a woman’s life. The Civil War, much like World War II, had shaken society and the family to its foundations. Because the men were called away, the women stepped up and took their places, as head of households and workers in the public sphere. (pg. 193 from Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott).

Skillful yet unappreciated

Wages were seen as a path to independence but that path would be very hard. Christie, like most women, was trained in housewifery, a skill that was not valued in the workplace. She soon learned it was necessary for her to cultivate one skill.

Subtle humiliation

servant The obvious place to start was domestic service. By all outward appearances, being a servant didn’t seem all that bad: the work place was in a fine home with many comfortable accoutrements. It was not long before Christie saw the pitfalls: she was expected to serve the family with all the devotion and loyalty of a family member but without any of the benefits. She was not even allowed to retain her own name. It was work meant to keep her in her place through endless and subtle humiliation, with the ultimate being her firing because her “fashionable” employer forgot herself in chastising her employee and couldn’t live with it.


In her search for meaningful employment, Christie went through a succession of jobs, from actress, to governess, to companion, to seamstress in a factory.

Choosing between being true or being successful

actressChristie grew quite talented as an actress and could have been successful. She felt, however, that the unwholesome temptations and vanities prevented her from being a true woman of character. Louisa had long dreamt of a life on the stage and through Christie she realized that dream only to have it fade when the consequences of that life proved too costly. Undoubtedly Louisa too flirted with the unwholesome aspects of the stage, and she knew some success but not at the level that Christie enjoyed. In a sense, she used Christie’s experience to rationalize her own decision to leave the theatre.

One other option

fletcher and christieAs a governess, Christie was tempted to “marry for a living” with Philip Fletcher thus securing a position in the world of fashion. It was the only alternative to low wage work or slavery. Louisa must remain true to herself and therefore so must her heroine, and Christie refuses his marriage proposal. Elbert pointed out that marriage of this sort could only mean subordination and dependency; this surely was in opposition to the life Christie meant to live when she declared her independence from her Aunt Betsey. Again, she chose to walk away.

The need for friendship

Domestic service did not lend much opportunity for friendship. Christie did manage to maintain relations with Hepsey, a freed slave who worked with her as a servant, and chapter 20 demonstrated that she also kept in touch with Helen’s younger sister Bella whom she eventually sent out on a mission (see previous post). True friendship however did not come until she became a seamstress in a factory. Her relationship with Rachel, a fallen woman trying to start her life over again proved both costly (she quit her seamstress job because Rachel was being fired because of her past sin) and life-giving (Rachel saved her from suicide). Rachel and Christie enjoyed a sisterhood that became formalized when it was revealed she was David’s long lost sister, Letty.

True womanhood at odds with working

seamstressElbert pointed out an interesting scenario created by Rachel’s presence at the factory. Hired because of her “superior” taste, she is subsequently fired when it is revealed that she had an unmarried affair with a man. Elbert wrote, “The respectable workshop manager must be intent not only on production but also on maintaining the legitimacy of such a system by hiring only girls of good character. In a dramatic confrontation between the necessities of production and the maintenance of social order, Rachel is fired as an undesirable influence on the workers, and the contractions between true womanhood and waged work are made explicit.” (Ibid, pg. 197).

True to her friend

Christie’s response to the injustice and harsh judgment visited upon Rachel was swift with her own resignation. She offered to take Rachel in but Rachel insisted on leaving in order to redeem her life and be worthy of Christie’s friendship.

Live-giving sisterhood

rachel rescues christieAgain, Christie stood tall and walked away but her independent stand came at her own peril. Subsequent lack of work coupled with terrible isolation drove her to attempt suicide. It was poetic on Louisa’s part to have Rachel reappear to be Christie’s savior, demonstrating that for the independent woman, a sisterhood was essential: a familiar theme in Little Women and in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Elbert wrote, “Female friendships were doubly important to spinsters.” Louisa observed that “a brief but most sincere affection between two women was a viable experience which could open the heart to happiness that was its right.” (Ibid) Independence like anything else must be maintained in community.

Equality and love, short-lived

Mrs. Sterling and David

Mrs. Sterling and David

After her bout with despair, Christie met Cynthy Wilkins and through her, the Rev. Power. He sent Christie to the home of a Quaker woman, Mrs. Sterling, and her son, David whom Christie eventually married.

The romance between David (an idealized Thoreau according to Elbert) and Christie began with friendship, one of equality based on mutual interests, and evolved into a companionate marriage. The two served together in the Civil War as evidence of this equality but the marriage was cut short by David’s death. While Louisa believed that a companionate marriage was possible, she didn’t believe it was for her; if she couldn’t realize it, her alter ego could not either.

Fully evolved

sisterhoodDavid’s death released Christie back into the working world, something that Louisa felt a lot surer about (Ibid, pg. 200). Rather than simply live off of her husband’s pension, she developed his flower business and hired women like herself. Her evolution is complete at forty, where, as a confident and independent woman comfortable in her own skin, she is able to share her experiences in a public forum, inspiring other women.

The vibrancy of Work

Elbert concludes, “Louisa May Alcott was a working woman all her life, moving through the experiences of domesticity, jobs, and unemployment. Her awareness of these experiences as sharing women’s responses to the expectations raised by the dominant ideology of individualism enabled her to write more vividly and with a greater sense of urgency in Work than in any of her more commercially successful novels … she was able to present both the common sensibility of women and their individual experiences in a way that exhibited the conflict of interests manifest in their lives … The strength of her vision is revealed in the authenticity of Work; the facts of women’s lives in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as we can reconstruct them, are vivid and true in Alcott’s novel.” (Ibid, pgs. 200-201)

All drawings by Sol Eytinge, from Work A Story of Experience online

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