Book review: Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

I just finished reading Harriet Reisen‘s book (which I bought for myself), Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women and already wishing I could turn back the clock and read it all over again. It’s been a wonderful companion this past month. Having read several biographies on Louisa May, I wondered if I could learn anything new, and indeed I did! This book had all kinds of tidbits to please passionate hobbyists like myself, but also presented such a comprehensive picture to newcomers and enthusiasts of Little Women who wanted to know the real life woman behind their beloved Jo.

I discovered this book by watching a terrific documentary which aired on PBS this past winter. I had never seen any films on Louisa May before and was thrilled to see this one. I felt the actress who portrayed Louisa captured her spirit admirably and I couldn’t wait to read the book.

For those who want to dig into Louisa May’s life, you must first become intimately acquainted with her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, and her mother, Abigail May. A good portion of the first half of the book details their lives and the lives of their young daughters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. To some (myself included) this section was a bit dry and tedious. But if you hang on and get to where Louisa grows into adulthood, the pace and feel of the book greatly picks up. I would not have appreciated the second half nearly as much if I had not ‘done my homework’ with the first half.

Reisen beautifully captures the spirit of Louisa May, portraying a much more complex woman than the one hinted at in Little Women’s Jo. I found much to love,  but also wondered sometimes how much I would have liked her. For example, while I can understand Louisa’s desire for privacy (and people can be very rude), still, I can’t help wishing she had been more gracious towards her fans. I know for sure she wouldn’t have appreciated this blog! 🙂

Rather than get into a summary of the book, I’d rather point out two things about this book that changed my perceptions and greatly fueled my passion.

The first is Reisen’s treatment of Bronson, who was equally as complicated (if not more so) than his famous daughter. Talk about ambiguity! There are times when Bronson seemed so narcissistic, so self-absorbed, that often his family was in danger of starving! Sometimes he seemed outright mad (think of Fruitlands and Charles Lane). And then slowly, over the years, he grew into a gentle and wise sage, charming many (especially women) with his ideas. And he grew to love and appreciate his difficult second daughter who shared his birthday but was so opposite from him. The last few times that he and Louisa were together I found very touching, and his poem about Duty’s Faithful Child brought a tear to my eye. Reisen’s treatment of him showed him as a complete man, someone worthy of scorn and criticism, but also someone worthy of love.  I thank the author for showing, finally, a more complete view of Bronson Alcott.

The second thing this book did for me was to open up the richness of Louisa’s writing. This is going to sound very strange coming from someone so passionate about Louisa May Alcott, but I never liked her writing! I’m not a natural reader and found the 19th century form of writing so cumbersome. After Reisen’s description of Hospital Sketches, however, I felt compelled to read it. Finding it in its entirety online, I read it with great fervor. It was just as the critics had said: funny, poignant, insightful . . . I couldn’t get enough of it. Of course it helps that I love the Civil War period and greatly appreciated the first hand accounts from Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle. But no one writes as poignantly about death and dying as Louisa does. Her depth of experience with death and her deep understanding of it shines through in her writing. Having lost my mother a few months ago to a long illness, I find reading scenes such as the death of her beloved John in Hospital Sketches (and Beth in Little Women) tremendously helpful in dealing with my own grief. Somehow Louisa manages to convey hope and it truly comforts me.

Having had my eyes opened at last to the richness of Louisa’s books, I’ve started reading Little Women for real this time, and have lined up several of her adult books to read as well.

Therefore, I can say with certainty that Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women has changed my life. I have now become a reader.

You can find this book on Amazon or in your favorite bookstore. It’s also available at Orchard House’s gift shop, should you be fortunate enough to be able to visit it.

Addendum, June 2017

Audio Book edition

DVD of PBS American Masters film

Seven years later I consider Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women a must read. If you are curious about the creator of Jo March, this book will tell you most everything you want to know. Reisen’s obvious love for Alcott’s writing shines through with references to her well-known books (Little Women, Little Men, An Old-Fashioned Girl) and many less familiar stories and books (Hospital Sketches, her many blood-and-thunder stories, her first novel  The Inheritance and numerous juvenile short stories). Published in 2010, the book revealed much new information about other family members including Elizabeth and May.

I am on my third read having bought the audio book. Reisen does the reading, providing us with additional insight by the nature of her read.

Having bought the DVD of the PBS American Masters program of the same title, I have watched that several times as well.

If you are interested in getting to know the author of Little Women, you can’t do better than to make Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women your first read.

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8 thoughts on “Book review: Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

  1. silverseason says:

    I too liked the Reisen biography very much, especially as I had read some others which were much less realistic about the conditions of Louisa’s life and the Alcott family.

    A few weeks ago I had a chance to visit Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts where you see the house they lived in during the experiment in communal living. Two things particularly impressed me: (1) the house now is in far better shape than it could have been when the Alcotts lived there and (2) it is a very isolated location.

    I think you will enjoy Work.

  2. Margot says:

    I have only read the first few pages of this book but, after reading this review of yours, I’m anxious to keep going with it. I like the way you pointed out the two things that really impressed you the most.

    I hope that after reading this book I’ll come to appreciate Bronson Alcott more, or at least understand him. Right now my opinion of him is not very good.

    The best thing, in my opinion, is that this book turned you on to the richness of Ms. Alcott’s writing. I’ve always loved her children’s books but this challenge has me reading her adult books. It’s opened up a whole new area for me that I’m enjoying. It sounds like the same thing is happening with you. It’s great!

  3. Mia Ninera says:

    I got this book as a prize, won it answering a trivia question about Louisa May Alcott’s $100prize for a story. 🙂 I was so excited about the fact that a giveaway book is being delievered to another continent, all the way to Bosnia (Europe) and started reading it as soon as I got it in my hands. It kept me excited till the end.

    I’ve read her Little Women, Little Men, Moods, Behind a Mask and some stories, selected letters and journal entries, but this is the first biography of Alcott that I read. I believe that I will be spoiled for any others after reading this one.

    I loved the first part describing her parents, their relatives, friends and their marriage. It helped me understand the roots of her feeling to be the “one destined to fill vacant niches, being a wife to her father, a husband to her widowed sister, and a mother to her little niece.” Someone had to take care of those idealists unable to see the life and people as they really were, unable to clean their own mess.

    I enjoyed gossip about her father’s friends Transcendentalists. It resembles a soap opera pattern: Emerson’s wife was in love with Thoreau, her husbands best friend, while her husband was enchanted by Margaret Fuller and followed her to Europe where she got involved with an Italian count and had his child… It helped me understand a real life model for her fictional love triangle in Moods. By the way Susan, I can’t wait to start blogging about Moods. 🙂

  4. […] Congratulations to Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter for the usage of their fine DVD and book on Louisa which we have discussed here on this blog (see DVD review, see book review). […]

    • QNPoohBear says:

      Our public library system was among those 30 libraries to receive the grant for Louisa May Alcott programs. They discussed the Reisen biography but I did not attend. I saw the PBS program about it and I enjoyed learning more about my hero.

      • susanwbailey says:

        The PBS program is the crowning glory – it had never been done and it’s about time it was done! I’ve seen it many times and love it every time I see it.

  5. Tarissa says:

    I’m going to both read this book and watch that documentary ONE DAY. I am excited about it, but don’t think I can fit that book in this month. Thanks for sharing an update!

    • susanwbailey says:

      It occurred to me that I am working through the audio book during the challenge so in fact, I can participate! 🙂 I know you’ll enjoy it. I loved seeing Louisa as herself on film for the first time.

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