More musings from May Alcott Nieriker’s memoir

May Alcott, painted in Paris, portrait can be seen at Orchard HouseI’m reading the chapter entitled “Marmee’s Journal” from Caroline Ticknor’s May Alcott A Memoir; this journal was written in the last year of Mrs. Alcott’s life. There were several little things I noticed that I wanted to share.

First, there was an excerpt from one of May’s letters about an episode in her drawing class. The school often used models and that day they had used a black man who had been in the Crimean War, “decorated for his courage and considered one of the best models in Paris.” (from May’s letter, pg. 165). What I found interesting was that May’s belief that the races were equal was so genuine that it would be vividly demonstrated in her artwork. Here’s another excerpt from that letter:

“Müller [an established artist who came to critique the drawings of the students] said: ‘With what passion and enthusiasm you draw this ensemble; it is very vigorous and shows your interest and not scorn of the race.’ I couldn’t answer him, as this was all said in French, but it amused the class as I, among them, had pretty freely expressed my admiration for him, besides fighting the battle of the blacks versus the whites, whenever the question came up between the Southerners, of whom there are three in the class, and two of us Northerners. I am proud that he proves my part of the proposition, as most true, for he is the most gentlemanly, polite and delicate model that we have had.” (pg. 164)

Indeed, pictures do paint a thousand words! Her title of the pictures, by the way, was the “Prince of Timbuctoo.”

Later in the chapter, Marmee writes about Louisa’s success. I loved how she described the way Louisa wrote for young people. You can see where the writing talent came from:

“We are glad to get her [Louisa] back amongst us this dreary weather, it creates a new atmosphere in the house, and we feel more protected when she is about us. She seems quite well and happy. Her success in writing is quite remarkable, and her reputation is made for all future time, as the best writer for young people since Miss Edgeworth and Mrs. Barbauld. She infuses her morals so skillfully and her ethical machinery is so gracefully concealed by the clinging drapery of love, or the thick foliate of events, that her characters blossom out upon you with a new grace and beauty as well as being truthful to the Life.” (pg. 173)

I found it interesting too how Mrs. Alcott mentioned that having Louisa around made them feel “safe,” exactly what Louisa wanted. It had to give Louisa great satisfaction that she succeeded so well in giving her mother the peaceful and safe life she so richly deserved, even if it was at a great cost.

How fortunate us Alcott enthusiasts are that there is so much primary source reading on these folks!

11 Replies to “More musings from May Alcott Nieriker’s memoir”

  1. Eighteen years before Louisa May Alcott wrote and published Little Women, she wrote in her journal:

    “I found one of mother’s notes in my journal, so like those she used to write me when she had more time. It always encourages me; and I wish some one would write as helpfully to her, for she needs cheering up with all the care she has. I often think what a hard life she has had since she married, – so full of wandering and all sorts of worry! so different from her early days, the youngest and the most petted of her family. I think she is a very brave, good woman; and my dream is to have a lovely, quiet home for her, with no debts or troubles to burden her.” (July 1850)

    (Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox, The Portable Louisa May Alcott, Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000, p.559)

    The Alcotts were all intellectual, artistic and creative, however Louisa was the one with money-making ability. She felt and she was a pillar of strength to her family. I think that she had that inner urge to take care of those she loved, rather than need to be taken care of.

  2. I agree. I find it interesting how pragmatic she was regarding the business of writing – she had an excellent instinct for what would sell in the marketplace and knew how to adapt her writing to any subject or audience. Pretty amazing!

    She surely got her wish in taking care of her mother and that must have brought her great joy and relief.

  3. You mentioned that you are reading Little Women now “for real.” Check out the chapter “Literary Lessons,” the part where Jo called a family council to hear their opinions about publisher demand to cut cut down one third of her first novel and omit the parts that she liked the best.

    Believing that this chapter is truly autobiographical, I can imagine Louisa calling the family meeting on her first novel “Moods,” by the way I read it and liked it very much, and guess which family member was pro adapting her novel to whatever would sell.

    – The youngest one, little Amy (May), of course. 🙂

    “Do as he tells you; he knows what will sell, and we don’t. Make a good, popular book, and get as much money as you can. By and by, when you’ve got a name, you can afford to digress, and have philosophical and metaphisical people in your novels.”

    Wasn’t she a practical little creature? 😉 I agree with what you observed that she knew how to make the best of everything.

  4. Cool, I will!

    So many of Louisa’s lesser known works, like Moods, are available through Google Books and Moods is on my list of books to read.

    In reading Little Women in the past, Amy was never my favorite character, but now that I have come to know May, I will look at her in a different light because I think May was awesome. 🙂

  5. I think that you will enjoy Moods, ’cause you are familiar with transcedentalists Emerson and Thoreau, Louisa’s father’s friends, and some critics say that two men that heroine loved are modeled after them. It is fun when you can relate or at least guess real life facts and Alcott’s characters and events in her fiction.

    I don’t want to spoil reding for you but I will just hint that if you saw The Way We Were (1973) with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford and if you remember why two of them couldn’t function as a couple, you might relate it with Sylvia and Adam in Moods.

    I would love to read that Ticknor’s book of May Alcott, I’ll look for it when I go to USA again.

  6. I think she must have had.

    She even says in her journal, describing the wedding of her older sister Anna (Meg in Little Women), that when Mr.Emerson kissed the bride at the end of the ceremony, Louisa “thought that honor would make even matrimony endurable” 🙂 and she adds “for he is the god of my idoltary, and has been for years.” 🙂

    Goeffrey Moor in Moods is modeled after Emerson and Adam Warwick after Thoreau. For those who haven’t read Moods yet, I don’t want to say which one Sylvia chose in the end. 🙂

  7. Do read it please! I would love someone to discuss Moods with.

    Have you read Jane Eyre? Do you remember St.John, strong willed priest who almost overpowered Jane demanding that she marry him ’cause that was her duty? He was a man of his principles.

    One of two men in Moods remind me on him, but again I can’t tell you which one, cause I don’t want to spoil reading for people who haven’t read it yet.

    Susan said that Moods could be found through Google Books, so please check it out and we’ll discuss it more. 🙂

    1. You’re on! I’ve downloaded the PDF and will get started. I am a slow reader so I won’t be able to whip through this thing, but I’ll do my best. 🙂

      I read Jane Eyre in 6th grade so I barely remember the story . . .

  8. Great! Milonoah, you don’t have to wait to finish the whole novel, we can share ideas while you are reading. It makes it more interesting. I promise I won’t tell you what happens next, I hate when people do that to me, and as I always try to apply Golden Rule – I won’t do to others what I wouldn’t like others to do to me. 😉

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