Comparing the March sisters with their real life counterparts

Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, sent me this. It’s interesting and fun to see the comparisons. I’d love to hear what you think!

Thanks, Harriet, for this contribution!

Gentle Readers:

Asked to compare Louisa May Alcott’s fictional sisters to her real four, I find that they are inextricable in my mind, as I suspect they were in Louisa’s.  That she found it impossible to write of Amy March after the death of May Alcott suggests that to me. I find the beginning of Jo’s Boys almost unbearably touching for its image of Amy March in a terrestrial heaven (“Mount Parnassus”).

Little Women led me to Louisa Alcott, of course.  It tells a great deal about her, and is her masterpiece, but her works, her life, and her times, are quite different, and much more than that one wonderful novel.  I re-read Little Women only once for the book – I needed to read the 23 other books she wrote, not to mention poems, short stories, journals, letters, etc – and so you, dear readers, are undoubtedly more expert than I am on the fine points of the Alcott versus the March sisters.  I would love to know how you would flesh out and/or change this chart, esp.

Here’s my chart, a Wikipedia entry in the making?

Alcott Family March Family
grueling poverty, hungry genteel poverty, had a servant
teenage years 1840s teenage years 1860s
teen years lived in Hillside house teen years lived in Orchard House
moved some 30 times had one home
Louisa was nurse in Civil War Mr. March was minister in Civil War
were social and political activists concerned with plight of poor
Anna Alcott Meg March
plain but loved beautiful things beautiful (“Someone had to be”-LMA)
married John Pratt, amateur actor married John Brooke, tutor
married at age 29 married in early 20s
two boys, Fred and John girl and boy twins, Daisy and Demi
Louisa Alcott Josephine March
nicknamed Louy nicknamed Jo
tempestuous and moody “wild nature”
independent in Boston supervised in New York
serious about acting and theater theater a beloved childhood pastime
had hair cut off while very ill sold her long hair
was seamstress, laundress, servant was aide to wealthy Aunt March
never married married
had no children had two boys
lived in Boston mansion; 10 servants lived at Plumfield College, not wealthy
Elizabeth Peabody/Sewall Alcott Beth March
called “Lizzie,” “Betty,” rarely “Beth” called “Beth”
died age 23 died age 16
“her pretty hair all gone” at death loss of hair not mentioned
enjoyed playing music was musically gifted
intended never to leave home asked Jo to take her place at home
Abigail May Alcott (May) Amy March
accomplished artist, worked hard things came easily to her
attracted benefactors (Aunt Bond) attracted benefactors (Aunt March)
graceful, poised at young age graceful, poised at young age
gave free art lessons somewhat self-centered and vain
chosen for Paris salon twice became a professional artist
married at age 37 married in early 20s
died at 39 after birth of Lulu happy and benevolent; mother of Bess

To see other ways that Louisa was not Jo March, check out this video.  It’s less than a minute, and it’s funny.  –Harriet Reisen

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26 Replies to “Comparing the March sisters with their real life counterparts”

  1. I like your chart. It’s so refreshing to have this visual comparison. 🙂 Though, when it comes to Louisa not having children of her own, I would add that she adopted Lulu and was her mother until she died. She should be given credit of being a parent.Not serene and patient like Anna, but “nervous” as Lulu remembered her. Still she took good care of Lulu, making sure to indulge her with everything she had been denied as a child.
    In my opinion, Louisa was not mother, but father figure to many, she was provider and had what could be called masculine ways.

    And there is a small error about Anna’s age when she got married. It was a year after Lizzie died, Anna was 29. 🙂

  2. Fascinating!! I love the chart, though I don’t know enough about Alcott or Little Women to contribute feedback.

    I intend to read Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women next, after I finish Little House and Wuthering Heights.

  3. You gonna love The Woman Behind Little Women, Jillian! I noticed that we all are reading two or more books at the same time. I am reading and listening Eight Cousins and rereading Little Women now. But when I got Louisa May Alcott: The Woman behind Little Women, it proved such a page turner that I left everything to read it. 🙂

  4. Thanks all, and thanks to Mia Ninera for pointing out my mistake about Anna. I did the chart off the top of my head, and knowing Anna was born in 1830 and married in 1858 (on May 23, her parents’ 30th anniversary), I didn’t factor in that in March of 1858 she turned 29, although in the book I believe I said 29. I often made the opposite mistake of Louisa, thinking for example that she was 7 in 1839, when for all but a month of that year she was 6.

    So Susan, can you correct that in the chart? I’m correcting it in my copy.

    Also, I do know Louisa was a mother to Lulu (as was Anna) and a father to her nephews in terms of bread-wiinning, especially as an adoptive mother myself. But a chart can only say so much, and I was looking for the contrasts.

  5. Harriet, you are absolutely an authority when it comes to LMA knowledge. What do you think, where did I learn about Louisa getting absorbed in motherhood raising Lulu? From your Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women of course. 🙂
    I’m not mother myself yet, but one of my best friends is an adopted child and in all ways her adoptive parents are her parents and she is their daughter, when it comes to how they feel about each other and when it comes to the law. I deeply respect adoptive parents, and not only because of my friend’s parents. When I worked as a teacher in elementary school and later in kids’camp on the cruise ships, I met many adoptive parents. In my experience they are often more caring and pay more attention to their children than biological parents.
    As I understood in your book, Louisa legally adopted Lulu when May died, because that was May’s wish. And Ernst Nieriker agreed. He took Lulu back only after Louisa died and Anna couldn’t keep her because legally, Louisa and not Anna was her adoptive mother, right? So, if she legally was an adoptive mother, well, it’s equal to being a biological mother.

    Regarding numbers, I am someone who is always mixing them up. I never know if my bus is 10 minutes to 3, or 10 minutes past 3. 🙂 Don’t know why is that, but numbers play wild games with me, and I am completely helpless without a calculator. If I know that someone is born in 1830 and did something on 1858, without calculator, I might conclude that they were age 38. I thought that mabye it happened to you to. The chart says that Anna was 38, not 28. I guess, it was just a “slip of the keyboard.” 🙂

    But these are just small unimportant things. What I really want to thank you about when it comes to both your book and your chart is for pointing out to Louisa’s hair. I love how you contrasted that in your chart, Louisa had to have her hair cut because of illness, and Jo voluntarily sold her hair. When I read it in the chart, it struck me that they both lost it as a symbol of personal sacrifice to the Civil War. In your book, I love that you pointed the fact that her hair grew back, which is proved by George Healy’s portrait painted in Europe in 1870, seven years after she had it cut due to her illness. When I read about that I clapped my hands as happy as a child, for I discovered that she didn’t have to wear “grandma caps” till the rest of her life. Her “one beauty” was given back to her, she could feel herself beauutiful again and then I could see her episode with Laddie in different light.

    Thank you for that one all the others details that made your LMA biography such a page turner.

  6. Oh, I love this author and the various books out there…I read the one you saw on my blog, plus Lost Summer…and also, at the time, I reread a couple of the books LMA wrote… Little Women and Little Men…

    Then I got sidetracked, but I want to read more. So I’ve written down your URL and plan to revisit and learn more about what’s out there.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. Considering how many devotees Louisa has, I’m surprised that I haven’t found other blogs dedicated to her. I’ve been a closet fan all my life and it’s such a pleasure now to share my interest with other enthusiasts.

  7. In Jo’s Boys, Meg had a second daughter, Josy.
    She was very much like her namesake Aunt, only she wanted to be an actress not a writer.
    At the end, the readers are assured that Josy achieves her goal and is an accomplished and famous actress.

  8. I think that Jo and Amy were two sides of Louisa May Alcott’s personality. She was ambivalent about girls who were feminine, pretty and liked in the social scene of that time (Amy) and her literary, professional, serious writer self (Jo). There was a part of Louisa (Jo) that longed to be Amy and have a traditional female role and there was another side that led her to be a feminist, to rebel and to defy the conventions of her time. Her unfulfilled love for Laurie shows that she had some longings to be like Amy, who finally gets Laurie’s love. Her consolation husband, Professor Baher was probably based on her affection for her father and for the literary male figures that she knew in her youth. Her mother although not entirely a traditional woman still had a traditional marriage and family, That was another role model that made Louisa May have difficulties finding an identity.

    1. Good points! There is no doubt that Louisa did not throw off all aspects of femininity. She loved beautiful clothes and outfitted May’s daughter Lulu in all kinds of finery, the kind she could not enjoy herself as a child. Living in poverty she had to wear hand-me-downs which proved difficult. Louisa also loved babies and took to raising her sister’s child with great zeal while doting also on her nephews, the sons of older sister Anna. I imagine she envied May’s ease and grace with people — she called that May’s “luck” but it was really skill (and a gift) in dealing with others, a skill she gave generously to Amy. Louisa knew she was different and sometimes she reveled in that. But often she just longed to fit in.

  9. Just finishing “The Other Alcott” — about May (Amy in Little Women.) Really enjoyed it, but at moment, can’t recall author, and I think it’s her first book! You can Google it. This chart was very helpful! Thank you! Margaret Holben

  10. Without reading through the other replies, I noticed one small error in the age of “Beth’s” death in LW. The table says 16…however, she was at least 19 in LW. There is a statement by Jo to Beth that says “nineteen is too young, Beth”.

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