“How I Went Out to Service” – Louisa May Alcott’s humiliation

I am so glad I went on that buying spree a few months ago for books by and about Louisa because now as I plough through Susan Cheever’s book, I actually have at my fingertips the vast majority of sources and stories she mentions. Chapter 4 talks in part about Louisa’s foray into being a paid companion (servant) with her piece, “How I Went Out to Service” and eventually how the eminent publisher James T. Fields responded to it. Ever since  I heard about it in Joan Howard’s children’s biography, The Story of Louisa May Alcott, I have been very curious about this piece. It turned out to be different than I had imagined.

Quick Summary

To quickly summarize, an older gentleman, the Honorable James Richardson, a lawyer from Dedham, came to Abba’s mission in Boston searching for a paid companion for his sister. He promised lovely surroundings and light work. Louisa presented herself for the position and ended up working herself to the bone for 7 weeks until she finally left in disgust. The gentleman apparently hounded her, following her everywhere, droning on and on in boring monologue or reading poetry to her. At one point she had had enough and an impudent fashion, reminded her employer that she was to be a companion to his sister, not him. Out of spite, Richardson then assigned her all the heavy work to do in and out of the house and furthered her humiliation by insisting that she blacken his boots (apparently one of the most lowly of tasks for a woman – page 360, Alternate Alcott edited by Elaine Showalter). Louisa finally left and to her dismay, found that her employer only paid her $4 for 7 weeks worth of backbreaking work. In anger, the money was returned with Bronson as courier.

Thoughts about the essay

First of all, I would tend to agree with Cheever’s assertion that her employer, depicted as Reverend Josephus in the story, may have had romantic/sexual intentions towards Louisa. He was probably old enough to be her father and Louisa was just 18, in the prime of her youth. There is a section in “How I Went Out to Service” where Reverend Josephus is addressing Louisa which I found rather creepy: ” ‘Nay, do not fly,” he said as I grasped my duster in guilty haste. ‘It pleases me to see you here and lends a sweet, domestic charm to my solitary room. I like the graceful cap, that housewifely apron, and I beg you to wear them often; for it refreshes my eye to see something tasteful, young, and womanly about me . . .’ ” (page 357). In an earlier reference he says, “. . . I hope you will here (referring to his study) allow me to minister to your young and cheerful nature when your daily cares are over. I need such companionship and shall always welcome you to my abode.” (page 353). If I didn’t know better, I would swear he was speaking with his wife.

There are other disturbing elements in this story. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I saw a passage  in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott which referred to Louisa’s “Humiliation in Dedham” and how it tapped into and fueled her anger. Stern writes, “Although Louisa subsequently made light of this experience in ‘How I Went Out to Service,’ there can be no doubt that from her humiliation an anger was born that would express itself both obliquely and directly when she sat down to write her blood-and-thunder tales.”

I was also disturbed by the fuss her family made over Louisa’s acceptance of the position, and their lack of faith in her. Louisa devoted nearly 2 pages to the “laughter and lamentation” from her family members. I found it rather odd that they felt it was beneath an Alcott to go out to service; never mind that the family was destitute and Louisa was willing to accept honest work. Proud family indeed!

Finally I thought that when the Reverend Josephus roused Louisa’s ire, she rather deliberately tried to provoke further trouble; it felt like a game to see how far she could push him. She could indeed be prickly which was what I often saw in her alter ego, Jo March.

While I thought the story was a little uneven in the way it was written, it certainly was very revealing if you read between the lines. My curiosity was more than satisfied. 🙂

Becoming a professional writer

Cheevers writes that the essay was Louisa’s first serious attempt at a memoir, and the realism that became her trademark (p. 109 Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography). She didn’t feel the essay was successful because there was no real conclusion. She saw a lot of ambiguity in the piece, maintaining that Louisa wasn’t exactly sure what happened or what Richardson’s true intentions were. I agree with this, considering the fact that she was only 18 and naive about the world (incredible when you think of all the hardships she bore, but her family lived in their own bubble). Louisa took Richardson’s word on face value as pointed out in the essay and never suspected anything despite the fact that he wrote several letters before she arrived that she described as “peculiar.” (pg 353 Alternate Alcott). I doubt that she had the savvy or life experience necessary to correctly interpret the confusing signals he sent.

So perhaps “When I Went Out to Service” was not the best piece of writing to show to an established publisher like Fields known for publishing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best seller, The Scarlet Letter. Cheevers believes it was a watershed moment for the emerging writer; that day Louisa became a professional. Fields’ famous statement, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you can’t write,” most likely was the catalyst that propelled her into eventual success. Cheevers quotes Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, supporting her contention: “He [Fields] could hardly have hit on a surer way to stoke her determination.”

In that case, thank the Lord for James T. Fields!


18 Replies to ““How I Went Out to Service” – Louisa May Alcott’s humiliation”

  1. Thank you for your review. I haven’t read this piece, but LMA did use the experience in her later novel, Work. In that book, her heroine Christie tries a number of occupations. In the chapter called “Servant” she is just that, while another chapter called “Companion” presents a somewhat romantic view of family secrets.

    I understand the Alcotts’ attitude about working as a servant. They were poor, but they had status as educated people with connections to those securely in the middle and upper classes. They would have been reluctant to risk that valuable identification.

    1. Thanks for that, I will look for it when I read “Work.”

      That’s interesting about why her family objected so much to her going out to service. I kind of suspected that (the education thing) but again it’s pride getting in the way of practicalities. I’m glad that Louisa was pragmatic and smart enough to rise above that. Considering where she came from, it’s amazing how savvy she was, especially with regards to having her finger on the pulse of the general public.

  2. Issues of social class were even more powerful in the 19th century than they are today. There is and was a world of difference between being a governess or companion (genteel occupation — upstairs) and a housekeeper (below stairs). To be blacking boots was to be a scullery maid, lowest of the low.

    These were not unimportant distinctions in an era when reputation was everything.

    1. I appreciate the clarification. I’m actually seeing that quite clearly as I read Louisa’s first novel, “The Inheritance.”

      And I really see how important reputation is as I read “Gone With the Wind.”

      People say today’s world is bad and many long for life in earlier times. I often have wished I could travel back in time and visit various eras, but I’m glad I live here now. The further away we get from an era, the more we romanticize it. I wonder if I wouldn’t have chafed under the different restrictions of social class, money and reputation as much as Louisa did. And never mind the restrictions imposed upon women with clothing. Goodness! No wonder “nervous disorders” in the Victorian era were so prominent!

  3. I have just discovered your blog by way of another blog, A Room of One’s Own. I can tell I’m going to really enjoy looking around on your site.

    Quick question: I was recently in Washington DC and viewed the painting by Norman Rockwell, I believe it’s called Jo March in the Attic. It’s a lovely painting. Anyway, in the description of the painting it said that Rockwell illustrated a biography about Alcott. I have searched the internet high and low for information about this book but without success. Have you heard anything about this?

    1. Katharine Anthony wrote a biographical series on Louisa in the Woman’s Home Companion of February 1938. It was titled THE MOST BELOVED AMERICAN WRITER and illustrated by Norman Rockwell. The Jo in the attic painting is one of at least several that appeared. There is another of Meg and Laurie sitting on the stairs, presumably at the Moffats’ party? Laurie has the appropriate black hair but Meg looks a bit too 1930s. And finally there is “Heart’s Dearest,” Professor Bhaer and Jo under the umbrella in the rain. I believe these can all be purchased as prints from the Rockwell estate, and Jo writing in the attic is printed on birthday party stickers for sale at Orchard House.

      1. Oops, typing too quickly. The biographical article was SERIALIZED and appeared in chunks in more than one issue of the magazine.

  4. There is another picture of Jo waiting in an office of a publisher hoping to sell one of her stories. But I only knew of two pictures. Now I’m going to have to find these other ones 🙂 The quest is on ladies! Lets see how finds them first and report back 😉

    Back to the original post. Yes social classes were clearly defined, as were most things during the Victorian Era. I think thats why I love it so much. I need boundaries and the Victorian Era hand rules and boundaries for everything.

    The very idea that Louisa would go out to work as a maid is disturbing. Her family, though poor, were intellects and physical labor was not to be done. There were very few jobs that were acceptable for women. Though to be fair I think Alcott thought more of himself than he should. My god they were downright poor, and even if they had historical pedigree on Abba’s side, who cares. The man was useless and shouldn’t have put on airs.

  5. Yes, Gina, I believe some of the illustrations were oil paintings and some were drawings. I think the one of Jo in the office is a drawing.

    The idea that Louisa would work as a maid is not disturbing to ME. However I can understand why it was disturbing to her family. My father’s father died at 50 in 1925 and his family sank from prosperity into genteel poverty. My grandmother was very educated, intellectual, etc. (I have her KJV prayer book which is annotated with the history of all the prayers!) Still, the lines drawn for survival were very clear.

    When I got a job as a dinner waitress at 18 in the 1970s my poor father, born in 1916, felt I was one step up from a streetwalker! He was much happier when I switched to working as an office temp.

    There is still quite a bit of that prejudice today. I need a part-time job. I live in a tourist town. The only thing available these days is hotel housekeeping. I mentioned something to my husband and he sighed deeply and said, “Anything but that. I can hear your parents calling to me from their graves!”

    1. I have to admit that this division of classes is something very foreign to me. It does make me realize how courageous it was of Louisa to go out to service (or perhaps it’s a combination of courage and desperation).

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  7. I’m really enjoying your articles.

    And thank you for your honesty about her father: it’s always galled me that everyone praises him for Louisa’s success when he was nothing more than a self-aggrandizing egocentric who off-loaded responsibility for himself and his children onto his wife and her brother and everyone else he could manipulate into looking after him. It would never have been that difficult: no matter how impatient anyone grew with cleaning up after him, leaving him to his own devices would have meant leaving his wife and daughter to them as well.

    I’ve always believed that her father was the reason that Louisa didn’t marry: she knew she’d be parenting him — and sometimes it seems as if he saw her as far more wife than daughter — for the rest of his life. I doubt she wanted to risk having yet another ‘helpless’ man to provide for or landing someone she cared about with keeping her ‘helpless’ father. I think her marrying ‘Jo’ to Professor Bhaer was a way of giving herself the responsible father that she never had: when Jo meets him, he’s funding the education of his nephews; when they marry, he not only does his fair share to support their family, he’s supportive of her desire to write and to surround herself with children. He seems too opposite to her self-centered father for it to be accidental.

    When you read her life story, you can only be grateful that women have far more options now, among them that if marrying someone proves to be a mistake because that person abdicates their spousal and parental responsibilities, women are no longer saddled with that mistake for the rest of their lives.

    1. Thank you for your comments and I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts. It is true that Bronson had some truly fatal flaws but he also had some very interesting and positive ideas. I am ambivalent about him but find him to be a totally fascinating study. Things have come a long way for women, to be sure! Louisa did so much with so many restricitons.

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