“Love and Self-Love,” another early success story for Louisa May Alcott

As I continue to slowly go through Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography and read yet more background, I came upon a story of Louisa’s that related to her  incident at the Mill Dam where she nearly threw herself into the water in despair,  to end her life. That story, “Love and Self-Love” was to begin the turnaround of Louisa’s career.

Any Alcott enthusiast can tell you that one of the classic quotes regarding Louisa May Alcott was the critique from James T. Fields (pictured, right), future editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the premier publication that was a ‘must have’ for any author’s resume (James Russell Lowell was the first editor – he had panned Bronson’s “Orphic Sayings” in the Dial 20 years earlier, and now Bronson was the one to persuade him to take on Louisa’s story).* To be published in the Atlantic Monthly meant that you, as an author, had ‘arrived.’ Fields, upon examining Louisa’s story, “How I Went Out to Service” (see previous post on this short story) had stated, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you can’t write!” Years later, “Love and Self-Love” was to be published in that magazine.

I was interested in reading “Love and Self-Love” because of its reference to the incident at Mill Dam (in the story, the young wife of an older man tries to jump to her death off a boat in an act of self-sacrifice, so that her husband could be with the woman she presumed he truly loved). While the attempted suicide was a turning point in the story, it was not the focal point that I had expected. (The Mill Dam incident is also referenced in more detail in Work.)

I am beginning to see a pattern in Louisa’s short story work. The beginning is a little slow as the ground work is laid. It slowly builds so that by the middle, I am anxious to get to the end to find out what happened. I’m never quite sure whether or not her stories will end happily (case in point, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”), and I am certain the road will be long and winding before getting to the end (usually because it seems to take forever for the characters to honestly express their feelings – I must admit I do find the 19th century proprieties to be very frustrating sometimes!).

In this story on a May-December marriage, I enjoyed the first person perspective of the story (the male character, Basil Ventnor, an older man) and his introspection that we, as readers, were privy to. This introspection, I felt, was the more important element of the story. Basil had been asked by a dying friend to marry her 16 year old daughter, Effie so that she would be taken care of. Through his introspection, we learn of his ‘dilemma’ – that while he loved her, he ‘loved’ himself a lot more. It is this self-love (aka self absorption) which drives the story.

In doing a little research on this story, I found that Harriet Reisen in her biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women (page 150, hardcover) suggests that “Love and Self-Love” could actually center around Louisa herself (as Effie) and Bronson (as Basil).  Like Basil, Bronson was cold and distant towards Louisa, always preferring her older sister Anna (perhaps Agnes in the story, the woman that Basil thought he really loved). Louisa was subjected to his disapproval and criticism. However, after the incident at Mill Dam, Reisen contends that Bronson’s attitude towards Louisa changed (certainly realizing that he could have lost her) and comes to appreciate her more. He is much more solicitous towards her and works in practical ways to support and advance her writing (remember that he was the one to present “Love and Self-Love” to James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Monthly). It certainly is an interesting theory and gives the story an added dimension.

I really enjoyed “Love and Self-Love” and can see why Louisa’s career began to turn with its publication. In reading her short stories, I am also especially enjoying the diversity of her writing. There are similar elements certainly in these stories as they are so influenced by the time she lived in, but each story that I’ve read so far takes a very distinct direction. Louisa was a multi-faceted woman and it comes through loud and clear in her writing.

Here’s a great collector’s item – the original issue of the Atlantic Monthly featuring “Love and Self-Love” is for sale online from an antique book seller – there are some interesting comments about the magazine and the story.

*from page 150, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.

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