Guest blogger Gabrielle Donnelly (author of The Little Women Letters) shares the meaning of sisterhood. Plus, a book giveaway – Win The Little Women Letters!

I am pleased to present a guest blog by the author of The Little Women Letters, Gabrielle Donnelly.

Recently I reviewed this fine book and had a chance to talk with Gabrielle via email about it. I was intrigued by her biography where it stated that she had no sisters but in fact had 4 brothers! Her portrayal of the Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) and their special interaction felt so authentic that I was sure Gabrielle must have lived it. She shares with us how she created the sisterly dynamics between the 3 sisters, and how she herself longed to have sisters too.

Book giveaway

Be sure and comment on this post and you may win a copy of The Little Women Letters! See details at the bottom of this post.

The cover illustration on my 1989 Penguin Classics edition of Little Women the one from the 1915 edition, the one by Jessie Willcox Smith of the four March sisters grouped together. Although it is an illustration which is often reproduced, it is not one that I personally have ever much cared for. My lovely, joyful, fierce and feisty March girls look glum and strangely fearful here; and three of the four individuals are so very different from the way in which I had imagined them, that the only one I can identify for absolute certain is golden-ringleted Amy. Nevertheless, there is one element to the picture which is unmistakable and true: that these girls, wrapped together, leaning against each other, unquestioningly, trustfully close, are not just friends, but sisters.

The difference between sisters and brothers

I don’t have sisters myself – I have four brothers, which, believe me, is not the same thing at all – and it’s always been a sorrow to me. Women with sisters have an ease with other women which we sisterless will never have. They grew up sharing their life with another girl, comparing each other’s bodies and swapping each other’s clothes, combing each other’s hair and sometimes sharing each other’s bed, invading each other’s space without self-consciousness or hesitation. And it shows itself throughout their lives, in the fluidity of their gestures, the quickness of their sympathy, the way they will, almost unconsciously, hold my hand or stroke my arm or my hair when we are deep in conversation. I was like this as a little girl – most little girls are, I think – but when I reached adolescence, a houseful of boys at home and our stand-offish northern society outside it required me to set boundaries, both physical and emotional. Women with sisters escaped these.

Louisa May Alcott’s sisters

Louisa May Alcott, of course, had three sisters and it is obvious that she adored them. Which is not for one second to suggest that she always found them easy to get along with. You don’t have to read closely between the lines of Little Women discover that she found her elder sister Anna, who turns up in the book as Meg, at times prim and controlling, and pretty youngest Amy a plain old spoilt brat (although Amy and Jo, just like the real life May and Louisa, did grow to be very good friends as adults); and who knows what flaws we would have discovered in the perfect saintly Beth if she had lived, not died? But that’s the point of sisters – they don’t always like each other. In fact, sometimes they want to kill each other, raging with a boiling intensity of fury that we women rarely, if ever, feel for our brothers. Brothers are just too different.

The Little Women Lettters: Where did the Atwater sisters come from?

Author Gabrielle Donnelly

People sometimes ask me how I managed to create the relationships between the Atwater sisters in The Little Women Letters, and the answer is simple. Like many sisterless women, I suspect, I have been studying sisters, both real fictional, for most of my life – reading Little Women and Pride and Prejudice and the biographies of their authors, watching my mother and my Aunt Alicia, and my cousins Binnie and Sue, and my friends Caroline and Sally, and Kerry and Aggie, and Vernay and Cynthia and Sylvia. Studying and watching, and wondering what it must be like – and, oh, yes, envying – and I think I always will.

A yearning . . .

A couple of years ago, when I was visiting London, my friend Patti and I went to the farmers’ market with Patti’s daughters, Harriet and Grace, two absurdly pretty twenty-somethings, one brunette and one blonde. As Patti and I absorbed ourselves in the summer strawberries, Harriet and Grace skipped ahead, laughing at a joke of their own, their arms around each other’s waists.

‘Look at that,’ said Patti, who is also sisterless. ‘Wouldn’t you have loved to have that?’

Now, Patti and I are neither of us lonely women. We’re both happily married, both blessed with a large extended family, and a wide circle of amazing friends of both sexes. Many people would consider us lucky in the richness of our lives, and, quite frankly, many people would be absolutely correct. All the same, I knew immediately, at that bustling farmers’ market on that sunny day, exactly what Patti was referring to.

‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘Yes, I would have.’

And, oh, I would.

Win a copy of The Little Women Letters!

Want to win a copy of The Little Women Letters? I am giving away 3 copies. Simply post a comment and I will pick the winners at random. The giveaway contest closes Tuesday, August 2nd at noon so get your comments in right away!


19 Replies to “Guest blogger Gabrielle Donnelly (author of The Little Women Letters) shares the meaning of sisterhood. Plus, a book giveaway – Win The Little Women Letters!”

  1. I love the motif of sisters with arms around each other here. And the movie picture of four sisters with Marmee forming a triangle: I’ve seen that in other pictures and it reminds me of the the triangle motif of Madonna in child my art history teachers liked to point out.

    I also love the idea of spying on sisters. I have one, and love her deeply, but do think dear friends can often be more there and understanding.

    Thanks for the beautiful interview!

  2. I love your thoughts on Louisa May Alcott’s sisters, as that perfectly describes my experience with two older sisters. We had our fights and jealousies when we were younger but now they really are two of my very best friends.

    But I also have two friends that have known me for close to two decades and I count them as my sisters as well. We’re fond of saying that girlfriends are the sisters you got to choose for yourself!

  3. There is no bond like that between sisters. I am blessed with two and they have been there through the good, the bad and the ugly. One of the first childhood books that I fell in love with was Little Women. My Father bought us the series. After 40 years I have them still and scrawled in the cover of each is my sisters and my initials indicating we read them. They are among my most prized possessions. I look forward to reading The Little Women Letters.

  4. I am a lone twin–my twin sister died at birth. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a sister. I adored my big brother growing up, but always felt I missed out on not having my twin. I loved Little Women and have reread it several times since first reading it in 7th grade. I’ve had the Little Women Letters on my wish list since I first heard of it.

  5. I was blessed with a sister and I am very grateful for her. After six decades we are still best friends. We also have two younger brothers. I agree that the relationship with them is much different, even though we love them dearly. One of the reasons I’ve always loved Louisa May Alcott is because she truly understood the relationship between sisters.

    I do want to read this book. I’ve requested it from the library but, as of yesterday, there were still 23 people in front of me. Please add my name to the giveaway list. And thanks.

  6. I love love love that Alcott is being pushed into the forefront. For those of us who love her and her works she is getting a lot of the spotlight recently. Well deserved I say!

    Good luck with the book!

  7. Wish I could win a copy! But at least I got to take it out of the library 🙂

    I shared this with Gabrielle when she sent me her post and I figured I’d share it here too.

    I have an older sister whom I love very much. I’m a tomboy at heart but never had the physical agility to act out on my tomboy impulses. My sister is a tomboy through and through and is very athletic. She ended up marrying a major alpha male daredevil and they have 2 sons. And she works in a totally male-dominated company owned by her husband and his partner. Talk about being surrounded by men! She’s up for the challenge. But she craves her time with women too.

    My sister is 5 years older than me so throughout my childhood we were in different stages of life (for example, me in grammar school and junior high, she in high school then college). Around our mid twenties I caught up with her and that’s when she and her husband moved across the country! I cried and cried. Boy that hurt! They came back a few years later and I was overjoyed. We have become very close over the years. I always felt like I wanted to spend more time with her even though we’ve spent lots of time together. We really bonded over our parents’ illnesses and deaths (especially the latest with my mom last year).

    In a year or so she and her husband plan on selling the business and retiring, and moving to Alabama! They’ll be gone 8 months out of the year and be around here during the summer at their summer camp in northern Massachusetts. I can’t even talk about it out loud because the emotion inside wells up so (even as I write I can feel it).

    I’ve set up the guest room in my house for when they do go to Alabama and need a place to stay when they visit for the holidays.

  8. This post gave me pause for thought, since I do have a sister and unfortunately we are not close at all! Never have been. It was more of a competition thing than a cooperative thing, and even now we rarely see each other more than once a year. I am envious of your brothers! I have too much Jo in me to turn up my nose at four boys to wrestle with and have fun with. I would have had more fun playing with their dinosaur toys, tagging along on their sportsy games, climbing trees or yes, running races. So, while I did have a sister, my closest relationships have always been with guys and still are. Strange, isn’t it, the things we look at and want? It’s even stranger when you consider I was named for a March sister!

    I tend to write stories about brothers and find the brother-brother relationship one of the most intriguing. In any case, your book sounds great. Oh, and if you get a chance, mine is also available at Email at as a chance to enter. 🙂 ~ Meg

    1. I do have a brother but we were never close either.Sadly he was ill most of his life and for a long time we didn’t see eye to eye. However, when we became adults, we had a meeting of the minds, and certainly while our parents were ill, we worked closely together for their welfare. I can tell though that he is much closer to my sister. Man though, he used to push my hot button with teasing like you wouldn’t believe! He had a wicked sense of humor. 🙂

      I wish I had had an athletic body because my thinking was definitely like Jo. Now that I’m older and mellower, I tend to think more like Amy (though I lack her grace).

  9. I’m now intrigued to read Meg’s book! Meg, I shall certainly check it out – it seems like we’re interested in the same period if in very different facets of it. Of course you’re right that we so often want what we didn’t have and take for granted what we did. And of course again, having a sister – or a brother or a mother or a pet duck for that matter – is no guarantee of having one you can have a good relationship with, and I’m sorry that you and your sister are not close. Meanwhile, my lovely friend Cynthia – one of the friends-with-sisters I’ve mentioned in my piece above – has hastened to assure me that she regards me as another sister anyway, so we definitely have a chance to tailor-make our own families when we grow into adulthood. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Daniel’s Garden …

  10. Interesting. I grew up living with my grandma as an only child. I now have a brother…15 years younger and a sister…24 years younger (who is in fact 3 months younger than my daughter…talk about odd…being pregnant at the same time as my mother). Growing up, I always longed for a brother…rather than a sister. Although we didnt grow up in the same household, my bond to my brother is extremely strong and he has been a constant joy in my life. Would be interested in reading your novel…chab256(at)

  11. I would love to win an Alcott book!! So here I am putting in my message with hope. I do enjoy reading “Litttle Women” and hope to get other books by Alcott, or stories of her family.
    Thank you for this opportunity.


  12. I love her comment about studying sisters because I also don’t have sisters but am intrigued by the unique relationships. This book is already on my to-read list!

  13. I am always attracted to spin offs of classics, and this one sounds fabulous. We already have Brooks’ March, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and now The Little Women Letters!

  14. I have two sisters: one ten years older (the Meg in our family) and one 18 months younger (the beautiful, willful Amy). I was not truly close to either one when we were children, nor to our two brothers, who were somehow in a different category. I was a tomboy, a loner, and a bookworm: much like Jo, in my mind, especially in my headstrong impulsiveness. The “Amy” was a star athlete, artist, model, and cheerleader. I read and reread Little Women because I envied those sisterly relationships.

    We sisters are closer today, in our fifties and sixties, than we were as kids, even though we live on opposite ends of the country.

    I think it is human nature to hanker after close relationships, wherever you see them. This was the real riches of the March family. They hardly had food on the table but their hearts were full of love.

    I look forward to reading Gabrielle’s book.

    1. I think the age difference when you’re young can really affect the relationship. I know when my sister and I were older, we suddenly had more in common.

      It’s funny – if there’s a bigger difference in age, it’s harder to be close, and yet if you’re too close in age, there’s the whole competition thing. Family dynamics are complex and interesting!

  15. And isn’t it funny how large that age gap can loom in childhood? I have an older cousin who – while certainly kind to me while we were growing up – was nevertheless way out of my league in terms of sophistication and we both knew it. We have recently re-connected and become very good friends; and the last time we met he looked at me thoughtfully and said, “You know, back when you were running around in your little girl frocks, it never even occurred to me that one day you might be someone I’d find interesting to talk to.”

    He is precisely one year and THREE DAYS older than me!

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