Book Review: Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary

Since a children’s biography (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard) introduced me to Louisa, I have a special fondness for children’s books on the subject. During a recent trip to the Worcester Public Library, I discovered Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary, edited by Cary Ryan with illustrations by Mark Graham. It was the perfect introduction to Louisa’s voice, greatly whetting my appetite for more.

Setup of the book

The book’s chapters are arranged by theme and therefore the information is not in chronological order. Since the story jumps around quite a bit, it could be confusing for a newcomer to Louisa’s life. However, a 13 year-old reviewer on Amazon commented that the book made her want to read more, so I would say the author did her job.

There is, sadly, little that remains of Louisa’s earliest journal entries so I appreciated the author’s commentary surrounding them. I also appreciated clarifications of intent, and the spelling and grammar corrections.

Louisa’s own voice

In these scant entries I hear a voice that is spirited, fierce, poignant, sometimes confused and deeply burdened with guilt. Louisa’s moods are legendary and even in these short passages you see the swings:

Sunday, September 21st, Fruitlands
“Father and Mr. Lane have gone to N[ew] Hampshire to preach. It was very lovely . . . Anna and I got supper. In the eve I read [Oliver Goldsmith’s] “[The] Vicar of Wakefield.” I was cross to-day and I cired when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the wold. But I don’t, and so am very bad.” (pages 3 and 4)

Tomboy Louy

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

The spirited and fierce Louisa wrote, “I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.”
(page 1).

Writing as a release

I got the impression that writing in her journal was therapeutic for Louisa; I know the benefits of that therapy having employed the method a great deal during my adolescence. But at least my journal was private. Imagine having your father commenting in the margins, and frowning upon your self-expression, condemning it as “selfish”!

Her poem about ruling her inner self and trying to find peace demonstrates this use of writing as a means to keep her chaotic inner life in order:

My Little Kingdom (pages 8 and 9)

A little kingdom I possess
where thoughts and feelings dwell,
And very hard I find the task
of governing it well;
For passion tempts and troubles me,
A wayward will misleads,
And selfishness its shadow casts
On all my words and deeds.

How can I learn to rule myself,
to be the child I should,
Honest and brave, nor ever tire
Of trying to be good?
How can I keep a sunny soul
To shine along life’s way?
How can I tune my little heart
To sweetly sing all day?

Dear Father, help me with the love
that casteth out my fear;
Teach me to lean on thee, and feel
That thou art very near,
That no temptation is unseen
No childish grief too small,
Since thou, with patience infinite,
Doth soothe and comfort all.

I do not ask for any crown
But that which all may win
Nor seek to conquer any world
Except the one within.
Be thou my guide until I find,
Led by a tender hand,
Thy happy kingdom in myself
And dare to take command.

Always at war

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Her father Bronson’s attempts to mold Louisa into his ideal fueled the war within herself. (page 12) Instead of appreciating her strong will, creative and physical energies, and her passion, she instead condemned herself as “proud”, “”wilful” and “selfish”. It is a testament to her resourcefulness that she found a way to express herself (and edify the world) by means of caring for her “pathetic family,” even if it did create a prison of obligation from which she could never escape.

Bronson in a nutshell

Ryan did a great job in summing up Bronson’s education contributions. I marvel at anyone who can sum up succinctly what this man had to offer! She begins with a quote from Little Women on page 11:

“If [Demi] is old enough to ask the questions he is old enough to receive true answers. I am not putting the thoughts into his head, but helping him unfold those already there. These children are wiser than we are, and I have no doubt the boy understands every word I have said to him.”
Mr. March of his grandson, Little Women

She then writes:

“Bronson Alcott believed that a child’s ‘divine nature’ could be “awakened” by dialogues between teacher and pupil – question-and-answer conversations that “unfolded” what was already within the child. As Louisa wrote, ‘My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child’s nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strassburg goose, with more than it could digest.’ “

Ideal versus reality

Cary Ryan does a wonderful job of summing up the ideal vs. the reality of Bronson’s teaching methods, demonstrating again how Bronson’s ego so got in the way. She likens his Q &A’s to “bullying sessions” where he imposes his own divine nature on his daughters and students, believing his divine nature is superior to theirs. Another sign of a narcissistic personality disorder? He could have accomplished so much more had he been free of this demon!

A sad truth

Charles Lane

One of the most poignant entries by Louisa was this dialog between her and the notorious Charles Lane, Bronson’s partner at Fruitlands:

(I made Mr. Lane’s questions bold to distinguish them from Louisa’s answers)

How can you get what you need?
By trying.

How do you try?
By resolution and perseverance.

How gain love?
By gentleness.

What is gentleness?
Kindness, patience, and care for other people’s feelings.

Who has it?
Father and Anna.

Who means to have it?
Louisa, if she can.

And Louisa adds years later, “She never got it.” (page 14)

Love and self-love

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

What immediately struck me was Louisa’s entry years after the initial one – did she ever feel that she “gained” love as she, by her own admission, never achieved “gentleness?” How pathetic that she was taught such a narrow definition of love, both on being loved and how to be loving. Surely the untiring care she showed her family in such practical ways was giving love too, even if it wasn’t “gentle.” Susan Cheever in her biography Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography had suggested that Louisa never felt truly loved and I had discounted it because Abba in particular made such an effort to help and support her. But perhaps Cheever is right after all – Louisa herself may have never felt truly loved. How sad.

What did young Louisa read?

This book was a great beginning resource for finding out what Louisa read in her childhood. As I am on a quest this year to read some of what she read, I found that to be very helpful. Some examples are:

  • The Judicious Father (no author mentioned)
  • Rosamond by Maria Edgeworth
  • The Home by Frederika Bremer
  • Kenilworth and Heart of Mid-Lothian by Sir Walter Scott
  • Philothea by Lydia Marie Child

Big as all outdoors

As a final thought, Cary Ryan ended the book with Louisa’s personal encounter with God out in the woods and meadow (I’ve listed it as my favorite quote on this blog – you can see it in the right hand column) (page 35). Having gotten a deeper sense of how big a personality she really was, it makes perfect sense that she found God in the outdoors, the only space big enough to allow her to express her true self. And we can only find God when we are truly ourselves.

Have you read Louisa’s journals and/or letters? What are your impressions?

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10 Replies to “Book Review: Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary”

  1. Hi Susan! I just finished reading Madelon Bedell’s book and have “Hospital Sketches” up next to read. I have read and loved many of LMA’s books and feel that her life story presents so many interesting avenues into 19th c America. So glad I stumbled across your page and am looking forward to further explorations.

    1. Wow, Madelon Bedell. Her book is heavy-duty, I commend you. Did you see the post where I published an interview with her back when the book first came out? Here’s the link:
      What a loss to all Alcott enthusiasts that she died before completing the second volume!

      Hospital Sketches was the first of Louisa’s works that I read, spurred on by Harriet Reisen’s comments on it in her bio on Louisa. I was already hooked on Louisa the woman, now I’m hooked on her works.

      1. Yeah, that scene really hooked me too. This is Louisa at her best. Someday I’d love to do a deeper study of her writing on sickness, death and dying. Somehow she always managed to reveal a silver cloud.

  2. That last is one of my favorite quotes, too. What a question, did she feel loved? I think I might most agree with your first impression, that she felt that with her mother. I do hope so, for as you note, she was so giving. I agree she never felt she lived up to her father’s expectations, which is sad. I suppose we’ll never know for sure. I do like to think that the feisty Jo was as much a part of her as the sadder Lu we see in the biographies. Having just read Jo’s Boys, with its pretty autobiographical passages about her life as an author, we glimpse Jo liking to trick her audience a bit — if they were going to be dissapointed that she wasn’t a girl in braids, then let them find her sad. I like to think she tricked us all and felt more love and joy than we sometimes see — but is in that girlhood diary you mention. … sorry to go on! I think we all do feel hurt to see LMA as not as happy as she deserved!

    1. You “go on” as much as you like! 🙂 I just finished Clara Gowing’s book, The Alcotts as I Knew Them, a memoir that was a nice, quick read (love memoirs, way less taxing on the brain :-)). Gowing mentioned what you said, that we need to remember that Louisa had a boisterous, gregarious side with a wry sense of humor that made her the life of the party when she wanted to be. She loved to play games so I’m sure she toyed with her readers in fun, as, for example, with the creation of Professor Bhaer for Jo. She probably smiled a lot to herself when she heard the uproar from her fans.

  3. I do love that favorite quote you cite, about God. And I would LOVE to read this, eventually. You are pouring through Louisa’s words like I am Margaret Mitchell’s, aren’t you? 🙂

  4. I thought of Bronson as a fascinating, if somewhat frightening, character. Thanks to Bedell, now I know why! 🙂 She shows Abba May as a much more complex and outspoken character than the Marmee that we see in LW. I noticed in the pictorial section that she describes Lizzie/Beth as something of a sly minx. I wish she had been able to write another book that would have explained that and given a more complete picture of the sisters.

    I liked Hospital Sketches, too, and agree with the poster who was particularly haunted by John.

    1. <> – that stuck out for me too! Bedell’s notes for the second volume reside at Orchard House, thanks in part to the efforts of Harriet Reisen in tracking them down. Lizzie was difficult to know but I believe there is more to her than met the eye.

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