Why is Louisa’s voice so powerful in my life? A childhood recollection

It’s been slow at work the last couple of days so I’ve been able to indulge in reading and research (one of the best perks of my job). It gave me a chance to revisit one of the first biographies I read on Louisa, Louisa May Alcott by Katharine Anthony. Published in 1937, it was one of the early biographies aimed at adults.

I’ve been considering submiting a proposal to Orchard House’s annual Summer Conversational Series, the theme being “Legacy of a Powerful Voice.” There is no doubt Louisa’s voice has been powerful in my life but I never could really pinpoint why.

Anthony’s biography reminded me, especially with the chapter on Louisa’s years at Hillside.

The happy years

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Hillside has always been my favorite period in Louisa’s life. There was stability, harmony, joy and freedom, even some normalcy in the life of the family. She herself refers to the Hillside years as the happiest. It is during this period that I see parallels between her and me that explain why she speaks to my heart so powerfully.

A room of one’s own

The first was Louisa getting her own room. A space to call one’s own was important to both of us. I finally got my own room at around the same age and it meant the world to me. Going through my “horse phase” at the time unlocked my creativity and I expressed it in a variety of ways, beginning with filling my new room with pictures of horses that I drew.

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

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was my favorite book and love of that story spurred me on to write my own sequel. It was such fun writing that book that I wrote others. I had also discovered my other favorite book, The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard and I pictured the illustration of Louisa sitting in her “Poet’s Corner” writing stories. I felt a kinship with her.

Best friends

Anthony mentions that one of Louisa’s best friends was a neighborhood boy, Cyrus Hosmer whom she had met earlier while staying at the Hosmer Cottage. Louisa spoke of him fondly saying, “Cy was a comrade after my own heart.” My first best friend was also a boy who lived next door. While Louisa and Cyrus enjoyed wild physical escapades, Dolph and I enjoyed our adventures through our imaginations. Dolph was exceedingly intelligent,  having an imagination that just wouldn’t quit. We could entertain each other for hours on end. Every other friend seemed boring by comparison.

Playacting

Louisa first started acting back at Still River (just after Fruitlands). Illustration by Flora Smith.

Like Louisa I loved putting on plays.  I organized all the theatricals and while we didn’t have Hillside’s barn, we did have our basement.. We’d stage our favorite fairy tales  (mine was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where I played the Wicked Queen).

Spies, stories and fashion

As I grew older, this playacting continued through a friendship with the smartest girl in the school who matched Dolph in the imagination department. The other kids made fun of her (and I had too) because she was so unusual but once I got to know her, I knew we would enjoy many an adventure. Playing the part of exotic British spies a la Diana Rigg in The Avengers, Kathy and I would spend whole days acting out impromptu TV episodes. We wrote plays together, and we pretended we were fashion designers, designing our own book of exotic clothes.

Tomboy in name only

I only wished I had been athletically inclined like Louisa. I wasn’t well coordinated and it made me very cautious when it came to climbing trees and other physical activities. I envied Louisa’s daring but alas, could only live her escapades in my dreams.

Hillside as a haven

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

After re-reading Katharine Anthony’s biography, I could see why Louisa counted her years at Hillside as her happiest. It was the one time in her life when she could truly be herself, and it was before she would take on the heavy mantle of family provider.

Anthony used the words “fierce,” “hoyden,” and “wild” to describe Louisa; I would say she had a personality that was bigger than life. She was permitted to live a life that freed her as much as possible from convention and duty. Free to run and romp, she had the license to work out her physical and emotional energies. She was also given space to indulge in her rich inner life which produced a flurry of stories and plays. Nature’s expanse and beauty continually revived her spirits, and best of all, her dear family was living in harmony.

I too had those advantages. Around the same age as Louisa, I reveled in mine as she did in hers.

Joan Howard’s biography became very dog-eared. Every time I read the chapter on Hillside I would relive those happy memories. I would then finish the book and dream bigger dreams.

What’s your connection to Louisa?
How has her voice been powerful in your life?


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8 Replies to “Why is Louisa’s voice so powerful in my life? A childhood recollection”

  1. my connection? the sense of not belonging to the family as the others do, the way the father wanted Louisa to. Also her stubbornness!! I wish i had half her creativity. i’ve read some of her thrillers. wonderful!!! truly!! I so enjoyed them. I am not sure i would have earlier, but at this age, i recognize that there are hidden depths to everyone.

    1. Have you read “A Long Fatal Love-Chase”? That book was awesome!

      I just read in Martha Saxton’s bio a portion of a letter Louisa wrote to her father when she made her first break to Boston, wishing she possessed his serenity. One pays a high price for the kind of creative force she had (and it was a FORCE). It makes me wonder if that was one of the reasons why she felt so close to Lizzie who was “Little Tranquilty.” But of course, Lizzie wished she had had her sister Louy’s strength. The grass is always greener . . .

  2. I share some of your nice memories. Before I read my mom’s copy of Little Women, I used to playact that with my sister and two other sisters, our good friends. My older sister wanted to be Jo, and she was talented at playwriting — so that became a subset of that play. When I was alone under or in trees, I could take the part of Jo!

    Sadly, it’s not quite the same for this generation, but when I’m with writers around my age, so many of us started out wanting to be Jo.

    I know you have plenty to read, but there’s a charming trio of novels for young readers starting with The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall that gives a nod to Little Women as there are four sisters and a boy next door, and an old fashioned feel throughout. It’s very well written and popular, too — so while not as many read Little Women today, I’m at least glad they’re reading that — and keep out hope my daughter will one day read it (my husband did only recently, and my daughter’s roommate and one of her best friends keeps nudging my daughter — at least she and I enjoy our conversations!)

    1. That sounds cool, I’ll check it out. At least children’ books read more quickly. 🙂

      That is sad that Little Women is not as popular. Hopefully that will change. Ironically Louisa herself is very popular judging from all the new books that keep coming out!

  3. Here’s why I liked Jo so much – her boldness, dislike for ladylike pursuits, her awkwardness, and her goodness as a person overall. I envied her being surrounded by a large loving family. I also liked how she fell in love with Professor Bhaer, not your average heart-throb character.

    1. I actually really liked Professor Bhaer too and thought he made a good match for Jo. She being so stormy, he was a good counteraction to that. My best friend used to be very volatile and her husband is the opposite – very serene. They have a great marriage.

      I think you’re the first person I’ve met who liked Bhaer! We have to admit though, the scene with Laurie was truly heart-breaking.

  4. Going back through some posts today after reading the current one. LMA was a huge influence on me as well. Who didn’t want to be Jo? Truth is I am a bit of all of the girls. I still want to write. So I do on my little blog, more reflective thoughts along with home making stuff like food. Thanks for your blog.

    1. Keep writing on your blog, you’d be surprised how much you can learn doing that. That’s how I learned how to write. That and following good blogs about writing such as goinwriter.com.

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