In the case of Louisa May Alcott, it’s a “great woman.”
Who was the woman that stood behind her? She is Louisa’s mother, Abigail May Alcott, commonly known as Abba.
An inside look at the life of Abba Alcott
Eve LaPlante, author of Seized, Salem Witch Judge and American Jezebel is uniquely qualified to write on the life that woman: she is the direct descendant of the Reverend Samuel Joseph May, brother and confidant of Abba.
Using newly discovered letters and journals belonging to Abba, Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother promises to be a revealing study of a dynamic, highly intelligent woman. Abba’s unwavering faith in and support of Louisa proved to be the inspiration for and strength behind a prolific author and an iconic classic.
Eve LaPlante’s remarks at the Orchard House Summer Conversation Series
I had the privilege of hearing LaPlante speak about and read from her new book at the Orchard House Summer Conversation Series on July 17.
Family records passed down
Before reading, LaPlante shared how her Aunt Charlotte had passed down detailed family records.
From those records LaPlante learned that she was the 11th generation granddaughter of Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan who defied the elders and was expelled as a heretic; this spawned American Jezebel.
She also discovered that she was related to Judge Samuel Sewell of the Salem Witch Trials who was the only judge to repent. She told his story in Salem Witch Judge.
… to the Alcotts
Being related to these notable people was just the beginning of the story. As she continued to trace her family history, LaPlante discovered she was directly related to the Reverend Samuel Joseph May, brother of Abba, making her a first cousin of Louisa May Alcott.
This gave LaPlante unprecedented access to personal papers and letters written by Abba. It was commonly thought that the vast majority of these papers had been destroyed by Louisa at her mother’s request.
Obviously some of those papers did manage to survive. What did they reveal? How do they change the legend of Louisa May Alcott?
Marmee and Louisa confirms what women often suspected – that Abba was Louisa’s rock just as Marmee had been Jo’s. Louisa made it clear in her semi-autobiographical classic; why then has Abba been largely been ignored?
Eve LaPlante is seeking to set the record straight with Marmee and Louisa and its companion volume, My Heart is Boundless featuring the aforementioned journals and letters.
Inside the woman
LaPlante has discovered many papers that reveal Abba’s inner life. She was a highly intelligent, well-educated and ambitious woman whose writing talent surpassed that of her famous daughter.
Abba’s true ambition
Abba’s life was marked with frequent frustration, anger and disappointment. As a woman born in the Victorian era, she had few options and no real right to determine her own destiny. Feeling stifled in her limited role, she poured herself into her children hoping that they could achieve what she could not – autonomy.
As Louisa shared her mother’s temperament, the two became soul mates: utterly dependent and totally connected. Quoting LaPlante, “Abba was Louisa’s muse.”
Louisa’s had many intellectual mentors but only the men are usually mentioned: her father Bronson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Rarely mentioned are the female intellectual giants that Louisa was exposed to through her mother: Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody and Lydia Maria Child.
Why has Abba been ignored?
Few of Louisa’s biographers made much mention of Abba’s intelligence and accomplishments. Despite the fact that Louisa confirms Abba as the primary influence in her life as shown in Little Women, scholars instead most often cited Louisa’s father Bronson as her main influence.
A plausible explanation
Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House offered a possible explanation for this discrepancy. Not so long ago it was considered improper for a well-bred woman to be mentioned in public apart from her birth, marriage and death. This is Turnquist’s theory as to why Abba’s memoir, written by Bronson and Louisa, never came out. Instead Louisa wrote about her mother through her stories, thus protecting her mother’s reputation.
Old habits do indeed die hard.
Louisa understood early that her Marmee was the most important person in her life. At the age of ten she vowed in her heart to be Abba’s protector after the Fruitlands debacle, a vow manifested in this tender poem:
by Louisa May Alcott
I hope that soon, dear mother,
You and I may be
In the quiet room my fancy
Has so often made for thee,—
The pleasant, sunny chamber,
The cushioned easy-chair,
The book laid for your reading,
The vase of flowers fair;
The desk beside the window
Where the sun shines warm and bright:
And there in ease and quiet
The promised book you write;
While I sit close beside you,
Content at last to see
That you can rest, dear mother,
And I can cherish thee.
LaPlante’s contention is that we cannot understand Louisa apart from Abba. Thanks to Marmee and Louisa, a much fuller revelation of Abba Alcott will be made public at last.
A sneak preview fans the flame
After reading the introduction to the book, LaPlante paused to ask if we’d like to hear more. Every head in that spellbound audience nodded “yes” vigorously.
We only wish she could have read the entire book!
Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother will be released this November 6th,
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