Questions, questions … (part one)

Before I begin, thank you for your part in the extraordinarily successful launch of my new blog, Be As One: A Single Flow … The stats were encouraging and that’s a massive understatement! Thank you.

Involvement in my new blog dampened my passion for Louisa but only temporarily. It only takes reading a page or two in a biography to fuel the fire back up again.

A question

I am so enjoying reading Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography slowly, just a few pages at a time because of the amount of information within. Reading between the lines, I always come up with questions. After reading only six pages yesterday (pages 164-170), I came up with a couple that I hope you can answer.


Women authors and how they approached writing

Here’s the first question: Did other famous women authors such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton approach writing the way Louisa did, as a business?

From potboilers to children’s stories

Stern suggests the thought process Louisa went through before accepting the job as editor of a children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum. She had little or no experience writing literature for children (with the exception of Flower Fables and The Rose Family). How could “A. M. Barnard,” the potboiler author edit a magazine for children?

The build-up

The owner of Merry’s Museum in rolling out the new and improved version of the magazine touted his new editor as “the brilliant author of Hospital Sketches, who had hardly an equal and who had no superior as a writer for youth in the country.”

He had high expectations and Louisa would live up to them.

What was Louisa thinking?

Stern writes,

Perhaps the editorial work would extend her skill in writing and selecting material. It would at least give her a public that, with the exception of Flower Fables, her stories had never known. Children might prove fruitful critics, and possibly she might be able to combine her editorial responsibilities with writing for Mr. Niles [of Robert Brothers – she had already received his request to write a book for girls]. Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at the Orchard House. Besides, Louisa would have the opportunity of living in Boston to be nearer Mr. Fuller’s office on Washington Street [he is the owner of Merry’s Museum]. Washington Street had marked many a milestone in her varied literary career as “A. M. Barnard” and L. M. Alcott. Perhaps another milestone would be reached. (pg. 164, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Learning her trade

Her work on Merry’s Museum showed Louisa that she could learn to write for children and mastered the formula. It gave her the confidence to embark on Little Women.

All business

Stern presents Louisa as a hard-headed business woman with mercenary designs. Many have lamented how she did not want to write Little Women but she did, for the money. And that’s not all bad.

Great instincts

Louisa had an instinct for business even though she had no experience in the business world, nor did she actually known many in that world. Yet she made very smart decisions with regards to writing, trying any genre she could, hoping she would find the one she’d eventually master.


Little Women proved that she could; she became The Children’s Friend.

I find it quite interesting that she seemed to know all the right decisions to make in order to make her “business” of writing successful.

And that’s why I posed the question of whether or not other successful women authors of that time and before, had approached writing in this way.

I admit that I am not well-read beyond Louisa May Alcott so I’d love to know, from you, about these other women and how they made a go of their writing.

In the next post, I’m going to pose the second question question regarding younger sister May, prompted by a single line in Madeleine Stern’s book.

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15 Replies to “Questions, questions … (part one)”

  1. Beatrix Potter’s career was a bit after Louisa’s time, but she, also, approached her children’s art and stories as a business woman and as a way to gain her independence from her family. She was very savvy!

  2. Interesting observations and questions! Wharton and Austen didn’t need the money as LMA did, and may have been more motivated by a drive for self expression. But I think the Brontes looked for a way to save the parsonage and get out of the teaching business. Perhaps the real role models were Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing about a book a year for thirty years to support her big family, and LMA’s mother’s friend, Lydia Maria Childs, who was also a reformer and prolific. Still, it is astonishing Louisa’s business sense, so great that she chose a royalty for Little Women when it wasn’t so commonly done. She may have picked up some things having lived for a bit with family friend and editor James Fields, who oversaw a thriving book business and the Atlantic. And living next to the Hawthornes (Fields was his editor).

    1. It’s interesting how need will drive you. These women were pioneers for future women, and it shows you don’t have to be a man to understand business. Plenty of pragmatic women did too!

      I get a bit annoyed sometimes when I hear read how “shocked” people are that Louisa didn’t enjoy writing Little Women. She enjoyed the paycheck, nothing wrong with that!

      There are many ways to looking at art and how and why it’s done. Until very recently I always thought artists had to have a strong bohemian streak. Yet my husband, his sister and his brother are all artistic, creative types without a drop of bohemian in them. 🙂

  3. I don’t know about other women authors, except Emily Dickinson, who thought publishing was like being a frog croaking in a pond! Lol. But I DO know, and know it to the marrow of my bones, that being a poor writer struggling for money sucks. This summer, I had to swallow what remains of my beaten author pride and take a temp job for some cash. Since it was my fault we went back into debt and my fault we were struggling. I’ve taken it pretty hard, but the steady paychecks are nothing to sneeze at.

    And what I’ve discovered, as no doubt Louisa discovered, is that having that paycheck suddenly frees your mind for creativity. I’m not trying to beat fresh paragraphs out of a world-weary brain any more. If I spend every waking hour daydreaming of that magical meshing moment when writing = substantial income, then I can imagine Louisa did the same thing. There comes a point when most writers, if they’re 100% serious about their craft, realize that writing for money doesn’t have to be the stigma many people make it out to be. Writers should be encouraged to write for money. Why? We’re craftspeople!

    To put it another way, imagine a mechanic working on cars for ten years. Then he opens a mechanic shop and decides not to charge for his experience, because he’s “doing it for the love of fixing cars” and the “art of the automobile.” People would think he’d lost his mind. Likewise, writers are similar. I’ve worked on my craft for over a decade. Now I want the income to match my level of craftsmanship.

    I think Louisa made this connection as well, and perhaps saw writing for children as a way to make a steady income. After all, the biggest readers in the world are kids (hello J. K. Rowling). She simply changed from writing for potboiler money to writing for kids money. It brings up the interesting point that it DOESN’T MATTER how much a writer enjoyed writing her book, if the public enjoys reading it. Whether a mechanic enjoys fixing cars or not doesn’t matter to me – I just want him to give me an oil change. 🙂

    There seems to be this strange idea that a writer must enjoy her writing for it to be legitimate for her to make money from it. Sadly, that’s just not reality. Louisa may have been forced to become more businesslike because in the end, she wanted to feed her family. Whether she enjoyed writing or not doesn’t detract from how wonderful “Little Women” is. In the end, we have this wonderful story and she got her fame and fortune.

    Since I’m embroiled in this same writing-for-money lifestyle, I can understand her decision to be the editor perfectly. “Ah, steady income from editing and it will free up my mind to write.” And that’s why she made her choice. 🙂

    ~ Meg

    1. This is an outstanding comment. Readers are too romantic in their vision of their favorite authors and even fault them if they don’t live up to the image they’ve imagined of someone writing just out of love and the heck with the money. You are totally dead on – it truly DOESN’T matter if the author enjoyed writing it, only if you enjoyed reading it. DUH.

      Worrying about money can fuel and it can kill. Need fuels but anxiety kills. I see you out there doing all you can to make your living at your craft and I commend you. You’re using every opportunity (and technology offers so many!) just like Louisa did. Nobody ever said it would be easy and nothing good that is achieved ever is. It shouldn’t be because adversity builds character and provides fodder for creativity.

      Hang in there, I think you’re fighting the right battle.

  4. I have enjoyed these comments. Mentioning Beatrix Potter and Harriet Beecher Stowe are good examples. For Potter, having money of her own gave her freedom from a very restrictive home situation and for Stowe it meant supporting a large and genteelly-poor family — and, ultimately, being able to have a nice house and travel and do the other things she wanted to do. What’s wrong with that! Beware the double standard. No one has criticized Dickens or Mark Twain for wanting a fair return for their labors.

    As to whether you need to “enjoy” writing for children, it’s the wrong question. Does the athlete “enjoy” getting out there and running every day whatever the weather? Does the pianist “enjoy” playing scales? If you have a goal you immerse yourself in the effort to reach it, and the greatest enjoyment comes from knowing that your efforts are paying off. I think LMA had two goals, equally legitimate: writing to express herself and providing financial security for the family.

    1. Yes, excellent points regarding male writers. But then, for men, it was not only perfectly acceptable but desirable to make money. Women, being seen as morally superior to men, weren’t supposed to desire that. It’s crazy when you think about it because money, while it can lead to much misery, also provides freedom. These women recognized that, being eminently pragmatic. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with that!

      I really like too the whole analogy of the musician practicing scales, the runner running every day … practice is boring and can be a real drag (and I am notoriously bad at it myself which is why I never became the musician I wanted to be). It’s all about discipline and discipline is GOOD.

      And I agree about LMA’s goals and that they were absolutely legitimate. Men and women are different, that’s fine. But sometimes the standards by which the sexes are judged are pretty lame.

  5. Jane Austen lived in a very different society from Louisa. There were very few women writers and women of Jane Austen’s class were not expected to earn a living except perhaps as a governess or companion. She published anonymously late in life. Her brother Henry, a banker, handled the business end of things. No doubt she did enjoy the pay check. She didn’t earn much but she liked having money to supplement the meager inheritance from her clergyman father. Sadly she died only 6 years after publishing her first novel. Who knows what would have happened if she had survived.

  6. Susan Coutrap-McQuin’s book _Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century_ has been around for a while, but it is a nice treatment of the professionalization of female authorship, especially in the US. She explores the relationships between female writers and their male publishers and also considers ideas of a literary supply and demand. One of the writers Coultrap-McQuin discusses is E.D.E.N. Southworth (the subject of jab in the “Literary Lessons” chapter of _Little Women_; Alcott refers to her as Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury!).

    1. That sounds really interesting. Isn’t it interesting how 19th century women authors who had no business experience per se seemed to have a sixth sense about conducting themselves in a businesslike fashion? In the male world, it wasn’t be admired but criticized. And other women weren’t much help either. The double standard thing is frustrating but it is getting better.

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