What was Louisa May Alcott really like? The memories of her “adopted” brother

Of all the memoirs written by people who knew the Alcotts well, none provided more detailed descriptions of family members than Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis’ book, Alcott Memoirs. In a series of posts, I will share with you his impressions of each member of this illustrious family.

Willis’ daughter Ellen who compiled the memoir described her father as a “Unitarian clergyman, a doctor of medicine, a lecturer of some renown, a nature lover, and a writer of power and charm.” (page 11, Alcott Memoirs Posthumously Compiled from Papers, Journals and Memoranda of the late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis by E. W. L. & H. B.)

Orphaned in his childhood, Willis was taken in by Abba and Bronson at the age of fourteen and spent many subsequent summers with the family. He was considered a son and brother,  regarded with deep affection by the family. He enjoyed an unusual level of intimacy with them and recorded his thoughts generously.

I begin with his description of Louisa, who regarded him as the brother she had always longed for:

[Louisa] had a clear olive-brown complexion with brown hair and eyes. She answered perfectly an ideal of the “Nut Brown Maid”; she was full of spirit and life; … impulsive and moody, and at times irritable and nervous. She could run like a gazelle. She was the most beautiful girl runner I ever saw. She could leap a fence or climb a tree as well as any boy and dearly loved a good romp. We have many times clambered together into the topmost branches of the tall trees at Hillside. She was passionately fond of Nature, loved the fields and the forests and was in special harmony with animal life. Her brief and racy description of herself in the opening chapter of “Little Women” is most accurately true: “Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin and brown and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp gray eyes which appeared to see everything and were by turn fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net out of the way. Round shoulders had Joe, big hands and feet, a fly-away look to her clothes and the un comfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman, and didn’t like it.”

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

Louisa had great love of personal beauty and wide open eyes were her especial admiration. Her own were rather small and, as mine were also, we heartily sympathized with each other on this point. One day after the family had moved to Boston she was walking upon Washington Street. The thought came to her: “Now if I keep my eyes open people will think that I have beautiful large eyes” so she fixed her eyes in the manner she thought would impart the most captivating expression to her face and continued her promenade. She began to notice that many looked at her intently, and thought as a child might, they were admiring her beautiful eyes, mentally congratulating herself upon the success of her efforts. I had called during her absence and upon her return sat chatting with Anna and her mother. As she entered the room I exclaimed, “Why, Louisa, what on earth ails you?” She made no reply, but walked directly to the mirror, giving, the instant she looked into it, a shriek of horror. She had retained the expression upon her face that she had imagined so enhanced its beauty until she could get to a mirror and ob serve for herself its effect, discovering, to her dismay, that she had been parading Washington Street with an insane stare upon her face. Her effort to keep her eyelids open to their widest possible extent had contracted the skin of her forehead into wrinkles and the effect produced was as of an insane person. As she explained to us we burst into shouts of laughter and for a long time afterwards we chaffed her unmercifully upon the “well open eyes.”

Louisa always lamented she was not born a boy. With the exception of rope skipping, at which she excelled all of us in power of endurance, she preferred boys games to those of her sex. But nothing gave her more pleasure than plays arid tableaux. She would conceive
an idea and write a little drama about it, cast all of us in well-chosen parts and direct, with her sister Anna, a fairly creditable children’s performance …

… If I were asked to designate two words best describing Louisa I should say wit and tenderness. Her witticisms were sparkling as a brook and as continuous as its flow. (Ibid, pages 35-38, 41)

Next time, meet Bronson and participate on one of his famed “conversations.”

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