Letter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore

lizzie alcott2Work is progressing, albeit slowly, on my book project. I am enjoying all aspects of the process from the thinking and planning while I drive (I’m one of those crazies that talks to myself all the time), to the research, to the paragraphs percolating in my head, to the final writing. I’m falling more in love with my characters if that is possible. I enjoy their company and their voices inside my head.

Sources in the writer’s own hand

Primary sources are vital to historical research; I was taught this by my seventh grade social studies teacher. I remember feeling excited when she explained that our textbooks would include original writings from those who formed and shaped our country. I’ve never lost that thrill of reading something written long ago, especially when you can read the person’s own handwriting.

Worth the effort

Lately I’ve been immersed in letters written by Abba to Bronson, her brother Samuel Joseph, and her daughters Louisa and Anna. I had requested and received PDF scans of several letters from the helpful librarians at Houghton Library and felt like I had won the lottery! The beauty of PDF files is that they can be easily enlarged, a necessity since Abba’s handwriting is so difficult to read. My respect for the tenacity of Eve LaPlante went up tenfold as I struggled over each word. Her compilation, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother is truly the product of blood, sweat and tears, making it all the more valuable.

north shore swampscott MAFrom sister to brother

One such letter, addressed to “My dear Brother” is dated August 25, 1857, written from Lynn, Massachusetts.  Abba had taken Elizabeth to an area known as the North Shore so that her daughter could experience the supposed healing effects of the ocean. My mother was born in Lynn; her family (the Breeds) was established in the seacoast city in the 1630s. She grew up in Lynn and neighboring Swampscott, another town where Abba and Elizabeth stayed during their sojourn. This is of personal importance because Abba cites a Dr. Newhall from Lynn as treating Lizzie during their stay. Because there were many marriages between Breeds and Newhalls over the years, I have a strong suspicion that I may be related to Dr. Newhall. I am currently researching that possibility and will report back if I find that we are kissin’ cousins. 🙂

Looking for answers

Abba wrote the following to Samuel Joseph regarding Lizzie’s condition (note that I couldn’t make out all the words and therefore left some out. I have corrected some small punctuation errors):

littlewomen00alcoiala_0421We have been in Lynn now about three weeks – Lizzy’s vacillating condition has left me from day to day in doubt what to write about … The first week was warm and pleasant and the change was grateful to her – she eat [ate], slept and lived more naturally than I have known her to do for 6 months – but the last two weeks have been cold, rainy, dispiriting me and her – and most unfavorable for her. Dr. Newhall (Charles’ Dr.) thought it best to remove her immediately back – thinks her lungs are slightly diseased and that the comforts of house and the society of her family are now all important … Aunty Bond sent Dr. Charles [Windship] down – he gives a different opinion … that Lizzy is in every way failed – but that she has no not even incipient disease of the lungs – her nervous weakness operates on the brain and lungs … pathetically – that another week of fine weather may produce a most salient effect – for I remain till next Mon. This will prove the experiment a gain or a failure – it will end (?) my faith in human science and my pocket of human dreams. I work on as hopefully as I can … such a scientific must – it seems to me the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess. (AMA to SMJ 25 August 1857 fro MS Am 1130.9 (25), Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Inspired by her surroundings

After writing such a distressing account, she waxes philosophical as she contemplates the scenery:

ocean wavesThe change of scene has been very beneficial to me. I had become morbidly apprehensive … in judgment and action. The very sight of the ocean has restored me to a sense of marginal (?)  power. From our … irritations, our faithless anxiety bubbles (?) before the immensity of ocean, the grandeur of rocks (?), … the feel that order, and Beauty, love and power around, that it is the order of Supreme law – the beauty of sublime art – the love of uniform (?) good will – the Power of eternal Night. Our own dependence it is so apparent – our helplessness so unmistakable we exclaim … from pure instinct truly a Lord liveth – and loveth! (Ibid)

Reading that made me think of how often she and Bronson, especially in the early days, must have sat together, sharing similar thoughts.

From iconic Marmee to real mother

Reading Abba’s letters in her own hand transforms her from the literary icon of Marmee to a flesh and blood person. Often I feel like I am reading letters written by my own mother or grandmother when I read hers. I recall from Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother that LaPlante described the poor condition of Abba’s eyesight so I can understand why her handwriting might be difficult to read. It’s amazing she could write letters at all considering the condition of her eyes!

That helpful Houghton librarian sent me a final tantalizing tease in her email, to quote: “there are a lot of other letters that deal with Lizzie’s collapse and the sojourn to the North Shore.”

Meat for the starving dog. Stay tuned …

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4 Replies to “Letter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore”

  1. Thank you. As you already know, I found My Heart Is Boundless to be astonishing in how it conveyed to me a real, living woman. Abba was discouraged sometimes — and with reason — but she never gave up. In not giving up, she turned to dealing with reality, instead of denying it or calling it something else. Still, she was by natural and other beauty too. What I mean to say is that she suffered and she strove, but she never hardened her spirit. I can imagine what holding her actual letters meant to you.

    1. Your comment made me think that Abba showed a lot of wisdom in knowing that the caregiver needs to be taken care of as much as the person who is being cared for. I thought those remarks she made about the ocean and how it lifted up her spirits were quite profound.

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