Abba, Bronson and Lizzie: a slice of family dynamics – what does it tell us?

In 1853, Elizabeth Alcott suffered a bout of depression. She was seventeen at the time and the family was destitute, living in Boston and constantly on the move. Abba wrote the following to Bronson about the episode:

lizzie alcott2“Elizabeth is in rather better spirits but it seems as if there had been some collapse of the brain – at times she seems immovable, almost senseless. Louisa and I both relieve her of all the work and send her to walk – but there is a great struggle going on in her mind about something. I try not to be curious. She could not bear to be sent from home and here nothing interests her. I should like to send her to take drawing lessons but do not see my way clear now.” Abba to Bronson, November 19, 1853 Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (26)

Previous to this depression, Elizabeth had always been known to her family as Little Tranquility: sweet, happy and harmonious. To her father, she was utter perfection. While at Fruitlands, Elizabeth turned eight and Bronson dedicated this Ode to her:

Fruitlands, Harvard, Mass. June 24, 1843

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard
Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard


… Before us stands displayed
In raiment of a maid,
Unstained and pure her soul
As when she left the Whole …

… And be a flower that none shall pluck away
A rose in Fruitlands quiet dell
A Child intent in doing well;
Devote, secluded from all sin
Fragrant without, & fair within,
A plant matured in Gods device
An Amaranth in Paradise (pgs. 105-106, The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

Bronson wrote this letter to Elizabeth when she was five:

Concord, June 24, 1840

“My very dear little girl,
     You make me very happy every time I look at your smiling pleasant face–and you make me very sorry every time I see your face look cross and unpleasant. You are now five years old. You can keep your little face pleasant all the time, if you try, and be happy yourself, and make every body else happy too. Father wants to have his little girl happy all the time.” (pg. 50, The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

from bronson to lizzie 5th birthday
from Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott edited by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest

Fast forward to 1853 and notice how each parent perceives Elizabeth just before she suffers from the depression:

Abba to Bronson August 8, 1853 (she was in Syracuse visiting with her brother Sam):

abba“I feel no anxiety about home but hope you will remember that Lizzy must be cared for in many little ways or the work will oppress her. I shall write to her on Sunday [referring to a letter dated August 8, 1853].” Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (26) August 5, 1853

Check out Bronson’s response:

Bronson to Abba, June 19, August 10, 1853

amos bronson alcott“Elisabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail; the apartments all [word] their tidy mistress whose housekeeping throughout, for ought I can see, vies favorably with that of the absent Matron alike in neatness promptitude and efficiency to the credit of her teacher, and comfort of guests. So please spare all anxieties and spend the century, if you can with the friends whose hospitalities you are gone from us to embosom …” (p. 166 The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

I have my own ideas on this but would love to hear yours first. What do you see here?


I read this last passage a while back, taken by Bronson’s admiration for Elizabeth. But now, reading it as a response to Abba’s request, I have a completely different feeling about it. All the more reason why I wish someone would collect the family letters and present them in a book showing the letters to and responses back from various family members, in essence, giving us a real conversation. Reading the response to the letter oftentimes completely changes the context of what you’ve read.

There is a good collection of letters from the family that could be compiled in this way. Somehow I have a feeling several of these letters will be transcribed by me for my project. I’m actually getting much better at reading Abba’s scrawl. 🙂

We’ll see …

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12 Replies to “Abba, Bronson and Lizzie: a slice of family dynamics – what does it tell us?”

  1. I am struck in these examples and by earlier letter and journal entries by how much pressure both parents put on the girls to be “good,” meaning obedient and compliant and self-denying. Jo in Little Women is a reaction to that, but she has to express it by wishing to be a boy because girls, of course, would never rebel.

    1. What gets me too is that Bronson especially exhorts the girls to be “good” all on their own power. There’s never any mention of God’s grace and relying on that grace for help to be good. In fact, in all the letters Bronson wrote to Abba and Lizzy during her illness there is never any mention of calling upon God for help. The way I read Bronson’s brand of Transcendentalism/Spirituality is that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I am guessing God’s grace does not figure into Bronson’s view of spirituality.

  2. Remember – as a Transcendentalist – Bronson believed that God is within the self, so essentially God’s grace and inner grace are one and the same. God is not external for Bronson. I too was struck by Bronson’s letter to 5 year old Lizzie, extorting her to be happy all the time — that’s a lot of pressure. I also sensed a disconnect between Abba and Bronson in regards to Lizzie’s emotional needs. Bronson reports that her work is getting done as usual, but Abba was concerned not about her daughter’s work. She was concerned about the emotional sustenance that made Lizzie’s work not possible, but bearable and pleasant. I sense that perhaps Abba intuited more about her daughter’s subtle emotional life than Bronson may have. Fascinating to read the letters in dialogue. You are right: it is far more meaningful to read the letters together, contextualized in conversation. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks for that clarification re: God and Bronson. I suspected that. But if you and God are one, why so much emphasis on your own power to be good? Wouldn’t God within you help you to be good and give you the strength? It’s almost like you have to earn your way to God but I have a feeling I’m missing something …

      OK, my theory with Bronson, Abba and Lizzie is this: I think Bronson saw Lizzie as the perfect reflection of his theories on the divine in children. She was more a theory than a real person to him. It was like he was looking at himself in the mirror when he saw her because her very behavior affirmed everything he thought. Therefore he could not see her as having needs or weaknesses. Abba, on the other hand, being of this world, fully understood the emotional peril her daughter was in due their oppressive and chaotic living situation (and she also knew how Bronson saw Lizzie). I still think she was surprised how just how depressed Lizzie became (and that she couldn’t discern what the struggle was all about although I have theories on that too).

      It irritated me how Bronson says “So please spare all anxieties and spend the century, if you can with the friends whose hospitalities you are gone from us to embosom …” with such a condescending tone (at least how I read it) when Abba already told him, “I feel no anxiety about home …” He totally didn’t listen to what she was saying, not about her and certainly not about her concerns regarding Lizzy which were very true!

      Lizzie was always formal and a bit stiff whenever she wrote to her father whereas when she wrote to her sisters, she lightened up considerably. More to come!

      1. “She was more a theory than a real person to him.” Wow. Now I’m even more fascinated with Lizzie and her role in the family.

  3. I love that you set these letters up this way, and I LOVE the idea of a compilation of letters back and forth. I’ve often thought about writing a book about Louisa, but I don’t know when I would get the chance to get out to MA! What do I see here? (I’m a little biased against Bronson, so Reading Bronson’s response, I see a father who doesn’t understand his wife’s concerns, barely addressing them at all, as if they are unnecessary and petty worries. Most likely this is because he had such strong affection for Lizzy and felt nothing bad can happen to Lizzy. However, this response makes me wonder if he often justified his absences and lack of support (financial and otherwise) through his reliance on the girls to keep house and support the family. Perhaps he made himself feel better about not being there by thinking that since Abba had the girls to help her, she didn’t need him. In addition, I think the letter is a little bit of a remonstrance against Abba. He is saying that Lizzy handles the household as well as she does, but it comes off condescendingly, not in praise. Again, he is talking to Abba as if she is a child, one who worries about ridiculous things and can’t even stay home and care for things as well as her daughter can. And of course, Lizzy’s goodness is “to the credit of her teacher.” He’s not talking about Abba here- Mr. Ego is talking about himself, I’m sure. That man makes my blood boil sometimes. Once again, I give Abba so much credit for sticking with him- for her patience, for her strength, and for her love for him. Many women would not be able to handle what she did. Great post, Susan!

    1. Brilliant! I try to be fair to Bronson but honestly, sometimes you really have to bend over backwards to be fair. If this little slice is indicative of what was going on, it shows him to be a father who was not present to his family (at least during this turbulent period in Boston), not only in terms of practical support (e.g. financial) but emotionally (although granted, sometimes he went through spells of temporary insanity and that’s a different story). His lack of “being there” causes Abba to have to play both mother and father to the family. These behaviors and the emotional toll it took on Abba would extract its toll on the daughters.

  4. I wonder if Lizzie found adolescence a more trying period than her sisters did. Because she was always the Serene One, dealing with the hormones and the roller coaster emotions of young womanhood would have been harder for her than her more tempestuous sisters. They had been dealing with their more passionate natures all their lives, whereas intense feeling was something new to Lizzie and ran counter to her role in the family. That would be a lot to deal with.

    Also, Louisa, being closely aligned with her mother, had a mentor to counsel her through her difficult times during her teens. Lizzie, more closely aligned with her father, had no such mentor, just a man whose attitude was “don’t be that way.” Not very helpful.

    Do you know if Lizzie had access to her music during this time? She had the seraphine at Hillside, and Dr. Bellows gave (or loaned) her his piano when the Alcotts were in Walpole in 1855. Anna and Louisa had their acting and writing and Abby had her drawing as expressive outlets to help them deal with their emotions. But if Lizzie didn’t have her music during this period, no wonder she was depressed.

    We always think of Lizzie as the Angel in the House. Louisa even referred to her this way. Perhaps the pressure of being the Angel in the House made her a little Madwoman in the Attic.

    I’ll add another vote for a book of Alcott letters! (All the letters, please. My Heart is Boundless left me wanting everything, not just bits here and there.) I’ve been trying to do something similar, but more limited, collecting all the published Alcott writings from 1845 and putting them in chronological order. (1845 being the year Louisa turned 13; my biggest interest is Louisa’s teen years.)

    1. This too is brilliant! I especially love your line “Perhaps the pressure of being the Angel in the House made her a little Madwoman in the Attic.” I think Abba did try to get Lizzie to confide in her but she would not. When you’re held up as perfect your whole life and if what you live for is your family’s approval, you are not going to jeopardize that by showing weakness. Bronson told her many times in letters how much he admired her self-reliance and keeping things to herself. Abba mentioned it once too in My Heart is Boundless. Isn’t it odd that in a family where no one’s journals were private and everyone was expected to share from them (which Lizzie, by the way, hated to do and often refused) that she was taught to hold everything in and not ask for help? Bronson praised her for these traits. By breaking down and admitting she needed help, I’m sure she felt she was risking their disapproval. How sad! I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been to deal with hormones and emerging sexuality and adulthood with all that hanging over your head (I’m dying to know how that subject was broached in that family). Lizzie may not have enjoyed doing the theatricals but in my opinion, she may have been the best actress of them all!

  5. Fascinating putting these letters today and great responses from your readers, too. Like you, I feel myself bending over backwards to be fair to Bronson. Poor Lizzie. Love AnnaJo on the angel and madwoman and you on the actress in the house.

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