Unpublished Alcott Letters: Lizzie to her family from Swampscott, August 16, 1857 (and a cosmic coincidence)

Concord is not the only place where you can take a Little Women pilgrimage.

Last week Sylvia (a friend I met through the Summer Conversational Series) and I visited Swampscott, a small community on the North Shore next to the city of Lynn. It was here in August of 1857 that Abigail took Elizabeth for a summer sojourn in the vain hope that Lizzie would revive.

Louisa immortalized that visit in Little Women, chapter 36, “Beth’s Secret.”

560 rocks nearby4

Cosmic coincidences

Our visit took place on August 16. It turns out I have a letter, transcribed, from Lizzie dated exactly August 16, 1857! We were where Abba and Lizzie were, exactly 156 years later! I felt very strong emotions coming to Swampscott that day but not just because of Lizzie but also because my mother’s family, the Breeds, is one of the oldest families in Lynn and Swampscott. My mother grew up in Swampscott.

Here you can see what kinds of activities Lizzie enjoyed during her stay. I can see why she rallied but it was not to last. The weather unfortunately turned cold and rainy and the gains she had made when it was pleasant were lost.

560 earliest photo of swampscott circa 1868

Note regarding Swampscott and Lynn

Although Abba’s letters keep mentioning the city of Lynn, Lizzie and her mother were in fact in Swampscott, staying with relatives and also Wendell Phillips and his family (see Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante, pg. 214, ebook). Sylvia, a former Swampscott resident, had corresponded with the local historian who was able to pinpoint exactly where the Phillips home had been.

Swampscott had only been incorporated as a town in 1852 and before then had been a part of Lynn since the 1600s. Lizzie mentions Phillips Beach which is in Swampscott.

The letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I had had a sick day, but I will write a line to you & give you my journal.

Monday 10. We came to Lynn, T[homas]. Sewall coming with us. Found everything pleasant & comfortable, I felt pleased with my quarters. Mrs. Phillips devoured Abbie’s picture & thought I was the image of her, & hugged me every few minutes. Took a cup of tea and salt fish for tea . In the evening Jessie hearing Abbie Alcott had come, came in to call, but was crushed. He is a quite a tidy bashful lad, & seemed greatly taken aback.

Tuesday 11. Rode out shopping with mother. Had a delightful ride into the town. Afternoon, worked on canvass with the girls a while, rested myself, & Katie & Joe came over. Had a restless night.

The Phillips School, built on land the Phillips family owned. It's likely Abba and Lizzie stayed in the Phillips home on this land in the summer of 1857.
The Phillips School, built on land the Phillips family owned. It’s likely Abba and Lizzie stayed in the Phillips home on this land in the summer of 1857.

Wednesday 13. At eleven, glorious tide, took a bath, and had a grand time; much refreshed; laid down awhile. Auntie and Mr. Bond called a minute, thought me looking much better; walked on the Beach with Sara, & got some shells; lovely air, enjoyed myself.

560 plover
Common ringed plover. These birds along with sandpipers would run along the shoreline, peeping, something Beth described with delight in Little Women.

Thursday 14. Rained, we sewed and read loud, quiet morning.  Afternoon took a walk to Aunt Connie’s – Good day. Callers in evening.

Friday 15. Worked some, trimmed my hat, walked out; ate little. In the evening had a glorious sail on the water to Red  Point, round Phillips Beach, sloop named “I tell ye. ”  Got home and lay down. Sick night. Up and down.

560 view from rocks nearby2

Saturday 16. Sat idle all day; we moved into the chambers upstairs, airy and delightful; looks upon the water. Afternoon rode into town & back. Had a pretty good night.

Sunday 17. Lovely day, but sick & blue all day till evening. Saw Dr. Newall [Dr. Newhall] – new prescriptions, felt better. Began milk and magnesia. Lovely evening. They go to a lecture; mother & I … alone. Aunt Connie calls. I [made] a cap for Fred to smoke in. My first lesson in crochet – learning makes stitches. Mrs. Adams & Lydia (?) are here, pass of time. George & Willie are here, have not come yet. I have a lovely hat & I like the girls very much – Sara the best – Cady rigid & busy – I eat fish, & like it, chicken, mutton, milk & tea, am now stronger. Can enjoy walking some. The boat sales will be delightful, a good a time – air cool & fresh, blew in my lungs, & easily, it was glorious, whole family can go in the Dory.  He is a fine charmer; much riding all the time, horseback, & vehicle, much going on, diverting for me & pleasant.

560 rocks nearby2

Can write no more, my eyes give out – Thanks for nice letters and lines all round. Goodbye, Lizzie.

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15 Replies to “Unpublished Alcott Letters: Lizzie to her family from Swampscott, August 16, 1857 (and a cosmic coincidence)”

  1. Thank you for the letter. Like the others, it gives a sense of the writer as a person. When she says “I will write a line to you”, to whom is the letter addressed? Bronson?

  2. Silverseason, I expect the letter is to her father and sisters. Thank you, Susan for another wonderful insight into Lizzie’s character. The “Monday” passage made me laugh – so very typical of the response May attracted. I don’t think any of her sisters felt comparable with May.

  3. You can really tell a difference between the tone here and in her last letter. Her descriptions are fewer, her details sparse. You can just feel how less energetic she is, even amid a (mostly) busy schedule.

  4. I think these letters are great. You can see how she wasn’t as shy as Alcott presented her in LW. She was actually quite the social butterfly. I remember reading somewhere that there was a romance with a neighbor boy. I have no idea where I read it. Did you find any hints of this? Its sad though that we can envision her slowly dying. 😦 I wonder what her restless night entailed? Was she unable to sleep? Was there pain? Hmm.

    1. I too feel that Lizzie was not so much shy as perhaps reserved (or at least very private about her inner life). She may have been the type who needed someone else to break the ice first and then she’d become super chatty and animated (I am just like that – I need the agenda set before I feel comfortable). I’ve felt for awhile now that Beth’s shyness was exaggerated to better serve the story. Information on the romance is very scarce and comes from books that don’t cite their sources. Very frustrating! Sandford Salyer’s book mentions it (and says that Abba put a stop to it), Clara Gowing’s anecdotal book on the Alcotts mentions it (and she also says the parents did not approve) and Harriet Reisen cites Louisa’s journal which has just the one line, “Betty had a little romance with C.” Katharine Anthony says that “C.” was one of Louisa’s pupils when she was teaching school.

      Lizzie’s dying was tremendously tragic to me.

      1. According to Martha Saxton – which you can take or leave – one of Abba’s boarders fell in love with Lizzie, and Abba sent him away (194). Whether the boarder could also have been Louisa’s student is entirely probable. This happened around the same time that Lizzie suffers a depression.

      2. Here’s what Sarah Elbert says on page 105 of A Hunger for Home: “Elizabeth was the family housekeeper. She vaguely considered attending normal school to become a certified teacher, and also had a suitor at this time. Aside from indefinite references in family correspondence, however, there is no real mention of Elizabeth’s marital plans.” No citation for this. 😦

        It’s too bad that Martha Saxton is so inaccurate at times when citing her sources because there are good things in her book. It’s just a very oppressive read. However, I was searching for your reference (it occurred to me that you must have the newer version, I have the original, so I had to read the chapter find it – again, a brief mention and no citation!). BUT, it became very obvious to me why Abba would chase away the suitor. After all, she was on a mission to make sure the poor girls she served as a missionary to the poor didn’t marry or have illicit affairs but rather find work in sewing or whatever they could find to support themselves. She was in a frenzy trying to support her own family and keenly aware of the fact that Bronson was not helping, for whatever reason. So naturally she would be particularly sensitive to the idea of her own daughters entering into a marriage rashly. If the boy was a boarder or a pupil, he likely was not a man of means. And during this time she wanted Lizzie to study to be a teacher at the Normal school. So it all makes sense why the romance was discouraged. It’s a real shame – it’s the one time Lizzie try to exert some independence.

        Sandford Salyer, in his book Marmee The Mother of Little Women, he writes on pages 159-60: “Among all her particular worries Abba at this time had some that are common to most mothers, Her daughters were very attractive in their several ways, and young men were bound to falling love with them. She knew her girls, however, better even than they knew themselves. Although she wanted to see them married, she feared rash impulses and hasty decisions.
        First Beth had a love affair. The daughter took it quite seriously, but the mother could see it should be quickly and definitely discouraged. It must have been hard to deny little Beth anything she wanted. Abba, however, succeeded in marking her see the matter in its real light.” And again, no citation.

  5. Grrr, its annoying that we dont know more about the romance. Okay, annoying for me 😉 I wonder why they put a stop to it. Hmm, I didn’t know C was one of Lousia’s students. Interesting!

    1. Grrr, I agree! 🙂 Lizzie was 17 at the time and I am willing to bet that Abba, bound and determined that all her daughters be independent (i.e. able to support themselves financially), did not want to see any of them marry too early (and end up like her). Lizzie was supposed to go to Framingham Normal School (now Framingham State University – my daughter’s alma mater) to train to be a teacher (which meant she would have to live away from home) and I feel pretty certain that Abba probably saw the romance as interfering with that plan. Turns out Lizzie never went because she couldn’t bear to leave home (Louisa has a very quick, cryptic entry in her diary about it, I’ll have to hunt it up). I can’t imagine it was because the boy wasn’t of the proper class (have no idea whether he came from a well-to-do family but many of Abba’s relatives were well off.). Maybe he was a cousin. Of course we could speculate til the cows come home and we’ll never know for sure. Grrr!

      1. I’d love that citation, Susan. I don’t recall reading that, though I may have and it slipped my mind.

      2. I erred – it wasn’t in Louisa’s journal but in a letter she wrote to Charlotte Wilkinson, Boston, January 2, 1853 (page 7 of The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott). the line is “… and Lizzie is with fear and trembling preparing for the trials of the ‘Normal.’ The footnote says that “The normal schools, which high school graduates attended, usually for a two-year course in preparation for a teaching career.”

  6. Susan, I had written previously about how beautiful your blog is, but you have out done  yourself with the Aug. 16 letter and photography. I have never seen any of Lizzie’s letters before so they are a revelation! The photos were fantastic. Thanks again for all the time and research you put into your work. Laurel


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