Louisa May Alcott was never bashful about borrowing from previous stories to flesh out Little Women. Several short stories set the stage for the classic: “The Sisters’ Trial” (four sisters, Leonore, Agnes, Ella and Amy facing going out to work to deal with the family’s poverty), “A Modern Cinderella” (depicting Anna and John as Nan and John), “In the Garret,” a poem featuring Nan, Lu, Bess and May, and “Living on an Omnibus” which introduced the poor Hummels (pgs. 435, 437, Little Women Norton Edition, from Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine B. Stern).
Mining her vast storehouse of memories, Louisa transcribed her childhood, mixing fiction seamlessly with fact to create a compelling story. Both she and Thomas Niles, her publisher, felt the book was “dull” after the first twelve chapters, but Niles’ niece and other children who read the manuscript had different ideas. Louisa may not have enjoyed the creative satisfaction of churning out Little Women as she had with her A. M. Barnard thrillers, but her pen was creating sheer lightning in the guise of simple truth and family devotion.
Characters and settings from the book were composites of real people and events. Stern writes of Laurie:
Laurie would inherit from Ladislas [Wisniewski, Louisa’s love interest from her first tour of Europe] his curly black hair and big black eyes, his musical skill, and his foreign background, while Alf [Whitman, a lifelong friend from Louisa’s theater days] would endow him with high spirits and a sober kind of fascination. (Ibid, pg. 436).
A stew of plays
“The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy,” performed by the March sisters on Christmas night consisted of the following:
She [Louisa] would take Hagar from “The Unloved Wife,” Hugo from “Norna; or, The Witch’s Curse,” Zara from “The Captive of Castile,” and miraculous potions from “Bianca,” evolving a composite melodrama entitled “The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy.” (Ibid)
Personal letters and writings
Mr. March’s letters came from Bronson’s writings while living at “Concordia” (just before they embarked on Fruitlands) while Marmee’s notes to her daughters originated from jottings in the girls’ various journals. Louisa’s “The Olive Leaf,” a family newspaper created while the family lived in destitution in Boston as a means of entertainment, became “The Pickwick Portfolio,” carrying with it the various Dickensian characters. (Ibid)
Real? Fiction? Who cares?
What was real and what was fiction? Did Amy (May) really burn Jo’s (Louisa’s) manuscript? Did she really fall through the ice? Did Anna have the experience of Meg, being dressed up like a doll by her wealthy friends? Stern writes,
It scarcely mattered. Fact was embedded into fiction, and a domestic noel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood. (Ibid, pg. 437)
Mining for gold
The deeper one digs, the more universal will be the concept. This is advice I was given from a successful writer. And while Louisa may have felt she was only regurgitating old memories, she was in fact, digging deep into a mine and producing gold. It merely took representing adolescent girls as they really were, warts and all.
Much more to come …
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2 Replies to “Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part two: Lots of borrowing”
I love the drawing of the four girls at the top of this post and it is not one I have seen before. Do you know who the illustrator was?
It was Frank T. Merrill. It’s from gutenberg.org. I like that picture too.