Further thoughts on May Alcott Nieriker, a thoroughly modern woman

While researching May and Ernest’s home in Meudon, France (see previous post), I had a chance to read May’s thoughts in her letters home from Caroline Ticknor’s book, May Alcott A Memoir. May was a happy newlywed reflecting on her perfect life with gratitude. In one sense she was blissfully naive but her charm was precisely the way she always viewed life as a glass half full.

Her flight to Europe thanks to Louisa’s help set May free from Victorian womanhood. She hesitated about leaving that final time as her mother was quite feeble but it was Abba who pushed her to go. One might say that Abba saw this daughter as the one who would truly be set free, thus realizing her mother’s hopes and dreams.

A diehard European

may portraitMay had no intention of returning to America: “For myself this simple artistic life is so charming, that America seems death to all aspirations or hope of work … Meudon seems a Paradise. With Ernest, and pictures, I should not care if I never saw a friend or acquaintance again. It is the perfection of living; the wife so free from household cares, so busy, and so happy.” (pg. 267, Ibid)

A different view of marriage

May and Louisa both witnessed their parents’ marriage and while Louisa feared the institution as a result, May had a different take: “I think of how she [Abba] married for love and struggled with poverty and all possible difficulties and came out gloriously at last, all the stronger and happier for so mastering circumstances, and this gives me courage, hoping her example will be always a safe guide for me.” (pg. 268, Ibid)

May is nothing if not blunt: “In my case it will be easier to be brave, because Ernest is a practical, thrifty businessman; he is young, ambitious, with real faculty instead of an impractical philosopher.” (Ibid). Ouch!

Same home life, different lives

Amy March of Little WomenMay certainly benefited from being the baby of the family. By the time she was born Bronson had lost interest in the obsessive scientific study of his children and she reaped the rewards of his seeming neglect. Her upbringing was the most normal of the four daughters.

She was too young to have experienced the trauma of Fruitlands* (see addendum) and was deliberately sheltered from many of the problems and added responsibilities brought on by the family’s poverty. Louisa took on the mantle and May was just as happy to allow it. While Louisa was jealous of May’s carefree life and sometimes resented the burdens associated with being the head of the household, she would not delegate responsibilities to May. There were times when she called her younger sister home to help with her parents but she also financed May’s trip to Europe and encouraged her to develop her talents.

Free from her family

Day 3 May Alcott a Memoir - Opposites AttractIt is no wonder then that May naively assumed that her mother had “mastered her circumstances” on her own power. Without Louisa’s support as breadwinner,  best friend and caretaker, Abba might not have triumphed. May saw the results without truly understanding the sacrifices made by her older sister. With wounds too deep and fresh, Louisa could not dare to undertake marriage. May, free from such wounds, embraced it wholeheartedly.

One life transformed, another life saved

from alcott.net
from alcott.net

Living across the ocean in France May was free from the responsibilities of caring for her family. It was not without cost. Failing to read the signs and return home before her mother died caused her great guilt and bitter grief. Yet two years after Abba’s death, May was able to move on into a new life while Louisa grew mired in the old, having lost her purpose for living. May’s choice would ultimately benefit Louisa with new hope and a new life as mother to May’s daughter Lulu.

It was the greatest gift the youngest sister could have given to her Lu.


A sharp reader on the Facebook page (Kristi) suggested that although May was just a toddler, she would still have absorbed the trauma of Fruitlands and beyond in some subconscious way, suggesting that new research “may offer a potential shift in our understanding of how Fruitlands may have impacted May.”

This got me to thinking about her strong drive to become an artist. If we were to look at this from from the subconscious, perhaps Fruitlands and what transpired after that fueled May’s ambition. Art was certainly a great way to get away from the family troubles both in her head and in the practical ways that she maneuvered invites to the homes of her wealthy Sewall and May relatives. She saw art was her way to escape the ugliness around her (both physically and emotionally) and to create a life for herself which was more to her liking. And I would say that she was immensely successful, more so than Louisa who was never able to truly enjoy her life for very long.

This is why I love doing this blog, because of you! Thank you Kristi for that suggestion.

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3 Replies to “Further thoughts on May Alcott Nieriker, a thoroughly modern woman”

  1. That may well be true about the Fruitlands experience. Without understanding what was going on, May still would have a feeling of family trouble and disunity.

    The relationship between the two sisters is interesting. In Little Women, Amy as depicted is able to make friends of her own age and also to please the Aunt March’s of her world. I am sure Louisa saw the advantages of that approach but also knew that she could not change her own nature.

    1. It’s interesting to me how Louisa depicted her sister in Little Women. This was of course before May experienced her success. Louisa didn’t take May’s ambition seriously as she relegated Amy to a hobbyist, even renouncing her ambition because she lacked the skills she thought she needed to be excellent. Amy was depicted as a spoiled brat, even malicious with the burning of the manuscript (which has no basis in fact but Louisa obviously thought her sister capable of the deed). She grew into a good and gracious woman and a guide to Laurie’s better self but there was almost something bland about Amy when she grew up. You have to wonder what May thought deep down about how she was depicted. There doesn’t appear to be any record of her reaction and she wasn’t one to be introspective but Louisa certainly risked offending her younger sister!

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