Louisa May Alcott had numerous friends and admirers. Being writers themselves (or children of famous writers such as Julian Hawthorne, see previous post), these friends and admirers provide us with what I think are the most colorful biographical sketches of Louisa. No scholar can truly capture what a contemporary (especially a friend) can reveal through their personal anecdotes. The “facts” they present are likely colored by the person’s great esteem for Louisa but if one reads between the lines, a lot of great information can be gleamed.
Maria S. Porter, fellow abolitionist and feminist, was a close friend of Louisa’s in the last twenty years of her life (see Daniel Shealy’s excellent book, Alcott in Her Own Time). While she goes over Louisa’s history, citing in particular Louisa’s experience going out to service at eighteen (which inspired “How I Went Out to Service”, see previous post), Fruitlands and Louisa’s feelings about her parents, I found the most interesting parts to be specific recollections from Porter about Louisa.
Shades of Jo March
This story, told by Louisa as the two “floated down the Concord River” on a moonlit summer evening sets the stage for a classic Jo moment in Little Women:
“ ‘When I was a girl of eighteen or thereabouts,” she said, ‘I had very fine dark brown hair, thick and long, almost touching the floor as I stood. At a time when the family needs were great, and discouragement weighed heavily upon us, I went to a barber, let down my hair, and asked him how much money he would give me for it. When he told me the sum, it seemed so large to me that I then and there determined I would part with my most precious possession if during the next week the clouds did not lift.’” (“Recollections of Louisa May Alcott,” pg. 9; from Recollections of Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier and Robert Browning by Maria S. Porter)
The clouds did indeed lift with financial help coming from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
A time of service
Louisa’s eighteenth year was an eventful one. It was the year she went out to service. Louisa’s family (especially the well-to-do members) was up in arms over her taking this position. She recalled to Porter,
“ ‘I don’t care. Every kind of work that is paid for is service. It is rather a downfall to give up trying to be a Siddons or a Fanny Kemble, and become a servant at the beck and call of people; but what of it?” “All my highly respectable relatives,’ said Louisa, ‘held up their hands in holy horror when I left the paternal roof to go to my place of servitude, as they called it, and said, ‘Louisa Alcott will disgrace her name by what she is doing.’ But despite the lamentations and laughter of my sisters, I got my small wardrobe ready, and after embracing the family, with firmness started for my new home.’” (Ibid, pg. 12)
Porter commented that the experience was so painful that Louisa rarely discussed it and when she did, “it was with heightened color and tearful eyes.”
Aided by humor
Another painful family experience, Fruitlands, was taken more in stride. Here Louisa’s wonderful sense of humor prevailed with the writing of Transcendental Wild Oats. Porter wrote how “Louisa’s eyes would twinkle as she described the strange methods at Fruitlands!” Humor would provide Louisa with a port in the storm through her often tumultuous life.
Love of acting
Porter went on at length about Louisa’s love for Dickens, citing a particular character favorite, Mrs. Jarley whom Louisa often impersonated. Porter, aware of Louisa’s lifelong love of the theater writes,
“I was so fortunate as to persuade her to take the part of Mrs. Jarley in the waxwork show. It was a famous show, never to be forgotten. People came from all parts of New England to see Louisa Alcott’s Mrs. Jarley, for she had for years been famous in the part whenever a deserving charity was to be helped in that way. Shouts of delight and peals of laughter greeted her original and witty descriptions of the ‘figgers’ at each performance, and it was repeated every evening for a week.” (Ibid, pg. 20)
Porter admired Louisa’s keen insight into character, commenting that was “almost ruthless in her denunciation of society.” I love imagining Louisa making this comment:
“Society in New York and in Boston, as we have seen it to-night, is corrupt. Such immodest dressing, such flirtations of some of these married women with young men whose mothers they might be, so far as age is concerned, such drinking of champagne – I loathe it all! If I can only live long enough I mean to write a book whose characters will be drawn from life. Mrs. — [naming a person present] shall be prominent as the society leader, and the fidelity of the picture shall leave no one in doubt as to the original.” (Ibid, pg. 22)
Those of you better versed in Louisa’s canon than I: did this scene make it into a story? Which one? And if so, I wonder if Mrs. – recognized herself?
Advice for the newest member of the school committee
Louisa was delighted when Porter was elected to the Melrose school committee in 1874. She of course, made a suggestion,
“I rejoice greatly thereat, and hope that the first thing that you and Mrs. Sewall propose in your first meeting will be to reduce the salary of the head master of the High School, and increase the salary of the first woman assistant, whose work is quite as good as his, and even harder; to make the pay equal. I believe in the same pay for the same good work.” (Ibid, pg. 22)
I bet that went over well!
A last impression …
The last time that Porter would see Louisa was when her father was dying. Bronson, Anna and her family were living in the Louisburg Square home in a fashionable part of Boston but Louisa was living in Dunreath Place, a rest home run by good friend Dr. Rhoda Lawrence. Porter’s impression of Louisa’s appearance is telling,
“On Thursday morning, March 2, I chanced to be at the house, where I had gone to inquire for Mr. Alcott and Louisa. While talking with Mrs. Pratt, her sister, the door opened, and Louisa, who had come in from the Highlands to see her father, entered. I had not seen her for months, and the sight of her thin, wan face and sad look shocked me, and I felt for the first time that she was hopelessly ill. After a few affectionate words of greeting she passed through the open doors of the next room.” (Ibid, pgs. 27-28)
… and the last words
Porter was the recipient of the last letter ever written by Louisa. It was in response to a photograph of May that Porter had sent her. It was written likely on March 3:
“DEAR MRS. PORTER, Thanks for the picture. I am very glad to have it. No philosophy is needed for the impending event. I shall be very glad when the dear old man falls asleep after his long and innocent life. Sorrow has no place at such times, and death is never terrible when it comes as now in the likeness of a friend.
L. M. A.
P. S. I have another year to stay in my ‘Saint’s Rest,’ [her name for Dunreath Place] and then I am promised twenty years of health. I don’t want so many, and I have no idea I shall see them. But as I don’t live for myself, I hold on for others, and shall find time to die some day, I hope.” (Ibid, pg. 28)
She got her wish sooner than she thought.
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