Fiction or non-fiction? How should I tell the story of Lizzie?

Note: Although I had promised a series of posts on women’s health in the nineteenth century, I need to postpone those posts until I clear up a problem with citing an important source. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I thought I would share this with you.

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Doing a book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott presents a problem: how do you get inside the head of someone who was so private? While one can speculate by “reading between the lines” when pouring over family letters, it’s hard to fully explore the private line in a biographical setting.

At one time, I was considering doing a fiction book (like Jeannine Atkins’ wonderful Little Woman in Blue) but decided against it because I am not a fiction writer. I read very little fiction, preferring biographies and essays. It seems to me one ought to be immersed in fiction to write fiction.

However, I did try my hand at it with a couple of attempts. This piece was going to be the introduction to a fiction book and I thought you’d like to see. I have another one, less finished, that I’ll show you in the next post.

I have to admit, I enjoyed writing these pieces. Maybe I will continue writing them if only to prime the pump for the real thing.

Here goes:


Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women
Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

I’m hovering over my body laid out on the bed. Where has my hair gone? My face is so thin, hollow and pale. I look like a skeleton. At least the pain is gone. I see my mother and sister gazing up at me. There’s a look of wonder in their eyes although their cheeks are wet. Louisa is looking at Marmee and she’s saying, “What did you see?” I wonder where I am going, I hope it’s someplace with lots of flowers and sun. And music! Will I hear angels singing where I am going?

I thought I wanted to leave but now I’m not sure. The pain was terrible, even the ether didn’t help. Poor Father, he tried. I just couldn’t look at his face so consumed with sadness and worry. I just couldn’t look.
I don’t want to leave my family. Not just yet. I want to see what happens next. Will Anna marry John Pratt? From what she told me, he’s a very nice man. Funny too. Anna deserves someone nice.

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Amy March from Little WomenWill my little Abby May become a famous artist someday? I want to see! Her drawings and paintings are so wonderful. She loves pretty things just like I do but she knows how to capture and keep them forever on paper. I can only remember.

And Louy. My Lu. I shall miss her so. She made me feel alive. She was so unafraid and me, well, I never wanted to leave the house. She will write a great book one day, I imagine lots of great books. Her head is always so full of stories.

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersDear Marmee … oh Marmee, don’t cry! It wasn’t your fault. Those children, they were so sick. I wanted to help too. I wish I had been stronger, for you. You are my hero! How I wish I could sit in your lap right now, lean my head on your bosom and murmur “I love you.” Because I do. How could I not? You showed me what it means to be kind and giving. There was nothing you wouldn’t or couldn’t do.

Father, Father! You and I, we are one. I didn’t understand your words but your heart and mine, we were one. You were like Jesus to me. I wish I could snuggle close to you right now and tell you that. How I will miss your sweet, quiet voice. When you’d talk to me, it was like being outside in the sun, so warm, so peaceful.

lizzie alcott graveMy dear family! I have to leave now. God is good, I’m sure; He will let me watch over you. Keep my memory, let that console you. Come and visit me at Sleepy Hollow. Under the shade of the big elms we can be together.
I want to tell your story. My family, what a story! Lu, you have to tell it. I will help you. I will fill your mind with sweet memories. Oh yes, I know, we had it hard sometimes. I remember that gnawing in my belly and the only thing to fill it was that dry graham. I never told Father but I didn’t like it. It was like eating paper. But it was so sweet how he used to shape it into my favorite animals. It didn’t make it taste any better but the love he put into it made it sweeter somehow.

Lu, please tell our story, won’t you? Walk with me through the years, through those funny plays you and Anna used to put on that had us laughing, crying and shouting for more. Encore! Now that I am gone from this earth, maybe I can get inside your mind and watch the birth of your stories. I was always amazed at how you could stew on stories, cooking them to perfection while chopping vegetables in the kitchen. That head of yours was always so busy!
I hope there are kittens in Heaven. Remember all my kittens? So soft and furry, I loved hearing them purr. Maybe I will see all my pussycats again, running around in Heaven.

Did you know what went on inside of me? I know, I wasn’t good at sharing. I had many thoughts, many feelings but I was afraid to share. You and Anna, you were so smart! You had so many great thoughts to share. Father and Mother, they liked listening to your journals. I know they wanted me to share too but I just couldn’t. I was selfish, clinging to them as I did. And our family, we had hard times. I didn’t want to add to that with my little crosses. Sometimes those crosses got heavy though. This last cross was especially heavy. I died on this cross. Does that mean now that I am like Jesus?

What will God look like? Everything is very bright around me. How I wish I could tell you, shout to the world how happy I feel at this moment even as I say goodbye to you. Oh but dear family, I am not gone from your hearts.

Lu, I know you are the storyteller but I want to tell our story too. Now that I am well, I am free. For some reason, I no longer feel afraid to share what’s inside of me. I have so much that I want to tell you. May I tell you?


Marmee, Lu, there’s a mist around me, is that what you see? You are watching me rise up to Heaven, just as Father said I would. Isn’t God good to give you this glimpse of me, well, happy, ready to take on my brand new life. Father used to read the Holy Bible to us, remember? I’m glad he did that because I got to hear the word of God. It was hard to understand then but now I understand it all. I am rising up to God just like it says in the Bible: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” I never knew what incense was; I think Father said it was like smoke. Smoke goes up into the air. But now I am a mist. Marmee, Louisa, you’re getting smaller and smaller. I wish I could reach out my arms to you for one last goodbye. My mist will stay with you, cover you like a sweet, light blanket on a summer’s night. Wrap myself around you. Remember me.

And I will remember you.

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6 Replies to “Fiction or non-fiction? How should I tell the story of Lizzie?”

  1. Fiction might be better. I heard that non-fiction is better for sharing facts, and fiction is best for sharing souls. Or did I create that? Anyway…I’ll admit that I always wanted to write a novel about Lizzie, or something about her. I always felt like there was so much more to here than how she died, yet that is all most of the biographers focused on. That is what first drew me to your blog. You treated her seriously. Whatever you decide, I will be eager to read!

    On Fri, Jan 22, 2016 at 6:57 AM, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion wrote:

    > susanwbailey posted: “Note: Although I had promised a series of posts on > women’s health in the nineteenth century, I need to postpone those posts > until I clear up a problem with citing an important source. Stay tuned! In > the meantime, I thought I would share this with you. ” >

    1. I think what governed my decision is just what you said – taking Lizzie seriously. While a fiction work can certainly go a long way, I decided on biography for that purpose, along with the fact that I am much more comfortable in that genre. But I can certainly write more fiction here for the blog. 🙂

  2. I would go with non-fiction. Fiction is tricky because you want the reader to be engaged but who wants to read about a character that is already dead or dying? You also run the risk of being too heavy handed. Plus, isn’t the portrayal of Beth supposed to be pretty true to life? I would stick with what you learned from all your research to reveal the real Beth/Lizzie.

  3. This, that you just wrote: don’t throw it out. It would make a good prologue or epilogue. I could never have put all that together. I am like you, not into fiction. I loved Little Woman in Blue, couldn’t put it down, but could not think of it as fiction. I think it had to be pretty close to the truth if it was taken from all May’s writings and journals. One thing I’ve always done was to think of what music Beth would have played, and which hymns she would have known. You know it had to be what was available in New England before 1858. Probably all the English 18th-and early 19th c. hymns were in her repertoire.

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