Where did Louisa May Alcott’s sexual energy go? And what fueled it?

By The Bostonian - Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

By The Bostonian – Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

Julian Hawthorne once speculated about Louisa May Alcott: “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could such a nature so imaginative, romantic, and passionate escape it?”

Choosing the life of a spinster

Louisa made the conscious decision to remain single, preferring to “paddle my own canoe.” Much has been made of her parents’ marriage, at times tumultuous, and how her mother was so burdened with her father’s inability to earn a living (a topic for another day). It was just that burden that Louisa assumed early as evidenced in her first journal writings which coincidentally concurred with the darkest years of Abba and Bronson’s marriage. She became the man of the house.

Yet Louisa was “married …”

Moods-illustrationIt would seem that the care of her family would prevent Louisa from marrying but there was more to it than that. In essence, Louisa was married to her creative self, to her writing. She had a habit of referring to her books as her children, calling both Flower Fables and Moods her “first-born;” the former placed in her mother’s Christmas stocking while the latter was “chopped up ruthlessly” (quoted from Little Women) to please publishers.

Creative ecstasy

A passage from that same chapter of Little Women, “Literary Lessons,” describes the ecstasy of the vortex, Jo’s fit of writing to which she gave in wholeheartedly:

jo writing (norman rockwell)“… when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather … Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her “vortex,” hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.”

Creativity as an outlet

To borrow the quote from Julian Hawthorne, “such a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate” did not escape it—Louisa already had her lover.

Shannon Skinner, in her piece, “Harness Your Sexual Energy Into Creative Energy” from the Huffington Post wrote,

“It has been long understood that creativity and sex are linked. Lovers often express their feelings and desires through creative forms, such as poetry, love letters and painting, regardless of whether it is amateur or masterful works.”

There was one time however …

The closest thing to a romance (besides Louisa’s hero worship of Emerson, Thoreau and Rev. Theodore Parker) was with the much younger Ladislas Wisniewski (“Laddie,” one half of Laurie in Little Women—note that the other half was Alf Whitman, an even younger lad).

Harriet Reisen writes in Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women:

“After the November 1865 journal entry that begins, ‘A little romance with Laddie,’ there was something else written in Louisa’s journal. She later scratched it out so forcibly that she tore the paper—the only instance in all her journal manuscripts. Over the tattered area she wrote ‘couldn’t be.’ The entry for May 1866 says, ‘on the 17th reluctantly left for London.’” (pg. 225 ebook)

What went wrong?

Aunt-Jos-Scrap-Bag My BoysWhat happened? I tend to think Louisa at first thought Laddie was “safe.” After all he was a boy, some thirteen years her junior. At some point it appears this “boy” posed a threat; he became a man with whom she was perhaps falling in love. She could lose herself in him, and that could not be.

She writes in “My Boys” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag:

“… I drew down his tall head and kissed him tenderly, feeling that in this world there were no more meetings for us. Then I ran away and buried myself in an empty railway carriage, hugging the little cologne bottle he had given me.”

(I’ve written on this before–see previous post.)

More than control

As an aside, it is interesting that Louisa could not fathom the idea of a romantic relationship with someone so much younger than her. Along with her desire to retain control over her life, there was the whole matter of propriety—she very much guarded her reputation. May, on the other hand, even as she aspired to be a fine lady, had no problem marrying a man seventeen years her junior (she even lied about her age to Ernest Nieriker, claiming she was thirty-two rather than thirty-seven. So much for propriety!)

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

Traumas in her young life, most especially at Fruitlands set Louisa on a path that avoided marriage and even love, at all costs. Her sexual energies were channeled into her writing, culminating with the “orgasm” of her vortex.

Next time I will focus on Louisa’s adolescence and the “older men in her life,” and get into some of the history of menses from Women and Health in America.

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33 thoughts on “Where did Louisa May Alcott’s sexual energy go? And what fueled it?

  1. bertzpoet says:

    It’s hard to fathom in our day — or maybe in ‘their’ day as well — for passionate persons not to have at least one profound sexual encounter. I’m sure the fear of pregnancy was always there. What kind of ‘protection’ was available to women in Louisa’s time and circles?

    • susanwbailey says:

      Good question! I know there was some, I will have to look it up. Every artist knows that a good creative surge is as good as any sexual encounter.

      • Gina says:

        There weren’t many. It seemed that douching was one thing that a lot of women did. There were condoms, but would a single woman walk into a store and buy them? They had sponges, and it seems that women used to buy them far more easily, but they were not always used properly. Well, according to the literature of the time they were to be taken out immediately after intercourse and soaked in water(thats not very helpful). The sponges could be too small as well.

        The risk of pregnancy was great. The risk of dying from childbirth just as high. I’m sure they did weigh on her mind. How could it not? Plus to be an unmarried woman with a child was scandalous. But I don’t think it was that fear that stopped Louisa. I think it was the fear of having someone to depend on her so much and taking away her dreams that made her celibate.

      • susanwbailey says:

        I totally agree. How ironic too that May died as a result of her pregnancy. She wanted it all — I know many of us wished she could have lived and played that out. If anyone could have done it, it would have been May.

  2. dianabirchall says:

    What is your opinion of the evidence that she may have had some suppressed passion, such as crushes, on girls? Remember she said in an interview that she had been in love with so many girls in her life. This may have been an almost unconscious part of her complicated character; but it would need to be considered in examining her sexual energy. At any rate, if that energy was channeled into her writing, this aspect of it may have been an added component to the human richness of her genius, giving her an extra sensitive intuition into both sexes.

    • susanwbailey says:

      There is actually an essay in that Women and Health in America book on that very subject – I will make a point of reading it and getting back on that. In the meantime, as one who has had a least 3 major crushes on women in my past (first an actress, then a teacher and then a cousin), I can say it can be quite intense. Yet I never ever had a thought of anything beyond the platonic. And I have been happily married for 37 years. Considering the limited outlet women had in Louisa’s day to truly be themselves, to find a like-minded person who was a woman must have brought incredible relief. Louisa, always living large, would naturally fall in love with them. It is too bad that our society has lost the idea of the maiden aunts living together, loving each other and being completely platonic. I had two friends who were utterly devoted to each other and everyone whispered that they must be gay when in fact, they were not. Whether or not you are gay is one thing, but why can’t two women have an intimate, supportive relationship without being saddled with the gay label? Finally, I agree that Louisa had a unique empathy with both sexes which did indeed enrich her writing.

      • dianabirchall says:

        Yes – times, attitudes, knowledge were so very different, talk of “gay sex” for women was probably all but nonexistent. It would seem that Louisa had some awareness that she might be a little “different” on the gender spectrum, but only used it to deepen her empathy and her writing.

      • susanwbailey says:

        Agreed! I’m still going to read that essay and report back on it, it’s an interesting subject.

  3. Gina says:

    Let’s not forget that it’s only recently that older women have been able to date younger men. And even in today’s free liberal society we call these women cougars and they still raise eyebrows one cannot imagine the attitudes toward a proper Victorian woman who would go after a younger man.

    As an older woman who has remain single for the majority of her life and now is only starting to plan a wedding I understand Alcott’s feelings on marriage. Even I struggle with trying to find time to write and be alone and truly be who I want to be. I find that even though I am a successful independent woman my time is not my own anymore and I must divide it up and at times my writing suffers. To be a mother and wife today takes great sacrifice however in the 1800s a woman’s identity was lost when she was married and had children. Her main purpose in life was to be the angel of the household. Such a life would not have allowed Louisa to write and to become a great author and I believe that her writing was more important to her than anything else in the world. You take that away from her and you have an angry bitter woman with no outlet to her frustrations and passions.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Louisa was incredibly fortunate to have the support of her family with her writing. The fact that she ran much of her stuff past them before submitting them to publishers is wonderful. Now naturally they all benefited in very practical ways from her success but they were rooting for her long before that. I really wonder if Louisa could have held it together had she not had that creative outlet. Her mother was very wise in encouraging her daughter early to write. She knew from experience.

      With regards to finding enough alone time, yup, been-there-done-that like so many others. It was a BIG struggle during my mothering years but I wouldn’t trade in a moment of it. Now in the empty nesting years I have lots of time — I just wish I didn’t have to juggle so many balls in the air! I can count three times in my life when I got to do exactly what I wanted – zone in on just one thing. The first time was when our son was an infant – the first six weeks were total bliss. The second time was the year I devoted to research on Lizzie before the books came along. Again, total bliss. And when I wrote River of Grace. That was good too. It does happen sometimes!

      Oh and did you catch the link I put up on the FB page about the new bio on Harriet Beecher Stowe? There’s a woman who really struggled with the whole issue of motherhood and career!

  4. susanwbailey says:

    This is a comment from a reader, Sylvia – she asked me to post this for her:

    “As a lifelong single, I can relate to Louisa’s comment about ‘liberty is a better husband to many of us than love.’ (I think that is what she said), which in her day was even more true. Look at her role models – her mother’s sacrifices, Sophia Hawthorne, Elizabeth Hoar, Lidian Emerson, etc., all strong, intelligent women who sacrificed a life of their own for their husbands. And yes, love affairs can feature in a single woman’s life. They just don’t become permanent!

    Here is my take on Louisa having a love affair – if you read the chapter in LW called Heartache and substitute Louisa for Laurie and Jo for Laddie…I think you have it! I don’t mean transgender, I mean the sentiments each expressed. It would appear to me that Laddie was sort of a young gigolo who enchanted Louisa but maybe was never really serious. She, on the other hand, was lonely, bored with being constrained by this invalid girl she was taking care of, and meeting Laddie was the highlight of her life. She did after all leave the family as soon as she was financially able and head to Paris to meet up with Laddie again. I believe the pain and heartache Laurie feels in that chapter was actually experienced by Louisa for her Laddie. After all, she used that reversal technique before when she sent Mr. March off to the Civil War. And Paris was where it all came to a head. That might be the reason she scratched out journal entries and wrote, ‘couldn’t be.’ And the reasons Jo gives for not truly loving him were Laddie’s in reverse. The sentiments expressed were obviously familiar to her, they were so well written. What do you think?”

    • susanwbailey says:

      Sylvia, I never thought of it that way before and that all makes perfect sense. Remember too that May hung out with Laddie too so the gigolo thing does make sense. Reversing the feelings … yeah, that makes sense too. Makes me want to go back and read that section again with that in mind. Great insight!

  5. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    Before this much material was available to me for perusal, I used to think it was possible that Louisa-Jo was either gay or bisexual, along with being bipolar: conditions which often affect the very creative. I’ve heard that there are many “gays” who work off their sexuality by being counted among the finest artists, writers, musicians, designers, and architects ever. ..and of these, many are also bipolar. During a “manic” phase, they have infinite creative powers, and after they come out of the “vortex”, they are exhausted, cross, despondent…just like the story says. Of course, if Louisa was bisexual, she would have done her best to keep anyone from finding out.

    • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

      I wrote that before I was able to see all of the comments. Yes, it would be nice if society would let women live together, completely devoted to each other, without saying they MUST be lesbians.

    • susanwbailey says:

      That’s a great insight with regards to working off your sexuality through creativity. I am not convinced about the bipolar aspect – if you have an artist’s temperament and you combine that with the normal ups and downs of the menstrual cycle (and then you mix in the volatile nature of Abba) then you come up with Louisa. Is there such a thing as borderline bipolar? It just seems to me that she was able to manage her moods and I thought that was not possible if you were bipolar.

      • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

        There’s bipolar I and bipolar II, with II being the less severe regarding mania. I think Robert Schumann was a bipolar I sufferer. I believe that psychiatry in the 19th century had a long way to go, and there was really nothing for these people to do but “manage their moods” somehow, and in those days, I think a lot of the people who were in bed “poorly” were actually suffering depression to some degree, and how they got through it probably depended on the people around them. Those who suffered to a very large degree, like Schumann, and also Vincent Van Gogh, eventually didn’t come out of it no matter who was around them. Clara Schumann was said to be good at babying her husband but it didn’t help; he was just too severely afflicted.

      • susanwbailey says:

        I didn’t realize there were two levels of bipolar, good to know. Maybe then Louisa was possibly bipolar. I always thought too much was made of Sylvia Yule’s moods in Moods – so much of it could be explained with the monthly cycle.

      • Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

        With women it’s different than with men: often the monthly cycle helps trigger these mental cycles.

  6. QNPoohBear says:

    I think Louisa feared losing her independence if she married. Women didn’t have many rights. If Louisa married, she would lose control of her creative work, if she even had time to write. Massachusetts passed a Married Women’s Property Act on May 5, 1855. It allowed married women to own and sell real and personal property, control their earnings, and make wills but if the income as unequal, it’s possible her husband would not be able to easily cope with the fact his wife was a more reliable wage earner. It was still a very patriarchial society. Women couldn’t even vote and yet as Louisa argued, she paid a lot of taxes!

    Motherhood was inevitable given the lack of reliable and available birth control. The Comstock Act was passed in 1873, targeting obscenity and “dirty books” but also birth control devices and information on such devices, at abortion, and at information on sexuality and on sexually transmitted diseases. Birth control was really only touted for immigrants and lower class people who couldn’t afford to have more children. (Also “undesirables” like intellectually and physically impaired people).

    I think the risks were too great. Her love of writing was her true passion and she just wasn’t able to let that go. I really admire her for remaining a spinster, as an unmarried woman myself, I strongly identify with Louisa. With her sister’s death, she acted as a mother to little Lulu and I think that she felt her life was complete at that.

    I recommend watching the TV series “Lark Rise to Candleford.” One of the main characters, Dorcas Lane, is a spinster and the postmistress of their English market town. She’s very independent yet longs for love and a family. If she marries, she has to give up the job she loves. I disliked what they did with her in the final season but I think Louisa fans will enjoy the story and she would recognize traits within the characters.

    • Gina says:

      Oh! I loved that show!!
      As others have stated I too have wondered if Louisa May Alcott was gay. However I do seem to recall reading in some book somewhere that the Victorians were very sentimental even with the same sex. So I wonder if she was gay or if she was just being overly sentimental about how she’s loved other girls. I’ve also wondered if she wasn’t bipolar as well or had something else going on. It seems her moods are very erratic and while we can say she was a temperamental teenager she seems to be a little more moody than most.

      This is been a great conversation with some wonderful input !!

      • susanwbailey says:

        Agreed! I said something further on down about what I think about the bipolar aspect. I’m going to read a couple of essays this weekend from that Women Health book that addresses the relationships between women and I’ll write on it a bit next week. Then I want to get into Louisa’s “awakening” as they call it, her puberty.

    • susanwbailey says:

      The new biography on Harriet Beecher Stowe deals with all this too – check out the Facebook page for the link.

      With regards to women and property, I was watching the first episode of Downton Abbey last night (I came in late to the series) and it was all about who would inherit Downton and how Cora had no control over her fortune. Even the Dowager stepped up to help, seeing the injustice of it all. Lord Grantham saw it too though his loyalty to Downton trumped that. When you think of it, Louisa had pretty good control over her fortune but that all would have been lost to a husband for sure.

  7. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    Am really enjoying all the comments.

  8. SilverSeason says:

    I come late to the discussion, but I too have enjoyed the comments. Several years ago in the novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O’Connor fantasized that LMA did have a sexual affair before she became a well-known writer. I admit that I found her story unconvincing — the young many proposed was certainly no Laddie. Moreover, times have changed and women’s assumptions about their real and possible lives have also changed. It may be hard for a young person now to imagine a life that feels complete without a husband and/or sex, but many Victorian women chose it, for all the reasons stated in the comments. They directed their energy — sexual and otherwise — to friends and family and their work.

    • susanwbailey says:

      I agree re: Lost Summer. I thought Joseph Singer was fine but I couldn’t buy that Louisa would consummate the relationship in that way. She was very much into propriety despite her independent spirit.

  9. Not only propriety – religion. It’s hard to imagine that Bronson and Abba Alcott’s daughter would have had an “illicit” (as they were then considered) affair in her youth. She probably released some of her wilder fantasies in her sensation writing instead. And her dedication to her writing was unsurpassed. “Work is always my salvation and I will celebrate it,” she memorably wrote, and often expressed that she meant to write something important, that would live. She surely had passionate feelings for men (and women) at different times in her life, but given her upbringing and the dangers, I doubt she ever seriously considered an affair. As for why she didn’t marry, her dedication to her career was consuming, and it would also seem very likely that her knowledge of her parents’ marriage made her resolve never to live a life similar to her mother, whom she called “heroic.”

  10. Jill F. says:

    Love the comments! I have also wondered about her relationship with Laddie, the gay/transgender issue, etc. I remember many instances of Louisa/Jo wishing she was a boy, but I think that longing was more about opportunities than sexuality. For example, it was deemed improper for women to exercise….and we all know how much Louisa loved to run and jump and frolic. I still think it’s possible she could have been gay or bi-sexual. It was a lot more common in history than we realize today, but it’s really only speculation with Louisa. I agree with the above comments that having deep friendships with women does not necessarily mean she was gay. (Think Anne of Green Gables and Diana’s “bosom” friendship. Most girls wouldn’t have that level of intimacy today. But it was normal then.)

    However, I think she stayed away from marriage because of the disastrous example of her mother and father’s relationship and a fear of lack of control over her life, as much as from her love of writing and dream of a career. During her childhood, she, her sisters, and her mother were at the whims of Bronson and his ideas. I believe that really affected how she approached independence. Never again would she allow herself to be steered along against her will. Even though she stayed dutiful to her family and often felt like she had no control over her life because of that duty, she was still the one who took the initiative on where the family moved or stayed, often going to Boston to write, even moving her family there at times so she didn’t have to stay in Concord.

    From my understanding of Louisa, I could definitely see her having her little crushes or flirtations, and I really do think she had some feelings for Laddie. But she never allowed those to overpower her reason; I’m sure she approached every intimate encounter with a man with the idea that none of it would last. She wouldn’t allow it to.

    Overall, Louisa was far ahead of her time. Even though it’s still a challenge to follow a creative path and balance duties as a 21st century woman, I think Louisa would have found it much easier to have a family as well as a fulfilling career nowadays.

    • susanwbailey says:

      I know, these comments (including yours) have been awesome. Someday I will have figure out how we can get together via video online and discuss this stuff, it’s so much fun.

      • Jill says:

        It really is! A live discussion webinar! Gotomeeting.com is one option. That would be so much fun.

      • susanwbailey says:

        Is there a free option with Gotomeeting? Also, does it have a video option? Would Google Hangouts or Skype work? I’d love it if we could all see each other.

        When I had my book launch at The Barrow in November and I saw so many friends from the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House, it made me long to see these people more than once a year. It would be even more awesome to see many of you and just hang out. I will create a blog post with the possibility and ask around on FB and Twitter for advice on how we could pull this off,

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