“A thousand kisses–I love you with my whole soul”: Relations between women in the 19th century, as reflected in Little Women

This comment from Diana regarding a previous post prompted a discussion on whether or not Louisa May Alcott was gay:

“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.”

It is tricky addressing this subject because the mentality of the nineteenth century was so different from our present day.

Study of female relationships

Carroll Smith-RosenbergCarroll Smith-Rosenberg, a leading historian on women, undertook a study of relationships between women, studying the personal letters of thirty-five families between the 1760s and the 1880s. Her sample covers a wide spectrum from poor to middle class to well-to-do, and from many geographical and Christian backgrounds. Because the letters were meant to be private, they are quite revealing.

Letters between friends

Letter from Anna, Louisa and Lizzie Alcott to their mother Abba in honor of their sister Abbie May's birth.
Letter from Anna, Louisa and Lizzie Alcott to their mother Abba in honor of their sister Abbie May’s birth.

Smith-Rosenberg begins with an examination of two sets of lifelong friends in her essay, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth Century America”:

“The twentieth-century tendency to view human love and sexuality within a dichotomized universe of deviance and normality, genitality and platonic love, is alien to the emotions and attitudes of the nineteenth century and fundamentally distorts the nature of these women’s emotional interaction. These letters are significant because they force us to place such female love in a particular historical context. There is every indication that these four women and their husbands and families–all eminently respectable and socially conservative–considered such love both socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage. Emotionally and cognitively, their heterosocial and their homosocial worlds were complementary.” (pg. 73, Women and Health in America, First Edition edited by Judith Walzer Leavit)

Deep relationships

www.irishcentral.com
www.irishcentral.com

Rosenberg presents moving stories of intimate relationships which provided emotional satisfaction, support and empathy. These relationships could be quite intense and often lasted for a lifetime. She notes the frequent uses of “I love you,” “dearest,” “darling,” “how desperately I shall want you,” etc. in the letters.

Here is one ending line from a letter between Jeannie Field Musgrove and Sarah Butler Wister:

“Goodbye my dearest, dearest lover–ever your own Angelina.” (They had pet names for each other). Here’s another: “I will go to bed … [though] I could write all night–A thousand kisses–I love you with my whole soul–your Angelina.” (pg. 81)

An alien group

In the Victorian era, men and women were separated into different spheres, the men living in the world-at-large while women were relegated to the private, domestic sphere. This separation created a stiffness and formality between men and women; in fact, marriage would prove to be a major adjustment: “With marriage both women and men had to adjust to life with a person who was, in essence, a member of an alien group.” (Ibid)

mimimatthews.com
mimimatthews.com

Setting the stage

szycie www.lisak.net.pl
www.lisak.net.pl

This separation however provided an acceptable social setting for intimate relationships between women. Smith-Rosenberg describes a large network in which women found themselves, beginning first with the family and the mother-daughter relationship. In most cases (barring illness, death, or other such calamity), this relationship was very close with little of the conflict found today between mothers and daughters, especially during adolescence. In fact, there appeared to be an unspoken pact between women to resist the urge to criticize or be hostile. While women were generally discouraged from expressing aggression, Smith-Rosenberg found genuine love and companionship in the letters she studied.

Young men beware!

This did not stop women from being catty towards men in the courtship phase. In referring to it as “deprecatory whimsy,” Smith-Rosenberg shared amusing stories and game-playing from young women in their treatment of young men.

Physical affection

Women_In_Hammock_romantic_friendship
en.wikipedia.org

Considered perfectly proper for that era, affection was displayed in overtly physical ways; such displays today would raise eyebrows: “Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged each other.” Such affection stemmed from deep friendships sharing mutual loneliness and emotional dependency. Women leaned on each other for support, strength and companionship in a world where there were few choices on how they should live.

Perfectly reflected in Little Women

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersLouisa May Alcott enjoyed many such relationships in her life, beginning with her family. Her love for her mother was fierce, protective and intimate—in many ways she acted as much like a husband to her mother as a daughter. Louisa assured her mother’s place in classic literature as the beloved “Marmee” in Little Women—all knowing, forever patient and kind, and always there for her daughters.

Sisterly devotion

This devotion was also evident between the sisters despite the petty rivalry between Jo and Amy. Often in the book we find the sisters cuddling together reading their special book received at Christmas, sharing confidences and consoling each other through difficult times. Who can forget the picture of Beth, lying in the arms of her older sister Jo at the seashore, sharing her most intimate and painful secrets?

Marrying her sister?

anna and meg, louisa and joLouisa and her older sister Anna were very close, pining for Anna in her journal whenever Anna went away. When she finally broke away from the family to marry John Pratt, Louisa grieved as with a death. We see this played out in Little Women with Jo’s jealousy of Meg’s future husband John Brook. She is furious that he wants to marry Meg and thus take her away from home. Jo declares her the desire to “marry” her older sister to prevent that separation.

As we can see from Smith-Rosenberg’s essay, these experiences and feelings were commonplace for most women. It is no wonder then that Little Women immediately resonated with readers. Louisa hardly knew what she had tapped into despite admitting she didn’t like girls much nor knew much about them (except for her sisters). Little Women became the story of millions of women across the ages.

Re-imagining sisterhood

512 an old-fashioned girl louisa may alcott 01 coverwork-title-pageAnd it didn’t stop there. Louisa not only glorified the sisterhood of women, she re-imagined it, especially in An Old-Fashioned Girl and Work A Story of Experience. In each case a sisterhood was created for single and working women intent on making the world a better place. Polly Milton, lonely and poor, gathers together women like herself—purpose-driven, working to support themselves and finding their way in life without husbands. In a similar fashion Christie Devon, recently widowed, brings together married and single women intent on reform.

Socially viable relationships

So, was Louisa May Alcott gay because of her stated attraction to other women? Likely we’ll never know–the nature of relationships between women in the nineteenth century makes it impossible to determine. Smith-Rosenberg’s conclusion of her essay affirms this:

“… in the twentieth century a number of cultural taboos evolved to cut short the homosocial ties of girlhood and to impel the emerging women of thirteen or fourteen toward heterosexual relationships. In contrast, nineteenth-century American society did not taboo close female relationships but rather recognized them as a socially viable form of human contact—and, as such, acceptable throughout a woman’s life.” (pg. 81)

Last thoughts

It seems to me that something precious and wonderful may have been lost in the transition to modern life and independence. Certainly the art of from letter writing has nearly disappeared; with email so easily disposed of, what archive will exist of such friendships? Does sisterhood still exist? What do you think

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20 Replies to ““A thousand kisses–I love you with my whole soul”: Relations between women in the 19th century, as reflected in Little Women”

  1. This is wonderful, thoughtful commentary by someone who has seriously studied the question. Growing up in the 1950s, I remember sisters who slept together, and girls at sleepovers, as well as intense teenage friendships. Accepted as perfectly normal then; but there’s more “labeling” now (to make a play on Amy’s misuse of the word and Jo saying she was calling papa a pickle jar!). We’ve forgotten what “sentimental friendships” among girls and women used to be in the past (more’s the pity, as you say, Susan). The centuries are a real divide, for on the other hand, Louisa would have been bewildered and uncomprehending by this century’s views on sex. Also, living in the era before Freud and modern psychology, people of the past tended to be completely unself-conscious about behavior that we would consider very revealing. Today we may know more but we behave less naturally!

    1. Wow, couldn’t have said it better. Yes! The essay is on JStor, a little pricey at $14 but my post just gives the summary – the essay is really worth a read – the link you see in the post is the JStor link. Or, if you can get Women and Health in America (either edition) from your library, you can read it there too.

      1. Thank you, Susan, I will seek it out. I’m very interested in the subject, and am impressed by how lucidly Caroll Smith-Rosenberg expresses herself.

  2. Emily Dickinson has also come under scrutiny for her passionate letters to her sister-in-law to be (and unhappy when Susan Gilbert married Austin Dickinson); also to Kate Anthon. But so what? Erotic feelings come in all forms and manner for all genders — part of our biology.

    1. Agreed. After reading Smith-Rosenberg’s essay, it began to make sense to me why Jo wanted to “marry” Meg. That was likely seen by readers in Alcott’s time as a very normal response whereas today readers, not having that context, would be puzzled by it.

  3. Susan, this is a wonderful post distilling Smith-Rosenberg’s views on what is to me a wonderful subject! I read her back in college in women’s studies courses and I remember the book you cited especially.

    I think the differences between the 19th and 20th centuries on how we look at not just female friendships, but love in general also has a lot to do with how relationships and incidences are described. For example, I am always a little jolted when reading 19th century classic literature when one of the female characters says something like, “he made love to me.” Not, of course, meaning they had sexual intercourse as we would think today, but in that context of making his interest known to her.

    It is a particular frustration of mine that in this day and age we automatically go to the sexual and erotic when we see women who obviously have a close bond. I am not saying there is anything wrong if they are, in fact, lovers. But I think we lose a grand level of emotional depth in relationships when we hesitate to declare love and feeling to those women in our lives who are, in the words of Anne Shirley, our ‘bosom friends’ and ‘kindred spirits!’

    1. I agree. I also think it has to do with the how oversexed our society is. So many relationships are reduced to mere sex which presents many problems–seeing people as objects to manipulate; never getting beyond the physical, thus missing out on the deeper friendship, etc. In order to show affection to someone of the same sex you have to endure people talking about you behind your back, gossiping, and frankly, getting into areas which are none of their business.
      Then there is the whole lost art of communication through the written word. Facebook, Twitter and email do not replace a handwritten letter and such letters are so rare these days that they are truly special. I sent Jan Turnquist at Orchard House a copy of each of my books and she wrote me back the loveliest handwritten letter of thanks. I know how busy she is and I know how much longer it takes to hand write rather than type something–I kept that letter because it meant a lot to me that she would do that. And when I get the privilege of reading the letters of the Alcott family, touching the paper, seeing the ink and the smudges on the paper … it creates this connection and intimacy that is totally lost in a transcribed, neatly typewritten letter.

      1. “And when I get the privilege of reading the letters of the Alcott family, touching the paper, seeing the ink and the smudges on the paper … it creates this connection and intimacy that is totally lost in a transcribed, neatly typewritten letter.”

        Oh, yes, the art of hand-written communication!

        And I am reminded there is a debate going on now about whether children should be taught to write in cursive due to the digital nature of our lives. Is it necessary? Oh my…. 😦

      2. Think about this scenario – teaching future history, English and librarian majors in college and grad school to learn to read and write cursive so they can read primary sources. Don’t even get me started! 🙂
        Seriously, learning the quirks of 19th century cursive takes a lot of time, for example a word like “cross” – the first “s” looks like an f while the second looks like an s. Took me a long time to figure that out since I had no background in handwriting from the past.
        One thing I am planning on doing is preparing a presentation for libraries or even schools on the Alcott letters, complete with posters showing the handwriting, and just talk about what it’s like to read such letters.

  4. I read this essay in one of my classes. (read it online for free at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/students/modules/sexuality_and_the_body/bibliography/17_carroll_smith-rosenberg_the_female_world_of_love_and_ritual.pdf)
    I can’t remember whether it was undergrad or graduate or both. While scholars no longer talk about women’s sphere, domestic sphere and oppressed 18th and 19th century women forming bonds, I think her argument still stands. It’s impossible to know what Louisa was feeling because the language and gender norms were different. My professor said that in Louisa’s case, she could have been rebelling against gender norms or she could have been what we would label “gay.” There were a number of women in the 19th century who were for all intents and purposes, in the equivalent of a lesbian relationship. The terms “Boston Marriage” or “Wellesley marriage” (after the college) referred to two women who lived together and worked to support each other. Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful” and Mary Emma Wooley, president of Mount Holyoke College were in “Boston marriages.” The term “lesbian” came around in the 1930s as a derogatory terms for these types of women. Of course Smith-Rosenberg was writing about middle-class white women like Louisa. Gender studies now includes all women and men as well. They look at constructs of masculinity and femininity and how those are shaped by certain factors. Any gender studies majors out there? I studied women’s history with a lot of readings on gender studies!

    1. I grew up in Wellesley and still work there. My mom and her sisters all went to Wellesley College (and my aunt went on to become the first woman to get her PhD at MIT). Katherine Lee Bates’ home is on Curve Street in Wellesley, the same street where my mother-in-law has lived for many years. In fact, my boss’ daughter lives in Katherine Lee Bates’ home! I never knew of that terminology (Wellesley marriage, Boston marriage) before, how interesting!
      Your comment about how gender studies has changed explains to me now why there is such a huge difference between the first and second editions of Women and Health in America. I find the first edition much more helpful with regards to my own research but it’s interesting having the updated version too.

  5. I’ve now read Smith-Rosenberg’s essay, and it is what scholarly essays seldom are: beautiful, in its speaking evocation of what a “woman’s world,” the female network of family and friends, once was. It is eloquent in the way she lets each of the anecdotal stories speak for themselves, from the original first source letters. In reading about how women used to feel about each other and express those feelings – a way that seems so antiquated as to be nearly lost today – I was struck by how often scenes in Alcott’s novels resemble these real life letters. For example in Rose in Bloom, Aunt Plenty takes Rose (age 20) onto her lap, holds her close with caresses and turns to speak to Phebe “in the middle of a kiss.” Smith-Rosenberg brilliantly pinpoints the “emotional segregation” between men and women due to confined gender roles, and how one woman might “adopt” another, taking on the role of a kind of “pseudomother.” Such a relationship is seen in that of Rose and Phebe, setting them apart from Rose’s male cousins. Rose as a girl declares that she is going to “adopt” Phebe, but by the time the girls are in their twenties, Phebe is caring for Rose in an almost maternal way. There’s a similar relationship between Becky and Emily in “Mountain-Laurel and Maiden-hair” in “A Garland for Girls,” with Becky calling Emily her darling dear, and holding her in her arms “with a look and gesture half sisterly, half motherly.” Louisa May Alcott was very much of her times, and perhaps that is why her stories resonate even today, for they reflect the emotional truth of their own era.

    Smith-Rosenberg astutely points out that women lived in “emotional proximity” to each other, partly due to the rigid dichotomy between male and female culture, and the resulting “emotional stiffness and distance” in Victorian marriages. Paradoxically the times were more tolerant of variations in the spectrum of female psychosexual bonds than now. Yet, when it comes to Jo’s wishing she could marry Meg to prevent her marriage, I’m not so sure female readers would have seen that as “normal” even then, but more likely as “odd,” in a way which defined Jo. Jo is depicted as a girl who identifies with boys more than most, and her expressing that wish shows her naivete about sexual matters. Louisa, of course, saw herself in Jo, the boyish teenager and self-proclaimed “man of the family,” but modern readers, categorizing such attitudes as we do nowadays, may see both Jo and by inference Louisa as lesbian. I believe, however, we have already concluded in this discussion that it’s our terminology that’s leading us to possibly erroneous inferences. Boyish Jo herself developed into the maternal and womanly wife of Professor Bhaer, but Louisa, who did not choose such a path herself, insouciantly indicated that she gave Jo a “funny marriage.” It is difficult to deduce, from today’s perspective, how the adult Louisa may have felt about men, women and marriage. In her novels she paints the romantic happy endings as the best happiness that can be known on earth (for instance, Polly and Tom sitting side by side enjoying “the blissful state of mind” of “the glorified region wherein lovers rapturously exist for a month or two”). She knew what her audience wanted to see, but she does not seem to have felt the miss of this heavenly bliss herself. The image of the “independent spinster” and paddling her own canoe, clearly had a much more powerful appeal to her than any marriage. And after watching her abject or saintly (depending on your point of view) mother’s submission and resignation to the foolishly improvident Bronson, it’s not hard to see why she felt that way.

    1. Interesting, re: Jo’s wanting to marry Meg – you’re right, it’s so typical of Jo’s character. I always found Louisa’s writing about marriage to lack depth obviously because of her own lack of experience with it. I was particularly disappointed that she didn’t explore Christie and David’s marriage in Work (especially after the ridiculous detour their relationship took with Kitty – that part was boring). Honestly, the moment they got married, the Civil War began and they both go off to war! Then he’s killed–how convenient. But as they say, you have to write about what you know and she had already experienced criticism with regards to Moods.
      Both abject and saintly with regards to Abba–this is the one point of contention I have with Abba’s portrayal sometimes as the perpetual victim to Bronson – she supported him wholeheartedly, even after the break with Fruitlands. Although she took over the breadwinner role, she still supported his philosophy and loved him for it. I think Cynthia Barton’s bio, Transcendental Wife paints the most balanced picture of Abba.

  6. Yes…sometimes I think I was born out of my time…after reading Louisa’s books I always had a realization that things had changed for women and not always for the better. I recall at 12 having a friend 14, and her (very prissy) mother stopped letting us have sleepovers. In front of me she said to her daughter, “I told you about that!” (frown frown) — and I did not understand what was going on in her mind because I was extremely naïve. I also felt that men were very alien creatures. So naturally I found this essay extremely interesting.

  7. Regarding Louisa’s writing with a lack of depth about marriage: I always thought that was because she was writing for children. One doesn’t get too sexy while writing moral pap. But, remember her little homily in the chapter, “Surprises”? She instructs that those who don’t bother with romance “have missed out on the sweetest chapter of all”…now HOW WOULD SHE KNOW? Also, about my being so naïve: I always felt lovey-dovey a la Little Women towards older women—and it wasn’t about sex—but I had to learn to put the brakes on that because I found out that I was scaring them! I thought the prevailing attitude was pretty stupid, but I couldn’t do a thing about it because that was how most people thought…fueled by TV talk shows and other programs that began highlighting and pointing out every little affectionate behavior towards the same sex as “gay.”

    1. Louisa’s treatment of marriage in Little Women was actually pretty realistic (she obviously observed her sister Anna and John Pratt closely!). I was just disappointed that she skirted the relationship in Work which was definitely for adults.

  8. What a wonderful conversation! Being in my late sixties, I remember how tight our girlish friendships were, with no hint of sexuality at all. We snuggled together over stories, walked hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm and nobody raised an eyebrow. That changed a bit as boys entered the scene in our teens, but the lesbian question didn’t arise. (Perhaps I, too, was a bit naive…I recognized gay male relationships amongst my mother’s antique dealer friends, but was oblivious of a girl pal’s potentially romantic interest in me until someone else pointed it out years later.) Now after my second divorce and a combined total of 41 years of marriage, it is my very close female friendships that I cherish most and am strengthened by. As our world has become more and more electronic and hectic, those friendships offer islands of calm and caring. I suppose the bottom line for me regarding Louisa is this: Does it even matter whether she was lesbian or not? It doesn’t change the quality of her writing, the relevance of her stories, or her worth as a human being. Louisa is Louisa. – Fawn

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