Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark

The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role models.

alcott family horiz

Role reversal

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House
Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

To begin with, Bronson’s refusal or inability to work to support his family necessitated that his wife Abba take on the breadwinner role. When her health began to suffer, Louisa took over, spending the rest of her life keeping that “Alcott Sinking Fund” (as she dubbed it) afloat, sacrificing artistic growth, independence and her own health.

Career minded

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter
from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

The Alcott daughters were educated and well read. They were encouraged to think, to create, to pursue their dreams. Abba wanted to be sure her girls could support themselves. Both parents encouraged the girls in their career interests with the results being Louisa becoming a best selling author and youngest sister May realizing some success as accomplished painter before she died prematurely.

Run, jump, play!

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard
drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Physical activity was very much the norm. The girls were allowed to play like boys, running and jumping, talking long hikes into the woods, playing into the mud and coming home dirty. Louisa writes about her many hair-raising escapades in “Poppy’s Pranks” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag Volume IV. Louisa and May, being the most physically robust of the sisters, continued with physical activity into their adulthood: Louisa took daily runs while May went rowing and horseback riding.

Romance and marriage

Unlike most Victorian parents, Bronson and Abba did not pressure their daughters to marry. Louisa, of course, never took the plunge nor did she consider it even though she had a romance with a man several years her junior in Europe known as Ladislas Wisniewski (although the nature of that romance is in question–see previous post). Despite herself, she did receive at least one marriage proposal.

alcotts as I knew them coverThere are few references even to romance when the sisters were of traditional marrying age. Anna appears to have had some sort of relationship while teaching in Syracuse but she was ultimately rejected. Louisa wrote a single cryptic line in her journal in 1853 about her seventeen-year-old sister Lizzie having a romance with “C.” Clara Gowing, in her book The Alcotts as I Knew Them described it as “A little affair of the heart about that time, which did not meet the approval of her parents …”  May, a flirtatious sort, was the one sister who had many flings, most notably with next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne.

Marriage as rebellion

Pratt-2528Only two of the daughters married and both rather late. Anna married John Pratt when she twenty-nine. In a sense, she rebelled against her family’s unconventional lifestyle, preferring to start a family of her own. She was happily married to John for ten years before he tragically died; they had two sons.

May the cougar?

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com
courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

May too, rebelled in a sense, opting to remain permanently in Europe rather than being near her family. Career was first and she had rightly determined that she could not become a great artist without living in Europe. She then married a man considerably younger than herself (and successfully lied about her age – the wrong age is on her death certificate since husband Ernest Nieriker provided the information.).

Motherhood

from alcott.net
from alcott.net

May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.

The right to vote

And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.

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8 Replies to “Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark”

  1. Great post! In a way I’m glad for May that she was able to break away since she wasn’t interested anyhow in her parents’ circle of friends and ideas. After doing some more reading, I do conclude that Bronson was a genius, and way ahead of his time, but it was unfortunate that it kept him from being a provider to his family. It has often been said that there is a fine hairline between genius and mental illness. I think Abba really recognized his genius, or she wouldn’t have been able to go on as she did….she was a genius in her own way, just knowing that she was enabling a genius. Richard Wagner was another 19th century genius who felt that the world owed him a living. If Bronson had had any other wife, he wouldn’t have had the same effect on following generations.

    1. I agree, you need the right partner for sure if you’re going to have one. I do think Bronson was a genius but he was very flawed as well. It frankly makes him one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever studied. I just got out of the library two bios on Bronson, “Pedlar’s Progress” by Odell Shepherd (about time I read that one, right? ;-)) and Amos Bronson Alcott by Frederick Dahlstrand, written in the 1980s.

      1. Wonderful reading, I’m sure. Yes, geniuses do have their personality disorders and it’s often better if they are not married. Cases in point: Wagner, Beethoven…can you imagine how awful it would have been to be married to either one? Franz Liszt? And look at the volatile marriage Frida Kahlo had. 😦

  2. What age was on May’s death certificate?

    On Wed, May 18, 2016 at 6:03 AM, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion wrote:

    > susanwbailey posted: “The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be > sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as > to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role > models. Role reversal To begin with, Bronson’s r” >

      1. You’re right. In Little Woman in Blue, she told him she was 32 when she was 37. I wonder what her passport said…or weren’t they as particular back then?

        On Sat, May 21, 2016 at 6:22 AM, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion wrote:

        > susanwbailey commented: “You caught me, I can’t remember where I saw it. > May was 39 when she died, one year after marrying Ernest; I believe she > told him she was 33 when they married.” >

      2. Stumbling across their passports would be an interesting find! (-:

        On Sun, May 22, 2016 at 8:53 AM, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion wrote:

        > susanwbailey commented: “No idea. :-)” > Respond to this comment by replying above this line > > New comment on *Louisa May Alcott is My Passion > * > > > > *susanwbailey* commented > > on Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark > . > > > in response to *Elizabeth Hilprecht*: > > You’re right. In Little Woman in Blue, she told him she was 32 when she > was 37. I wonder what her passport said…or weren’t they as particular back > then? On Sat, May 21, 2016 at 6:22 AM, Louisa May Alcott is My Passi

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