I am pleased to present this guest post by Elizabeth Hilprecht, a regular reader whose insightful comments you have most likely read. We have been having a wonderful email chat back and forth about Daniel Shealy’s Little Women Abroad and I asked her if she would share some of the wonderful stories taken from letters to home written by Louisa May Alcott and her sister May describing their European exploits. She graciously accepted.
Little Women Abroad is a valuable book including a lengthy introduction, seventy one letters from Louisa and May (with fifty eight published for the first time) and many pages of drawings by May Alcott. Daniel Shealy’s scholarship is impeccable. Besides the colorful stories are letters about the death of John Pratt and the grief experienced by the sisters and business correspondences between “Jo” and “Tom” (Louisa and Thomas Niles, her publisher).
Little Women Abroad also provides a valuable look into the world of two independent and successful sisters (one already established and the other on the cusp) providing a bird’s eye view of Europe in the nineteenth century. We are indeed fortunate that the Alcott family so valued letter writing; Bronson in particular felt that letters should be saved and savored — he ended up transcribing all the letters sent to him and Abba during the daughters’ first year in Europe.
Here are some of Elizabeth’s initial thoughts.
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The letters from Louisa and May back home to Concord and Boston while they were abroad in 1870-1871 contain a wealth of information for anyone who loves to hear of the adventures and observations of “Jo” and “Amy.”
Who was the tallest?
An interesting piece of trivia for starters is May’s height. Other sources had said she was described as being taller than her sisters. In a letter to her sister Anna from France, May laments the smallness of her bed, such that “five foot eight has to lie diagonally across it, or not at all.” (Pages 71-72).
I always thought Louisa would be the tallest, because that’s how Jo was described in Little Women … but various accounts mentioned elsewhere put Louisa at 5’6″.
Height trivia aside, we learn from these letters that “Amy” was every bit as adventurous as “Jo.” Take for instance her description of herself and Miss Lena Warren crossing the Simplon Pass, high in the Alps near the Italian border. The weather was wretched: cold with a pounding rain, thunder and lightning, and up the mountain they went in an unsteady buggy, pulled by a mule with one driver. They were soaked to the skin and spent the night hosted by a priest at a hospice near the Pass at an elevation of 8110 feet. May endured a lot of mud and floodwater and could have lost her life in order to climb the mountain, see the Pass, and take a 10-minute walk into Italy. (Pages 132-137.)
May wrote to her sister Anna from Bex, Switzerland that she was perfectly used to poking around in strange cities by herself (page 161) in reference to making a 4-1/2+ hour trip sailing to Geneva to look for six suitable rooms for herself, Louisa, their companion Alice Bartlett and some of Alice’s cousins. May usually did all the legwork because Louisa’s bones often ached and she couldn’t take the drive, and thus would stay at their pension and relax (page 28).
One would never think the idea of cigarettes and Little Women would go together, but we have Louisa in a letter from Vevey telling her parents, of all people, that she and May and their companion, Alice Bartlett, really were enjoying their new rooms at Pension Paradis and had delightful little parties in their house coats, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. (page 185.)
Probably nobody ever entertained the idea of Little Women and depilatories in the same thought either, but they must have used them, because on page 58 Lu says in a letter to Anna, that May “is growing a moustache, as it is the fashion here, for most of the women have ’em and some wear full beards.” I have to wonder whether Anna was scandalized or whether she’d have preferred to leave such American strivings behind and join her sisters.
May in particular had a problem with the food aboard ship and in France. From Dinan barely a month into their trip she wrote, “Alice and I were weighed to day (sic) and great was my surprise that in all my thick things I only come up to 122 lbs—just the same as Alice who seems so much smaller. It is less than I have ever weighed before—the smallest within a year or two, bring 139. However I suppose the voyage took off a good deal of flesh, though I was’nt (sic) sick but two days.” (Page 42.) Louisa had observed that neither she nor May liked brains and tripe.
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I am working on Elizabeth to share more. Have you read Little Women Abroad? Do you have stories to share? What did you think? Please share with your comments.
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