Sibling rivalry – did “Little Women” spur May on to success?

In reading through the large collection of letters and journal entries I have from Alcott family members, it occurred to me that with a few exceptions, the sisters did not disparage one another. This is remarkable since sibling rivalry and age differences can present many challenges. Since any show of anger was frowned upon in the Alcott home, the girls had to find other stealth ways to work out any negative feelings.

Demanding little sister

There were certainly occasions when criticism was warranted. The most striking example was a letter from Anna during the crucial period of Elizabeth’s illness describing Abby May’s “demands.” Letters at this time were flying back and forth between the daughters and the parents as to where they should live:

Abby says, By all means find a house in or near Boston within walking distance as her drawing and music are the only friend she cares for; that this winter if of the utmost importance to her, and she wishes to be there most decidedly but — if it can’t be, Concord Village is next best and if any chance for teaching should offer these, she will consent to go. She wishes to say that she has made a solemn vow not to touch a pencil, crayon, or paint brush till she is well, that she shant go to school, study or do anything till Dr. Geist has cured her. That she is tired of being sick, & determined to get well immediately, & that Mother must command the Dr. to send her a stock of medicine directly with full directions for its use, that she may spend her time in getting well all ready for the winter campaign. She is willing to be guided, but can’t give up her drawing, & strongly inclines to the city, as of course we all do in our hearts, tho our better judgment advises the country. (Unpublished letter by Anna Alcott to Bronson Alcott September 10, 1857)

Anna never called out her sister for her selfishness. Note too however that she did not whitewash her sister’s words. This is why I call Anna the family secretary — she simply recorded what transpired, making her letters some of the most valuable (along with the fact that they are easy to read!).

from Houghton Library Amos Bronson Alcott papers MS Am 1130.9 (27)

Since Louisa had the hardest time controlling her feelings, there were occasional slips either against Anna or Abby  May. She wrote this to her mother:

I hardly dare to speak to Annie for fear she should speak unkindly and get me angry. O she is very very cross I cannot love her it seems as though she did every thing to trouble me but I will try to love her better. (from the Fruitlands display, Fruitlands Museum)

from the Fruitlands display, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, MA

In her younger years she was hard on herself whenever she was mean to any other family member:

Sunday, 24th. I was cross to-day, and I cried when I went to bed. I make good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I shall be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so am very bad. (September 24, 1843, pg. 45, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott)

Every now and then she’d take a jab at Abby May: “Ab doing nothing but grow.” (1852 “Notes and Memoranda, pg. 68 Journals)

Expressing herself through fiction

There may have been no outward disparaging but the typical tensions between big sister and little sister were described for all to see in Little Women with Louisa’s portrayal of Amy. I had always wondered how May must have felt seeing her first portrayed as selfish and spoiled, and later, giving up on her dream of being an artist.

In Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, (see review) Jeannine Atkins granted my wish. She imagined May’s growing resentment as Louisa read pages from Little Women out loud to the family. One episode in particular was stinging:

One evening, her hand tightened on her pen as Louisa read an episode in which the youngest sister shoved a manuscript into the fireplace. May cried, ‘I would never burn your work! I was the one who encouraged you to write this novel!’

‘I told you, it’s a story.’

‘Even if you didn’t use the scrambled version of my name, don’t you think people will recognize the niminy-piminy chit with her wretched attempts to burn images on wood with a hot poker?’

‘I’ll make it up to you.’ (pg. 140)

Big sister, baby sister

Concord Sketches from AbeBooks.com

Atkins also imagined the scene where May received the first copy of her book called Concord Sketches (containing twelve sketches of Concord landmarks) and her reaction to reading the preface written by her now-famous sister Louisa. In part it read,

These sketches, from a student’s portfolio, claim no merit as works of art, but are only valuable as souvenirs, which owe their chief charm to the associations that surround them, rather than to any success in the execution of a labor of love, prompted by the natural desire to do honor to one’s birthplace.” (Concord Public Library Special Collections).

May Alcott, Still Life with Bottle, 1877. Oil on canvas. Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, Orchard House, Concord.

May was no quitter despite the fact that Louisa failed to take her seriously. I submit that the combination of Amy March and the preface written for Concord Sketches drove her all the more to prove herself as worthy of the same crown Louisa now wore. I can imagine May remembering these incidents as she relished over her triumph over her painting being accepted into the prestigious Paris Salon:

My dear Marmee’s heart will be delighted to hear that my little picture is accepted at the great Salon exhibition, where from 8500 works sent in, only 2000 were accepted, and mine was thought worthy a place among the best. Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.” (pg. 182 May Alcott a Memoir by Caroline Ticknor)

Payback was sweet. And the best part was by that time, Louisa had come to appreciate her baby sister’s many talents and virtues. They were to become close in later life until they were separated by May’s untimely death. In appreciation of May, Louisa wrote  Diana and Persis but was unable to finish due to her grief. (see previous blog post)

ADDENDUM: I was discussing this letter from Anna with a friend just now and I was reminded that although May was 18, she had been sheltered by the family and perhaps was not as mature at 18 as say Louisa was (who I believe was an old soul in a young body). As this sickness was a first for all of them, it might have been more difficult for May to process. She and Lizzie had been inseparable as children and even in Boston until May went to school. I did always think she was trying to protect herself from a truly horrendous situation which might explain her tone in that stanza I quoted.

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11 thoughts on “Sibling rivalry – did “Little Women” spur May on to success?

  1. Kristi Martin says:

    I’m reading Louisa’s words about May’s sketches and wondering how much they might be owing to a literary convention to diminish one’s own work and humbly present it to the public rather than her actual assessment of May’s art.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Good point! Louisa also admitted to having no knowledge or appreciation for art so that could have contributed to it as well. Would it have been considered less than humble to praise the skill of her sister? Maybe that lack of knowledge of art made it impossible for her to do so legitimately. Interesting!

  2. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    Absolutely great post! I would love to see more of Anna’s unpublished letters in your posts as, as I believe I said, they are quite pale and hard to read online. Was May herself ill at the time that letter was written? Because Anna doesn’t mention Lizzie’s name.

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

  3. Thank you for this! I agree that the combination of sisterly love and various kinds of ambition helped create some extraordinary art. Competition doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The end of your piece is so poignant to me – so wish there had been more time.

    I do so Kristi’s point above, though she is more generous than me. I think LMA had the vocabulary of humility, which May rejected (I kind of love her boasting!), so she might have read her sister’s words as they were not intended. Thanks for all!

    • susanwbailey says:

      Yes, sounds like there was a misunderstanding there, almost a generational thing since May was part of that more modern post Civil War generation. With eight years between them, Louisa often acted more like her mother than her sister.

  4. kathleenconnolly says:

    I too would love to see more of Anna’s letters! Are they available in published form anywhere?

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