Reaching Across Generations of Women: Louisa May Alcott’s Impact on Sylvia Plath

I am pleased to present a guest post by Julia Gordon-Bramer, a scholar of Sylvia Plath. This post is an excerpt from her upcoming book titled The Magician’s Girl: the Mysticism of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Bramer writes, “It is my goal to teach the world more about Plath’s transcendentalism, where it comes from, etc. Alcott was a small part of it!”

Personal connections

Before presenting Bramer’s post, I must share something. In emails back and forth with Julia, I found out that my path has crossed the path of Sylvia Plath’s in several places although not in the same time period. I grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts as did she. We both went to the same grammar school. We both attended Wellesley High School and had the privilege of being taught by Mr. Wilbury Crockett, Plath’s mentor. Furthermore, Plath lived on Elmwood Road, the same road where a brilliant musician (one of my all time favorites) who also died young, Mindy Jostyn (a classmate of mine at Wellesley High) lived.

Too many coincidences. Time for me to get to know Sylvia Plath! Here is the connection that Bramer draws between Plath and Alcott.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

To the writer Sylvia Plath, Louisa May Alcott was in her genes. On Plath’s mother’s side of the family, the Greenwoods and Schobers were a family of readers. As a young girl, Plath’s mother, Aurelia Schober, had inherited a treasured copy of the novel Little Women which had been annotated by the author, Louisa May Alcott. Alcott’s historic home, Orchard House, is only a half-hour away from Boston, Massachusetts, in Concord, and just fifteen minutes from Wellesley, where the Plath family eventually settled. The brown clapboard Orchard House, built in 1690, was the setting of Little Women. Between the convenience of its location and historical/literary importance of this national landmark, as well as their appreciation for Alcott’s work, the Schobers and Plaths were likely to have visited there.

As well-read as Plath was, and given her family history, it is unlikely that she did not read Little Women, although the only Louisa May Alcott book listed in Plath’s personal library is Eight Cousins or the Aunt-Hill, which we know she read in the sixth grade. She also read Invincible Louisa, a biography of Louisa May Alcott by Cornelia Meigs, in the eighth grade. The chances of her reading the lesser-known Eight Cousins without exploring Alcott’s most popular work are slim. We can also be sure that Sylvia Plath knew of the importance of the Orchard House as a historic landmark from Alice Dalgliesh’s children’s novel, The Silver Pencil (Puffin Newbery Library, 1944, p. 130). Plath read that book in December 1944 and again in August 1945, as noted in her childhood journals held in the Sylvia Plath archives of the Lilly Library, at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Jo March, drawn by Frank Merrill

The autobiographical novel Little Women, a coming-of-age story, was probably both Aurelia Plath’s and later, her daughter Sylvia’s, first introduction to both fictionalized memoir and the politics of feminism. Little Women’s beloved and feisty character “Jo,” modeled after the author, finds her place in the world through writing and literature.

It was surely noticed that Little Women is an interesting mirror of Aurelia Schober and Sylvia Plath’s life:  one might easily compare Alcott/Jo’s father, the fictional Robert March, to Aurelia’s father, Frank Schober. Both men were scholars and spiritual, loving and kind. In the novel, Jo meets and marries Friedrich (“Fritz”), a German professor much older than she, in a way that the younger Aurelia would repeat. Already middle-aged to Jo’s teen, Fritz is a penniless immigrant to America via New York, a master of languages, a writer, and “philosophically inclined.” Aurelia Schober married a Friedrich of her own in Otto Plath, Sylvia Plath’s father, who met this description perfectly.

Otto Plath, also like Mr. March in Little Women, spent most of his time recuperating from illness, or else he was away on scholarly endeavors.

Little Women explores ideas of transcendentalism because Alcott and her family had belonged to the historic Transcendental Club, now affiliated with the Unitarian church that would become the spiritual home for the Plaths. Members of the original Transcendental Club included literary luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau.

The Little Women-reading Aurelia Schober came of age during the women’s suffrage movement, when twenty million American women were denied the right to vote under President Wilson’s administration. Suffragettes of the time called the president “Kaiser Wilson” in a parody of Germany’s emotionally unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II, and they likened American women to “poor Germans” who were not allowed the liberty to be “self-governed.” Aurelia Schober, bearing the double curse of being both a German during the World Wars, and a woman in her Irish-Catholic neighborhood, felt the social and political sting.

With so much new information coming out on Sylvia Plath over the last few years, between details of her abuse and many unpublished letters since girlhood, readers can see Plath’s forced suppression of the negative, and the perpetual smiles that might have been the reason she snapped. She had learned it from history, from her American culture, and from her literature. Readers of The Letters of Sylvia Plath might easily believe that these words by Alcott were Plath’s own:

“I am angry nearly every day of my life, but I have learned not to show it; and I still try to hope not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do it. … I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips, and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked.”

– Mother (“Marmee”) March to Jo, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. Chapter 8: “Jo Meets Apollyon.”

Plath’s mother Aurelia Schober may or may not have been conscious of her own emerging feminine independence, but her actions echoed the changing beliefs of the times, and these ideas would later influence her future daughter, Sylvia Plath. And books like Alcott’s Little Women, Dalgliesh’s The Silver Pencil, and many others, would have eerie similarities with Plath’s life and lessons to shape this great author’s life forever.

About the author

Julia Gordon-Bramer is the author of Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (2014, Stephen F. Austin State University Press), the Decoding Sylvia Plath series (Magi Press) and the forthcoming The Magician’s Girl: The Mysticism of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, from which this article is excerpted. For more information, visit www.juliagordonbramer.com.

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4 Replies to “Reaching Across Generations of Women: Louisa May Alcott’s Impact on Sylvia Plath”

  1. Cant wait to read the book. Taught Plath and Hughes poetry as comparison texts until this academic year. When I was last in Swampscott I took a walk and found where Plath would have babysat the Mayo children. NE is so steeped in literary heritage which speaks to women…. Perhaps there is a bit of Jo and Marmee still in all of us. Theres a line in the Plath film where she says something along the lines of, “But what about me? What about my writing?” I suspect that it is a question women still have to negotiate.

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