Eve LaPlante’s ancestral link with the Alcotts extends to readers of Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother a unique and intimate connection to this family. In the introduction, she mentions a trunk in her attic, passed down by an aunt. Although it and other treasures have been in the attic for decades, LaPlante was not drawn to it until a few years ago.
LaPlante comes from a long line of distinguished historical figures, two of which she has written about: Anne Hutchinson (American Jezebel), and Judge Samuel Sewall (Salem Witch Judge). Now she would turn to the Alcotts. Related to the family through Louisa May Alcott’s uncle on her mother’s side (the Reverend Samuel Joseph May), LaPlante had in her possession letters, books and other memorabilia that would help her reconstruct the story of a woman who loomed large in the life of Louisa May Alcott: Abigail May Alcott, known from Little Women as Marmee.
The first piece she found was a book with an inscription by “Louie,” dated June 21, 1855 to George May, son of the Reverend May. “Louie” was the boyish nickname given to Louisa in her childhood. She was living Walpole, NH in 1855 where she and older sister Anna would triumph as actresses in the town’s theatricals.
Other items in the trunk included “feathered ladies’ hats and a nineteenth-century quilt,” and packets of letters tied with ribbon, yellowed and brittle due to age, along with books and a bible. Yet another trunk contained letters from Charlotte May, the older sister of George, born a few months apart from Louisa. The two shared a close relationship with Louisa referring to her cousin as her “sister-in-love.” The letters described the escapades of the two teenage girls in Syracuse in the late 1840s.
What compelled LaPlante to write about Abba?
Such discoveries inspired LaPlante to read Louisa’s letters, journals and adult works. It was here where she came across the paradox that would compel her to write her book about the woman behind Louisa May Alcott’s success. Despite stories of Louisa and her father Bronson destroying Abba’s papers, LaPlante discovered journal entries along with a 36-year-long correspondence between Abba and the Reverend May (“Samuel Joseph”), her older brother and lifelong confidant. All are housed at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Other papers survive in the May collection housed at Cornell University. Even a local historian in Maine had letters Abba had written to his great-grandmother.
Despite the fact that women were barely mentioned in the public sphere beyond birth, marriage and death, here was a wealth of material from which LaPlante could tell the story of one nineteenth century woman who did not fade away into obscurity. LaPlante contends that it was she more than Louisa’s father Bronson who inspired her daughter not only to write but to become an entrepreneur as a writer. Louisa’s staggering success as a bestselling author is largely due to Abba Alcott.
Encountering historical figures
In reading the introduction to Marmee and Louisa I recalled how I felt after reading many of the letters and journal entries of Alcott family members at Houghton. Seeing the handwriting; knowing that the paper had been handled by iconic historical figures produced an immediate and intimate connection. These people became real, like long lost relatives of mine. It’s that kind of intimacy that makes Marmee and Louisa such a powerful read.
- How instrumental do you think Abba Alcott was in Louisa’s life? Why?
- How do you feel when you read old letters and diaries from long dead family members? If you have had the opportunity to read letters from the Alcotts, what was your reaction?
- What do you hope to learn about Abba Alcott?
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