Petition drive begun for a memorial plaque for May Alcott Nieriker

I have gotten to know some amazing people through this blog; one of them is a young British scholar, Azelina Flint. Like many of us, she is fascinated by May Alcott. And like us, she is grieved that May was eventually buried in an unmarked common grave just outside of Paris (see previous post).

That, now, will hopefully change.

And you can make it happen!

Azelina has begun a drive to petition officials for an official plaque to be displayed at the Montrouge Cemetery acknowledging May Alcott Nieriker.

She has created a short video about the drive and May’s legacy:

Here’s how you can help.

  1. Sign the petition. 
  2. Spread the word! Share the petition on social media with the #don’t_forget_May.
  3. Follow Azelina on Twitter at @Don’t_forget_May and retweet any tweets you see on the petition.
  4. Share this blog post along with the previous post about the story behind May’s buriel.
    Link for this post:
    https://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/2017/10/09/petition-drive-begun-for-a-memorial-plaque-for-may-alcott
    Link for May’s buriel:
    https://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/2011/11/02/in-search-of-may-alcott-nieriker/

I will keep you posted as to the results.

International forum on May Alcott Nieriker in the works!

Universite Paris Diderot (Wikipedia Commons)

Azelina has also secured funding to convene an international conference on May at Universite Paris Diderot for June of 2018. There’ll be a panel on May’s influence on Louisa’s writing. I will let you know of the particulars as I hear of them.

The year 2018 is looking more and more exciting! Don’t forget to Sign the petition and share, share, share!

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As the Masterpiece Theater production of Little Women approaches, a key question is posed

We just passed the 149th anniversary of the publication
of part one of Little Women.

Happy Anniversary!

And we have an exciting year ahead of us, particularly with the three-part Masterpiece Theater production of Little Women coming up in the Spring (with Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House acting as consultant!).

In anticipation, the producers put together a podcast of various women answering the all-important question: What does Little Women mean to you?

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/podcasts/bonus-what-little-women-means-to-you/

Take a listen and then share your thoughts — what does Little Women mean to you?

I know for me, Louisa May Alcott changed my life for the better in so many ways (with Little Women being an important element). I grew up with tomboy Louy; a grown-up Louisa guided me through my artistic life, and muse Louisa guides me in my writing. Alcott’s amazing candor and authentic feel for all aspects of life continues to touch me every day.

How about you? Share your thoughts …

p.s. I just started listening to Jo’s Boys and would love to start up a discussion on this last book of the series. Chapter 3 in particular amazed me …

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You can never tour Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House too many times

Recently I took in a tour of Orchard House (I’ve lost count how many times I’ve toured this wonderful home) and learned some fascinating new information with regards to the renovations made to the house.

Merging the main house with a cottage

The tour guide disclosed information from the Fox family whose ancestors had owned the cottage that had been on the property of Orchard House, and which Bronson merged with the home. The kitchen and 3/4 of the dining room along with May’s bedroom was part of this separate cottage which Alcott and Thoreau pushed down on logs over snow to attach to the main house.

I had noticed that the ceiling beams of the dining room encompassed 3/4 of the room; the rest of the room had been a porch that was enclosed to finish off the room. Bronson then installed the back staircase to May’s bedroom. As I am in the middle of reading a fascinating essay entitled “‘A Power in the House'” — Little Women and the Architecture of Individual Expression by David Watters” (found in Little Women and the Feminist Imagination edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark)) and which describes how the layout and architecture of Orchard House (especially Bronson’s renovations) influences the members of the March family, I found this tour particularly timely! Kudos to Nancy (whom I am guessing was a well-loved teacher in her day) for a wonderful tour!

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May Alcott’s call to the creative life is our call

I had the pleasure last night of attending a presentation by Elise Hooper regarding her new book, The Other Alcott (see previous post for review). Among the many interesting aspects of her talk was the idea of women and artistry and the difficulty in claiming your vocation as an artist.

May’s dilemma

Elise pointed out that what made May’s story particularly interesting to her was the fact that May was not overshadowed by a man but by another woman, and her own sister to boot! Hooper recalled chapter one of The Other Alcott in which Little Women is published to rave reviews for the writing while the illustrations are roundly panned. As the baby sister seeking not only to emerge from her sister’s shadow but also to be taken seriously for her own talent, the public’s response to her drawings must have been humiliating.

This episode sets up the dual premise of the book – claiming ownership of one’s creativity, and sibling rivalry.

A great challenge

Elise spoke at length of the obstacles that women in the nineteenth century faced in fulfilling vocations that fell outside of wife and mother. While women of today certainly have an easier time pursuing careers, we know that with all the hats we have to wear it still is a tremendous challenge.

Learning to own it

Elise and I spent a lovely dinner together before the presentation to discuss this subject. We both admitted to the difficulty of claiming the title of “writer” and “artist.” It was so much easier to say we were craftsmen, something that she pointed out to me as I explained why I often don’t consider myself to be a “true” writer because I am not compelled to write for its own sake, but rather, to use writing as a tool to speak to things I care about (and in that respect, it is a compulsion). She then gently pointed out how I was viewing my writing as a craft rather than art and she is right. I went on to explain how I love the editing process best where I think of myself as a potter with clay, shaping the meaning, tweaking the words, and infusing a bit of poetry into the prose. After I shared that with her, we both agreed it was in fact, art.

Spokesperson for May

Along with Elise’s love of the Alcotts, her own background as an Art History major, amateur painter and high school teacher of English and History uniquely qualifies her to explore May’s life through the vehicle of fiction. There was an infectious nature to her presentation that told me this story was her own as well in many ways. It’s a universal theme highlighted in The Other Alcott.

Sisterhood

The book and our encounter reminded me of a common phenomenon in Louisa’s books – the sisterhood. We think first of the March sisters in Little Women and how each of them had her specific role to play in the development of the other three. We recall Polly Milton (An Old-Fashioned Girl) and her sisterhood of poor, single, working women and how their purpose-filled lives shaped Fanny’s growth into a useful and contented woman. And then there is Christy Devon (Work: A Story of Experience) who emerges from the grief she suffered due to the loss of her husband to create a supportive group of women meant to build each other up so as to reach out to others in the world.

I am reminded of such a sisterhood every time I get together with other Alcott enthusiasts. I see the wonderful support given to each member of our group (whether it is here on the blog or at gatherings such as the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House) as we pursue our creative vocations. I know I would be nowhere in my writing were it not for the support I have received especially through the Louisa May Alcott Society along with this blog community.

And this, in part, I think, explains the continuing appeal of Louisa May Alcott. The themes she espoused in her writings some 150 years ago still resonate with women today despite all the changes in our world. Some things, fortunately, never change.

 

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Book Review: The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper (@elisehooper) | Twitter

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from the author for review purposes.

Lounging on my wicker love seat with the koi pond (and its sprinkling fountain) in view,  I had a most enjoyable summer read with The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott by Elise Hooper.

May Alcott fleshed out

Abigail May Alcott, the prototype for Amy March in Little Women comes across in this debut novel by Hooper as vivacious, ambitious and thoughtful, struggling to be seen in her own right as an artistic talent as well as a viable, caring woman. Living in the shadow of her famous (and older by eight years) sister Louisa, May encounters the problems of all the “babies” in families: that of being taken seriously.

Sibling rivalry

The book opens with the family receiving the first reviews of Little Women including the less than sterling comments about May’s illustrations. Devastated, May attempts to hide her shame from Louisa who, in typical older sisterly fashion, minimizes the critique commenting,

“I know it must be a bit of a shock since everything always seems to go your way, but you’ll recover. Somehow I always do.”

She then abruptly changes the subject, asking about May’s current beau, Joshua Bishop. After everyone has left the house, May tears apart her sketchbook and burns the pages in frustration.

This incident sets up the core of the novel: the tension between sisters who are similar in temperament, and the younger sister’s feelings about achieving her ambition and proving herself to her family.

Genuine struggles

In reading May Alcott’s letters, one gets the sense that she did not grapple from angst.  More guarded and perhaps less introspective than Anna and Louisa, she kept up a cheerful facade. One forgets that she too had her inner struggles. Hooper does a good job of imagining May’s doubts, regrets and struggles. She comes across as well-rounded, real and very likeable.

For example we see May galled over her portrayal in Little Women as the selfish, vane and pretentious Amy. Her anger is soothed by sketching:

“When she sketched, it felt as though she had a fever, a good fever, a fever that warmed her insides and made the rest of the world melt away …”

In the midst of that pleasure, she knows it’s make or break time:

“If she stopped creating, what was left? A slow slide into spinsterhood? She’d be stuck in Concord forever … She needed her art …”

Art, love and sacrifice

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

Pursuing art as a profession required sacrifice especially when it came to relationships. Joshua Bishop, her love interest, is charming, wealthy and kind; if May had truly been Amy March, he would have been her Laurie. But May knew Joshua could not abide her artistic ambition. This set up her relationship with future husband Ernest Nieriker towards the end of the book, one of my favorite parts. Ernest comes to life as charming and thoughtful with a keen sense of fun. As a talented musician he can empathize with May’s artistic self. Hooper presents a deeper and more realistic relationship than what we can gather from May’s letters to the family.

Sisters, sisters …

The most complex was her relationship with Louisa, the older sister, the family breadwinner and May’s  only means of support. Louisa, who was temperamental, often condescending and jealous of May’s streak of supposed “good luck.” Hooper paints their relationship as close but difficult at times — a portrayal of competing siblings who love each and their their family deeply.

Europe and professional growth

Self portrait by Mary Cassatt – IAHLQ-4ePxivhw at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain

Hooper describes the course of May’s art education in Europe, again providing the struggle that was missing from May’s accounts to her family. There were times when being the sister of the world famous Louisa May Alcott was costly as May discovers in one escapade with an instructor. May’s budding relationships with other professional women artists (including Mary Cassatt) were especially satisfying; Hooper employed these relationships well to explore the world of professional art for women. These relationships would enable May to find the confidence to pursue her art without her sister’s help.

Writer’s choice

Hooper takes editorial liberty with facts in order to craft a better story, and she explains her choices at the end of the novel. I would highly recommend reading her comments before embarking on the book so as to take that liberty with her. Hooper’s choices are logical, making for a more compelling read.

Weak ending

As much as I loved The Other Alcott, I was disappointed with the ending. I became quite involved with May and knowing how the story actually ended, prepared myself for a good cry. That did not happen. I don’t want to completely spoil the ending but suffice it to say that I did not find it satisfying.

Recommended reading

That being said, I still highly recommend The Other Alcott. It reads quickly, sweeping you into May Alcott’s world of nineteenth century art, love, Europe and Louisa May Alcott. I will remember it fondly as the first book I read on my new patio in front of the koi pond — a fitting way to break in my new favorite reading place.

 

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A rare look at Louisa May Alcott’s life as an invalid and a patient

You never know what you will find out from a librarian. Or where research will lead you. That’s what makes it so addictive.

The Alcotts and Homeopathy

My research on Elizabeth Alcott has recently led me into the world of alternative medicine. The Alcotts were followers of Homeopathy, a popular alternative to traditional medicine in the nineteenth century founded by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician. Transcendentalists were among the earliest advocates of Homeopathy as opposed to Allopathy (traditional medicine). In her book, A Vital Force: Women in American Homeopathy, Anne Taylor Kirschmann writes,

“Many were attracted to Hahnemann’s metaphysical view of disease causality, his emphasis on the connection of mind and body in healing, and his insistence that only the spirit-like activity of mediinal substance (rather than the material drug) would influence a disordered spirit — the root cause of all disease.” (page 31)

Homeopathy, unlike Allopathy, was based on the premise that “like cures like.” Tiny doses of natural remedies first increase the symptoms but then cure the disease. The Alcotts turned to Hahnemann’s book, Organon of the Healing Art to treat small pox in 1850 and scarlet fever in 1856. Lizzie’s final physician, Dr. Christian Geist, was a homeopathic practitioner.

Alcott collections across the country

I discovered that along with Louisa May Alcott, many suffragettes supported homeopathy. This led me to send an inquiry to a professor I found online who had written on homeopathy. While he was not able to help, he referred me to a reference librarian at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library of Yale University who sent me many fascinating links to places around the country that contain archives related to the Alcotts. Along with the well-known collections at Harvard University in Cambridge and the New York Public Library are collections at the University of Virginia and Brigham Young University. In fact, much of Madeleine B. Stern’s research is found at Brigham Young.

Here is the link to the various archives.

A previously unpublished story

Now for my discovery. Brigham Young has a previously unpublished story by Louisa May Alcott written near the end of her life when she was living in the nursing home of Dr. Rhoda Lawrence, also a homeopathic practitioner. Called “A Free Bed,” it includes an introduction and notes by Madeleine Stern. Brigham Young University published a limited number of copies of the story (350 to be exact), each bound with twine and printed on handmade paper. And, each edition is numbered. I was able to acquire copy number 114 on Amazon for a good price.

Stern’s notes describe how the manuscript was found and authenticated. Discovered along with numerous letters in the 1960s in the attic of a Wellesley, Massachusetts home (the town I grew up in and now work in), the home had belonged to the daughter of a Boston minister who published and edited a religious periodical. Stern speculated that the manuscript might have been submitted for publication in his magazine.

Sterns describes the manuscript as a minor story consisting of 11-1/2 pages. It is initialed “L.M.A.” at the end. As of 1978, a printed version of “A Free Bed” had not been located.

How the manuscript was authenticated

Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (from Wikipedia)

Sterns went on to write that the story, although undated, can be traced to the end of Louisa’s life thanks to a reference to a “Dr. Z” in the manuscript. “Dr. Z” turned out to be Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska, founder of the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She was connected to Dr. Rhoda Lawrence when the hospital was moved to Roxbury in 1872 where Dr. Lawrence’s rest home would be located.

Dr. Zakrzewska was also well known to Ednah Dow Cheney who served on the board of directors of the hospital along with Louisa’s cousin, Samuel E. Sewell.

Converting her life to fiction

Stern describes “A Free Bed” as a “static” story with no real plot, calling it rather “an emotional and ethical profession.” It consists of a conversation between two women at a hospital, one who is lamenting her condition, and the other, offering hope through a life filled with purpose. The story gives us a glimpse into Louisa’s life as a patient and her struggle to maintain a purposeful life despite being plagued by ailments and pain.

Stern shared a passage from a letter from Louisa describing how she converted her life into fiction:

“Any paper, any pen, any place that is quiet suit me … Now … I can write by two hours a day … While a story is underway I live in it, see the people, more plainly than real ones, round me, hear them talk.” (page 3, Introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, “A Free Bed” by Louisa May Alcott).

Madeline B. Stern as a young woman

Parallels to real life

I immediately saw the parallel between the two characters, Mrs. Moody and Mrs. Cheerable, and Jo and Beth / Louisa and Lizzie. Louisa often said that Lizzie was her spiritual guide and I knew that her sister’s influence was best revealed in her writing. Louisa, like Lizzie, became an invalid and suffered greatly from her illness. She had been most impressed by Lizzie’s even temperament and her industry. Mrs. Cheerable described little gifts that she made for patients she had “adopted” from a free bed she endowed to the hospital. She sought to convince Mrs. Moody of the benefits of focusing on others as a means of coping with one’s own suffering. In typical Lizzie style, Mrs. Cheerable empathized with the patients who shared her free bed; she was not afraid to become emotionally involved even though the sick person might not recover. By the end of the story, Mrs. Moody agreed to visit the current occupant of the free bed because of Mrs. Cheerable’s admiration of the woman’s attitude and courage.

I have a dear elderly friend whom I visit every week who in every way is Mrs. Cheerable. I have known my friend for seven years and during that time I have taken copious mental notes of how she deals with her illness. No matter how poorly she feels, she rises every morning with purpose.

Louisa struggled to imitate her saintly sister in the hopes of better coping with her many ailments. Her moody temperament made it that much harder to do so. Always an Alcott however, she was resilient and tenacious. “A Free Bed” assured me that no matter how much she suffered, Louisa May Alcott faced her fate with grace.

Thank you to Brigham Young University, Madeleine Stern and the Wellesley woman who found the manuscript for giving us yet another glimpse into the life, mind and heart of Louisa May Alcott.

 

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Summer Conversational Series 2017 at Orchard House wrap-up

As promised, here is a summary of the Summer Conversational Series presented between July 16 and the 20th. The theme this year is “‘Noble Companions and Immortable Labors'” the Alcotts, Thoreaus, and the Quest for Social Justice.”

Lis Adams, Education Director of Orchard House

I was only able to attend two sessions, on Tuesday and Wednesday. At the end of this post is a link to my notes from the presentations. Unfortunately my evil tablet did not properly save my notes from Wednesday so I only have notes from the first presentation of that day. I tried to summarize the other two and provided links for further information.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Orchard House, could not be with us this year as she is in Ireland acting as consultant to the new BBC Little Women series. Education Director Lis Adams did a wonderful job of running the series and introduced the speakers.

On Tuesday the presentations included:

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Cathlin Davis “From Story to Action: Social Justice in Louisa May Alcott’s Fiction”
Dr. Davis is the leading expert on Louisa’s juvenile tales. She led us through a series of stories that outlined Louisa’s approach to social justice, an approach which is just as timely today as illustrated through an organization she highlighted, The Heifer Project.

Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters

Gabrielle Donnelly “Bread, Roses, and One-Liners:
Jokes and Feminism from Louisa May Alcott to Tina Fey”

Ms. Donnelly’s presentation was thought-provoking as well as humerous as she linked together feminism and humor (just as Louisa did; she cited an example of Jo March in Little Women). What made the presentation particularly interesting was the fact that one of the attendees is a standup comedienne who performed for many years in Las Vegas with headlines such as Wayne Newton. She provided many colorful stories.

Gabrielle based on her presentation on a song called “Bread and Roses” (she asked me to sing the song and I gladly complied). Here is a video of the song from the movie, “Pride:”

Jane Sciacca and Michelle Blees

Michelle Blees and Jane Sciacca “The Alcotts at Hillside: Their Beliefs and Actions”
Michelle and Jane are tour guides for the Minuteman National Park Service at The Wayside (known as Hillside when the Alcotts lived there). They gave a fascinating account of the history of The Wayside with its storied authors, and its link to the National Underground Railroad. These are photos of the displays — just click on the thumbnail to see the larger photo.

On Wednesday the presentations included:

Jason Giannetti

Jason Giannetti “Concord’s Transcendental Conscientious Objector”
Mr. Gianetti discussed the activism of famous Transcendentalists such as Henry David  Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. He called on us to be today’s Transcendental Conscientious Objectors which sparked a lengthy, spirited conversation which Bronson would have approved of wholeheartedly.

NOTE: the following two presentations are the ones where my notes were sadly lost. I did include a summary in the notes available at the end of this post.

Dr. Kristina West

Kristina West “Growing Tomorrow: A Transcendental Education”
Dr.  West hails from London and lives right across the way from the original location of Alcott House in Ham. She described the teaching techniques of Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott which so endeared them to children. She then highlighted Louisa’s contribution.

Jennifer Schünemann “Save the Mother, Save the Child:
The Pandemic Exploitation of Women and Its Effect on the World.”

Jennifer Schünemann of Durga Tree International

Ms. Schünemann heads the New England chapter of Durga Tree International, an organization working tirelessly to help victims of human trafficking. This presentation was quite sobering but Ms. Schünemann was able to provide hope and answers beginning with how we behave as consumers, making sure we are more conscious of who actually makes our products and how they are treated. My notes contain website information so you can find out more and even become involved. This is a program I would highly recommend.

Here are my notes from the series that you can download. Summer Conversational Series 2017 Tuesday

As always, such a joy to attend! I’ve made many wonderful friends through this series and agree wholeheartedly that each year it is like going to summer camp!

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