Women’s health issues in Alcott’s time: Lizzie’s diagnosis and its repercussions

Research is addictive. It’s a lot like writing, taking you on a journey far beyond where you imagined you would go. Researching Elizabeth Alcott’s life is taking me on that unexpected journey. In the next few posts, I will take you there too, into the world of nineteenth century women’s health issues.

Just a note that I am just learning about these things and would very much appreciate your comments as I know many of you know far more than I do!

Lizzie’s diagnosis

transcendental wife cynthia barton0001In Transcendental Wife, Cynthia Barton writes of the doctor’s final diagnosis of Lizzie’s illness: “atrophy or consumption of the nervous system, with great development of hysteria.” (pg. 161, excerpt taken from Abba’s journal in January of 1858). What in the world does that mean? Continue reading

Places that are redemptive, and damning: Monday presentation by Stephen Burby at the Summer Conversational Series

Note: Mr. Burby kindly gave me his presentation (handwritten notes and all) in lieu of the fact that I was unable to attend the Monday session of the Summer Conversational Series. I thank him for doing so.

This is a longer post than usual as I found his presentation to be quite thought-provoking.

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

Before attending this series, I was woefully ignorant of the concept of “place. ” Intuitively I understand about the need to create sacred spaces, whether it be places for prayer and contemplation, or rooms where I can create writing and music. I go to great lengths to create these spaces, considering every last physical detail such that entering these spaces immediately puts me into the “zone” where I can accomplish what I wish to do. Inhabiting such spaces brings me a great sense of happiness, peace and accomplishment.

A wider concept

I never understood however, the wider concept of place and sacred spaces; the speakers at last week’s Conversational Series have opened up a new world for me, a fresh lens from which to contemplate what I read in books and see around me.



Louisa and place

560 steve burby1Mr. Burby’s presentation, “Out into the World:” Louisa May Alcott’s Sense of the World Beyond Concord.” continues to prime that pump. He begins by citing two classics by which he frames his discussion: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. He maintains that Louisa’s writing,

“frequently deals with the transfer of the sacredness from good individuals, most often in the form of the sacred feminine, to the spaces they come to inhabit.”

The place of home

Bachelard states that

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home …”

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

We see this time and again in Louisa’s works, particularly in Little Women, where the home is central to the development of the characters. Bachelard points out the positives (“We shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection…) as well as the negatives (“tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the stanchest ramparts.”). He also writes, “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” This is played out to perfection in Little Women.

Burby illustrates both sides of Bachelard’s notion of home, first through Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, and then through A Long Fatal Love-Chase.

Redemptive spaces

In Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, Burby shows how Louisa uses the Eternal Feminine (in the forms of nurses Tribulation Periwinkle and Faith Dane), to transform space from profane to sacred by injecting goodness, mercy, empathy, kindness and understanding.

hospital sketchesA woman’s influence

Burby cites Louisa’s description of the hospital in Hospital Sketches where she describes the “vilest odors” and chaotic atmosphere. Nurse Periwinkle seeks to transform that space:

“After bathing and dressing wounds for a number of them [the wounded soldiers], the scene is partially transformed.”

When she takes over the night shift, Nurse Periwinkle is given greater control over her environment, thus completing the transformation:

“By eleven, the last labor of love was done; the last ‘good night’ spoken; and, if any needed a reward for that day’s work, they surely received it, in the silent eloquence of those long lines of faces, showing pale and peaceful glances that lighted us to bed, where Rest, the sweetest, made our pillows soft, while Night and Nature took our places, filling that great house of pain with a healing miracles of Sleep, and his diviner brother, Death.”

Dual vocations

hospital sketches illustrationIf I might digress for a moment: in reading Burby’s citations and his analysis of Louisa’s transformation of space, it made me wonder about about Louisa. We know she had a vocation as a writer, but she also sensed a vocation for nursing. She was aware of her talent in both areas. She had had the opportunity to live each out, by nursing her sister Elizabeth which led to her ability to serve as a Civil War nurse, and by writing about such experiences and more. Both vocations served others well, one by healing and the other by providing.

As a nurse …

In each case Louisa could play out the role of Savior, a role both satisfying and burdensome to her. Yet which vocation was the most satisfying and which the more burdensome? Nursing brought her face to face with life at its core: brutally authentic, vulnerable and poignant. She could see the immediate consequence of her ministrations, whether it was to bring healing, comfort, consolation or just her presence as Death loomed. It was Lizzie who told Louisa how much that presence brought her strength as she faced her own painful end.

… and as a writer

Louisa_May_AlcottSuch life experiences were then expressed through Louisa’s writing, especially in Hospital Sketches and Little Women. Those of us who are writers know how cathartic, even exhilarating it can be to process feelings and get them down on paper, sometimes in poetic prose if we’re lucky. Writing brought its benefits to Louisa, relieving the chronic poverty and bringing material comfort and security at last to the “Pathetic Family.”

The costs

Both vocations exacted their costs. Nursing brought on the typhoid pneumonia which robbed Louisa of her good health for a life time. It sobered her greatly with memories that could never be forgotten.

Writing stole away Louisa’s cherished privacy and free creative expression, while too exacting a cost on her health.

So which vocation most satisfied Louisa? Which one was more worth the cost? Likely both were equally important and worked in tandem with each other. But these were questions that came to my mind as I read Mr. Burby’s presentation. There is no doubt that some of Louisa’s finest writing comes from her nursing experience.

Transformation of space brings redemption

civil war mulattoIn My Contraband, Burby shows how that same chaotic and dark space, the hospital, is transformed by presence of Nurse Faith Dane. Yet in this case, it is more about the transformation of persons within that space: Bob, the recently freed and wronged slave and his vicious white half brother who had killed Bob’s lover. While the half brother is not redeemed, Bob turns away from doing his brother harm thanks to the efforts of Nurse Dane. Burby writes,

“And it is here that the protagonist is able to assert her influence in the most positive way possible, turning the man–her contraband [to whom she was deeply attracted], the former slave, Bob–away from tragic revenge.”

The transformation is complete when Bob consummates their relationship in a symbolic and spiritual way, taking on her last name as his own; he would now be known as Robert Dane.

A place of damnation

long fatal love chase2Burby then turns to A Long Fatal Love-Chase to demonstrate how a beautiful space does not always denote goodness. He notes in particular a long description of the setting of Valrosa, Tempest’s villa in Nice. Burby believes that since Louisa had visited Nice during her first trip to Europe, it was likely she was describing a real place. He goes on to write,

“The description of Valrosa … suggests that is the finest setting for Rosamond, the protagonist … She is unconsciously the fairest and most striking ‘object’ in the setting.”

He points out that the beauty of the setting was illusory as Rosamond’s lover Tempest turns out to be her Mephistopheles.

Evil dominating

In this case, despite the presence of a female protagonist, Valrosa changed from a sacred to a profane place because of the domineering power of Tempest and the false premise upon which the space was based. Rosamond could not turn him.

Triumph of the Eternal Feminine

Thus Burby demonstrates Louisa’s realism yet again: life does not always turn out right. Goodness does not always prevail. In Louisa’s thrillers, goodness rarely prevails.

Yet the writing of hers that survives through the ages in the imaginations of many are the ones where the Eternal Feminine does in fact, triumph.

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Elisabeth Alcott through the eyes of her father

lizzie alcott2By the time Elisabeth Sewall Alcott was born, Bronson had moved on from chronicling the daily activities of his daughters to exploring the soul. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson writes that “Elizabeth was fairer than her elder sisters and … was the model of serenity that Bronson had vainly hoped Anna and Louisa would be. (pg. 84, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, ebook)” Calling his work “Psyche, or The Breath of Childhood” (aka “An Evangele”), Bronson “with naïve eagerness, plunged into his impossible task.” (Ibid)

Bronson’s ideal

Elisabeth and Bronson were soul mates. While Anna was often referred to as his favorite (with the vast majority of his letters to his children addressed to her), he appears to have placed Lizzie on a higher plane. Anna was a real child with virtues and faults; Lizzie was theoretical, just like “Psyche.”

High standards

In an Ode he wrote to her at Fruitlands on her eighth birthday (most of which had nothing to do with his little girl), note the heights to which he places her (underscoring is my emphasis):


fruitlands smHither we all repair
Our hope and love, to bear,
To celebrate
In rustic state,
Mid’st this refulgent whole
The joyful advent of an angel soul,
That, twice four years ago
Our mundane life to know,
Descended from the upper skies
A presence to our very eyes,
And now before us stands
And asketh at our bounteous hands
Some tokens of our zeal
In her celestial weal
Before us stands displayed
In raiment of a maid,
Unstained and pure her soul
As when she left the Whole

That doth this marvellous scene unrol [sic]
And day by day doth preach
The Gospels meant for each

That on this solid sphere
Designed for mortals were.

amaranth-767690… And be a flower that none shall pluck away
A rose in Fruitlands quiet dell
A Child intent in doing well;
Devote, secluded from all sin
Fragrant without, & fair within,
A plant matured in Gods device
An Amaranth in Paradise
(The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Herrnstadt, pg. 105-106)

Granted, this was Fruitlands and Bronson was at the zenith of his Transcendental zeal but subsequent letters to Lizzie (and they are few) rarely point out character flaws. No doubt the polar opposite of the letters he wrote to Louisa!


Even as an emerging adult, Lizzie was idolized by her father as shown in this letter dated August 10, 1853):

“Elisabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail; the apartments all [word] their tidy mistress whose housekeeping throughout, for ought I can see, vies favorably with that of the absent Matron alike in neatness promptitude and efficiency to the credit of her teacher, and comfort of guests.” (Ibid, pb. 166)

Anxious yet absent father

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Invalid_-_Louis_Lang_-_overallDuring my visit to Houghton last Saturday (see previous post), I came across several references to Lizzie’s illness in Bronson’s letters. Although far from home (and inexplicably slow in returning there), he was deeply concerned about her welfare, as shown in this letter from November of 1857:

“Keep me informed of every matter pertaining to your welfare. And let me hear weekly if you can command the leisure from our imposed cares. Elisabeth’s condition you cannot fail to state. To her, and all, much love.” (Houghton Library, Amos Bronson Alcott papers MS Am 1130.9 (4))

Bronson is greatly concerned about Lizzie’s weight loss and refers to it consistently in his letters from 1857, in very exacting form (underscoring is my emphasis):

 “Anna promised and so will write: and the Invalid shall add her fortnight’s gain, if she can, in the pounds avoirsdupois and ounces exact, by the inevitable standard. Hoping for the good tidings from the family group, and that soon, I remain Yours, and Theirs ever …” (Ibid, November 20, 1857)

Advice to the Invalid

tumblr_mhneo1aZRC1r94vvxo1_500In a longer passage, Bronson offers advice to Abba regarding Lizzie’s care:

“I mean to have some quiet talk with Dr. Jackson, who comes up this afternoon from Glen Haven, and learn something helpful to Elisabeth if he has any information for us. Of one thing I am certain already: she must use water–warm water even–with great discretion now in her present enfeebled state, having no heat to spare in too frequent bathing; and be sure she never bathes in cold water, or before going to bed. The beef tea experiment she need not report.–Keep yourself warm, my Child, take fresh air as you can safely, ride rather than walk at present, keep the good watch and consult our experiences about your food, and sleep, and occupations, and, more than all else, encourage good hopes, esteeming yourself gaining as your spirits waken and your interest in life and the little things becomes more active and freshens from week to week. I do not say, day by day. You will have ebbs and langours, and little discouragements, but the months will measure gain, to you, if not in flesh just yet or weight, in comfort and slow mitigation of the old troubles; the cure working itself out for you in the reasonable manner and time. Not to lose is great gain, and the pledge of restoration. So be a good Child and get well in the best way.–And write me, sometimes about your day’s occupations and any thing you care to communicate. But be careful about using your eyes, or any of your poor senses, rashly or too long at once, Take care of the draughts of air, and practice your usual caution in every thing. I shall write to you now an then, and have you much in mind.” (Ibid, November 21, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pgs. 263-264)

Remaining positive

spoon with medicineBronson, naturally, is very concerned about Lizzie’s state of mind. What I found surprising was the total lack of reference to prayer or calling on God for assistance, strength or consolation. Lizzie was expected to use her own will to make herself better. Here is another example:

 “… Dear Lizzy. I shall hear particulars always gladly, not sadly now. As soon as may be, dispense with the pellets and powders, and find the strength that can feed itself and increase on the virgin substances–the social influences–friendly food for body and soul.” (Ibid, December 1, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pg. 267)

Gentle scolding

In this letter, dated December 14th of that same year, Bronson is obviously receiving news from Abba that Lizzie is resisting treatment. There is an added sense of urgency to this passage with a strong (and rare) admonition from Bronson:

 “I am anxious to hear. Your last letter brought agreeable news. Lizzy must replenish her Spirit by all good helps: flesh and weight will come–it may be so slowly and imperceptibly as to tell nothing to the senses and or the scales for some time–but she must not expect Nature to rally from such a shock forthwith to bring the health she so desires. Pray let me know just how she is, and how she Behaves by Night and by day. I can excuse every thing. Only she must take the part of painstaker about herself, and not defeat the helps and hopes of careful nurses and kindred, by any imprudences of hers. I will not talk for  for [erasure]–my precious patient, but come home to see it, eye to eye, if she will not mind me otherwise.” (Ibid, December 14, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott pgs. 269-270)

Rare words from a teenaged Lizzie

I was fortunate to find a rare letter from Lizzie written when she was seventeen. It is short and sweet, revealing little on the surface. However, I was stunned at her handwriting, so meticulous, not changed much from her Hillside journal except that it was even neater. Each line is perfectly straight. It looks like fine and simple typography. Yet between the lines of sweetness there is a sense of pathetic longing for her beloved, the ever absent father (I wish I had permission from Houghton to post the picture I took of the letter, but I don’t have it):

Dearest father,
I suppose the letters should not go without a word from me, as I promised I would write, We were all so happy this morning to get your beautiful letter, telling how pleasantly you were living, and of your success. We live along here without you, but I am sure miss you very much. Annie is very good about writing and so we get her pleasant letters every week, and I wish we heard as often from the dear father; but I suppose you are very busy, tho am sure, do not forget us. Your loving Lizzie.
(Houghton Alcott family additional papers, 1724-1927 MS Am 2745 (71)

Keeping vigil

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402When the passing finally came in March 14, 1858, Bronson’s beloved passed into eternity; he kept an all-night vigil by the wasted body that remained behind:

Bronson Alcott sat up with the body of his child all night. No one else approached him. His little lost Psyche, who had seemed to him in her infancy the most promising of all his daughters, alone kept him company. One of the brightest auguries of his life had vanished with her loss. (Katharine Anthony, Louisa May Alcott, pg. 89)

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Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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Returning to “Work:” In and out of the mist – Louisa’s art reflects life

We return to a discussion of Work: A Story of Experience where chapter 7, “Through the Mist” marks a turning point in Christie’s life. It is also a powerful and penetrating look inside the author who herself experienced a similar turning point.

After numerous attempts to find meaningful work that she could sustain, and after losing the one close friend she could turn to, Christie falls prey to despair:

“… she suffered a sort of poverty which is more difficult to bear than actual want, since  money cannot lighten it, and th rarest charity alone can minister to it. Her heart was empty and she could not fill it; her soul was hungry and she could not feed it; life was cold and dark and she could notwarm and brighten it, for she knew not where to go.” (page 115, Work: A Story of Experience)

Close to home

It was not unlike the despair suffered by Louisa after two life-changing events in 1858 when she was 25 years old: the death of her younger sister Lizzie after a long illness, and the announced engagement of her older sister Anna just 3 weeks later.

Lizzie (left) and Anna

Much emotional energy was spent on nursing her younger sister and with grief still so raw, Louisa felt a sense of betrayal at her older sister’s announcement. Plagued by a tremendous sense of loneliness, she also felt the immense burden of being the spinster caretaker of her family. Yet, filled with resolve, she set off to Boston to find work once her parents were settled in Orchard House. The search was discouraging and humiliating, ending up with one offer to sew ten hours a day in a girl’s school far removed from Boston’s enriching atmosphere and the nurturing support of family.

Memories feeding a story

Here Louisa temporarily lost heart and contemplated suicide at the Mill Dam. She mentioned the incident briefly in a letter to her parents and did not embellish on it in her journal. However, she draws on memories to describe Christie’s similar contemplation:

“Something white swept by below, – only a broken oar – but she began to wonder how a human body would look floating through the night. It was an awesome fancy, but it took possession of her, and, as it grew, her eyes dilated, her breath came fast, and her lips fell apart, for she seemed to see the phantom she had conjured up, and it wore the likeness of herself.” (page 124)

Christie’s despair

Christie’s despair came from a different scenario. After serving as companion to the mentally ill Helen (who successfully committed suicide – see previous post), she took a job as a seamstress, desiring work that would not be so emotionally demanding. She connected deeply with another woman in the group, Rachel, who had a shady past. It was the first truly satisfying relationship that Christie had had since she struck out on her own and she cherished it.

Rachel’s secret of once going astray with a man was revealed and the forewoman let her go. Indignant, Christie also left. She hoped to take Rachel in but Rachel insisted on going away to pick up the pieces of her life. Thus, Christie lost touch with her dear friend.

She took in sewing, working from her rented room. It was hard work and the isolation was especially hard on Christie.

Damning portrait of religion

It was here that Louisa began to explore the nature of religion and spirituality of the time, and the difficulties she had experienced as noted through the character of Christie. She began, naturally, with books but was unable to find a living God within their pages. Although Louisa never mentions exactly where Christie is living, I must assume that she is thinking of Boston. Checking out the many churches in the city, Louisa’s observations proved very interesting:

“Some were cold and narrow, some seemed theatrical and superficial, some stern and terrible, none simple, sweet and strong enough for humanity’s many needs. There was too much machinery, too many walls, and penalties between the Father and his children. Too much fear, too little love; too many saints and intercessors, too little faith in the instincts of the soul which turns to God as flowers to the sun. To much idle strife about names and creeds; too little knowledge of the natural religion which has no name but godliness, whose creed is boundless and benignant as the sunshine, whose faith is as the render trust of little children in their mother’s love.” (page 115)

Christie knew what she wanted: “a Father to whom I can go with all my sins and sorrows, all my hopes and joys, as freely and fearlessly as I used to go to my human father, sure of help and sympathy and love. Shall I ever find Him?” (page 116)

Bar set high

This assessment of religion is devastating. Louisa demonstrates a critical understanding of the true nature of spirituality thanks to the influence of her father’s transcendentalism, and his example when she was a child. While Bronson could be very critical of Louisa, he also showered upon her and her sisters an unusual amount of tenderness. Bronson was definitely not the father who kept an arm’s length distance like most fathers of the day. His attentions may have proven oppressive to Louisa at times as he would not accept her as she was, but he was most definitely present to her. She received much and thus, expected much.

The resolve weakens

Traditional religion thus fails Christie. She becomes ill and, unable to work, loses many of her clients. To add to her burden, her landlady demands the rent, suspecting that Christie might run out on her. Deeply stung by the accusation and lacking the money she needs to make her rent, Christie quotes a familiar phrase,

“I’ll paddle my own canoe as long as I can … and when I must ask help I’ll turn to strangers for it, or scuttle my bat, and go down without troubling anyone.” (page 120)

Hidden feelings?

Ill fortune continues to descend as one client refuses to pay for work done and another has no work for her. In her continued search, Christie witnesses a wedding and laments the unfairness of it all:

“Oh, it isn’t fair, it isn’t right, that she should have so much and I so little! What have I ever done to be so desolate and miserable, and never to find any happiness, however hard I try to do what seems my duty?” (page 123)

It’s ironic that Louisa uses a wedding to send Christie over the edge considering how she felt initially towards her sister Anna’s wedding and the sense of abandonment that followed. If one wished to read between the lines, one might even suspect a hint of envy at her sister’s happiness.

Over the edge

Her burden too heavy to bear, Christie decides to end her life. Unlike Louisa, who was able to stop herself, Christie could not resist the impulse:

“Lower and lower she bent; looser and looser grew her hold on the pillar; faster and faster beat the pulses in her temples, and the rush of some blind impulse was swiftly coming on …” (page 124)

Louisa indeed was strong to be able to resist such an impulse. She saved herself. In Christie’s case, a close friend thought long gone seized Christie’s hand and drew her to safety.

In Christie’s mind, God had intervened. And in chapter 8, a strong, supportive and soothing male voice reveals this God she so desperately seeks.

I have posted before on Louisa’s brush with suicide – you can read it here

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Work: Staring madness in the face

The Yellow Wallpaper by Kaitaro

A ticking time bomb lay inside of Louisa May Alcott and she knew it.

It went off with her father, her Uncle Junius, and eventually, herself.

Her journals alluded to it.

Her creativity was fueled
by it.

And chapter 5 of Work: A Story of Experience gives us a detailed look inside.


Having left the employ of the Saltonstalls as governess, Christie is offered a position as companion to an invalid woman. Observing the opulence of the home, Christie exclaims, “What a happy family the Carrols must be!”

Beauty masks the ugly secret within.

Sadness …

As Mrs. Carrol introduces Christie to her ward (daughter Helen), Christie suspects that a deep sadness lies beneath the stately exterior of Mrs. Carrol. Upon meeting Helen she finds a young woman in despair. Christie’s heart goes out to Helen and they become close. As Christie reads to her, sings to her and listens to her confidences, Helen appears to be improving.

… Madness

Eventually it becomes clear that Helen is depressed to the point of suicide. And the ugly secret? The family has a history of insanity.

Death spiral

Helen reviles her mother for marrying her father even though she knew the insanity he carried in his genes would be passed down. Helen herself, deeply in love and engaged to be married, is forced to break her engagement once she discovers the truth. The loss of her true love breaks her spirit.

Spiraling downward into despair, Helen eventually takes her own life.

Close to home

Alcott biographers have noted the episodes of madness in the family.

Bronson’s episodes

John Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts speaks of Bronson’s mysticism which teetered back and forth between sanity and madness. The breakdown he experienced after the collapse of his cherished Fruitlands nearly killed him. Recovery was slow and in Boston, Bronson suffered a relapse. During this episode, he endured hallucinations which he documented with feverish fury (pg. 225 ebook, Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson).

Bronson’s younger brother

Bronson’s younger brother Junius, also a mystic, suffered similar episodes. At the age of thirty-two, he suddenly committed suicide by matter-of-factly walking into machinery at his factory (pg. 238, Ibid).

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

Louisa’s moods

Louisa’s roller coaster mood swings are well documented. She could fall into furious, exuberant vortexes where she would crank out an enormous amount of writing. And then she would sink into despair.

She lamented her violent temper, so poignantly illustrated in chapter 8 of Little Women, “Jo Meets Apollyon” (see previous post)

She also considered suicide but thought it cowardly:

“My fit of despair was soon over, for it seemed so cowardly to run away before the battle was over I couldn’t do it. So I said firmly, ‘There is work for me, and I’ll have it,’ and went home resolved to take Fake by the throat and shake a living out of her.”(pg. 169 ebook Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen).

Chapter 7 of Work, “Through the Mist,” details Christie’s attempt at suicide – this will be covered in the next post.

The stigma of mental illness

There were two things that intrigued me about “Companion:” how mental illness was regarded in Louisa’s day, and the case Louisa built to justify Helen’s suicide.

It’s no surprise that mental illness was to be kept secret as it was a source of shame. Such a tremendous stigma was attached to it that families carrying the genes were discouraged from marrying as demonstrated with the Carrols.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Shopot

Hidden away

How many times have we read about women locked away in attic rooms while they work through their madness? Who can forget Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre or the woman depicted by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper?” Helen had experienced similar treatment, hidden away from the world which she recounts to Christie:

“She [Christie’s mother] hides the truth; she hides me, and lets the world believe I am dying of consumption; not a word about insanity,  … This is why I was not sent away, but for a year was shut up in that room yonder where the door is always locked.”

Each to his own

Helen displays the family trait through her morose spirit. Her two brothers, also aware of their fate, deal with it in different ways: Augustine as a priest through penance and prayer, and Harry through constant, empty recreation. A younger sister, Bella, had not yet been told.

Close to home

A raw authenticity marks Louisa’s description of Helen’s despair as she shares the family secret with Christie. Gazing at the picture of her lover on the wall, Christie and the reader can keenly feel Helen’s pain.

The storm brews

Just when it seemed Christie’s presence was helping, Bella returns home for the Christmas holidays. Helen discovers that her beautiful younger sister has a lover and “a terrible unrest grew upon her [Helen], bringing sleepless nights again, moody days, and all the old afflictions with redoubled force.”

Shocking outcome

Suddenly Helen grows calm as Christmas approaches. She adorns herself in a pretty dress and celebrates with family around the tree.

And then, after finally agreeing to see her mother at bedtime, Helen quietly slices her throat with a knife. She dies in her mother’s arms.

Building the case

Suicide (often closely connected with insanity) carried a stigma of its own. In religious circles it was considered a fast track to Hell (the Catholic Church identified it as a mortal sin back in the fourth century thanks to the arguments of Saint Augustine). In the middle ages, suicide victims were further victimized by the public with bodies hung or dragged through the streets.

Justifying suicide

While the view on suicide softened somewhat in the nineteenth century, it still was much frowned upon. Yet Louisa, using a lawyer-like logic through the heart-wrenching testimony from Helen, seems to justify suicide:

” ‘You [Christie] have done much for me, and God will bless you for it, but you cannot keep me sane. Death is the only cure for a mad Carrol, and I’m so young, so strong, it will be long in coming unless I hurry it.’

She clenched her hands, set her teeth, and looked about her as if ready for any desperate act that should set her free from the dark and dreadful future that lay before her.”

Scholars analyzing the worthwhile social implications of Work for women don’t often mention what is to me, pretty controversial.

Close association

Could it be that the close relationship between insanity and suicide justified the act? Did the victim suffer in the afterlife as well?

“Companion” was a revealing look at the anguish suffered by a family with a history of mental illness. As the Alcott family shared this history, perhaps it is safe to assume we readers are privy to a similar anguish, suffered by the author.

Perhaps this is one reason why Louisa never married?

John Matteson, when asked a question at the Orchard House Summer Conversation series this past July about why Louisa never married remarked that he thought it crossed Louisa’s mind that she should not marry lest she pass down the genes.

While there is no concrete proof that this was a consideration, certainly it was a powerful concern as demonstrated in Chapter 5 of Work. Yet Anna and May both married, so who knows?

In the next post, I will discuss Chapter 7, “In the Mist” where Christie considers suicide.

Are we reading again the thoughts of the author as she considered it?

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

Eight Cousins: What would you do if you couldn’t read?

illustration by Robert Doremus

“Now, Mac, listen to me,” Rose said very earnestly, though her voice shook a little and her heart ached. “You know you have hurt your eyes reading by fire-light and in the dusk, and sitting up late, and now you’ll have to pay for it; the doctor said so. You must be careful, and do as he tells you, or you will be blind.”

This is the setting for chapter 11 (Poor Mac) of Eight Cousins. Mac is the book worm cousin. He first was struck down by sun stroke becoming very ill, and then suffered serious eye strain from his constant reading. He is now confined to a dark room, possibly for a year, to recover his eye sight: “He was forbidden to look at a book and as that was the one thing he most delighted in, it was a terrible affliction to the Worm.”

Rose reaches out to Mac, visiting him and reading to him each day. Mac is slow to warm up to Rose as he was slow to accept the seriousness of his condition, but he comes around to appreciating her.

Dark rooms

I thought about how difficult it would be to be confined to a dark room with no activity, especially the one you love the most. While I have only read a handful of books from Louisa’s time, I do see a distinct pattern of dark rooms and invalidism (sometimes imposed, sometimes not).

The common cure-all

I found this method of cure specifically for eye strain rather interesting and tried to find out more about it but struck out. One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Season blog mentioned to me that time in dark rooms devoid of all activity was seen as a common cure-all for many maladies. (basically it’s the medical profession throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing more they can do.. She mentioned different examples including Rochester in Jane Eyre and I loved her comment, “Why does his eyesight slowly recover? Rest and a good woman I suppose.” That certainly is the case for Mac and Rose.

Medicine was in its infancy and certainly reflected what Abba Alcott lamented regarding daughter Lizzie’s last illness: “… the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess.”

from the Duke University production blog

One woman’s reaction to the “rest cure”

Often these guesses took a tragic turn. Nancy referred me to a famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Written as a series of journal entries. “The Yellow Wallpaper” concerns a woman whose physician husband prescribes a “rest cure” , a common method of treating nervous disorders in women. Deprived of all activity and totally isolated from others, the writer becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room. She writes secretly in her journal of the wallpaper’s colors and pattens and begins to imagine seeing a woman trapped inside. She seeks to “free” the woman by ripping down the wallpaper. Becoming fearful of her husband and generally paranoid, she ends up locking herself in the room so she can finish ripping off the wallpaper and freeing the phantom woman. Her husband, upon finally gaining entry into the room faints when he sees how insane his wife has become. She crawls over him to continue her task.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Wikipedia)

Autobiographical in nature

Gilman was a patient herself and wrote the story specifically “to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (the proponent of the rest cure), and convince him of the error of his ways” (Wikipedia). Suffering from depression, Gilman nearly went insane herself after three months of the rest cure. She fought against it by taking up her activities again, and writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Danger in isolation

There is much that could be discussed here regarding the implications for women regarding these “rest cures.” Certainly the power wielded by her husband over this woman was disturbing. I was intrigued by this story,

from the Duke University production blog

knowing first hand the damage that isolation and lack of purposeful activity can do. I’ve witnessed members of my own family suffering from depression and the damage that isolation (usually self-imposed) did to them. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to have such isolation forced upon you, especially if no one listened to your concerns.

Lucky Mac!

Mac was certainly lucky to have Rose and so many other members of his family to take care of him through this difficult time. He may still have been deprived of reading, but he had the social interaction that is so life-giving. He was one of the lucky ones!

I encourage you to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” (it’s available online) and to read the fascinating history of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.


I have to admit, reading about Mac reminded me of this classic Twilight Zone episode:

What would you do if you couldn’t read anymore?

UPDATE: Nancy posted something on her Silver Seasons blog about this subject, great post – you can read it here.

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