Children’s book recommendation: Beyond Little Women by Susan Bivin Aller

Because a children’s book opened the way to my passion for Louisa May Alcott, I am always interested in reading other accounts meant for children. So when I came across Beyond Little Women A Story about Louisa May Alcott I was eager to read it. It was published in 2004, written by Susan Bivin Aller and illustrated by Qi Z. Wang.

beyond little women by Susan Bivin Aller

Rough start

Classified as “Juvenile Biography” the book is written as a narrative, laying out the story of Louisa May Alcott mainly as a writer. In general I enjoyed the book but unfortunately, the very first line in chapter one is in error: “Four years old today!” Aller is referring to the infamous incident at the Temple School when Louisa was celebrating her birthday and had to give the last plummy cake to one of the other children. It was her first bittersweet lesson in self-sacrifice; the reward was a kiss from her mother.

The book’s strength

The problem is that Louisa was three, not four, when this incident occurred. The author also cited Bronson’s age incorrectly (at least the mistake was consistent). Such an obvious error is off-putting but putting that aside, I found the book improved once Aller started describing Louisa’s writing. She did a good job of summarizing Louisa’s rather complex career beginning with writing for magazines, her “blood and thunder” tales, her first novel Moods, her first success with Hospital Sketches and then the move to children’s literature as editor of Merry’s Museum and finally, Little Women.

Description of the vortex

Aller is the first writer I’ve seen describe Louisa’s vortex in a way most could understand: “When Louisa was captured by an idea, she wrote almost nonstop for days. It was like being in the center of a whirl of ideas that she couldn’t escape until the work was finished.” She went to say that “These tremendous bursts of writing, followed by physical collapse, became Louisa’s typical pattern.”

Describing how Louisa found her writing voice

She did a good job of explaining how Louisa came to know of her true writing voice with the popularity of Hospital Sketches: “The lesson to Louisa was clear. Writing from her own experience, about things she knew, was going to be the key to her success as a writer.” Little Women was the successful outcome of that lesson. However, Aller left out a key fact about Hospital Sketches: that it was born from letters Louisa wrote to her family about her Civil War experiences. Letter writing the vehicle by which Louisa found that voice.

As a means of expression

Her explanation for the “blood and thunder tales” (and the need for the “made-up name” of A. M. Barnard) was simplistic but true. She briefly touched upon Bronson’s insistence that Louisa tame her emotions in order to become more “feminine;” Aller writes, “If she had to repress her true feelings in everyday life, then she would have to unleash them somewhere else.”

Lacking spark

In general the narrative was organized in a logical fashion and flowed well. The storytelling however, was dry. Louisa May Alcott is of interest to so many because of her own stormy personality and her passion for justice for the downtrodden, especially women and slaves. Very little of this spark and passion came through in the text. A child could read this book and come away with the facts but I’m afraid the inspiration would be wanting.

Rich artwork

The illustrations by Qi Z. Wang were wonderful and in some cases, filled in that gap of spark and passion. The resemblance of Louisa in the drawings to her photographs was very accurate. You can see samples here.

I enjoyed reading Beyond Little Women and would recommend it with the stipulation that children read other biographies and certainly sample Louisa’s books.

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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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Questions, questions … (part one)

Before I begin, thank you for your part in the extraordinarily successful launch of my new blog, Be As One: A Single Flow … The stats were encouraging and that’s a massive understatement! Thank you.

Involvement in my new blog dampened my passion for Louisa but only temporarily. It only takes reading a page or two in a biography to fuel the fire back up again.

A question

I am so enjoying reading Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography slowly, just a few pages at a time because of the amount of information within. Reading between the lines, I always come up with questions. After reading only six pages yesterday (pages 164-170), I came up with a couple that I hope you can answer.

Women authors and how they approached writing

Here’s the first question: Did other famous women authors such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton approach writing the way Louisa did, as a business?

From potboilers to children’s stories

Stern suggests the thought process Louisa went through before accepting the job as editor of a children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum. She had little or no experience writing literature for children (with the exception of Flower Fables and The Rose Family). How could “A. M. Barnard,” the potboiler author edit a magazine for children?

The build-up

The owner of Merry’s Museum in rolling out the new and improved version of the magazine touted his new editor as “the brilliant author of Hospital Sketches, who had hardly an equal and who had no superior as a writer for youth in the country.”

He had high expectations and Louisa would live up to them.

What was Louisa thinking?

Stern writes,

Perhaps the editorial work would extend her skill in writing and selecting material. It would at least give her a public that, with the exception of Flower Fables, her stories had never known. Children might prove fruitful critics, and possibly she might be able to combine her editorial responsibilities with writing for Mr. Niles [of Robert Brothers – she had already received his request to write a book for girls]. Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at the Orchard House. Besides, Louisa would have the opportunity of living in Boston to be nearer Mr. Fuller’s office on Washington Street [he is the owner of Merry’s Museum]. Washington Street had marked many a milestone in her varied literary career as “A. M. Barnard” and L. M. Alcott. Perhaps another milestone would be reached. (pg. 164, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Learning her trade

Her work on Merry’s Museum showed Louisa that she could learn to write for children and mastered the formula. It gave her the confidence to embark on Little Women.

All business

Stern presents Louisa as a hard-headed business woman with mercenary designs. Many have lamented how she did not want to write Little Women but she did, for the money. And that’s not all bad.

Great instincts

Louisa had an instinct for business even though she had no experience in the business world, nor did she actually known many in that world. Yet she made very smart decisions with regards to writing, trying any genre she could, hoping she would find the one she’d eventually master.

Mastery

Little Women proved that she could; she became The Children’s Friend.

I find it quite interesting that she seemed to know all the right decisions to make in order to make her “business” of writing successful.

And that’s why I posed the question of whether or not other successful women authors of that time and before, had approached writing in this way.

I admit that I am not well-read beyond Louisa May Alcott so I’d love to know, from you, about these other women and how they made a go of their writing.

In the next post, I’m going to pose the second question question regarding younger sister May, prompted by a single line in Madeleine Stern’s book.

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Update

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comHow are you doing on the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge? I’ve been pecking away at the Little Women re-read along with a re-read of Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern. I’ve been keeping a casual reading journal for the latter and I’ll share some from that.

Still the best biography

Louisa May Alcott A Biography still stands for me as the definitive biography on Louisa. It was originally published in 1950 and updated in 1996.

Stern doesn’t waste a line – each one is pregnant with information! Yet, as dense as this book is, it doesn’t read as dry or scholarly, but more like a novel, and from the point of view of Louisa.

Reading from different perspectives

The first time I read this book I felt like I got into Louisa’s head and heart, living her life with her. I felt very sad when the book was done because the visit was too. But it was immensely satisfying.

This time I see it a new way. Stern’s thrust for the biography is Louisa the writer.  Every single event in her life revolves around how she can write about it. As an apprentice writer, I find this book to be an amazing teaching tool .

Here’s some examples of how Stern interpreted events as fodder for writing:

Life at Hillside

Stern describes the family’s life at Hillside as the culmination of so many of the things that fed Louisa’s happier writing. Little Women, which was based on part on that life, is a shining example.

Hillside had given Louisa a foundation of  stability to lean on for comfort during the leaner times, and fodder to draw upon for future stories.

Reading leads to doubt

Stern describes a crisis of confidence on young Louisa’s part as she read more and more of Emerson’s books from his library. She saw her limitations and stopped writing in her journal. Abba steps in to encourage her with a note in her journal:

“I’m sure your life has many fine passages well worth revealing and to me they are always precious … Do write a little each day, dear, but if a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Turning the common into the extraordinary

Stern maps out Louisa’s influences, from Thoreau for Flower Fables to the Music Hall and divas Madame Sontag and Jenny Lind for The Rival Prima Donnas, written for The Saturday Evening Gazette. She writes, “surely no experience was too unimportant to serve as grist for the author’s mill …”

In her twenties, Louisa was leading a fairly uneventful life of hard work, mostly doing things she didn’t want to do. Such a grind could snuff out the inner life but not so with Louisa. Sterns writes of Louisa’s life fueling her ambition all the more: she meant to earn her living as a writer and therefore never missed an opportunity to develop life into a story.

It shows that you can lead a common life and still pull out the uncommon insights that turn these things into the extraordinary. You just need to have the eyes to see. Louisa excelled at that skill.

That’s my update for now. Are you participating in the challenge and if so, what are you reading?

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A Long Fatal Love Chase is definitely a “guilty pleasure”

A while back I got a recommendation from a reader’s blog, A Thing Called Joe, regarding one of Louisa’s potboilers, a book so sensational that her publisher, James R. Elliot of The Flag of Our Union refused to run with it! It was meant to be serialized in the magazine like so many of her other “blood and thunder” tales but this story was just too hot to handle.

That story is The Long Fatal Love Chase and the story behind this book is as interesting as the book itself.

First, the book

I rarely read fiction as I find real life a lot more interesting.  And I never read gothic fiction. I have avoided Louisa’s potboilers because of that very fact. But if they all read like A Long Fatal Love Chase, then I am in for some really fun reading!

It’s no wonder this book was rejected as “too sensational” – it’s got everything:

  • an obsessive lover who stalks his prey
  • a deal with the devil
  • a strong, independent woman
  • a tempted Roman Catholic priest
  • a mental asylum
  • twists and turns!
  • murder!
  • deceit!
  • mystery!
  • suspense!
  • and even . . . virtue!

This book is a page-turner and I couldn’t wait to see how it turned out.  It is tight and fast-paced. Just as it begins to feel predictable, Louisa would throw the curve ball. I thought of many scenarios for the ending and didn’t even come close!

Characters

  • Rosamond Vivian is the strong, independent woman although this independence is only hinted at in the beginning. As the story opens, she is a discontented, lonely 18 year old woman living on an island with her bitter grandfather. She is aching for escape, for fun, for adventure. Of course she is beautiful. In her despair she says, I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” Enter . . .
  • Phillip Tempest, handsome, resembling the image of  Mephistopheles that hangs on the wall. He lives on a yacht and travels the world, and to Rosamond, he is irresistible. He also heartless with no moral compass.
  • Father Ignatius, also handsome, is the opposite of Tempest in uprightness and virtue. Once a courageous warrior, he seeks to protect Rosamond for a myriad of reasons.

There is a host of minor characters including a mysterious “other woman,” a young boy with strong ties to Tempest, an actress, a mother superior, a police chief, and many more.

Drawing by May Alcott Nieriker

Setting

The story is set in Europe beginning in England, and spreading out to Italy, France and beyond. Written just after Louisa returned from her first trip to Europe (where she took care of invalid Anna Weld, and met her “Laurie,” Ladislas Wisniewski), the story is rich with scenes from the many places in Europe that she visited. You might even say that love was fresh on her mind as she wrote about Tempest and Rosamond’s first year together.

Not to give the story away . . .

And I won’t. You will have to read A Long Fatal Love Chase to find out what happens.

Suffice it to say though, this story could almost have been written today. Louisa again shows herself to be a modern thinker, willing to break out of the box and challenge the reader.

In 1852, a strong woman character like Rosamond was controversial in and of itself. A Long Fatal Love Chase, among many things, shows the desperate situation of women trapped in bad relationships. There were not a lot of options. Rosamond, however, is resourceful, creative and clever, always coming up with something when all options seemed off the table.

Story behind the story

The story behind A Long Fatal Love Chase is pretty remarkable unto itself.

As mentioned previously, the story was considered “too sensational” (and too long) even for an A. M. Barnard story.

After returning from Europe, Louisa was asked to write a story of 24 installments for serialization in The Flag of Our Nation. She wrote it in haste (292 pages in 2 months!) with the familiar motive of meeting the never-ending financial needs of her family. The original title was A Modern Mephistopheles, or The Fatal Love Chase*.

After the rejection, she sought to tone down and shorten the story, retitling it Fair Rosamond. It was rejected again and she put the manuscript away.

Then what happened?

Fair Rosamond ended up in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

The original manuscript was auctioned off in 1994 by the Alcott family descendants for nearly $50,000, to a rare book dealer, Kent Bicknell, headmaster of the Sant Bani School in Sanbornton, New Hampshire. He made the crack that he paid “more than his annual salary but less than $50,000.”

Bicknell undoubtedly felt like the luckiest man on earth, especially after reading the manuscript.  After carefully restoring it, he sold the publication rights to Random House in 1995, receiving an advance of $1.5 million.

He gave 25% to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, 25% back to the Alcott family, and 25% to his school. He still walked away with a fair sum of money. Nice gamble!

A Long Fatal Love Chase (as it was finally named by Random House) became a best-seller and is still in publication today, proving yet again the timelessness of Louisa May Alcott.

Critics gave it very favorable reviews and scholars dug in for analysis, extracting in particular the many feminist themes.

(information for the story of A Long Fatal Love Chase came from Wikipedia)

Some final thoughts

I don’t think of virtue when I think of potboilers but Louisa could hardly get away from her inner self and her upbringing. She balanced off the obvious evil of Tempest with Father Ignatius (and gave Catholics a fair shake, considering her known prejudice against Catholicism).

This was one of my favorite sections from the book, detailing an encounter between Rosamond and Fr. Ignatius:

She told him rapidly, for now she clung to this one faithful heart with a child’s confidence, forgetting for a time that he loved her and remembering only that he was “true as steel; firm as a rock.” He listened, detected the secret weakness of the girl’s love, and resolved to save her from it if he could. He had drawn her out of the  moonlight into the little room and still holding the hands that unconsciously clung to him he said, imploringly, “My child, never go back to this man. I know him and if I dared sully your innocence with such knowledge I would tell you the history of his life. You love him still and struggle against your love, feeling that it will undo you. He knows this and he will tempt you by every lure he can devise, every deceit he can employ. Sorrow and sin will surely follow if you yield; happiness never can be yours with him; doubt, remorse and self-reproach will kill love, and a time will come when you will find that in gaining a brief joy you have lost your peace forever. Oh, Agatha [aka Rosamond], be warned in time, do not listen to your own weak heart but to the conscience that nothing can bribe or silence. Child! child! You must be saved, listen to me and let me keep your white soul fit for heaven.

A pivotal moment in the story.

Read!

Find a nice hot tub. Or a fireplace. Or a cozy bed with a cat wrapped around your feet. Grab this book and enjoy a great winter’s read!

Have you read this book? What did you think? Did it surprise you?

*Louisa did end up using the title A Modern Mephistopheles, for another book in a Faustian vein. At the request of Thomas Niles, she wrote it for the author No-Name series for Roberts Brothers (and no one at the time could guess it was hers which gave her great pleasure :-))


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Any of you know where I can find the following rare book?

I am trying to find a rare book called Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott (Critical Essays on American Literature), edited by Madeleine Stern. I’ve searched Amazon, Ebay, etc., nobody has it (almost got it from Amazon but the seller messed up and now no longer has it!) Any leads would be most helpful!  I can get the book out of the library but I really want to have it on hand for research purposes. Thanks for your help!

Listen to an interview with Roberta Trites regarding Louisa’s “blood and thunder” tales

Recently the Milner Library at Illinois State University hosted a series of programs as part of the ALA’s “Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women”; they were one of many libraries around the country that received grant money from the NEH and the ALA. The series is based upon the best-selling biography of the same name by Harriet Reisen, and the film by Nancy Porter and Reisen.

On October 11, scholar Roberta Trites presented “”Behind Louisa’s Mask: Discovering the Real Louisa May Alcott.” Thanks to WGLT.org, we are privy to excerpts from an interview with Trites by host Charlie Schlenker. This 4 minute and 37 second interview is well worth the listen with some tantalizing tidbits.


Here is some biographical information on Roberta Trites from the official press release of the Milner Library and Illinois State University:
Trites teaches children’s and adolescent literature and is the author of Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Her research interests include Louisa May Alcott’s role in various social reform movements and her literary influence on literature for youth in the United States. Trites received her Ph.D. in English at Baylor University.

A highly successful author best known for her novel Little Women, Alcott secretly wrote sensational thrillers, lived at the center of the Transcendentalist and Abolitionist movements, campaigned for women’s rights and served as a Civil War army nurse.


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