Gossip from overseas: stories from “Little Women Abroad” by those mapcap Alcott sisters

I am pleased to present this guest post by Elizabeth Hilprecht, a regular reader whose insightful comments you have most likely read. We have been having a wonderful email chat back and forth about Daniel Shealy’s Little Women Abroad and I asked her if she would share some of the wonderful stories taken from letters to home written by Louisa May Alcott and her sister May describing their European exploits. She graciously accepted.

Little Women Abroad is a valuable book including a lengthy introduction, seventy one letters from Louisa and May (with fifty eight published for the first time) and many pages of drawings by May Alcott. Daniel Shealy’s scholarship is impeccable. Besides the colorful stories are letters about the death of John Pratt and the grief experienced by the sisters and business correspondences between “Jo” and “Tom” (Louisa and Thomas Niles, her publisher).

Little Women Abroad also provides a valuable look into the world of two independent and successful sisters (one already established and the other on the cusp) providing a bird’s eye view of Europe in the nineteenth century. We are indeed fortunate that the Alcott family so valued letter writing; Bronson in particular felt that letters should be saved and savored — he ended up transcribing all the letters sent to him and Abba during the daughters’ first year in Europe.

Here are some of Elizabeth’s initial thoughts. Continue reading

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Further thoughts on May Alcott Nieriker, a thoroughly modern woman

While researching May and Ernest’s home in Meudon, France (see previous post), I had a chance to read May’s thoughts in her letters home from Caroline Ticknor’s book, May Alcott A Memoir. May was a happy newlywed reflecting on her perfect life with gratitude. In one sense she was blissfully naive but her charm was precisely the way she always viewed life as a glass half full.

Her flight to Europe thanks to Louisa’s help set May free from Victorian womanhood. She hesitated about leaving that final time as her mother was quite feeble but it was Abba who pushed her to go. One might say that Abba saw this daughter as the one who would truly be set free, thus realizing her mother’s hopes and dreams.

A diehard European

may portraitMay had no intention of returning to America: “For myself this simple artistic life is so charming, that America seems death to all aspirations or hope of work … Meudon seems a Paradise. With Ernest, and pictures, I should not care if I never saw a friend or acquaintance again. It is the perfection of living; the wife so free from household cares, so busy, and so happy.” (pg. 267, Ibid)

A different view of marriage

May and Louisa both witnessed their parents’ marriage and while Louisa feared the institution as a result, May had a different take: “I think of how she [Abba] married for love and struggled with poverty and all possible difficulties and came out gloriously at last, all the stronger and happier for so mastering circumstances, and this gives me courage, hoping her example will be always a safe guide for me.” (pg. 268, Ibid)

May is nothing if not blunt: “In my case it will be easier to be brave, because Ernest is a practical, thrifty businessman; he is young, ambitious, with real faculty instead of an impractical philosopher.” (Ibid). Ouch!

Same home life, different lives

Amy March of Little WomenMay certainly benefited from being the baby of the family. By the time she was born Bronson had lost interest in the obsessive scientific study of his children and she reaped the rewards of his seeming neglect. Her upbringing was the most normal of the four daughters.

She was too young to have experienced the trauma of Fruitlands* (see addendum) and was deliberately sheltered from many of the problems and added responsibilities brought on by the family’s poverty. Louisa took on the mantle and May was just as happy to allow it. While Louisa was jealous of May’s carefree life and sometimes resented the burdens associated with being the head of the household, she would not delegate responsibilities to May. There were times when she called her younger sister home to help with her parents but she also financed May’s trip to Europe and encouraged her to develop her talents.

Free from her family

Day 3 May Alcott a Memoir - Opposites AttractIt is no wonder then that May naively assumed that her mother had “mastered her circumstances” on her own power. Without Louisa’s support as breadwinner,  best friend and caretaker, Abba might not have triumphed. May saw the results without truly understanding the sacrifices made by her older sister. With wounds too deep and fresh, Louisa could not dare to undertake marriage. May, free from such wounds, embraced it wholeheartedly.

One life transformed, another life saved

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

Living across the ocean in France May was free from the responsibilities of caring for her family. It was not without cost. Failing to read the signs and return home before her mother died caused her great guilt and bitter grief. Yet two years after Abba’s death, May was able to move on into a new life while Louisa grew mired in the old, having lost her purpose for living. May’s choice would ultimately benefit Louisa with new hope and a new life as mother to May’s daughter Lulu.

It was the greatest gift the youngest sister could have given to her Lu.


A sharp reader on the Facebook page (Kristi) suggested that although May was just a toddler, she would still have absorbed the trauma of Fruitlands and beyond in some subconscious way, suggesting that new research “may offer a potential shift in our understanding of how Fruitlands may have impacted May.”

This got me to thinking about her strong drive to become an artist. If we were to look at this from from the subconscious, perhaps Fruitlands and what transpired after that fueled May’s ambition. Art was certainly a great way to get away from the family troubles both in her head and in the practical ways that she maneuvered invites to the homes of her wealthy Sewall and May relatives. She saw art was her way to escape the ugliness around her (both physically and emotionally) and to create a life for herself which was more to her liking. And I would say that she was immensely successful, more so than Louisa who was never able to truly enjoy her life for very long.

This is why I love doing this blog, because of you! Thank you Kristi for that suggestion.

Click to Tweet & ShareFurther thoughts on May Alcott Nieriker, a thoroughly modern woman http://wp.me/p125Rp-1Do

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See May Alcott Nieriker’s home in Meudon, France

My friend Charline Bourdin from the French Louisa May Alcott blog sent me these amazing pictures of May and Ernest Nieriker’s final home in Meudon, a suburb “but fifteen minutes from Parish by rail” as May recalls (pg. 265, May Alcott A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor). Charline lives in Meudon.

May wrote many letters home about her happy life with Ernest, most of which took place at this home.

May describes her life with Ernest in Meudon.

Shortly after their surprise wedding May writes, “I have never dreamed of such serene happiness as I have known since Friday, when as man and wife Ernest and I left Southampton. My future seems so full of beauty and of joy I can think of nothing else. The lonely artistic life that once satisfied me seems the most dreary in the world, Our tastes are so congenial it seems impossible that we shall ever cash, and even were it otherwise I find myself for the first time quite willing to bend to a stronger will and wiser head than my own …” (pg. 264, Ibid)

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

What was the apartment like on the inside?

The move to Meudon came as Ernest accepted a position in a mercantile house in Paris as Inspector General. His generous salary enabled them to live in the fine home which May describes as consisting of “a salon, dining-room, kitchen, two chambers with closets, bath-room, etc., a pretty flight of ivy-covered steps leading into the garden behind. The house is shut in by large gates from the street in front, and from our long windows at the back we have such a view as seldom delights the eye of man. Ernest and I stood on the balcony admiring the superb sight.” (pg. 265, Ibid)

may's painting of her salon with ErnstThe joy of decorating

For all of May’s claims of enjoying a simple life without society and a plethora of material goods, she and Ernest enjoyed decorating their new home. After settling into the first floor apartment, they were able to secure the second floor as well. She writes of Ernest bringing home a huge Louis XIV mirror for the salon which filled one end of the room. She included every detail of their exploits in her letters home to eager family members. (pgs. 269-270, Ibid)

Marmee is with her

abbaBeing May she had to indulge in society and enjoyed entertaining their friends in the apartment. After a particularly enjoyable party she wrote, “I sat down in my easy-chair to admire the effect of my pretty rooms. I had placed Marmee’s shrine on my mantel and on one side my blue jar holding a long spray of morning-glories. Two buds had opened wide and laid themselves lovingly against the dear face, dropping gracefully the delicate vines around it. It was so beautiful, and Marmee seem to have come to my party in spirit so that even amid my happiness I had to ‘wept a little weep.’” (pg. 271, Ibid)

My thanks again to Charline for this wonderful glimpse of May’s home in Meudon.

Click to Tweet & ShareSee May Alcott Nieriker’s home in Meudon, France http://wp.me/p125Rp-1Dd

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Question for you: How interested are you in unpublished letters from Alcott family members?

As I’ve been transcribing letters I’ve seen at the Houghton Library, I’ve been dying to share their content with you. I wrote to Houghton asking for permission and as long as I properly cite them, I can publish as much as I want!

Here’s the question: Would you be interested in full-length letters on this blog?

Right now I am transcribing letters from Abba, Anna and Lizzie (and so far one from May and one from Louisa).

I find Anna’s letters of particular interest because she deftly spins a good story and includes many wonderful day-to-day details.

Reading letters in their entirety paint a broader picture.

I don’t have a lot right now but there are some I’d love to post.

Leave your comments and let me know.

Click to Tweet & ShareQuestion for you: How interested are you in unpublished letters from Alcott family members? Let me know … http://wp.me/p125Rp-1wU

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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