Beth’s chest, illustration by Scott McKowan
While researching my biography on Elizabeth Alcott, I did a very careful re-read of Little Women using Daniel Shealy’s excellent annotated edition. In the course of my reading I found many interesting little details. One of them involved the poem in Chapter 46 which brought Professor Bhaer to Jo’s side. Called “In the Garret,” a particular verse in Beth’s segment caught my eye (I italicized it for emphasis):
My Beth! the dust is always swept
From the lid that bears your name, As if by loving eyes that wept,
By careful hands that often came.
Death cannonized for us one saint, Ever less human than divine,
And still we lay, with tender plaint, Relics in this household shrine–
The silver bell, so seldom rung,
The little cap which last she wore,
The fair, dead Catherine that hung
By angels borne above her door.
The songs she sang, without lament, In her prison-house of pain,
Forever are they sweetly blent
With the falling summer rain.
Roman Catholics (like me) will likely know to which these lines in italic apply … for everyone else, Louisa (Jo) is referring to a holy card, a small card in color, often framed in lace featuring a print of a saint, Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. Because the reference is so specific and yet quite random, I believe such a picture in fact hung over the door of Lizzie’s sick chamber.
So who was this “fair, dead Catherine?”
Daniel Shealy provided a footnote:
Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), born in Siena, Italy, was, like Beth, the second youngest child in a large family. As a young girl she saw visions and devoted herself to Christ. At age sixteen, she became a Dominican tertiary, a lay member of the Dominican order, and tended to the sick and poor. Saint Catherine was canonized in 1461. (pg. 508, Little Women: An Annotated Edition)
Tracking down the holy card
How would the Alcotts, who had no affiliation with any formal religion, have come across a holy card featuring St. Catherine of Siena? It was not easy to find the answer! Certain aspects of religious history are not readily available through libraries. And you have to use the right keywords to find what you want (which I finally figured out).
It helps to have friends in high places.
I contacted a priest friend of mine who is interested in relics and prayer cards and he was able to help me fashion a plausible scenario. He told me that during the 19th century, holy cards were handed out to Catholic children as gifts after they made their first communion. A search on Wikipedia confirmed that and added confirmation as another occasion.
Images of St. Catherine
Doing a search using the terms “holy card 19th century Catherine of Siena” I found images that could describe what was referred to by Louisa in her poem:
from the Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1970); Margaret M. Lothrop Notebooks: Alcott Series
Bronson and Abba had purchased Orchard House; while the house was being renovated they resided in half a house on Bedford Street (just off of Monument Square). Here Lizzie lived out her final days. Irish Catholic immigrants who had built the railroad had worshipped in Concord since the 1840s. If you recall in Little Women, from her sickbed Beth made little treasures and dropped them out of her window to the school children that passed by daily; Louisa writes in her journal that Lizzie did the same, taking great pleasure in their glee at receiving them. As Lizzie was so emaciated by that time, it is possible that one of the children, feeling grateful for the little treasure yet also feeling sorry for the invalid, offered his or her holy card of St. Catherine to the Alcotts to put over the door to Lizzie’s chamber.
Holy cards and Rose in Bloom
Holy cards and saints appear again in Rose in Bloom. In chapter 2, Rose and Charlie are discussing saints found on holy cards on the table. Rose prefers the modest and poor Francis of Assisi while Charlie chose the dashing St. Martin of Tours as his favorite.
In the end he declares his preference for Rose,
“I’d like the golden-haired angel in the blue gown if you’ll let me have her. She shall be may little Madonna, and I’ll pray to her like a good Catholic.”
How would Louisa know of these saints?
The holy cards present in Rose in Bloom would have most likely have been encountered during Louisa and May’s European tour as they visited many churches. This is well documented in Little Women Abroad. It’s quite possible they brought home cards as souvenirs; many were framed in lace and considered quite pretty, and they were easy to obtain being quite inexpensive. They visited Europe in 1870-71; Rose in Bloom was published in 1876.
Attraction and revulsion
The sisters were deeply attracted to the Roman Catholic Church for its beauty and mystery while at the same time repelled by what they deemed as ancient superstitious ritual. The Church being a storehouse to some of the greatest art ever produced, it certainly would attract May. The Church also provided interesting characters for Louisa’s stories as evidenced by Father Ignatius in The Long, Fatal Love-Chase along with the encounter with a young priest written about in Shawl Straps.
p.s. — Update on my book
With regards to my work on Elizabeth Alcott, I am toiling away on an essay that I hope to submit to the New England Quarterly. I have never worked so hard in my life on any piece of writing! I keep writing myself into the weeds. 🙂 When it is complete and submitted, I will share the essence of it with you. This is the prelude to the book. All I can say right now is that there are some interesting rumblings going on with this book. Stay tuned!
Click to Tweet and Share: A trivia backstory: how is it that Catholic holy cards show up in Louisa’s stories? http://wp.me/p125Rp-2aU
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