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. Continue reading

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“Poppy’s Pranks” reveals the childhood of Louisa May Alcott

I am listening for a second time to Harriet Reisen’s fine biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women. In discussing Louisa’s childhood Reisen makes many references to a story Louisa wrote for her first children’s series, Morning-Glories and Other Stories. Having little experience with writing children’s stories, Louisa opted to learn by doing, thus preparing her for the job as editor of the children’s magazine, “Merry’s Museum.” As Madeline B. Stern put it, “Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at Orchard House.” (Louisa May Alcott, A Biography, pg. 163).

This of course begins to set the stage for Alcott’s greatest triumph, Little Women. But back to Louisa’s own childhood …

The story which Reisen refers to is “Poppy’s Pranks.” Both Reisen and Stern note that Poppy’s experiences are Louisa’s.

Of Poppy Louisa writes that she was not necessarily a willful child “but very thoughtless and very curious. She wanted to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere: she feared nothing, and so was continually getting into scrapes.” After reading this story it is a wonder that Louisa’s mother Abba didn’t go completely gray with worry over her little hoiden; Poppy’s escapes are hair-raising!

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

From hanging out a third-story window with her head upside down, to jumping off of the highest beam in the barn at the dare of a friend (and spraining both ankles), to rubbing peppers in her eyes and eating tobacco only to be brought home deathly ill in a wheelbarrow … Poppy’s pranks were legendary. The prank that really got me came as a result of Poppy wishing to imitate country girls by going barefoot. Despite her mother forbidding her to do so, Poppy took off her shoes and proceeded to pierce her foot with a pitchfork. Ouch! Fearful that she would develop lock jaw, a potentially fatal outcome of her accident (suggested to her by her friend Cy), Poppy in dramatic style, prepares for death by bequeathing all her belongings. She is a bit disappointed when she fully recovers. She truly did want to experience everything!

Louisa mixes fact and fiction so skillfully that I am never totally sure what is true. It doesn’t matter. It’s obvious that she was Poppy and must have been a force to contend with in a household where peace was supposed to reign supreme. That force would evolve into the amazing quantity, quality and variety of her writing over her adult life.

We as readers are very fortunate that “Poppy” put her enormous life force to such good use.

You can download Morning-Glories and Other Stories from archive.org — just click on the title. “Poppy’s Pranks” are on page 89.

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A trivia backstory: how is it that Catholic holy cards show up in Louisa’s stories?

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 Jared’s board on Pinterest

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!

 

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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

Three-part series on Bronson Alcott at Fruitlands Museum: genius or crackpot?

Last Wednesday I attended the first of three lectures on Bronson Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA, presented by Helen Batchelder, a local scholar.

Fruitlands in the dark

I have never been to Fruitlands before in the dark and it was disconcerting to see the lights over the mountains, reminding me it was 2017 and not 1843. Gazing down the road however, I could not make out the red farmhouse in the dark and for a moment, I could feel the intense loneliness and isolation of living there. The Fruitlands experiment was, if anything, high drama for two families and it was to impact them for the rest of their lives. To get a sense of the tragedy of Fruitlands, I highly suggest reading John Matteson’s account in Eden’s Outcasts.

from Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

Genius, deadbeat, visionary or crackpot?

Continue reading

Major acquisition by the Concord Library of Louisa May Alcott working manuscripts

Alcott scholar Joel Myerson announced today that the Concord Library has acquired rare working manuscripts of Louisa May Alcott, pointing to an article titled Louisa May Alcott Manuscripts Go to Concord Free Public Library in Private Sale” by Jeanne Schinto.

The deal was brokered by Marsha Malinowski Fine Books & Manuscripts of New York City.

eight cousins the clanSome of the 500+ pages of material includes chapters from Eight Cousins and Under the Lilacs.

Malinowski stressed that this is the largest and most important body of manuscript material in the hand of Alcott that has been offered for sale. They are working manuscripts with edits from which the type was set and the books printed. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa! Not a day over 217 and 184 ;-)

louisa coverNOTE: I just found out my publisher, ACTA, is giving away 15 free copies of Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message in honor of our favorite author’s birthday. Go here http://actapublications.com/louisa-may-alcott-illuminated-by-the-message/ and type in code HAPPYBIRTHDAY at checkout. Even if you have your own copy, order one as a gift for friend!

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As the birthdays of two of my favorite people dawns today, I can’t help but think how deliciously ironic it is that I am finally finishing Eden’s Outcasts, the Pulitzer prize-winning book on the life of Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson Alcott by John Matteson.

eden's outcasts big And yet I never finished the book until now. I just couldn’t. I loved the book so much I didn’t want it to end. I find that reading this compelling story of two such talented, creative, intelligent, and difficult people orders my mind and fills my heart. It is told with such elegance along with touches of humor and irony. Among other things, it explores the spiritual aspect of the Alcotts which was so important to them. Continue reading