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!

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

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

“Diana and Persis” – compelling, revealing, biographical, and thus, tragically incomplete

By the 1870s, Louisa May Alcott and her baby sister May had become close companions. Although quite different in temperament, both shared that burning ambition to become the artists they were meant to be – Louisa as a best-selling author, and May as an acclaimed painter, exhibiting at the Paris Salon.

Unearthing a treasure

diana-and-persis-sarah-elbertIn the 1970s Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert discovered an untitled manuscript of 138 pages at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Titling it Diana and Persis, the book was published in 1978. There are a couple of cryptic mentions, first in Louisa’s journal, dated December of 1878:

“ … begin work on an art novel, with May’s romance for its thread.” (pg. 211, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; Madeleine B. Stern, associate editor).

And in May’s journal, dated January 28, 1879:

“Louisa is at the Bellevue writing her Art story in which some of my adventures will appear.” (pg. 7, Diana and Persis, edited by Sarah Elbert).

Continue reading

A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography

The 1930s was an interesting time in Alcott scholarship. The year 1932 marked the one hundredth year of Louisa’s birth. 1938 not only marked the 50th anniversary of Louisa and Bronson’s death but also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Thus in 1937, two important biographies were released – Odell Shepherd’s Pedlar’s Progress on Bronson Alcott (see previous post) and Katharine Anthony’s Louisa May Alcott.

Reception of the biography

alcotts bedellAnthony’s book was not well received. Although deemed substantive and scholarly by reviewer Frederic L. Carpenter (writing for the New England Quarterly in December of 1938), he roundly criticized her need to psychoanalyze Alcott, calling the results “unfortunate” and “ridiculous.”

martha saxton 190That, however, was 1938. More modern biographies by Martha Saxton in 1977 and Madelon Bedell in 1980 conduct their own psychoanalysis which makes for fascinating and often, uncomfortable, reading. This was true as well with Anthony’s book.

Controversies

And yet, Anthony’s book reads like a novel. It was one of the first adult books I read on Louisa (after Martha Saxton and Madeleine Stern). Knowing so much more now after years of research, Anthony’s take on Louisa affirmed much of what I had suspected and raised new controversies. I will focus on two of those controversies for this post.

A threesome at Fruitlands

Charles-Lane

Charles Lane

The first involves the relationship between Abba, Bronson and Charles Lane. Those of us knowledgeable of Fruitlands are aware of the complexity of the relationship between these three. Madelon Bedell has suggested a possible homosexual relationship between Bronson and Charles Lane. Other biographers think perhaps Lane was attracted to Abba despite the fact that he urged Bronson to be celibate. There is no doubt that Abba had many issues with Lane during the utopian experiment. In noting Charles Lane’s curious return to the Alcott family two years after Fruitlands, Anthony describes the difficulties Louisa experienced from this odd arrangement:

“For Louisa, who wished to see everything through her mother’s eyes, this reinstatement of the dragon was devastating. Her letters and diaries of that summer show how piteously distracted was her state of mind. If her mother, having once demolished the beast, had turned the sword in his body, all would’ve been plain sailing. But she saw now that the relation between the three grown-ups was a more complicated situation than she had any idea of and it gave her the feeling of a nerve-racking dilemma.  She wrestled precociously with her mother’s contradictory character, and the struggle made her sometimes despondent and sometimes reckless. The departure of Mr. Lane brought her providential relief.” (Louisa May Alcott, pg. 54)

Carpenter in his review called this section of the book “unpleasantly ambiguous,” wondering if Anthony was suggesting some kind of secret liaison between Lane and Abba since Bronson left for New York during his stay.

Going after Abba Alcott

abbaFor me, it was the beginning of a quiet vendetta against Abba Alcott by Katharine Anthony. With regards to the family’s need to move to Boston due to financial need, Anthony writes,

“A perverse vision had come to Mrs. Alcott while still in Concord. Both of her older daughters were earning wages. Anna was teaching away from home, and Louisa had begun to teach also, having opened a school in the barn. By a reversal of the usual process between parents and children, the girls set an example for their middle-aged mother. Mrs. Alcott, having steadily refused to see the necessity for working prior to her marriage when the necessity for it had been most apparent, now at once saw it very clearly. Just when her family needed her attention most, she decided to go forth and become a wage earner. Their finances had not become any worse, because Anna and Louisa had begun to bring a little money into the home. But Mrs. Alcott’s heroism drove her just at that point to take her spectacular plunge into a life of wage earning.” (Ibid, pg. 74)

Very different take

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Was Anthony’s criticism of Abba influenced by the time the author lived in? Women’s roles were still pretty much confined to the home in the 1930’s. Despite the fact that Anthony was a professor at Wellesley College along with being an accomplished author and scholar, she appeared to judge Abba by rather conventional standards. I am not aware of any other biographer taking the point of view that Abba did not need to go to work in Boston. Anthony insinuates on the next page that Abba’s efforts were not all that successful, citing no records of the reports she wrote on her work that were said to be excellent (such records now exist at the Houghton Library). She discounts the value of Abba’s intelligence office, writing that “The only domestic service job that Mrs. Alcott secured, as afar as we know, is the one she turned over to her daughter Louisa …” (Ibid, pg. 75)

Valuable analysis

Anthony’s various insights throughout Louisa May Alcott are interesting to say the least and they don’t just apply to Louisa. Anthony provides meaningful sketches of each member of the family (and in my opinion, she is one of the few to give Lizzie her due). Her analysis of Louisa is not oppressive or overbearing such as is the case with Martha Saxton (although I believe Saxton’s book has value) because she does not dwell on the amount of detail that Saxton reveals. The point, however, still gets across.

Health issues

louisa readingMuch has been made of Louisa’s health after her service as a nurse in the Civil War. After surviving both typhoid pneumonia and the mercury poisoning from being dosed with calomel, Alcott suffered from a wide variety of physical disorders including pains in her legs, headaches, digestive disorders, vertigo, the loss of her voice, etc. Historians and medical doctors Bert Hirschhorn and Ian Greaves suggested Lupus, an immune disorder, possibly triggered by the mercury poisoning (see Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)..

Louisa kept careful track in her journals of her health problems and often blamed “nerves” and overwork for her difficulties. Considering the heavy load that she carried in being head of the family and the breadwinner, it is not surprising. In the waning years of her life, she became obsessed with her health as she could find no relief.

Possible cause

Katharine Anthony offers her suggestion for Louisa’s health problems: shell-shock. Citing the Great War and the mental and nervous disorders in the veterans, she surmises that Civil War veterans would have also suffered similar trauma. “It was some form of shock to which Louisa May Alcott succumbed as a hospital nurse in 1862,” she writes (Ibid, pg. 252). Such an injury to the nervous system could afflict the victim for the rest of her life. Anthony also believes Alcott was predisposed to such a condition given her high strung nature.

from alcott.net

Lulu Nieriker, from alcott.net

There is no doubt that Louisa lamented repeatedly in her journal regarding the onslaught of her life and writing (aka, overwork) on her nerves. Between sudden fame for a woman who did not feel worthy, the untimely deaths of John Pratt and May Alcott, the care of May’s daughter and their aging father, and the self-inflicted pressure to continue writing (and earning), it is no wonder Louisa May Alcott had health issues.

Louisa’s last days were painful, difficult and sad as despair overtook her. The final pages of Louisa May Alcott describe those days with a haunting eloquence as Anthony marvels at Alcott’s ability to continue churning out cheerful and meaningful stories for the young even to her dying day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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