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

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

The Louisa May Alcott Society celebrates their tenth anniversary with a visit from “Louisa!”

On a cool and cloudy day a group of dedicated teachers, writers, academics and hard-core fans gathered together at ground zero to celebrate the love of an author who had, in one way or another, transformed their lives.

Thus was the gathering of the Louisa May Alcott Society as we celebrated ten years as an official organization.

columbine-640Greeted at the door of Orchard House by sweet lilacs and lovely columbines, the society entered the home where they encountered “Louisa May Alcott,” eager to take the group of 20+ on a special tour of her home.

In the parlor

We sat on the floor of the parlor as “Louisa” lovingly described her home and family, sharing delicious details of the wedding of Anna and John Pratt in that very parlor, the theatrics put on in the adjoining dining room (complete with mad dashes upstairs for quick costume changes) and her impressions of the George Healy portrait hanging there (“I looked like a relic from the Boston fire!” she bemoaned).

Leaning Orchard House

louisa and friends3-640“Louisa” described her father’s rather unique renovations and expansion of Orchard House (“which caused it to lean”) with the addition of the tenant house creating the dining room, kitchen and addition bed chamber above which housed May.


I enjoyed her description of the famous mood pillow, empathizing fully with “Louisa’s” desire not to be disturbed when lost in the vortex of creativity.

We gazed at May’s paintings in each of the rooms, sighed over Lizzie’s piano and appreciated Abba’s fine china before heading upstairs to the room where Little Women had been written.

Where Little Women was written

One can never enter that room without pausing over the small desk where the inkstand (a lovely glass holder with quill pen positioned over it) and pages from Little Women lay. Draped over the bed was Anna’s lovely gray wedding dress. Artifacts and tools of Louisa’s needlework were displayed on a table nearby.

May’s training

louisa and friends2-640May’s bed chamber produces the same level of awe. As we gazed at her drawings on the wall, “Louisa” described how her sister’s artistic training in Europe caused her to improve by leaps and bounds. Apparently in Europe May was exposed to training that would have been denied her in America, including the study of cadavers (which greatly improved her ability at portraiture). It was this level of training that transformed May into a serious artist. “Louisa” went on to brag how her sister was commissioned to copy the Turners which secured her position in the professional art world.

Special family heirlooms

Entering the master chamber, we were treated to a close-up view of the nursery where Johnny and Freddy Pratt had stayed after their father passed away. Here I found myself with a lump in my throat as I gazed at the dolly that Lizzie had made with the face painted by May. It took all of my strength not to touch that doll.

“Louisa” pointed out the quilt on the master bed made by her mother; that evoked a collective gasp of appreciation.

The magic never ends

We ended the tour in Bronson’s study and May’s art studio where “Louisa” noted with confusion the “chairs all set up” and the “strange device” (TV and DVD player) that filled the studio. What was May up to now?

Orchard House never fails to produce its magic and we all fell under the spell.

Happy anniversary!

The get-together culminated with champagne toasts, sweets, cheese and crackers and fresh fruit, stimulating conversation and vows to continue growing the society.

Judging from the attendance and the enthusiasm, I would say the Society is strong, growing and healthy. It is an honor to be a part of such a wonderful group.

LMA society2-640


Anyone serious about Louisa can join; dues are only $10 per year. We communicate by email on a regular basis and the website www.louisamayalcottsociety.org, provides resources.

To members of the society: you have helped me to better understand why I am so passionate about Louisa May Alcott. Even yesterday I discovered new reasons to continue my study and build my appreciation of this fascinating woman.

Come and join us!

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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1853 to 1858. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.


Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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Unpublished Alcott Letters: New letter from Louisa to Little Women publisher Thomas Niles discovered

Here’s a good reason to join the Louisa May Alcott Society (and only for $10 per year).

Newly discovered letter

little women annotatedI recently received the quarterly newsletter to read an article by scholar Daniel Shealy (best known for his brilliant annotated edition of Little Women) reporting on the discovery of a new letter by Louisa May Alcott, addressed to her publisher, Thomas Niles. The letter was written in the summer of 1868. Shealy reveals, “The letter’s content reveals hithero unknown information regarding Alcott’s thoughts on the novel’s title and May Alcott’s work on the illustrations.” (from The Portfolio, Newsletter of the Louisa May Alcott Society, No. 14, Spring 2013).

illustration by Norman Rockwell for the Women's Home Companion series, "The Most Beloved American Writer" authored by Katharine Anthony

illustration by Norman Rockwell for the Women’s Home Companion series, “The Most Beloved American Writer” authored by Katharine Anthony

What will the title be?

Niles had proposed the title of the book in a letter dated June 16, 1868 (found in the Houghton Library, bMS Am 1130.8 [1-44]) and this letter appears to be the reply according to Shealy.

Talking over the particulars

from Wikipedia on Abigail May Alcott Nieriker

One of May Alcott’s illustrations for Little Women (Roberts Brothers, 1868), from Wikipedia on Abigail May Alcott Nieriker

He writes, “The letter begins with Alcott writing in the first paragraph that she is ‘send[ing] the design with May’s alterations.’ She notes, ‘She cannot do much but has put a snood on to Meg, & shaded here and there.”

Louisa’s wish

Louisa responds to Niles’ suggestion for the title in the second paragraph “About the title, we think that if a second one is needed ‘Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy’ simply, is enough, for it isn’t the story of their [sic] lives, & any thing like ‘the story of a year of their [sic] times is suggestive of Leslie Goldthwaite [referring to A Summer in Leslie Goldthwaite’s Life by then popular children’s author A. T. Whitney, published in 1866 (Ibid)].”

Roberts Brothers did originally promote Louisa’s book as Little Women; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy the Story of Their Lives but eventually did give in to Louisa’s wish.

little women 1868

May apart from Amy

Shealy then writes, “An even more intriguing statement closes the letter’s second paragraph. Alcott writes, ‘My sister does not want to be identified as one of the little women & prefers to have it stand – ‘illustrated by May Alcott.’’ Why did May not want to be known as one of the little women? Did she simply think it would be more professional to be listed as the illustrator? Did she not want to be identified as Amy, the sister who comes off the worse in the first part of the novel?” (Ibid)

Life gets in the way

Louisa ends her letter apologizing to Niles for the messiness of the writing because “my small nephew in my map recovering from a tumble & and his gambols are not conducive to elegance of handwriting.”

Every detail matters

Shealy believes the letter shows Louisa’s active engagement with the book’s progress as it was being readied for the press. She was all business when it came to her writing.

It’s items like these that make me glad I am a member of the Louisa May Alcott Society. The message board is worth the price of admission alone. Visit their website at www.louisamayalcottsociety.org for more information.

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Little Women in Dinan, France

This is a wonderful post on Daniel Shealy’s book, Little Women Abroad, and especially singles out May Alcott’s experience as an artist in Europe. The blogger provides a map of places to visit and many photos of the different sites Louisa and May visited.

American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond

little women abroadLittle Women Abroad, edited by Daniel Shealy (University of Georgia Press, 2008), is a wonderful account of the Alcott sisters’ trip to Europe together in 1870. Most readers will be interested in the travels and insights of the most famous sister, Louisa May Alcott, but for an artist, the real thrill is to see France through her little sister Abigail May’s eyes.

Most of us know Amy, the precocious little sister in Little Women who dreamed of becoming an artist. Few of us know much about Louisa’s real little sister Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (“May”), who did indeed grow up to be an accomplished artist. Unfortunately, May’s story ends tragically. She married at the age of 38, only to die one year later after giving birth to her first child.

May Alcott began to study art in 1856 when she was just sixteen years old. She studied with Stephen…

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