“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).

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A feminist manifesto: wrapping up Work A Story of Experience (part two)

“…Work is an expression of Alcott’s feminist principles and a major effort toward synthesizing in popular, readable form the broad set of beliefs encompassing family, education, suffrage, labor and the moral reform of social life that defined feminist ideology in the nineteenth century.” (pg. 191 from Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine Stern)

So writes Sarah Elbert in the introduction to the 1977 edition of Work: A Story of Experience.

Message brought into the open

Such beliefs had already been hinted at in Little Women and An Old-Fashioned Girl  (most especially the latter). Now confident of her bully pulpit, Louisa put them forth in adult form using her life experience as the means.

Transcendental influence

According to Elbert, the influence of Transcendentalism with its belief in self-reliance and individual improvement as the means to a better society loomed large in Louisa’s brand of feminism. This is most evident in the last chapter of the book, “Forty” where Louisa sends a lady of fashion, Bella Carroll, on a mission to educate her friends on leading a more purposeful life through deliberate conversation and reading (see previous post).

From personal to universal

parker and power

Rev. Theodore Parker (left), the prototype for Rev. Power

In Work Louisa was able to fashion a personal search for meaning through a tale with universal appeal. Elbert points to the Reverend Theodore Parker, a radical preacher (see previous post) whose sermons, “The Public Function of Woman” and “Laborious Young Women” deeply inspired Louisa at a time when she was at her lowest point. He became the Rev. Power in the story whose words, practical assistance and guidance led Christie from her despair into a new life full of purpose.

In the beginning

christie and aunt betseyChristie Devon was a pioneer of sorts. As an orphan freed from taking care of aging parents, she opted for independence over marriage announcing to her Aunt Betsey that (taking words from the Seneca Falls Convention – Ibid, pg. 193) “there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence.” She then proceeded to knead her bread most vigorously, “kneading the dough as if it was her destiny, and she was shaping it to suit herself …” (Chapter 1, Work A Story of Experience from archive.org).

War brings change

Elbert saw this as a symbolic gesture marking a farewell to the rural way of life, a narrow way which for generations had so shaped a woman’s life. The Civil War, much like World War II, had shaken society and the family to its foundations. Because the men were called away, the women stepped up and took their places, as head of households and workers in the public sphere. (pg. 193 from Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott).

Skillful yet unappreciated

Wages were seen as a path to independence but that path would be very hard. Christie, like most women, was trained in housewifery, a skill that was not valued in the workplace. She soon learned it was necessary for her to cultivate one skill.

Subtle humiliation

servant The obvious place to start was domestic service. By all outward appearances, being a servant didn’t seem all that bad: the work place was in a fine home with many comfortable accoutrements. It was not long before Christie saw the pitfalls: she was expected to serve the family with all the devotion and loyalty of a family member but without any of the benefits. She was not even allowed to retain her own name. It was work meant to keep her in her place through endless and subtle humiliation, with the ultimate being her firing because her “fashionable” employer forgot herself in chastising her employee and couldn’t live with it.

Evolving

In her search for meaningful employment, Christie went through a succession of jobs, from actress, to governess, to companion, to seamstress in a factory.

Choosing between being true or being successful

actressChristie grew quite talented as an actress and could have been successful. She felt, however, that the unwholesome temptations and vanities prevented her from being a true woman of character. Louisa had long dreamt of a life on the stage and through Christie she realized that dream only to have it fade when the consequences of that life proved too costly. Undoubtedly Louisa too flirted with the unwholesome aspects of the stage, and she knew some success but not at the level that Christie enjoyed. In a sense, she used Christie’s experience to rationalize her own decision to leave the theatre.

One other option

fletcher and christieAs a governess, Christie was tempted to “marry for a living” with Philip Fletcher thus securing a position in the world of fashion. It was the only alternative to low wage work or slavery. Louisa must remain true to herself and therefore so must her heroine, and Christie refuses his marriage proposal. Elbert pointed out that marriage of this sort could only mean subordination and dependency; this surely was in opposition to the life Christie meant to live when she declared her independence from her Aunt Betsey. Again, she chose to walk away.

The need for friendship

Domestic service did not lend much opportunity for friendship. Christie did manage to maintain relations with Hepsey, a freed slave who worked with her as a servant, and chapter 20 demonstrated that she also kept in touch with Helen’s younger sister Bella whom she eventually sent out on a mission (see previous post). True friendship however did not come until she became a seamstress in a factory. Her relationship with Rachel, a fallen woman trying to start her life over again proved both costly (she quit her seamstress job because Rachel was being fired because of her past sin) and life-giving (Rachel saved her from suicide). Rachel and Christie enjoyed a sisterhood that became formalized when it was revealed she was David’s long lost sister, Letty.

True womanhood at odds with working

seamstressElbert pointed out an interesting scenario created by Rachel’s presence at the factory. Hired because of her “superior” taste, she is subsequently fired when it is revealed that she had an unmarried affair with a man. Elbert wrote, “The respectable workshop manager must be intent not only on production but also on maintaining the legitimacy of such a system by hiring only girls of good character. In a dramatic confrontation between the necessities of production and the maintenance of social order, Rachel is fired as an undesirable influence on the workers, and the contractions between true womanhood and waged work are made explicit.” (Ibid, pg. 197).

True to her friend

Christie’s response to the injustice and harsh judgment visited upon Rachel was swift with her own resignation. She offered to take Rachel in but Rachel insisted on leaving in order to redeem her life and be worthy of Christie’s friendship.

Live-giving sisterhood

rachel rescues christieAgain, Christie stood tall and walked away but her independent stand came at her own peril. Subsequent lack of work coupled with terrible isolation drove her to attempt suicide. It was poetic on Louisa’s part to have Rachel reappear to be Christie’s savior, demonstrating that for the independent woman, a sisterhood was essential: a familiar theme in Little Women and in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Elbert wrote, “Female friendships were doubly important to spinsters.” Louisa observed that “a brief but most sincere affection between two women was a viable experience which could open the heart to happiness that was its right.” (Ibid) Independence like anything else must be maintained in community.

Equality and love, short-lived

Mrs. Sterling and David

Mrs. Sterling and David

After her bout with despair, Christie met Cynthy Wilkins and through her, the Rev. Power. He sent Christie to the home of a Quaker woman, Mrs. Sterling, and her son, David whom Christie eventually married.

The romance between David (an idealized Thoreau according to Elbert) and Christie began with friendship, one of equality based on mutual interests, and evolved into a companionate marriage. The two served together in the Civil War as evidence of this equality but the marriage was cut short by David’s death. While Louisa believed that a companionate marriage was possible, she didn’t believe it was for her; if she couldn’t realize it, her alter ego could not either.

Fully evolved

sisterhoodDavid’s death released Christie back into the working world, something that Louisa felt a lot surer about (Ibid, pg. 200). Rather than simply live off of her husband’s pension, she developed his flower business and hired women like herself. Her evolution is complete at forty, where, as a confident and independent woman comfortable in her own skin, she is able to share her experiences in a public forum, inspiring other women.

The vibrancy of Work

Elbert concludes, “Louisa May Alcott was a working woman all her life, moving through the experiences of domesticity, jobs, and unemployment. Her awareness of these experiences as sharing women’s responses to the expectations raised by the dominant ideology of individualism enabled her to write more vividly and with a greater sense of urgency in Work than in any of her more commercially successful novels … she was able to present both the common sensibility of women and their individual experiences in a way that exhibited the conflict of interests manifest in their lives … The strength of her vision is revealed in the authenticity of Work; the facts of women’s lives in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as we can reconstruct them, are vivid and true in Alcott’s novel.” (Ibid, pgs. 200-201)

All drawings by Sol Eytinge, from Work A Story of Experience online

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The core of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism explains her timelessness

After writing yesterday’s post on Polly’s modern sensibilities, I thought about what Louisa May Alcott’s core belief was which motivated her feminism, and why she was so effective in imparting it.

Autonomy

My conclusion? Louisa’s feminism was based on autonomy – the right of every woman to be autonomous,  the freedom for each woman to realize her true potential as a whole person. And even as I write this, I reflect back on Sarah Elbert’s essay on Moods where she incorporated Louisa’s transcendental upbringing into the mix.

Transcendentalism played a crucial role

As crazy as her father Bronson could be, he certainly associated with some very fine people (Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, etc.). He also managed to have a brilliant idea or two. 😉

Transcendentalism focused on individual development which involved introspection and scrutiny. Crucial to that development was the intimate connection with something greater than Self  by reconnecting with the natural world. God was to be found in that world but not as He had been traditionally understood.

But did Transcendentalism truly include women?

Since the vast majority of transcendentalists were male, they did not necessarily promote the same kind of individual development for women. It was probably too much to ask that they totally divorce themselves from the thinking of the day (especially when it benefited them so directly!).

A role model

However, Margaret Fuller spent many years giving ‘conversations’ to promote the idea of education for women. Her informal gatherings gave women some of the very few chances they had to learn, to reflect, and to share ideas on realizing their individual vocations. She presented quite a glamorous figure and was someone the then teen-aged Louisa admired and wished to emulate. Legend has it that when Louisa reflected on her life, making her 3 wishes at the wishing wheel located in the meadow above Hillside, that she wished for fame and travel – a life like Margaret Fuller’s.

Her upbringing influences her writing

So it makes perfect sense that all this seeped into Louisa’s writing, becoming an on-going theme. Much as she complained about writing “moral pap for the young,” these stories did much to promote her thinking that all women deserved a chance to be all they could be, leading deeper, more meaningful lives. It was far more than “moral pap”: it was a way of educating and influencing young girls, showing them that there were, in fact, choices they could make in their lives.

Timeless messages

Louisa did a lot of public campaigning for women through her attendance at national conferences, and she set the example by being the first woman to vote in the local Concord election. She courageously served as a Civil War nurse when the profession had just opened to women. And of course her tenacity in carving out a life as a best-selling literary spinster speaks volumes.

In the end however, it’s the simple and subtle messages inherent in her writing to children that continue to stand the test of time.  Just about every woman pioneer since Louisa’s era remembers reading Little Women and they point to Jo March as a pivotal inspiration.

Re-embracing feminism

Since I met Louisa long before I met Jo, Louisa is my pivotal inspiration. She was very much outside the mainstream and so am I (though in a quieter way); she gives me greater pride and confidence in that fact. Now that I am meeting her family of characters for the first time, I find it possible to re-embrace feminism; she has brought me back to its purer roots. Certainly the different political gains are important (the right to vote being crucial) but in the end, it’s really about a woman being given every chance to realize her full potential, just as every man is given that chance.

Louisa’s writing  makes me laugh, cry and think, and gives me a safe haven. This is one crazy and chaotic time that we’re living in – how wonderful that an author who lived 150 years ago could offer inspiration and safety to me, and to so many others too.

Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.