Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark

The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role models.

alcott family horiz

Role reversal

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

To begin with, Bronson’s refusal or inability to work to support his family necessitated that his wife Abba take on the breadwinner role. When her health began to suffer, Louisa took over, spending the rest of her life keeping that “Alcott Sinking Fund” (as she dubbed it) afloat, sacrificing artistic growth, independence and her own health.

Career minded

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

The Alcott daughters were educated and well read. They were encouraged to think, to create, to pursue their dreams. Abba wanted to be sure her girls could support themselves. Both parents encouraged the girls in their career interests with the results being Louisa becoming a best selling author and youngest sister May realizing some success as accomplished painter before she died prematurely.

Run, jump, play!

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

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

Physical activity was very much the norm. The girls were allowed to play like boys, running and jumping, talking long hikes into the woods, playing into the mud and coming home dirty. Louisa writes about her many hair-raising escapades in “Poppy’s Pranks” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag Volume IV. Louisa and May, being the most physically robust of the sisters, continued with physical activity into their adulthood: Louisa took daily runs while May went rowing and horseback riding.

Romance and marriage

Unlike most Victorian parents, Bronson and Abba did not pressure their daughters to marry. Louisa, of course, never took the plunge nor did she consider it even though she had a romance with a man several years her junior in Europe known as Ladislas Wisniewski (although the nature of that romance is in question–see previous post). Despite herself, she did receive at least one marriage proposal.

alcotts as I knew them coverThere are few references even to romance when the sisters were of traditional marrying age. Anna appears to have had some sort of relationship while teaching in Syracuse but she was ultimately rejected. Louisa wrote a single cryptic line in her journal in 1853 about her seventeen-year-old sister Lizzie having a romance with “C.” Clara Gowing, in her book The Alcotts as I Knew Them described it as “A little affair of the heart about that time, which did not meet the approval of her parents …”  May, a flirtatious sort, was the one sister who had many flings, most notably with next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne.

Marriage as rebellion

Pratt-2528Only two of the daughters married and both rather late. Anna married John Pratt when she twenty-nine. In a sense, she rebelled against her family’s unconventional lifestyle, preferring to start a family of her own. She was happily married to John for ten years before he tragically died; they had two sons.

May the cougar?

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

May too, rebelled in a sense, opting to remain permanently in Europe rather than being near her family. Career was first and she had rightly determined that she could not become a great artist without living in Europe. She then married a man considerably younger than herself (and successfully lied about her age – the wrong age is on her death certificate since husband Ernest Nieriker provided the information.).

Motherhood

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.

The right to vote

And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.

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Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message on sale through Christmas!

Check out Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message – on sale at 15% off through Christmas!

Available in large print as well as a the regular edition. Use the code ALCOTT during checkout http://www.portalstoprayer.com/alcott/

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Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message is here! Book signing this Sunday in Concord.

Click on the book to order your copy

Click on the book to order your copy

Louisa May Alcott:
Illuminated by The Message
is here!

Book Signing/Launch this Sunday, Dec. 6, 4 pm
Short presentation followed by conversation and signing–
let’s gab about Louisa!
The Barrow Bookstore, 79 Main Street, Concord, MA
(rear of the building, behind Fritz & Gigi)

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Fun, surprises and inspiration at John Matteson’s book signing of The Annotated Little Women

This past Sunday, November 8, a group of Alcott enthusiasts had the distinct pleasure of attending a book signing and reading with John Matteson, the editor of The Annotated Little Women at The Concord Bookstore.

Surprise!

louisa may alcott played by Jan TurnquistAs he was about to speak, we were greeted with a surprise guest, “Louisa” (aka Jan Turnquist) herself! She seemed flummoxed at first by our presence and then astonished as she learned we were about to hear about a gorgeous and rich version of her classic novel. We all smiled knowingly. She saw the book and was pleased at the beauty of the volume and then caught sight of Matteson who introduced himself and kissed her hand.

kissing the hand of louisa may alcott

It was a sweet and humorous moment, a great way to begin this reading.

The connection of family

john matteson talksMatteson went on to speak of his personal connection to Little Women, and how the importance of family brought him to know and write about the Alcotts. He shared of his years as a struggling grad student, married and with a daughter. He became a stay-at-home dad all the while wondering how he would advance in his career as he saw colleagues publishing papers and making names for themselves. This season of waiting would end up becoming a rich time of formation.

Approached for a book project

Publishing his first essay in 2001 in the New England Quarterly (an essay which had nothing to do with the Alcotts), Matteson was approached by a literary agent who wanted to discuss a book project. Matteson had no particular book in mind but the agent in his wisdom, continued to work with him. A book on nineteenth century Utopian communities was decided upon and Matteson began his research by visiting Fruitlands where he first encountered Bronson Alcott. As they say, the rest is history.

Family parallels

eden's outcasts bigMatteson was fascinated by Bronson and decided to write the book about him. As he researched the family, he came to know Louisa and saw some amazing parallels between his life and that of Bronson, both teachers and “quixotic” fathers intimately involved in the raising of strong, “verbal” daughters; for one thing, the age difference between father and daughter were nearly the same (off by just seventeen days).

And thus, the idea of Eden’s Outcasts, a biography of Bronson and daughter Louisa, was born. It would go on to win the Pulitzer prize. Quite a feat for a first book!

How The Annotated Little Women came to be

Annotated-LITTLE-WOMEN_978-0-393-07219-8The love affair between Matteson and the Alcotts continued with his work on The Annotated Little Women. Published by Norton, Matteson was approached by the company to produce this book which is part of their ongoing series of annotated classics. Originally thinking the book would be a simple project, it ended up being an intense and amazing discovery of endless and fascinating connections between the fictional world of the March family and the reality of the Alcotts.

Intimate connections

No other book, not The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland nor any other classic can boast the intimate connections that Little Women can. There are no silver slippers from Oz but there are real artifacts from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The coffers were opened to Matteson revealing astonishing links: Meg’s (Anna’s) wedding dress, Louisa (Jo) and Lizzie’s (Beth) sewing kits, May’s (Amy’s) foot cast, Abba’s (Marmee) chess set … the list goes on and on; Matteson connected such artifacts to actual passages in Little Women. These artifacts, not normally available for public viewing, are on display at Orchard House during the month of November. Photographs of these mementos appear throughout The Annotated Little Women.

Stories and more stories

reacting to miss alcott

photo by Kristi Martin

Matteson told fascinating stories about some of the other 220 illustrations in the book. He cited a passage where Amy, writing from Europe, described a purple dress (which she thought horrid) worn by the Empress of France. Matteson then gave the background: how a chemist discovered the color of magenta, how the Emperor Napoleon III had won a military victory in the town of Magenta, and how the Empress wore magenta dresses in honor of husband whenever she could to honor him in public.

He spoke about the seemingly random inclusion of a photograph of a queen from Hawaii whom Louisa happened to spot during her trip to Europe–Amy writes of this in her letters home to her family.

Personal story that resonates

By far the most interesting connection was the inclusion of a precious artifact belonging to Matteson, a simple autograph of Bronson with the phrase, “Follow the Highest!” (found on page 347). Earlier in his talk Matteson spoke of an unfavorable review of Eden’s Outcasts by Publisher’s Weekly, leaving him feeling dejected. It took the wisdom of his then thirteen-year-old daughter to remind him of his reason for writing the book: because he had something unique to say and people needed to hear it.

Looking out intently at his audience, he urged us all to do the same: “Follow the Highest!” Many of us left that book signing with far more than an autograph inscribed in our books.

a cherished signed copy

photo by Kristi Martin

Thank you John Matteson for retaining that true teacher’s heart so present in the spirit of Amos Bronson Alcott.

p.s. Don’t miss the special exhibit of artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House only through the month of November. See locks of hair from Louisa and Lizzie, Abba’s chess set, Lizzie’s sewing box and New Testament, and more!

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Book Review: River of Grace from In the Bookcase blog

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louisa-may-alcott-2015-reading-challenge-bannerI received a comprehensive and beautiful review of River of Grace from our friend Tarissa of the In the Bookcase blog (she’s the one who did the Louisa May Alcott reading challenge with us over the summer). Here’s a taste of it:

Susan Bailey is an accomplished researcher of all things pertaining to American author Louisa May Alcott (Little Women). Myself, also being a reader of Miss Alcott’s books, found joy in the way that Susan Bailey shares about her favorite authoress. Miss Alcott’s books, which all exude child-like happiness, wedged themselves into Susan’s soul and allowed her to identify parallels and discover herself again. It’s funny how words that were penned over 100 years ago still create fresh currents in our minds and hearts; it can happen to any of us.

You can read the rest of the review here, and be sure and browse the other posts on Tarissa’s wonderful blog for book reviews and selections.

Thank you Tarissa!

You can order your copy of River of Grace from Amazon.

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The Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson is a treasure

Just when you think there can’t be anything more revealed about the Alcotts, something new and wonderful comes our way.

A treasure chest

This rich and gorgeous volume of Little Women is filled with treasures that delight any fan of the March family from the casual reader to the Alcott wonk (like me). John Matteson never fails to amaze me with his insight into Louisa May Alcott; in his introduction and biographical account he brings a fresh approach to the children’s classic and its author that goes far beyond the familiar feminist interpretation. Matteson presents a well-rounded picture of each sister, focusing on what Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy bring to the table for readers today. As a Beth fan myself, I was so pleased to see how he gave this often misunderstood character her due, praising her faith, courage and graciousness when facing certain death.

From the vaults of Orchard House

There are many never-seen-before photos in this book from the archives of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House–stunning remnants of a memorable family which include locks of hair from Louisa and Lizzie, rare new photos of Anna, Lizzie’s New Testament (only recently discovered) and drawings by May of her nephews. Such remnants link the real Alcott sisters to their fictional counterparts in such an intimate way.

Beautifully designed

Norton did a magnificent job with assembling and designing this book–my husband said it looked like a Bible! My only quibble is that some of the paintings and drawings printed on the dark side.

edit_c_michelle_rollo_mattesonLouisa’s gift and genius

Matteson concludes his biographical account with this sentence: “As a writer, as a person, Louisa May Alcott’s greatest success lay in the invisible gifts she gave to others.” So true. John Matteson does a magnificent job in extracting those gifts and revealing them to the world.

More to come

P1080229In the next few days I will get into more detail about what I found in the introduction and the biographical account. I have pages of notes to sort through; that’s how rich this was!

In the meantime, help yourself to this great book!
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Announcing a musical soundtrack to my upcoming book, “River of Grace”!

I’m getting pretty excited; the launch date for River of Grace is a mere 7 weeks away! (It’s available now for pre-order on Amazon at a reduced price.) But there’s something else in the works too.

  • Imagine that you are reading River of Grace and you find it really speaks to you.
  • Now imagine that book accompanied by a musical soundtrack.
    • A song for each chapter that will play in your head as you think about what you read.
    • A way to carry that book with you all throughout the day.

I dreamed a dream …

susan with book coverI have been a professional singer for many years; four years ago I thought I had lost my voice forever. Yet somehow, miraculously, my voice did return. Ever since I have dreamt of having a collection of songs recorded to go along with River of Grace. These were the songs that came to mind as I wrote the book. Summarizing the stories and lessons, these songs are a great way to ponder and pray on the message of River of Grace, a message of the creative power of life and how each day can become an adventure even in the worst of circumstances.

What’s on the CD?

The CD will contain my take on two classics, the Quaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing” and a favorite of the Unitarian faith, “Spirit of Life.” I am re-imagining three of my own songs (one of which is the tribute to Louisa and Lizzie), and, I have two new songs I’ve written. Each song relates directly to a chapter in the book. Learning the song and listening to it in your head (or even singing it) is a wonderful way to think about what you have read.

How you can help

Recording a CD involves a lot of work and expense. While you can’t help with the work, you can help through your contribution to my Indiegogo campaign.

The campaign

IGG_Logo_NEWI am looking to raise $1600 in 30 days to cover the cost of producing this CD. No contribution is too small – $1, $5, whatever you feel moved to give. I’ve included some cool rewards for those of you who wish to contribute more—you can see it all here on my Indiegogo campaign page.

If you can’t contribute, you can still help by spreading the word to everyone you know—there are easy ways to share on my campaign page.

Campaign video

The campaign is introduced by a short video where I explain the project and provide samples of songs on the CD. I will be updating my progress on the CD through the 30-day period with additional videos and sound bites.

Excited? I am! Come on over to my Indiegogo campaign and let’s get started!

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