May Alcott’s call to the creative life is our call

I had the pleasure last night of attending a presentation by Elise Hooper regarding her new book, The Other Alcott (see previous post for review). Among the many interesting aspects of her talk was the idea of women and artistry and the difficulty in claiming your vocation as an artist.

May’s dilemma

Elise pointed out that what made May’s story particularly interesting to her was the fact that May was not overshadowed by a man but by another woman, and her own sister to boot! Hooper recalled chapter one of The Other Alcott in which Little Women is published to rave reviews for the writing while the illustrations are roundly panned. As the baby sister seeking not only to emerge from her sister’s shadow but also to be taken seriously for her own talent, the public’s response to her drawings must have been humiliating.

This episode sets up the dual premise of the book – claiming ownership of one’s creativity, and sibling rivalry.

A great challenge

Elise spoke at length of the obstacles that women in the nineteenth century faced in fulfilling vocations that fell outside of wife and mother. While women of today certainly have an easier time pursuing careers, we know that with all the hats we have to wear it still is a tremendous challenge.

Learning to own it

Elise and I spent a lovely dinner together before the presentation to discuss this subject. We both admitted to the difficulty of claiming the title of “writer” and “artist.” It was so much easier to say we were craftsmen, something that she pointed out to me as I explained why I often don’t consider myself to be a “true” writer because I am not compelled to write for its own sake, but rather, to use writing as a tool to speak to things I care about (and in that respect, it is a compulsion). She then gently pointed out how I was viewing my writing as a craft rather than art and she is right. I went on to explain how I love the editing process best where I think of myself as a potter with clay, shaping the meaning, tweaking the words, and infusing a bit of poetry into the prose. After I shared that with her, we both agreed it was in fact, art.

Spokesperson for May

Along with Elise’s love of the Alcotts, her own background as an Art History major, amateur painter and high school teacher of English and History uniquely qualifies her to explore May’s life through the vehicle of fiction. There was an infectious nature to her presentation that told me this story was her own as well in many ways. It’s a universal theme highlighted in The Other Alcott.

Sisterhood

The book and our encounter reminded me of a common phenomenon in Louisa’s books – the sisterhood. We think first of the March sisters in Little Women and how each of them had her specific role to play in the development of the other three. We recall Polly Milton (An Old-Fashioned Girl) and her sisterhood of poor, single, working women and how their purpose-filled lives shaped Fanny’s growth into a useful and contented woman. And then there is Christy Devon (Work: A Story of Experience) who emerges from the grief she suffered due to the loss of her husband to create a supportive group of women meant to build each other up so as to reach out to others in the world.

I am reminded of such a sisterhood every time I get together with other Alcott enthusiasts. I see the wonderful support given to each member of our group (whether it is here on the blog or at gatherings such as the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House) as we pursue our creative vocations. I know I would be nowhere in my writing were it not for the support I have received especially through the Louisa May Alcott Society along with this blog community.

And this, in part, I think, explains the continuing appeal of Louisa May Alcott. The themes she espoused in her writings some 150 years ago still resonate with women today despite all the changes in our world. Some things, fortunately, never change.

 

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Book Review: The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper (@elisehooper) | Twitter

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from the author for review purposes.

Lounging on my wicker love seat with the koi pond (and its sprinkling fountain) in view,  I had a most enjoyable summer read with The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott by Elise Hooper.

May Alcott fleshed out

Abigail May Alcott, the prototype for Amy March in Little Women comes across in this debut novel by Hooper as vivacious, ambitious and thoughtful, struggling to be seen in her own right as an artistic talent as well as a viable, caring woman. Living in the shadow of her famous (and older by eight years) sister Louisa, May encounters the problems of all the “babies” in families: that of being taken seriously.

Sibling rivalry

The book opens with the family receiving the first reviews of Little Women including the less than sterling comments about May’s illustrations. Devastated, May attempts to hide her shame from Louisa who, in typical older sisterly fashion, minimizes the critique commenting,

“I know it must be a bit of a shock since everything always seems to go your way, but you’ll recover. Somehow I always do.”

She then abruptly changes the subject, asking about May’s current beau, Joshua Bishop. After everyone has left the house, May tears apart her sketchbook and burns the pages in frustration.

This incident sets up the core of the novel: the tension between sisters who are similar in temperament, and the younger sister’s feelings about achieving her ambition and proving herself to her family.

Genuine struggles

In reading May Alcott’s letters, one gets the sense that she did not grapple from angst.  More guarded and perhaps less introspective than Anna and Louisa, she kept up a cheerful facade. One forgets that she too had her inner struggles. Hooper does a good job of imagining May’s doubts, regrets and struggles. She comes across as well-rounded, real and very likeable.

For example we see May galled over her portrayal in Little Women as the selfish, vane and pretentious Amy. Her anger is soothed by sketching:

“When she sketched, it felt as though she had a fever, a good fever, a fever that warmed her insides and made the rest of the world melt away …”

In the midst of that pleasure, she knows it’s make or break time:

“If she stopped creating, what was left? A slow slide into spinsterhood? She’d be stuck in Concord forever … She needed her art …”

Art, love and sacrifice

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

Pursuing art as a profession required sacrifice especially when it came to relationships. Joshua Bishop, her love interest, is charming, wealthy and kind; if May had truly been Amy March, he would have been her Laurie. But May knew Joshua could not abide her artistic ambition. This set up her relationship with future husband Ernest Nieriker towards the end of the book, one of my favorite parts. Ernest comes to life as charming and thoughtful with a keen sense of fun. As a talented musician he can empathize with May’s artistic self. Hooper presents a deeper and more realistic relationship than what we can gather from May’s letters to the family.

Sisters, sisters …

The most complex was her relationship with Louisa, the older sister, the family breadwinner and May’s  only means of support. Louisa, who was temperamental, often condescending and jealous of May’s streak of supposed “good luck.” Hooper paints their relationship as close but difficult at times — a portrayal of competing siblings who love each and their their family deeply.

Europe and professional growth

Self portrait by Mary Cassatt – IAHLQ-4ePxivhw at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain

Hooper describes the course of May’s art education in Europe, again providing the struggle that was missing from May’s accounts to her family. There were times when being the sister of the world famous Louisa May Alcott was costly as May discovers in one escapade with an instructor. May’s budding relationships with other professional women artists (including Mary Cassatt) were especially satisfying; Hooper employed these relationships well to explore the world of professional art for women. These relationships would enable May to find the confidence to pursue her art without her sister’s help.

Writer’s choice

Hooper takes editorial liberty with facts in order to craft a better story, and she explains her choices at the end of the novel. I would highly recommend reading her comments before embarking on the book so as to take that liberty with her. Hooper’s choices are logical, making for a more compelling read.

Weak ending

As much as I loved The Other Alcott, I was disappointed with the ending. I became quite involved with May and knowing how the story actually ended, prepared myself for a good cry. That did not happen. I don’t want to completely spoil the ending but suffice it to say that I did not find it satisfying.

Recommended reading

That being said, I still highly recommend The Other Alcott. It reads quickly, sweeping you into May Alcott’s world of nineteenth century art, love, Europe and Louisa May Alcott. I will remember it fondly as the first book I read on my new patio in front of the koi pond — a fitting way to break in my new favorite reading place.

 

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What would you like to know about the woman behind Beth March?

I need your help.

I am writing my book proposal for the biography on Elizabeth Alcott and I need more input from you as a fan of Little Women. Here are a few short questions — if you could comment below with your answers, that would really help. And thank you!

  1. What would you most like to know about Elizabeth and why?
  2. What do you know already about her?
  3. Who is your favorite March sister is and why? If Beth is not your favorite, why?
  4. Do you think Beth is a relevant character for modern readers and why or why not? What would make her more “real” to you?

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Rambling about “Little Women”

My commute to work is one hour or more each way so I have to do something to entertain myself. I tend to have what I call “brain dumps” while driving and when I do, I whip out my phone and turn on the Dragon app. Then I dictate what I’m thinking. A good portion of my writing is done in this fashion.

Today I had such a “brain dump” so I thought I’d share it with you. I’ve been enjoying the Much Ado about Little Women blog and realized I’d love to write more often about what I think about Little Women.

So here goes!

Thoughts on Chapter 42, “Alone”

I have written before about this, my favorite chapter.. The most nuanced and grown-up chapter in the book, it shows Jo’s willingness to allow grief to reshape her. Consumed with honoring her dead sister Jo was determined to follow to the letter of the law Beth’s exhortation on taking care of the family by renouncing her writing ambition. Marmee’s wisdom however led Jo to understand why she found this so difficult to do—it simply wasn’t in her makeup to do what Beth had instructed. She could not be Beth and needed to find her own way to care for the family while remaining true to herself.

Choice of husbands

Part of remaining true to herself was to reject Laurie as a potential husband. In our love for Laurie we forget that he was not entirely supportive of Jo’s writing. Professor Bhaer, however, was. In fact, it was Jo’s poem about the four chests in the attic that touched his heart. He disapproved of Jo’s blood and thunder stories because he thought she was capable of better and inevitably, he was proven correct.

A new life

In allowing the creative process of grief to shape her future, Jo was able to realize a life that to her was very satisfying (even if some readers disagree). She could expand her world to help others, especially the boys she loved so dearly. She was able to start her own family. And in time, with acquired wisdom, she was able to write as she had desired.

This is why Little Women is such a satisfying read for me. Even though she resisted the idea of making Jo a married woman I think Louisa still revealed desires for herself through Jo. While I have yet to read Jo’s Boys, at least through Little Women and Little Men, Jo was free in a way that Louisa it was not. Jo did not impose the chains of duty upon herself as Louisa did.

Was it fair that Amy won the trip to Europe?

On another front, with regards to Amy getting the trip to Europe—I believe Amy deserved that trip. Unlike Jo who rendered her service to Aunt March in a begrudging way, complaining to her sisters about her aunt and clearly not enjoying her company, Amy in fact did enjoy being with Aunt March. That made Amy tmore agreeable companion. Jo felt entitled to that trip and that was wrong. While at first it appears unjust because of Jo’s service, it was the way that service was rendered that caused Amy to be chosen. There is something to be said about that verse from scripture, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Lucky or gifted?

Like May, Amy was not just “lucky.” Calling her sister “lucky” betrayed Louisa’s/Jo’s resentment towards her sister’s natural ability to get along with others. Louisa/Jo had a lot of difficulty with casual niceties and small talk and people were put off by that. She couldn’t help being the way she was but to resent May/Amy because of her natural ability was unfair.

Who is the shy one?

Beth is often characterized as timid and shy but in many ways Jo was shy as well. Both sisters felt unworthy and in need of improvement, even redemption. Yet while Beth retreated from life, Jo pursued a better course, doing battle with her life like a warrior, determined to prove she was worthy. Beth died, and Jo lived.

What do you think?

Share your ramblings!

 

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Summer Reading Recommendation: The Courtship of Jo March

Trix Wilkins of the Much Ado about Little Women blog (an excellent blog, by the way, all about Little Women) has written a most intriguing re-imagining of Little Women with different endings for characters. In her description of the book she writes,

Set in the early 1870s, this re-imagining of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is for all who have ever wondered how things might have worked out differently for the beloved March sisters – the life Beth might have led, the books Jo might have written, the friends they might have made, and the courtship that might have been…

Authoress Jo March has lost her elder sister Meg to matrimony. When the aristocratic Vaughns – elegant Kate, boisterous Fred, thoughtful Frank, and feisty Grace – re-enter their lives, it seems her younger sisters Beth and Amy, and even her closest friend Laurie, might soon follow suit.

Yet despite the efforts of her great-aunt March, Jo is determined not to give up her liberty for any mortal man. What else is a writer to do but secure music lessons for her dearest sister, and befriend aspirant journalist Tommy Chamberlain?

The Marches’ neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence was born with looks, talent, and wealth – and Jo is convinced he has a promising future in which she has no part. He is as stubborn as Jo, and has loved her for as long as anyone can remember. But what will win a woman who won’t marry for love or money?

Wilkins is offering a sample thirty pages of the book free which you can order here. In reading those pages I was immediately caught up in the story. Wilkins does a fine job of imitating the voice of Louisa May Alcott; the characters feel true to their origins. Already in those thirty pages I saw clever ideas and insights into characters that made me want to read more. I will purchase the paperback version sometime this summer and then write a review. This is a perfect summer read, especially for those of us who can’t get enough of Little Women!

Here is all the purchasing information you will need for The Courtship of Jo March. Wilkins is giving away a special package with each book, both the e-book and the paperback.

And in the meantime, be sure and visit her blog, Much Ado about Little Women.

And speaking of blogs …

Tarissa’s In the Bookcase blog is running her annual June Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. Be sure and visit her site — it’s easy and fun to participate. If I can get out from under with my current non-Alcott reading before the end of the month, I’ll chime in too!

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Coming attractions – watch for a new novel on May Alcott coming out in September

Look what I got in the mail the other day:

This is an advance copy of Elise Hooper’s first book, The Other Alcott, published by Harper Collins in which she imagines May Alcott’s life beginning in 1868. Elise gave a wonderful talk last summer at the Summer Conversational Series on May’s life as an artist. You can listen to an interview I did with her here.

I am looking forward to this read (and so far it reads well). The book debuts this September and is available on Amazon for pre-order.

Here is the write-up on Amazon:

Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.

Stylish, outgoing, creative, May Alcott grows up longing to experience the wide world beyond Concord, Massachusetts. While her sister Louisa crafts stories, May herself is a talented and dedicated artist, taking lessons in Boston, turning down a marriage proposal from a well-off suitor, and facing scorn for entering what is very much a man’s profession.

Life for the Alcott family has never been easy, so when Louisa’s Little Women is published, its success eases the financial burdens they’d faced for so many years. Everyone agrees the novel is charming, but May is struck to the core by the portrayal of selfish, spoiled “Amy March.” Is this what her beloved sister really thinks of her?

So May embarks on a quest to discover her own true identity, as an artist and a woman. From Boston to Rome, London, and Paris, this brave, talented, and determined woman forges an amazing life of her own, making her so much more than merely “The Other Alcott.”

“Elise Hooper’s thoroughly modern debut gives a fresh take on one of literature’s most beloved families. To read this book is to understand why the women behind Little Women continue to cast a long shadow on our imaginations and dreams. Hooper is a writer to watch!”—Elisabeth Egan, author of A Window Opens

You can find out more by visiting www.elisehooper.com

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Rare inside look at Louisa May Alcott’s edits on the frontispiece illustration for part 2 of Little Women

From the Firestone Library of Princeton University comes this fascinating and brief look inside the process of putting together the Second Part of Little Women for initial publication.

This article shows the original frontispiece illustrated by Hammatt Billings (showing Amy and Laurie in Europe) and Louisa’s comments scribbled in the margins. Then we get to see the final piece which ending up pleasing Alcott greatly.

Alcott also shares in a letter to a friend just how strongly she felt about Billings’ efforts.

This is a must see — click on the title:

Alcott to Billings: Oh, Please change em!

 

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