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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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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Origin of the P.C. and the P.O. from Little Women — it started earlier than you think.

katherine-anthonyResearch has a way of taking you places you never thought to go. I recently rereaded a 1937 biography of Louisa May Alcott by Katherine Anthony (of which I will write about in a future post) and started to wonder why so much came out about the Alcott family that year.

An era of the Alcotts

Odell Shepherd’s book on Bronson Alcott was also published in 1937. It then occurred to me that both books came out just before the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Louisa and Bronson, who died only a few days apart from each other after Bronson mysteriously invited Louisa to follow him “up” during their last visit together.

Happy Birthday

That led me to look again at the various artifacts I saw at The Wayside in Concord (specifically the North Bridge Center) where there were several newspaper accounts dating from the same period. The centenary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth was celebrated in Concord in 1932:

from the The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

from the The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

A very special guest

And in 1935 when the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association gathered for its annual meeting, they announced the visit during that year of a particular VIP:

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Concord Journal, December 5, 1935, from The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

Louisa as micro-journalist

And, in the midst of these newspaper clippings, I discover a small article which sheds light on the origins of the Pickwick Portfolio from Little Women (aka, The Olive Leaf in real life):

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

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To my delight and surprise, the book referenced, Lilliputian Newspapers by James D. Henderson, was available for download from archive.org. Thus I was able to read firsthand about the origins of “The P.C. and the P.O.”

Creating a diversion

Those who have familiarized themselves with Louisa’s life recall the time in Boston when the sisters were in their teens and twenties when the family lived in acute poverty. To keep her family in good cheer, Louisa created a newspaper in 1849 (when she was seventeen) called The Olive Leaf, in honor of a favorite periodical, The Olive Branch. There were several issues, all available at the Houghton Library at Harvard University — the first issue is replicated in its entirety in Chapter 10 of Little Women.  Each sister took the role of a Dickensian character from The Pickwick Papers:

  • Anna/Meg as Samuel Pickwick
  • Louisa/Jo as Augustus Snodgrass
  • Lizzie/Beth as Tracey Tubman
  • May/Amy as Nathaniel Winkle.

Earlier origin

In Lilliputian Newspapers, James D. Henderson reveals that in fact, Louisa created the newspaper when she was twelve in 1844. Henderson writes, “The Pickwick was a manuscript newspaper, in size 10 and 8 inches, and comprised four pages, two columns to a page, entirely written by hand.” (pg. 60, Lilliputian Newspapers). Two issues were published between 1844 and 1845 when the family lived at Still River and Concord. Louisa wrote the early issues but when it changed to The Olive Leaf, all four sisters contributed.

Henderson noted the Weekly Report of their behavior (from “very good” to “good” to “middling” to “bad”) and this invitation:

“THE DUSTPAN SOCIETY will meet on Wednesday next, and parade in the upper story of the Club House. All members to appear in uniform, and shoulder their brooms at nine precisely.” (Ibid, pgs. 62-63)

Ode to Marmee

If you are lucky enough to see or obtain a copy of Lilliputian Newspapers, you will see a reproduction of the original copy of The Pickwick, found in the pocket of the inside of the back cover. The reproduction was made possible by Miss Beatrice Gunn, formerly of the Youth’s Companion, a magazine to which Louisa often contributed. The Concord Journal reprinted the poem featured in the “Poet’s Corner:”

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

The Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1870) (Minuteman National Park, Concord, MA)

James Henderson’s book was published in 1936. Lots of good stuff during the 1930’s. I look forward to sharing with you soon about Katherine Anthony’s biography which is surprisingly frank and objective.

 

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Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode Three: Louisa the runner, the real Beth’s piano, and more

“I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.”
Louisa May Alcott, “Sketch of Childhood, by herself.”

itunes graphic3Welcome to the third episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
The Podcast!

Welcome to the third episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast!  While we may not yet feel the chill in the air here in New England, September is just around the corner and with it, Orchard House’s annual benefit, the 5K Run/Walk featuring three-time Boston Marathon winner, two-time Olympian and Louisa devotee Uta Pippig. Today I will talk with Jan Turnquist, executive director at Orchard House about this run/walk, now in its 11th year. This particular year features some exciting guests and a special presentation along with the run and walk. Click on the link to see all the details.

I’ll share a reading from Little Women that fits nicely with the episode’s theme, catch you up on the latest news and at the end of the podcast, we’ll hear from Louisa herself.

Click on the image to record your feedback:

feedback graphic3or send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com.

And now, on with the show!

Here’s a reading from Little Women, and a reflection from Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by the Message:

Start Running — and never quit.

Little Women--2“But when nothing remained of all her three months’ work, except a heap of ashes, and the money in her lap, Jo looked sober, as she sat on the floor, wondering what she ought to do about her wages.

“I think I haven’t done much harm yet, and may keep this to pay for my time,” she said, after a long meditation, adding impatiently, “I almost wish I hadn’t any conscience, it’s so inconvenient. If I didn’t care about doing right, and didn’t feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally. I can’t help wishing, sometimes, that mother and father hadn’t been so dreadfully particular about such things.”

Little Women, Chapter 34, “Friend”

“Do you see what this means — all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running — and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed — that exhilarating finish in and with God — he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”

Hebrews 12:1-3

Alcott news

louisa in walpoleContinuing this fall is the special Alcott exhibit in Walpole, NH run by the historical society. The Alcotts lived in Walpole between 1855 and 1857. Among the items on display are posters advertising the plays Louisa and Anna took part in, and the piano loaned to the family by Dr. Henry Bellows which is immortalized in Little Women, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful;” I recently found Bronson’s journal entry about this episode:

From Bronson’s Journal, Monday, September 17, 1855
(Lizzie had been stricken with scarlet fever in July)

“Dr. Bellows lends his piano this morning for Elizabeth to use during the absence of himself and his family in New York. This is a kindness to E. and all of us, and will make our house here in the lane the more melodious till May next.

Elizabeth plays quite sweetly. Abby’s touch is bold  … it is fortunate for the recluse, these gifts of theirs …”

lizzie piano

Houghton Library: Amos Bronson Alcott papers, 1799-1888. MS Am 1130.12, pgs. 395, 396 September 17, 1855

31-waysideThe Wayside (part of the Minuteman National Park) continues to be open to the public from now through October 30, Sunday, Monday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Sundays, 11:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. The Wayside, known as Hillside when the Alcotts lived there, is where part one of Little Women took place. You can imagine scenes such as the girls acting out Pilgrim’s Progress on the stairs. The Wayside also housed Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family for several years, and Margaret Sidney, author of The Five Little Peppers series. It’s a fascinating tour — I recently did a blog post with pictures.

I recently visited Minuteman National Park’s North Bridge Visitor’s Center where I had the pleasure of going through Margaret Lothrop’s research for her book, The Wayside Home of Authors. She has transcribed several years of Bronson’s journals covering the Hillside period and beyond, passages that are not featured in Odell Shepherd’s book. Shepherd left out most of the family-related passages; thanks to Lothrop, these passages are now easily accessible, providing a window into Alcott family life and in particular, Bronson’s creativity which I think influenced May in her art. The museum technician, Steven Nevin, is very helpful and friendly, a joy to work with. The organization of the materials is clear and easy to follow. You can find a link to the summary of what is available on the show notes.

Walden Woods Project Library

Walden Woods Project Library

Speaking of libraries, Walden Woods also has fascinating archives to explore. Their librarian Jeff Cramer is also very accommodating – he recently scanned and sent me an article on Junius Alcott, Bronson’s younger brother. You can find a link in the show notes for a summary of their holdings.

If you have an event you’d like me to share on this podcast, simply send me feedback using the SpeakPipe app, It will record your voice and send your message via email to me. It’s quick, easy and free to send your feedback—just click on the SpeakPipe app on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page. You can also click on the green “Start Recording” link in the show notes.  I welcome all kinds of feedback: Ask questions, make comments, quote a passage, tell a joke, anything Alcott-related. I look forward to hearing from you.

Orchard House Annual 5K Run/Walk Sunday, September 11 at 11 am —
interview with Jan Turnquist

utarickdick combined

Jan shares some wonderful stories about this wonderful event and exciting news about a special presentation associated with the run. You can sign up for the run and find out more at www.louisamayalcott.org – the link will be on the show notes. If you run the race send me your pictures at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com and I’ll post on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page.

I’d love to hear from you – right on the home page is a link to SpeakPipe App where you can leave audio feedback. Just click on the green “Start Recording” button. SpeakPipe App is also available on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page, in the left hand column under Apps. Just click on the icon and leave your message.

You can also send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com. I will share feedback on the next episode.

NOTE: “Louisa May Alcott: The Podcast!” is no longer available on iTunes but you can listen here on the blog. For all the episodes, visit the Podcast Page.

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A dream book launch–Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message makes its debut at The Barrow Bookstore in Concord

1-outside the barrow-640For an author obsessed with all things Alcott,
does it get any better than this?

Launching a book about the most famous Alcott, Louisa, in The Barrow, a bookstore housed in a building owned by descendants of Anna Alcott Pratt in the heart of Concord, Massachusetts … it’s a dream come true.

A book store that is a treasure trove of books past and present, especially of the beloved authors of Concord.

An intimate setting at dusk with hosts who outdid themselves with their hospitality and with an audience of eager Alcott enthusiasts – what more could you want?

I want to publicly thank Aladdine, Jamie and Nancy for hosting me at their store. Although my presentation lasted just a half hour, the conversation afterward lasted well over an hour. Strangers brought together by their passion, all becoming friends. Even my husband had a good time! 😉

both sizes-640I read from Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message, sharing passages from Work A Story of Experience, Hospital Sketches and Little Women and their matching bible passages.

I shared how Louisa May Alcott is My Passion came into being and the role my late mother played in the creation of that blog.

It became a wonderful conversation on how the Alcott family has impacted our lives in quite personal ways.

It was my favorite kind of book event–organic.

large_audio-e1280245494342-316x300Here is my presentation:

Thank you to my extended Alcott family!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message comes in two different sizes – click here to order the smaller volume that fits in your purse; click here to order the large type edition.

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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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