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

The Palace Beautiful: The Little Women trail #5

This is a wonderful tour of the places where Jo March and family members dwelled through the real-life Alcott family members. My thanks to the “Much Ado about Little Women” blog.

Much ado about Little Women

By Trix Wilkins

There is something intriguing about the history of a home – who designed it and why, what accomplishments occurred under its refuge, who might have met within its walls and what precious moments might have consequently transpired? This trail follows the homes from the life of Louisa May Alcott that appear to make cameo appearances in Little Women – from their humble homes in Concord to the Hancock family manor in Boston.

The March sisters’ plays: Hillside House (now known as The Wayside)

“In a suburb of the city…an old brown house, looking rather bare and shabby, robbed in of the vines that in summer covered its walls, and the flowers which then surrounded it.”

According to Louisa’s teacher, Henry David Thoreau, Hillside was haunted by one of its previous owners. Despite this, Louisa spent happy early teenage years here and it became one of the homes…

View original post 1,298 more words

Coming attractions for 2017 (and a summing up of 2016)

Abby May Alcott's diaries from 1852 and 1863 - get to know the real Amy March.

courtesy of the Houghton Library, Louisa May Alcott additional papers, 1845-1944: MS Am 1817, folder 56

Abby May Alcott’s diaries from 1852 and 1863 —
getting to know the real Amy March.

May Alcott Nieriker's delightful foray into writing -- mentoring other women artists.

May Alcott Nieriker’s delightful foray into writing —
mentoring other women artists Continue reading

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 thousand kisses–I love you with my whole soul”: Relations between women in the 19th century, as reflected in Little Women

This comment from Diana regarding a previous post prompted a discussion on whether or not Louisa May Alcott was gay:

“What is your opinion of the evidence that she may have had some suppressed passion, such as crushes, on girls? Remember she said in an interview that she had been in love with so many girls in her life. This may have been an almost unconscious part of her complicated character; but it would need to be considered in examining her sexual energy. At any rate, if that energy was channeled into her writing, this aspect of it may have been an added component to the human richness of her genius, giving her an extra sensitive intuition into both sexes.”

It is tricky addressing this subject because the mentality of the nineteenth century was so different from our present day. Continue reading