Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part two: Lots of borrowing

little women in the garretLouisa May Alcott was never bashful about borrowing from previous stories to flesh out Little Women. Several short stories set the stage for the classic: “The Sisters’ Trial” (four sisters, Leonore, Agnes, Ella and Amy facing going out to work to deal with the family’s poverty), “A Modern Cinderella” (depicting Anna and John as Laura and Di), “In the Garret,” a poem featuring Nan, Lu, Bess and May, and “Living on an Omnibus” which introduced the poor Hummels (pgs. 435, 437, Little Women Norton Edition, from Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine B. Stern).


Mining her vast storehouse of memories, Louisa transcribed her childhood, mixing fiction seamlessly with fact to create a compelling story. Both she and Thomas Niles, her publisher, felt the book was “dull” after the first twelve chapters, but Niles’ niece and other children who read the manuscript had different ideas. Louisa may not have enjoyed the creative satisfaction of churning out Little Women as she had with her A. M. Barnard thrillers, but her pen was creating sheer lightning in the guise of simple truth and family devotion.

Laurie’s composite

Characters and settings from the book were composites of real people and events. Stern writes of Laurie:

Laurie would inherit from Ladislas [Wisniewski, Louisa’s love interest from her first tour of Europe] his curly black hair and big black eyes, his musical skill, and his foreign background, while Alf [Whitman, a lifelong friend from Louisa’s theater days] would endow him with high spirits and a sober kind of fascination. (Ibid, pg. 436).


A stew of plays

“The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy,” performed by the March sisters on Christmas night consisted of the following:

She [Louisa] would take Hagar from “The Unloved Wife,” Hugo from “Norna; or, The Witch’s Curse,” Zara from “The Captive of Castile,” and miraculous potions from “Bianca,” evolving a composite melodrama entitled “The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy.” (Ibid)

comic tragedies2-horz

Personal letters and writings

Mr. March’s letters came from Bronson’s writings while living at “Concordia” (just before they embarked on Fruitlands) while Marmee’s notes to her daughters originated from jottings in the girls’ various journals. Louisa’s “The Olive Leaf,” a family newspaper created while the family lived in destitution in Boston as a means of entertainment, became “The Pickwick Portfolio,” carrying with it the various Dickensian characters. (Ibid)

Real? Fiction? Who cares?

What was real and what was fiction? Did Amy (May) really burn Jo’s (Louisa’s) manuscript? Did she really fall through the ice? Did Anna have the experience of Meg, being dressed up like a doll by her wealthy friends? Stern writes,

It scarcely mattered. Fact was embedded into fiction, and a domestic noel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood. (Ibid, pg. 437)

Mining for gold

The deeper one digs, the more universal will be the concept. This is advice I was given from a successful writer. And while Louisa may have felt she was only regurgitating old memories, she was in fact, digging deep into a mine and producing gold. It merely took representing adolescent girls as they really were, warts and all.

Much more to come …

Click to Tweet & ShareContinuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine Stern’s brilliant analysis, pt 2: Lots of borrowing

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part one

madeleine stern lmaI have always maintained that Madeleine B. Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography is the standard bearer. Tracing the life of Louisa the writer, Stern gives penetrating insight not only into Louisa’s life, but her very essence as a writer. As a writer myself, I have found much wisdom in these pages and have marveled at Louisa’s ability to “simmer a story” in her head while fulfilling duties around the house, and then sitting down later to spill it out, completed on paper, without editing. I try emulate the simmering part, at least, often working out what I want to write vocally as I am driving (yes, I’m one of those crazies you see on the highway, arms flying, face animated with talk. I love my hour long commute!).

The birth of Little Women

little women norton versionRecently I was going through Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) and found Stern’s brilliant chapter on the creation and writing of Little Women. I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I knew I just had to share what I found with you.

Oliver_Optic_-_All_AdriftStern relays the facts of the birth of Little Women, how Thomas Niles of Roberts Bros. urged Louisa to try her hand at a girl’s book, hoping to duplicate the runaway success of the “Oliver Optic” series for boys. I had always wondered why he approached Louisa as she didn’t have any direct experience in writing for juveniles and Stern reveals why:

“She [Louisa] have proved her ability to report observations in Hospital Sketches; she had indicated her powers of appealing to juvenile readers in her editorship of  Merry’s Museum. Could not Miss Alcott combine both talents in a domestic novel that would reflect American life for the enjoyment of American youth? (pg. 434, Little Women, Norton Edition).

Louisa’s unique abilities

merry's museum 1868Louisa saw no trick in writing for children: simply tell the truth. Describe life as it is, using the real language of children (slang and all). For Louisa, it was a simple calculation. Wisely deciding to write what she knew, she drew upon the rich history of her own childhood.

A model family

Stern describes Bronson’s ideal of the “happy, kind and loving family, a home where peace and gentle quiet abode.” (Ibid, pg. 435). Little Women was to be the depiction of that ideal home. Although the Alcott home life was often be fraught with anxiety and chaos due to poverty, there was plenty to build upon in Little Women based upon the ideal that they attempted to live. On occasion, that ideal did play out.

Knowing their angels

Bronson and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in Louisa’s ability to relate to children; Waldo, who had seen a teenaged Louisa tell stories to his children, had called her the “poet of children, who knew their angels” (Ibid). Certainly Bronson had something to gain by Louisa’s agreeing to write the story as Robert Bros. promised to publish his book, Tablets, if she agreed. But he had urged her for years to write good stories for children as the nurturing of the minds of the young was nearest and dearest to his heart. If he could no longer do it, perhaps his daughter could take up the mantle through her gift with a story.

Where to begin

Stern writes, “The door was Hillside’s.  Could Louisa open it, recover those despised recollections of childhood, and find in the biography of one foolish person the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the universal history?” (Ibid)

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

We shall see. To be continued.

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Personalizing Louisa through the reading of Little Women

Little Women

Responding to my request, I am pleased to present a guest post by Jillian author of the A Room of One’s Own blog. Jillian is exploring the classics and using her blog as a journal, sharing her reactions and insight. As a new student to the classics, I depend heavily on Jillian’s blog to guide me to good reading, and she has never let me down. I know you will appreciate her unique point of view on Louisa’s most successful and far-reaching work, Little Women.

Reading Little Women – a guest blog by Jillian
A Room of One’s Own

When Susan asked me to write a guest blog for her lovely Alcott site, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly talk about — though I was keen to contribute a few words, since I’m all about spreading the Alcott love.

Anyone visiting this blog has either read something by Louisa May Alcott or is curious to meet her. That’s one of the things I truly love about literature — that potential to unite us. Those of us who have read Little Women share the experience of it. We can exchange glances and know that Jo, that Meg, that Amy and Beth lived their lives within our souls for a while. Louisa’s Little Women has been a shared memory between strangers from all over the world for over a century.

I can’t tell you anything about Alcott that Susan hasn’t already said better. (Indeed, when I have a question about Alcott, I generally seek her out.) I’m certainly no expert on Louisa, or her family, or her century, or Transcendentalism. I’ve read one biography and a couple of her shorter works: Hospital Sketches and “Transcendental Wild Oats.” So I can’t even give you a very thorough review of her library.

But I can tell you who my Louisa is.

Before 2010, I had barely heard of Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t care about Concord, though I was fascinated by the Civil War. My interest pulled to the South, though. To Tara and the searing apart of Atlanta — action and all that. (My favorite book is Gone With the Wind.) I certainly never intended to read Little Women. I was a busy, on-the-go 21st century person, more inclined to enjoy the movie than the novel. I added it to my classics project list more as an “I should read this” item than a wish list book that I yearned to explore. It seemed like something I should have read as a little girl, and having not read it felt like a gap. I’d enjoyed the 1994 movie and figured Little Women was a good enough place to start with the classics.

A lot of people have expressed irritation when they read Little Women – not only for a certain turning point in the story which makes me chuckle and applaud Jo March (if you’ve read it – you know!), but for the very “littleness” of the book. I don’t mean that it is itself little, for my copy weighs in at 502 pages. I mean that this century seems to yearn for action, adventure, a snappy opening, a protagonist with an excrutiating decision to make at once, and LOTS of tension.

Little Women isn’t like that. More, it’s a window into the world of women in nineteenth century New England. The book is quite didactic – something that bothers some people. Especially in the early chapters, the book seems to focus on how to be a proper little woman and grow up to be a proper wife. But what people miss, I think, is Marmee. A woman who pulls to her daughter Jo early in the novel, sharing with her an inexplicable anger and desire to fight that the other sisters, and Jo’s father, don’t understand. Just like one could read Pride and Prejudice as a love story and miss the side story about Charlotte Lucas, I think one can read Little Women as a didactic novel and miss the nuance in the Jo story.

Little Women is separated into chapters that read like short stories: days in the lives of the March girls and what they faced in 19th century Concord. The stories aren’t so much about plot – as they are warmth and love and survival as women in a world that wanted women to be quiet, be useful, be relatively ornamental, and well… be little. See, that’s what I remember most about Little Women: as much as it felt didactic, there was Jo. Awkward, cranky, boisterous, clumsy, loud Jo who wanted nothing more than to live up to those didactic standards and couldn’t. She is a contrast, and so too, is Little Women. It’s a foundation of who one “should” be as a proper New England woman, written through the eyes of four sisters: an artist, a wife, a musician, and a writer. And oh, that writer — how she doesn’t fit! She loves her sisters, and as slow-rolling as the story is to start, it gets to you, when you realize that this world was Louisa’s, and that sweet Beth was her sister, and that this didactic outpouring is the very world she lived in, and that the writer produced the very book laid open on your 21st century lap.

The title itself gives me shivers. One could read “Little Women” as a commendment of littleness, or one could read it as the very world into which Jo, and likewise, Louisa, had been sat. She adored that world, I think. But she wasn’t quiet, she wasn’t predictable, and she wasn’t little. So the novel reads as a sort of tribute to the place Louisa couldn’t make her own: a world of giving sisters who laugh and hug and dream and try to stay alive while Jo sits insolently gazing out the snow-crusted window, her willful chin working as ardently as it can to stay small and proper and level while her ravenous soul pulls to war and Laurie and running and loudness, and Marmee.

The thing about Little Women is – it stuck with me. Not just the lessons, but the story, the sisters, the sense of comfort and safety and snugness that is Louisa’s novel. I’ve read over sixty books since then, and still I pull to Alcott’s work. Still I count it as a favorite.

My Louisa is a fighter — not so very different from me or Scarlett O’Hara or Mr. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (which surely Louisa read by night in lamplight.) She’s a product of her century and all that she read and all that she lived. While Atlanta was being ripped apart by fire, Louisa was in Massachusetts — writing. She lived that world that I find so fascinating. She lived it from the Northern side, sat between Thoreau and Emerson, under the roof of Bronson Alcott, surrounded by sisters. Little Women is her side of the story — how she coped, and how her three very different sisters faced the same world.

I read that publisher James T. Fields dismissed her work as insignificant once, and advised her to, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” Oh, that makes me angry. I remember learning, as I explored her world, that while she is certainly didactic in Little Women, she is that way because she was told to do it. Apparently books about being a proper wife were what sold, in the nineteenth century, by women writers. And that’s what was expected of Louisa. She wanted to write about ghosts and mystery and thrilling stories, but the men of that world wanted her to write about how to be a proper little woman. What absolutely endears me to Louisa — is that she gave them that. But within it, she gave them Jo March — herself, her soul, a little woman who could not fit into that world, and who desperately yearned to be good enough.

That girl is my Louisa.

This March I intend to re-read Little Women to see what more I can ring from it, and to enjoy alongside it Geraldine Brook’s March and Alcott’s own sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boy’s.

I don’t think I’ll ever again be satisfied with “just the movie.”

Jillian blogs at A Room of One’s Own, where she journals her exploration through classic literature.

Guest blogger Gabrielle Donnelly (author of The Little Women Letters) shares the meaning of sisterhood. Plus, a book giveaway – Win The Little Women Letters!

I am pleased to present a guest blog by the author of The Little Women Letters, Gabrielle Donnelly.

Recently I reviewed this fine book and had a chance to talk with Gabrielle via email about it. I was intrigued by her biography where it stated that she had no sisters but in fact had 4 brothers! Her portrayal of the Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) and their special interaction felt so authentic that I was sure Gabrielle must have lived it. She shares with us how she created the sisterly dynamics between the 3 sisters, and how she herself longed to have sisters too.

Book giveaway

Be sure and comment on this post and you may win a copy of The Little Women Letters! See details at the bottom of this post.

The cover illustration on my 1989 Penguin Classics edition of Little Women the one from the 1915 edition, the one by Jessie Willcox Smith of the four March sisters grouped together. Although it is an illustration which is often reproduced, it is not one that I personally have ever much cared for. My lovely, joyful, fierce and feisty March girls look glum and strangely fearful here; and three of the four individuals are so very different from the way in which I had imagined them, that the only one I can identify for absolute certain is golden-ringleted Amy. Nevertheless, there is one element to the picture which is unmistakable and true: that these girls, wrapped together, leaning against each other, unquestioningly, trustfully close, are not just friends, but sisters.

The difference between sisters and brothers

I don’t have sisters myself – I have four brothers, which, believe me, is not the same thing at all – and it’s always been a sorrow to me. Women with sisters have an ease with other women which we sisterless will never have. They grew up sharing their life with another girl, comparing each other’s bodies and swapping each other’s clothes, combing each other’s hair and sometimes sharing each other’s bed, invading each other’s space without self-consciousness or hesitation. And it shows itself throughout their lives, in the fluidity of their gestures, the quickness of their sympathy, the way they will, almost unconsciously, hold my hand or stroke my arm or my hair when we are deep in conversation. I was like this as a little girl – most little girls are, I think – but when I reached adolescence, a houseful of boys at home and our stand-offish northern society outside it required me to set boundaries, both physical and emotional. Women with sisters escaped these.

Louisa May Alcott’s sisters

Louisa May Alcott, of course, had three sisters and it is obvious that she adored them. Which is not for one second to suggest that she always found them easy to get along with. You don’t have to read closely between the lines of Little Women discover that she found her elder sister Anna, who turns up in the book as Meg, at times prim and controlling, and pretty youngest Amy a plain old spoilt brat (although Amy and Jo, just like the real life May and Louisa, did grow to be very good friends as adults); and who knows what flaws we would have discovered in the perfect saintly Beth if she had lived, not died? But that’s the point of sisters – they don’t always like each other. In fact, sometimes they want to kill each other, raging with a boiling intensity of fury that we women rarely, if ever, feel for our brothers. Brothers are just too different.

The Little Women Lettters: Where did the Atwater sisters come from?

Author Gabrielle Donnelly

People sometimes ask me how I managed to create the relationships between the Atwater sisters in The Little Women Letters, and the answer is simple. Like many sisterless women, I suspect, I have been studying sisters, both real fictional, for most of my life – reading Little Women and Pride and Prejudice and the biographies of their authors, watching my mother and my Aunt Alicia, and my cousins Binnie and Sue, and my friends Caroline and Sally, and Kerry and Aggie, and Vernay and Cynthia and Sylvia. Studying and watching, and wondering what it must be like – and, oh, yes, envying – and I think I always will.

A yearning . . .

A couple of years ago, when I was visiting London, my friend Patti and I went to the farmers’ market with Patti’s daughters, Harriet and Grace, two absurdly pretty twenty-somethings, one brunette and one blonde. As Patti and I absorbed ourselves in the summer strawberries, Harriet and Grace skipped ahead, laughing at a joke of their own, their arms around each other’s waists.

‘Look at that,’ said Patti, who is also sisterless. ‘Wouldn’t you have loved to have that?’

Now, Patti and I are neither of us lonely women. We’re both happily married, both blessed with a large extended family, and a wide circle of amazing friends of both sexes. Many people would consider us lucky in the richness of our lives, and, quite frankly, many people would be absolutely correct. All the same, I knew immediately, at that bustling farmers’ market on that sunny day, exactly what Patti was referring to.

‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘Yes, I would have.’

And, oh, I would.

Win a copy of The Little Women Letters!

Want to win a copy of The Little Women Letters? I am giving away 3 copies. Simply post a comment and I will pick the winners at random. The giveaway contest closes Tuesday, August 2nd at noon so get your comments in right away!

The Little Women Letters promises to be a great summer read!

Summertime is here and I’ve lucked into some wonderful summer reading. I just started The Little Women Letters, the fifth novel by Gabrielle Donnelly, a British writer. The story is set in modern day London and tells the story of three sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) who are direct descendants of Jo March. The middle sister, Lulu (guess who she’s modeled after) discovers a treasure trove of letters from and to Jo. Apparently these letters have a profound affect on her life and the lives of her sisters, but I’ve only just started this book. I do know that it’s been a long time since a book captured my imagination so much that I lost track of time at the gym! Definitely a fun read.

I’m always amazed at how an author can muster up the confidence to attempt to write authentically in the voice of another. So far Donnelly is doing this really well. She perfectly captures the style and sentiment of Louisa May Alcott’s writing and as a result, the letters whisk me back to Little Women in a flash (so glad that I read that book recently so that it’s still fresh). It’s great to be back with Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie.

I have to get this book back to the library in 2 weeks so I need to read fast! I’ll let you know how it goes. I think I’m going to feel sad when it’s done.

Take a tour of the final resting place of the Alcotts

There’s a terrific article on the Concord Patch written by a licensed Concord tour guide, Harry Beyer. He takes you on a tour of the Alcott family plot at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Here’s a teaser from the article:

Louisa May was an active abolitionist, helping to shelter runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. She was also an early feminist. Protesting the exclusion of women from Concord’s 1875 Centennial parade and ceremony at Old North Bridge (the celebration at which Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue was unveiled), she wrote “It was impossible to help thinking, that there should have been a place for the great granddaughters of Prescott, William Emerson, John Hancock, and Dr. Ripley, as well as for … the scissors that cut the immortal cartridges” for the shot heard round the world. “It seemed to me that … the men of Concord had missed a grand opportunity of imitating those whose memory they had met to honor.”

Here’s the link to the article where you can read more and see the grave markers for each family member.

I thought it was very curious (and very cool) that of all the biographies written about the Alcotts, Beyer recommends Madelon Bedell’s book, The Alcotts Biography of a Family. I’d love to know why . . . I left a comment on the post inquiring, hopefully he’ll answer.

What makes Orchard House such a compelling historical site?

Here’s a great essay by Klara Stephanie Szlezák where she concludes that staging is critical to the success of an historical homestead. Kudos to Orchard House for the brilliance of its staging which so beautifully captures not just the era Louisa May Alcott lived in, but her home, her family and her classic, Little Women.

The first few paragraphs are here for you to read; there is a link at the end to the rest of the article.

“Welcome to Our Home!”: Staging Practices at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Klara Stephanie Szlezák

1. 399 Lexington Road, Concord, MA: Historic House, Writer’s Abode, Tourist Site1

In March 2009, the popular travel guide series Lonely Planet published a volume called New England Trips providing a broad range of themed itineraries through the six New England states. One of these itineraries is called “Literary New England,” leading the traveler on a three- to four-day trip with stops at libraries, inns and tearooms named for famous writers, as well as at houses where New England writers used to live, thus taking into account the long tradition and central role of literary tourism in New England. One of the writers’ houses that the guide suggests for a stop is the Alcott family’s house in Concord, Massachusetts. With over 50,000 visitors per year (Orchard House Website), the Alcotts’ former house, officially called Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House,2 is one of the most popular and successful literary sites. The Lonely Planet invites the traveler to visit there with the following comment: “Louisa May Alcott wrote her famous semiautobiographical Little Women in her home Orchard House, which is now part of a small estate of historical buildings called Louisa May Alcott Homes” (New England Trips 53). This short note establishes two major facts about Orchard House: one, that it is a house where a famous writer wrote a famous book;3 and two, that it is a historical building and thus of general interest.

What the guidebook text does not say about Orchard House, and what seems much more noteworthy for the purposes of a cultural analysis, is that one of the house’s major functions is that of a stage. When it comes to determining the cultural significance of the house and the ways in which it functions in a twenty-first-century tourist landscape I would argue that both its literary association and its historicity are mere prerequisites and preconditions for the staging of traditions. I argue that the staging of traditions is a central characteristic of the house and lies at the heart of present-day interest in the house and thus its survival in times when many comparable sites struggle severely to stay open.4

Click here to finish the article