Living history – Marianne Donnelly as Louisa May Alcott

“What fun we had this evening when Louisa May Alcott came to visit her childhood home at Fruitlands!”

Facebook post from the Fruitlands Museum

It was indeed great fun taking in the living history performance by actress and historian Marianne Donnelly at the Fruitlands Museum Vistor’s Center. Her bigger-than-life portrayal of Louisa May Alcott was a sight to behold.

Donnelly beautifully captured the awesome life force of Alcott along with her flair for the dramatic and sharp sense of humor.  It was not hard to imagine her as Louisa with her rapid-fire delivery, engaging the audience at every turn.

The first vote

“Louisa” opened the program with a vivid commentary regarding the women of Concord participating in their first election (that of school committee). As the first woman to vote in Concord, she shared her pride, citing her mother’s own wish which she was unable to fulfill. With typically Alcottian sarcasm and humor she voiced frustration at the narrow mindedness of the people of the town. She reminded us of the work ahead for women’s suffrage which would take another forty years.

Life at Fruitlands

She then turned back the clock to 1843 when, at ten, she and her “consociate family” lived at Fruitlands. “Louisa” provided a colorful description of life in the failed Utopian community (the vision of Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane) which included its eccentric family members, cold showers, and insufficient meals of apples, bread and water accompanied by the tedium of endless metaphysical conversation. Donnelly’s imitation of Charles Lane was priceless, feigning the grim expression so evident in the one surviving photo of the English Transcendentalist. She captured both the insanity and the poignant human drama of Fruitland to the delight of her audience.

Civil War nurse

Moving ahead several years to 1862, “Louisa” entered into a more serious vein, recounting her time as a Civil War nurse. Using an adaption of her short story, “The Contraband,” “Louisa” illustrated with brilliant fire her outrage with the institution of slavery as she described the mental and physical suffering of Robert (the contraband).

Sairey Gamp

We were then treated to “Louisa’s” personification of Sairey Gamp, a favorite Dickens character used to entertain her patients. A brave audience member volunteered to help with the skit.

After sharing with us the price she paid for her service (typhoid pneumonia and chronic ailments due to mercury poisoning) she concluded by leading us all in a solemn and lusty rendition of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“Ask me anything.”

“Louisa” wrapped up her program taking questions from the audience. We asked her to choose those books of hers that were her favorites (Moods, Work, and her potboilers). We inquired about her romance with Ladislas Wisniewski (and she shared how he and Alf Whitman made up the character of Laurie in Little Women). We asked about Bronson and whether she in fact understood her father’s transcendentalism (“No!”). She shared many other personal anecdotes and reminded us that she was not at all ladylike (and damn proud of it).

Donnelly answered questions about her own colorful life which made me think that Louisa would have found many a wonderful story to tell drawn from Donnelly’s rich experiences.

It was a magical evening in the presence of the “great lady.” Marianne Donnelly is available for her living history performance of Louisa May Alcott and would love to hear from you. You can write to her at mdonnelly00@gmail.com. Here is a video of one of her performance:

A big reveal is coming ….

Last night I made an announcement to the audience of a big reveal coming soon on this blog. I have been made privy to an exciting discovery from a local scholar … details coming, stay tuned!

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Spring finally arrives in New England! A virtual kayak trip for city dwellers

This gallery contains 13 photos.

Originally posted on Be as One:
Many of you around the country endured a harsh winter (especially you in the Midwest). Endless snow. Frigid temperatures. Dreary dark and shortened days. Our winter here in New England was long and hard and spring has been slow to come. But finally, Spring is here! Some of you nature…

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The pain of writing is performing the surgery, as demonstrated by Louisa May Alcott and Jo March

piles of manuscriptOver the past few weeks I wrote the longest piece I have ever written, over 6000 words. Life has been far too busy for my taste lately so I could only work on it in bits and pieces. I have my hour carved out first thing in the morning for writing, beginning with the first cup of coffee. Each morning for three weeks, I pecked away at that piece.

Hardly the vortex experienced by our heroine Louisa, but we all have our own methods!

Experiencing the pain

I’ve read frequently about the pain and suffering involved with writing: the doubts, the writer’s blocks, the editing, the panic. I’ve had my share of blocks (which felt more like vacations away from the work) but I have to admit I had yet to experience true pain and suffering.

Then my 6000+ piece came back from my editor. I had feared in the back of my mind that I might not have written the piece with the kind of thrust my editor wanted.  I was right.

Pulling it all apart

Now I am taking all the pieces apart, reassembling them, and giving it the thrust my editor wanted. I get the pain and suffering. Not because I feel especially attached to this piece but because I am terrible at puzzles! The details can overwhelm me.

How did Louisa
do it?

jan as louisaI always wondered how Louisa was able perform the massive edits on her first novel Moods. It really was like surgery. I have the advantage of word processing which makes it a lot easier to pull things apart while making sure everything is still saved. Louisa had merely the pen and paper. How did she ever do it?

Harriet Reisen described the process:

One sleepless night a scheme to cut Moods suddenly came upon her. “I slept no more that night but worked as busily as if mind & body had nothing to do with one another … The fit was on, & for a fortnight, I hardly ate slept or stirred but wrote, wrote like a thinking machine in full operation. When Louisa emerged from this latest vortex, she had cut ten chapters, sacrificing many of her favorite parts, but she was confident she had strengthened and sharpened as well as shortened the story. Loring [the publisher] agreed and promised to bring out the book right away. “Of course we all had a rapture,” Louisa reported. Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen, Chapter 12, Where Glory Waited

How Jo March describes it

jo writing (norman rockwell)Louisa recounted the process in Little Women as Jo prepared to edit her first-born:

Having copied her novel for the fourth time, read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it, on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired …

“Now I must either bundle it back in to my tin kitchen to mold, pay for printing it myself, or chop it up to suit purchasers and get what I can for it …” said Jo …

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody. Little Women, Chapter 27, Literary Lessons

Surgical means

Now that sounds painful. And like surgery. My work is not so dramatic but for the first time, I can truly relate to Louisa, the writer and how she had to hone art into a commercial product for sale.

Pictures-of--Surgical-InstrumentsTo me, the opportunity to work with a professional on my piece is well worth every bit of cutting, shaping, pulling apart and piecing together that it takes to make my art ready for market. Surgery is, after all,  a means of correction, to make something whole and better.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to get back to my puzzle … 🙂

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Last Day of the Summer Conversational Series – Being and Doing: Louisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two)

Cathlin Davis on Louisa’s philosophy of life

cathlin 560Continuing with Day 4 of the series, Professor Cathlin Davis from California State University presented on “Practice Philosophy: ‘I want something to do.’” Through passages from Hospital Sketches, Work, Little Men and some of the rarer short stories (“May Flowers” from A Garland for Girls and “What Becomes of the Pins” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, volume 5), Davis presented a thorough analysis of Louisa’s philosophy for life: work as salvation.

Christie’s personal search for salvation

Davis presented one of my favorite passages from Work where Christie is searching for religion. Work is seen by most as an autobiographical feminist manifesto but often the important spiritual element of the book is overlooked. Davis did a masterful job of tracing the story of Christie showing how she “got religion” by finding meaningful work in her life. Christie has led a hard life and is in need of healing; the protection of the home (and her baby, “Little Hearts-Ease”), something to do (purpose), her tasks in taking care of the greenhouse which generates the income (and surrounds her with nature) and good friends bring that healing.

Purpose and acceptance

Davis continues with Little Men, demonstrating through Demi, Dan and Nan how each found their salvation through their purpose. Demi, the contemplative, surprisingly takes on a practical occupation as a journalist to support his family but still maintains that harmony of body and soul. Dan, a troubled street boy, finds acceptance at Plumfield after traveling a rocky, winding road. Demi’s acceptance of him was most important:

“No honor that [Dan] might earn hereafter would ever by half so precious as the right to teach his few virtues and his small store of learning to the child whom he most respected; and no more powerful restraint could have been imposed upon him than the innocent companion confided to his care …” (Little Men, from Davis’ handout)

Teaching the children

Louisa used her rich imagination in short stories “May Flowers” and “What Becomes of the Pins” to drive home the same point – that purposeful work is the means to salvation. In essence, Louisa was an active contemplative, one who blended being and doing into perfect harmony.

John Matteson on Louisa and Emerson

DAY 4 john 560The series ended with Orchard House favorite John Matteson from John Jay College in New York; he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts. His presentation was titled “Innocence and Experience: Alcott, Moods, and the Emersonian Prism.” Using what Louisa considered to be her most personal book, Matteson demonstrated how Louisa sough to live out the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in her own life.

How does Emerson deal with artistic genius?

Matteson raised several important questions centered on artistic genius:

  • Can Emerson’s masculine philosophy be applied to feminine thinking?
  • Can the philosophy apply to minds in distress?
  • What about self-denial versus self-expression, and self-governance/service to others versus self-exploration of artistic genius?

Fear of genius

Suggesting that Louisa might have battled privately with a bipolar disorder, Matteson traced the life of Sylvia Yule and her mercurial nature as evidenced by her moods. He asserted that Louisa was fearful of the power and mania of her vortexes; Sylvia’s fear of the intensity of Adam Warwick plays out this concern. She sought to “tame” Sylvia as a means of achieving more of a balance as seen in the conventional ending of the 1882 revised edition of Moods where Sylvia resolves to remain with Geoffrey Moore, her husband (in the 1864 version, a younger Louisa felt she had no choice but to kill Sylvia off to consumption). Matteson believes Moods lost its power as Sylvia drew closer to that balance and maturity.

Contradictions

Emerson’s contradicting thinking on the nature of the mind had to have caused confusion for Louisa. Because Emerson did not believe in neat and tidy endings (since everything to him was fluid and open-ended), he could simultaneously hold the belief that all men were part of one universal mind and yet each man is a unique individual. The universal mind connotes community (something Louisa experienced much of in her early life due to Bronson’s views on consociate families); Louisa challenges Emerson as to whether genius can live in community since it does not lead to commonality. Sylvia is an early depiction of Louisa: full of contractions, longing for harmony due to the inner turmoil of her genius.

On the outside looking in

It is sad to consider how rigid Victorian society was at the time of Louisa’s life, it was vital it was to “fit in” to narrow expectations (which were even more narrow for women) and yet Louisa by nature was far outside of convention. Sylvia was a frustrated intellect who suffered from an overactive and overwrought mind and a heart that never rested.

Violent nature

Mattteson brought up the fascinating point about nature. Emerson promotes nature as healing and stimulating but what happens when nature becomes turbulent and dangerous? Matteson noted three occasions in Moods where Sylvia encounters this part of nature: the thunderstorm that threatened her company’s boat journey, the brush fire that nearly consumed her and the high tide that nearly swept her out to sea. She is challenging Emerson: what happens when the inner life becomes turbulent and dangerous?

Cleaning it up

In the end, Louisa gives Moods the tidy ending, perhaps not having the courage to explore the more open-ended thinking of Emerson.

Final thoughts

The Summer Conversational Series is a wonderful experience of intellectual stimulation and discussion with like-minded people. It’s not just that we discuss Louisa but more on how we discuss life. I have increasingly found it difficult to think like the rest of the world as I read more and more. I was surprised at how much of a Transcendentalist I actually am. Like Louisa, I don’t understand all the thinking of people such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, but intuitively, I know what they were promoting. To me it is a joy to overlay the Transcendentalist way of thinking onto my Roman Catholic faith; it is helping me to embrace the mystic in me, something I once feared.

I made several new friends this week, friends that I will get together with outside of the Conversational series. To be in the company of such thoughtful and caring people, to find that kind of fellowship gave me the kind of vacation I truly enjoy.

DAY 4 audience laughing 560

DAY 4 jan3 560My heartfelt thanks to Jan Turnquist, Lis Adams, all the presenters and all the Orchard House volunteers for a week I will never forget.

Click to Tweet & ShareLouisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two) http://wp.me/p125Rp-1wo

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Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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Talking about Louisa on the radio!

Last week I was invited to be interviewed by the Extreme Writers Now forum on Blogtalk radio. The interview took place on Sunday night and we had a free-for-all discussing Louisa’s works and legacy. It was great fun and I was honored to be a part of it.

You can listen to the interview here (click on the picture):

We talked about Little Women, Moods, A. M. Barnard, men, women and
An Old-Fashioned Girl, and Louisa’s poignant writings about dying in Hospital Sketches.

I love spreading the word about Louisa’s wonderful life, work and legacy! My thanks to Karen Weil who wrote the wonderful post on Louisa’s poetry; she made the connection.

Click to Tweet & Share Got to talk about LMA on the radio! Listen to interview on Blog Talk Radio (Extreme Writing Now) http://wp.me/p125Rp-1ar @Drifter0658

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A last journey on the Sylvia Yule before the winter comes

I had the very rare opportunity yesterday of actually having 2 hours of free time lining up with beautifully warm weather in the middle of October! I jumped on it. 🙂 I grabbed the Sylvia Yule and went down to the local boat launch to take a final kayak trip before the cold weather settles in.

My husband keeps wishing we had a waterfront home. I think we have the best of both worlds – a home only a few minutes away from water – all the perks without  the work and hassle. Not a bad deal at all. 🙂 I launched the Sylvia Yule just as the sun was about to set.

We had just had a big rain storm so the water level was high and the current strong, making for a vigorous paddling workout. The colors at sunset were golden and lovely.

I loved how the water reflected the clouds and the sky. I only wish I had been able to capture the Great Blue Heron that I scared off a couple of times. Alas, an iPhone camera can’t do everything! 🙂

Of course my head was full of Thoreau (as it always is now when I kayak). This time though I recalled Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute and imagined myself as a young Louisa with Mr. Thoreau in the Musketaquid, listening to music from his flute and the quasi-fairy tale stories he told about the natural world.

And how could I do a post about a kayak trip without quoting Moods? 🙂

“All manner of sights and sounds greeted Sylvia, and she felt as if she were watching a Panorama painted in water colors by an artist who had breathed into his work the breath of life and given each figure power to play its part . . . never had she felt so truly her happiest self, for of all the costlier pleasures she had known not one had been so congenial as this, as she rippled farther and farther up the stream and seemed to float into a world whose airs brought only health and peace.

Anxious to reach a certain point, they rowed on into the twilight, growing stiller and stiller as the deepening hush seemed to hint that Nature was at her prayers. Slowly the Kelpie floated along the shadowy way, and as the shores grew dim, the river dark with leaning hemlocks or an overhanging cliff, Sylvia felt as if she were making the last voyage across that fathomless stream where a pale boatman plies and many go lamenting.”

The red, orange and golden leaves, while lovely to look at, sparked a little sadness at the thought of winter approaching. They remind me of the leaves I pressed into wax paper and gave to my mom in the last few months of her life, so she could still see the beauty of the season.

Still, winter makes the spring all that much sweeter. I will need to find a way to appreciate the snow and the storms and find beauty in them also.

This weekend, I will clean off the Sylvia Yule and put her in the basement until the spring. What a glorious way to end the season, filled with wonderful memories of great times drifting down river.


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