Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode Two: Wrap-up of the 2016 Summer Conversational Series

“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)

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

Click on the image to listen:

player graphicDuring the next thirty six minutes I will give you an overview of the recent Summer Conversational Series, “‘Finding Beauty in the Humblest Things’ — Louisa May Alcott’s Literary Vision” which took place July 10-14 at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. You’ll get to hear from many of the speakers and hear a summary of their presentations. Here on the show notes I have links to my notes so that you can get all the details.

 

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And now, on with the show!

Cathlin Davis, PhD
“Bringing Beauty to the World: Youthful Reformers in Louisa May Alcott’s Juvenile Fiction”

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Dr. Davis, Full Professor in the College of Education at California State University-Stanislaus, has been presenting for over ten years at the Summer Conversational Series. She likely has the largest collection of books by Louisa May Alcott (many first editions) and is the go-to person for information and analysis of Alcott’s juvenile works.

On Monday she demonstrated how Alcott brought beauty to the world through her children’s stories. She covered three commonly used themes through a series of stories:

  • Kindness to animals (“Nelly’s Hospital,” “Old Major,” “Baa! Baa!,”)
  • Kindness to each other, rich and poor (“May Flowers,” “Roses and Forget-Me-Nots,”)
  • Sharing Christmas joy (“How It All Happened,” “The Little Red Purse” and “Kate’s Choice.”)

Dr. Davis introduced her session by reading portions of a children’s picture book by another author, Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius which demonstrates the theme beautifully. You can watch it here on YouTube:

Download my notes

All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.

Elise Hooper:
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”

Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper is a teacher of history and the author of The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott Nieriker, due for publication in the Fall of 2017.

Hooper traced the life of May Alcott Nieriker, citing the influence of her parents. Although May lacked a thorough formal education, her home encouraged creativity, enthusiasm and beauty, all of which drove her in her ambition to become a professional artist.

Hooper explained the need for May to seek her training in Europe as America was in its infancy with regards to art. With the exception of a few prominent teachers (among them Dr. William Rimmer and Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman, both of whom instructed May), there was no support for a professional career in art for women. Because of strong Victorian norms, it was impossible for women to receive the necessary anatomical training as that necessitated the use of nude models, male and female.

Still, Boston was more progressive in the arts than most cities and May was able to take full advantage. Once she reached Europe through the help of her famous sister Louisa, May threw herself into studies. Hooper discussed May’s success as a Turner copyist and two-time exhibitor at the Paris Salon.

Download my notes

You can find out more about The Other Alcott here.

Anne-Laure François
“A Lesson in the True Necessities and Means of Life: Louisa’s Children as Wise Seers of the Sublime in Everyday Life”

Anne-Laure François

Anne-Laure François

Dr. François is an assistant professor at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense working in both the English and Law Departments. Her doctoral dissertation offered the first detailed study in French of Louisa May Alcott’s fiction, examining Alcott’s strategy of re-writing Transcendentalism and adapting its philosophical principles to the demands of the fast-growing American literary market in the second half of the 19th Century. As an educator, she helped create an alternative high school in the South of France — a project notably based on Alcott’s “Plumfield,” the school utopia that paid homage to her father’s groundbreaking educational ideas and work.

Dr. François chose to examine a little-known short story written by Alcott in 1857 called “The Cross on the Old Church Tower.” She believes that this story foretold the type of writing that would propel Alcott to great success. It is also important to note that “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” was written during Lizzie’s last illness.

Faustian themes, a favorite of Alcott, is featured in this story and found in later works such as A Modern Mephistopheles. One of the main characters, Walter, represents Faust while the other, Jamie, is his savior through his simple and virtuous life. Walter eventually becomes a writer of love stories through Jamie’s influence. There are many parallels between “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” and the story of Beth’s death and her influence on Jo in Little Women.

Dr. François described how this story shows the depth of Alcott’s reading. She believes the story is prophetic regarding Alcott’s future as a successful writer.

You can read “The Cross on the Old Church Tower” here http://www.online-literature.com/alcott/1976/

Download my notes

Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”

Kristi Lynn Martin

Kristi Lynn Martin

Kristi Martin is a registered tour guide for all the historic homes in Concord including Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. She is currently doing her dissertation for her PhD on literary tourism in Concord (“Creating ‘Concord: How Preservation and Tourism Transformed a New England Village into a Tourist Mecca, 1824 – 1965”).

Kristi’s specialty is the Alcott sisters and in her presentation told true stories of each sister that line up with the fictional tales of the March sisters. The Alcott sisters were known as The Golden Band by their father Bronson and he wrote beautiful sonnets for each sister. In Little Women, he is the wise and quiet leader of a bustling household of women.

Beginning with the eldest, Anna, Kristi described Anna’s love of beauty (her favorite word was “beautiful”) and used her wedding as the perfect example of Anna’s virtuous beauty. Meg March’s wedding was very similar to Anna’s right down to the grey silk dress and Lily of the Valley flowers. The simplicity of that wedding underscored the beauty that be the marriage between Anna and her John (aka Meg and John Brooke).

She highlighted Louisa’s sacrifice of her nursing service which resulted in a near fatal illness and the loss of her “one true beauty” – her long chestnut tresses. In Little Women Mr. March serves in the war and Jo sacrifices “her one beauty” impetuously to help send Marmee to his side during his recovery.

Beth’s gentle goodness and gracious death proved to be perhaps the major moral force of the novel as shown by the change in Jo after Beth dies. Kristi shared quotes from Lizzie demonstrating that the shy shadow sister in fact very much enjoyed the company of others and could have a saucy sense of humor not unlike Louisa herself!

Finally she contrasted May with Amy demonstrating that although like Amy, May grew into a gracious woman, she also took her art far beyond where Amy was able to take it.

Download my notes

A visit from Louisa May Alcott!

From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

From left to right, Lis Adams, Education Director, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

We had a surprise visit from Louisa herself! (artfully portrayed by Orchard House Executive Director Jan Turnquist) She first talked about Father and Mother and their dear friends, Emerson and Thoreau. She spoke with affection about Emerson’s daughter Ellen and how she dogged Louisa for more fairy stories. That of course, ended up with the publication of Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables.

She was “surprised” that we all knew and loved Little Women and remarked how unexpected its success was to her as both she and her publisher, Thomas Niles, thought the book “dull.”

Louisa lovingly shared the familiar story of Bronson coming home after a trip out West, covered with snow and with only one dollar in his pocket.

She shared stories about her days as a Civil War nurse and even “reunited” with a soldier she had nursed in Washington! (Bravo John Matteson for your campy performance)

She then revealed her deep dark secret: she wrote pot boilers just like Jo! She then acted out one of her most notorious women characters, devious Jean Muir of Behind a Mask.

Continuing to enact favorite characters, she showed us Sairy Gamp from a Charles Dickens story, the character she used to cheer up her dear Lizzie as well as the soldiers in the Union hospital.

Calling us friends, she confided in us how she put off annoying fans by pretending to be the Irish maid.

It was a wonderful visit!

Gabrielle Donnelly
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

Gabrielle Donnelly, photo by Jeannine Atkins

Two classics: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Gabrielle Donnelly is a devotee of both authors.

Having written a modern day interpretation of Alcott’s book with The Little Women Letters, Donnelly is intimately familiar with the March sisters; as a member of the Jane Austen Society, she has similar affinity for the Bennet sisters.

Listening to any presentation by Donnelly is truly an unforgettable experience with her classic London accent and dry British wit; she is a perennial favorite at the Summer Conversational Series. She traced both stories and showed great differences between the March and the Bennet families. Of course, Pride and Prejudice was written in an earlier era and Alcott’s upbringing was unusual and progressive. Comparing and contrasting these two families revealed much about Austen and Alcott as women and writers.

The crowning moment was a piece of fan fiction crafted by Donnelly where she has Elizabeth Bennet meeting Jo March (Mrs. Frederick Bhaer)!

Download my notes

Download Donnelly’s fan fiction

John Matteson
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”

Dr. John Matteson

Dr. John Matteson

Dr. Matteson, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts (about Louisa and her father), also author of The Lives of Margaret Fuller, presented a double session highlighting his latest book about the Battle of Fredericksburg and its effect on American culture through five prominent people (including Louisa).

Dr. Matteson’s presentation was part book description and part writing process. As several of us are working on book projects, this part of his presentation (and the ensuing Q & A) was especially helpful.

Dr. Matteson began by sharing how his new book project (with the working title of A Worse Place than Hell, a quote taken from Abraham Lincoln) was born through a discussion with one of his editors who pushed him to think “big.” Dr. Matteson shared some of his techniques for staying on track and not becoming overwhelmed by the mountain of research he has acquired.

He then got into the meat of the book, describing first the Battle of Fredericksburg and why it was such a bloody disaster. He then introduced the five persons transformed by the war:

  • Walt Whitman – his brother’s injury in a battle caused Walt to become a volunteer nurse.
  • The Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller (Margaret’s brother)
  • Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. (future Supreme Court Justice — how his view of the law evolved)
  • John Pelham (“the blond idol of soldier-loving girls”) – John especially captivated by his photo (that’s how I felt about Lizzie when I first saw her). He was the youngest soldier to lie in state.
  • Louisa May Alcott

Download my notes

Part two of Dr. Matteson’s presentation was an encore of the presentation he made last May at the Concord Inn which you can read about in my blog post, “Finding the ‘prince of patients’—John Matteson discovers the whereabouts of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches”

Closing thoughts

With heart and brain both filled to overflowing, our week together ended. The community that has developed as a result of the Summer Conversational Series is supportive, loving and generous.

AUDIENCE-560

Although not equal in achievements perhaps, we are equals in our love for the Alcotts and love nothing better than to share that love with each other and the world. Kristi Martin said it perfectly:

“My Alcott community is precious to me. It makes the Summer Conversation series a special occasion. I’m blessed to be a member of the extended Orchard House family; for the friendships, the countless ways that the individual and collective members carry on the spirit of the Alcotts, and bring kindness, joy, learning, inspiration, and beauty into my life.”

Amen.

I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.

And my thoughts

I wrote some personal thoughts too which you can check out here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge: Pedlar’s Progress by Odell Shepherd–uncovering the essence of Bronson

I never thought I’d be saying this, especially when it comes to Bronson Alcott but Pedlar’s Progress, a biography on the life of Alcott by Odell Shepherd, is turning out to be an epic read. It may rank among the top ten books on my lifetime list.

pedlar's progress

A satisfying tactile experience

Could it be because I have an antique copy, dating back to 1937? Could it be the gorgeous cover, carefully repaired and kept on the book as I read so I can enjoy it? Maybe it’s because the pages are browning and the paper soft to the touch. I love that the type is easy to read and the margins wide so I can write in them. The fact that the spine of the book causes it to stay open by itself is definitely a factor.

Getting into Bronson Alcott

bronsonalcott1A satisfying tactile experience certainly adds to the pleasure but what does it for me is the beautiful writing. Odell Shepherd gets into the mind and essence of Bronson Alcott like no other (he actually read all of Bronson’s journals, an amazing feat, and compiled excerpts into The Journals of Bronson Alcott, published in 1938.). He uncovers the brilliance and beauty, the hunger for knowledge, the heart and the spiritual insight that in particular, shaped Alcott’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher and conversationalist. Shepherd also exposes the inconsistencies, sloppy scholarship and the poor writing skills. He admits to the lack of care of practical matters, and a singular obsession bordering on arrogance and narcissism which oftentimes placed his family in abject poverty despite his deep love for them.

First impressions

When I first started writing for Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, I found Bronson to be difficult at best. It was hard to forgive the plight he forced upon his wife Abba. He certainly left permanent scars on daughter Louisa due to an insistence on shaping her into his own image. She grew up becoming a workaholic, slavishly providing for the family long after it was necessary. While she achieved great success as a writer, she lamented her ability to grow artistically as a writer.

A change of heart

eden's outcasts bigAfter reading Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson, I began to change my mind as I saw a new side to Bronson as a mystic. Shepherd’s book completes the story for me. Current biographers comment on his style being old-fashioned (while being totally authentic) but to me, that’s the charm of the book. It was written less than fifty years after Bronson’s death in an era where the values of Bronson’s time could still be understood and appreciated.

Where I’m at in the book

conversations with children on the gospelsI am halfway through my read, where Conversations with Children on the Gospels has been published (can’t wait to read that one!) and the Temple School is coming apart at the seams. Shepherd cites a letter from Elizabeth Peabody begging to be taken out of Conversations because she senses it will ruin her reputation. Before reading this book, I sympathized totally with Peabody and blamed Bronson for poor judgment. Now I am not so sympathetic. I certainly understand how a woman in her position as an older spinster living in proper Boston had to protect her reputation but the fact is that she had pledge her loyalty to Bronson, offering no objection as she took careful notes of the conversations between him and the children. It was only after she heard whispers from “the parlors of the ‘best families’” that she became afraid for her reputation and backed out.

Not an objective take

It’s obvious that Shepherd is sympathetic with Bronson and does not reproach him for his lack of judgment in that debacle. But Shepherd certainly shows a different side to Peabody’s response demonstrating that there are always two sides to every story.

A different view of Emerson

ralph waldo emersonOne other note of interest is Shepherd’s view of Emerson as he discusses the budding friendship that saved Bronson from total despair after the Temple School collapsed. He describes the spirit of Emerson as “shy as a faun of the woods. It was cold as a snow-maiden. Emerson must never know that where he had given only his admiration, his strong and faithful help, his wise counsel, and the partnership of his deep poetic mind, Bronson Alcott had given no less than his whole heart.”

He goes on to accuse Emerson of loving a “fine phrase better than a brave deed.” He then compares the experiences of Alcott to Emerson and it becomes obvious whom he prefers:

“And yet Emerson did make too much of books, of writing, of mere paper and ink. If had gone to school on Spindle Hill instead of attending Harvard College, if he had loaded several tons of Connecticut boulders upon a stoneboat every day for months, or if he had walked ten thousand miles carrying tin trunks from house to house in the Carolinas and Virginia, he might have seen such matters somewhat differently. –But these were things that one said with the head. They had nothing to do with love.”

To take on the revered Emerson in that manner is bold indeed! Yet again, another side to the story.

I can hardly wait to see what Shepherd has to say about Fruitlands!

louisa-may-alcott-2016-reading-challenge-bannerWhat are you reading for the challenge? Visit In the Bookcase to see what everyone else is reading.

NOTE: I wrote a separate piece on this book in my spiritual journal which you might like to read. Beautiful writing has a way of lifting the soul up and out of the darkness.

Have you heard the first episode of The Podcast yet? Check it out here or on iTunes. Be sure and leave a review on iTunes.

 

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Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! Episode One: “Beauty in the humblest things”

Welcome to the premier episode of

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Topics and show notes:

louisa coverA reading

Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message
by Susan Bailey, pgs. 88-89,
from Work: A Story of Experience

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

News

The Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge
at “In the Bookcase”

louisa-may-alcott-2016-reading-challenge-banner

louisa in walpole“Walpole’s Louisa May Alcott,”
sponsored by
the Walpole, NH Historical Society

nest5-21-2015The Summer Conversational Series
at Orchard House

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview

lis adams with french louisa bio for webwith Lis Adams, Education Director of Orchard House on the Summer Conversational Series.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

jan as louisa1And some words from
the old girl herself!

as portrayed by Jan Turnquist.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Music

All bumper music copyright 2000, 2002 and 2015 by Susan Bailey

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Time again for the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge! What will you be reading?

Dust off your books and library cards–it’s time again for the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge sponsored by In the Bookcase.

512 an old-fashioned girl louisa may alcott 01 covermarch-geraldine-brooksAlready there are some terrific books lined up by readers including An Old-Fashioned Girl, Proverb StoriesMarch by Geraldine Brooks and even my own Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message.

I am already about a third of the way through Pedlar’s Progress by Odell Shepherd on the life of Bronson Alcott. Concurrently I am reading Bronson’s journals edited by Shepherd, and How Like an Angel Came I Down: Conversations with Children on the Gospels.

pedlar's progress-horiz

You can follow the discussions on In the Bookcase and also through Goodreads.

Looking forward to seeing what everyone is reading!

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Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark

The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role models.

alcott family horiz

Role reversal

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

To begin with, Bronson’s refusal or inability to work to support his family necessitated that his wife Abba take on the breadwinner role. When her health began to suffer, Louisa took over, spending the rest of her life keeping that “Alcott Sinking Fund” (as she dubbed it) afloat, sacrificing artistic growth, independence and her own health.

Career minded

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

The Alcott daughters were educated and well read. They were encouraged to think, to create, to pursue their dreams. Abba wanted to be sure her girls could support themselves. Both parents encouraged the girls in their career interests with the results being Louisa becoming a best selling author and youngest sister May realizing some success as accomplished painter before she died prematurely.

Run, jump, play!

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Physical activity was very much the norm. The girls were allowed to play like boys, running and jumping, talking long hikes into the woods, playing into the mud and coming home dirty. Louisa writes about her many hair-raising escapades in “Poppy’s Pranks” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag Volume IV. Louisa and May, being the most physically robust of the sisters, continued with physical activity into their adulthood: Louisa took daily runs while May went rowing and horseback riding.

Romance and marriage

Unlike most Victorian parents, Bronson and Abba did not pressure their daughters to marry. Louisa, of course, never took the plunge nor did she consider it even though she had a romance with a man several years her junior in Europe known as Ladislas Wisniewski (although the nature of that romance is in question–see previous post). Despite herself, she did receive at least one marriage proposal.

alcotts as I knew them coverThere are few references even to romance when the sisters were of traditional marrying age. Anna appears to have had some sort of relationship while teaching in Syracuse but she was ultimately rejected. Louisa wrote a single cryptic line in her journal in 1853 about her seventeen-year-old sister Lizzie having a romance with “C.” Clara Gowing, in her book The Alcotts as I Knew Them described it as “A little affair of the heart about that time, which did not meet the approval of her parents …”  May, a flirtatious sort, was the one sister who had many flings, most notably with next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne.

Marriage as rebellion

Pratt-2528Only two of the daughters married and both rather late. Anna married John Pratt when she twenty-nine. In a sense, she rebelled against her family’s unconventional lifestyle, preferring to start a family of her own. She was happily married to John for ten years before he tragically died; they had two sons.

May the cougar?

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

May too, rebelled in a sense, opting to remain permanently in Europe rather than being near her family. Career was first and she had rightly determined that she could not become a great artist without living in Europe. She then married a man considerably younger than herself (and successfully lied about her age – the wrong age is on her death certificate since husband Ernest Nieriker provided the information.).

Motherhood

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.

The right to vote

And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.

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Inside the heart of Bronson Alcott

sonnetscanzo00alcorichIn the last post covering John Matteson’s talk at the Colonial Inn I mentioned Bronson Alcott’s Sonnets and Canzonets, published in 1882 and how they reveal the heart of the man. Each sonnet or canzonet is dedicated to his wife, daughters and many luminary friends such as Ralph Waldo  Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.

Presenting an entertaining dilemma

The sonnets and canzonets are not labeled by name so the identity of the person must be discerned from details provided in the piece. It makes for a fun detective game trying to figure out about whom Bronson was writing. The book is available on archive.org so I challenge you to read it and see if you can identity all to persons.

bronsonalcott1Did Bronson love?

Many do not associate Bronson with devotion and tenderness. After all, how could a man love his family and yet not provide for them? How could a man so seemingly narcissistic, so lost in the clouds of philosophy, understand what it means to love others?

Revealing the heart in earthly experience

But as we know, life is never that black and white. Bronson was, in fact, devoted to his family and his friends. It took many years for him to recognize that love is not merely pure, perfect and theoretical; it is in fact very imperfect. Earthy and physical. Messy, wrenching, and glorious. No life event drove that home to him more than death, whether it be losing two daughters to it, or nearly being deprived of another through her service to the dying.

And so I share with you sonnets to his four daughters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. Judge for yourself the heart of this complex and all-too-human philosopher.

Here are sonnets for Anna, Louisa and Elizabeth:

Anna Alcott

Anna Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Elizabeth Alcott

Elizabeth Alcott

And finally, May Alcott.

Judging from the length of this sonnet, May’s unexpected death shook Bronson to the core:

Do you believe Bronson loved his family well over his entire life? Why or why not?
What do you feel was his greatest contribution to his girls?

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Louisa May Alcott was not the only Alcott working off sexual energy

From Women and Health in America (first edition) there is this intriguing essay titled “What Ought to Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century” by Carl N. Degler.

Quoting Dr Charles Taylor, 1882—

“It is not a matter of indifference whether a woman live a single or a married life … I do not for one moment wish to be understood as believing that an unmarried woman cannot exist in perfect health for I know she can. But the point is, that she must take pains for it.” “some other demand for the unemployed functions, must be established. Accumulated force must find an outlet …” (pg. 50)

Following the doctor’s orders

We already know that Louisa May Alcott channeled her tremendous energy into her creativity–writing. Louisa, however, was not the only physically vibrant and passionate Alcott sister. What about May? Continue reading