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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The Alcott daughters as beneficiaries of their parents’ progressive ideas on education

Recently I read an essay called “Women, Menstruation and Nineteenth Century Medicine” by Vern Bullough and Martha Voght which discussed how misinformation regarding women and menstruation prevented them from receiving an education. The essay covered familiar territory with regards to how the world of medicine regarded women’s health in the nineteenth century. (See previous post)  As stated in that post,

“The foundation for all diagnoses of women’s ailments: “… began and ended with consideration of an organ unique to her, namely her uterus.” (from Women and Health in America, pg. 223)

False ideas

E. F. W. Pflüger, Wikipedia

Such misinformation was rampant, much of it due to Victorian modesty coupled with the lack of women doctors. Folklore abounded with little change in ideas since the time of Hippocrates or Aristotle (pg. 67), including the idea that a woman’s flow was caused by the effect of the moon. A commonly held theory promoted by E. F. W. Pflüger maintained that nervous stimulation triggered menses; as can be expected, this caused many physicians (and those they influenced) to oppose any emancipation of women. (pg. 68)

A danger to health

Sex in Education by Edward H. Clark, M.D.

It was argued that the education of women should be discouraged because of the supposed danger of mental stimulation on a woman’s physical health. In fact, it was declared a “disastrous error” by medical writers in 1870 to educate girls who were experiencing puberty: “the female between 12 and 20 must concentrate on developing her reproductive system … likewise, during the growth of the female reproductive system, brain work must be avoided.” It was also suggested that girls should be restricted in brain work due to their monthly cycles. (pg. 69).

Dr. Edward H. Clark, in his book Sex in Education, claimed that brain work left women in poor health for the rest of their lives and presented case studies to prove his point. Despite the fact that his book was denounced for its lack of rigorous scientific study, Sex in Education went through seventeen editions in thirteen years. (pgs. 70-71)

Keeping women in their place

Many of the theories equating the ill health of women with the “overstimulation” of their minds through education were unsubstantiated. Even when disputed by appropriate scientific research, the misinformation persisted because of the popularity of the ideas. (pg. 71) Along with warnings regarding health were concerns about the influence of higher education on a woman’s femininity, placing in doubt her ability to fulfill her roles as wife and mother. Education had the effect of making a woman “coarse” and “forceful.” (Ibid) Undoubtedly those ideas sought to keep men in power and women in the home.

Education of the Alcott girls

In the midst of all of this, Abigail Alcott sought to send two of her girls, Lizzie and Abbie May, on to higher education. She was determined that each of her daughters have trades and become self-supporting (Anna spent ten years teaching while Louisa perfected her writing craft which would eventually support the entire family). In 1853 Lizzie was to attend the newly opened Girls High School in Boston (aka, The Normal) to train as a teacher. Abbie May, attending the Bowdoin public school at the time, aspired to follow in her sister’s footsteps. Both had discussed together the idea of attending public school as May writes in her journal on September 13, 1852,

“Lizzie and I as we sat and sewed we talked about going to a public school, and think we had better go although it will be hard the first day.”

The Bowdoin School today, converted to apartments

The idea was suggested by a man – Samuel Joseph May. In a letter to his sister dated October 15, 1850 he writes,

“If your good girls are inclined to teachers would it not be well for them to spend a year under the discipline of the Normal School? I have thought if they would go there, I would see if I could by of my friends the means to support them there, each one year. But they may already be sufficiently skilled in teaching and managing children.”

Ambition of a mother

There was never a question in any family correspondence or journal entry as to the girls’ fitness to be educated; Abba in fact insisted on it. As a young woman she was denied the formal education that she craved. It was Samuel Joseph who allowed her to read his books and partake in his education, if only informally.

While neither Lizzie nor May ended up attending the Normal, they both, along with their older sisters, read voraciously throughout their lives. Lizzie and May received private tutoring in Boston, first by Elizabeth Peabody and then by a Miss Seymour before May entered the Bowdoin School in late 1852.

Laying a good foundation

Bronson had educated the girls when they were young, teaching them writing, spelling, reading and geography along with simple arithmetic and science. Daily journal writing was required. He and Abba both encouraged outdoor play with plenty of fresh air and exercise. The greatest gift both parents gave to their daughters was their lifelong support and encouragement of their creativity. Because Bronson had an affinity with younger children and thus lost interest in his girls’ education when they became teenagers, Abba stepped in.

Equal standards

Despite being educated by their father, Charles Strickland, author of Victorian Domesticity believed that Bronson’s teaching contained no sexual bias; he expected the same of his daughters as he expected of himself. (pg. 34, Strickland) Record of a School, which documented his tenure at the Temple School,  included transcriptions by his assistant, Elizabeth Peabody of class discussions demonstrating Bronson’s lack of bias towards his students. Both boys and girls attended his classes.

While the education of the Alcott daughters was spotty at times, they were exposed to the richness of literature that many other girls could only hope for. Louisa’s lack of formal education in her teens was more than made up for by Mr. Emerson’s library where she could borrow books at will and discuss them with the famous Transcendentalist lecturer and author who encouraged her writing. Her mother, sensing Louisa’s talent plus her need to vent her energy, encouraged her daughter’s writing with gifts of pens and comments in her journal.

A great return

Despite many years of hardship from poverty, the Alcott girls were exposed to educational opportunities not normally available to girls. There was never any consideration in the Alcott household that education endangered their daughters; rather education was seen as an opportunity for a better and more self-sufficient life. Both parents made it a priority producing daughters who were well read, imaginative and talented.

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Fruitlands through the years in sight and sound

Recently a reader (thank you Michelle!) sent me a wonderful interview with Richard Francis, author of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. Francis does an excellent job of clarifying a complex situation (anyone who has studied the Fruitlands experiment in depth knows what I mean!). It was presented on The Woman’s Hour on BBC, hosted by Jenni Murray.

Richard  Francis Interview

Fruitlands then and now

I thought too that you might enjoy a tour of Fruitlands through the ages. I combined photos from Clara Endicott Sears’ book, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands with photos I took on my last visit there:

Upper photo courtesy of Harriet Lothrop Papers, Minuteman National Park

Front of the house

Foyer

Kitchen

Dining room

Dining room

The study

Alcott’s bedroom

Charles Lane’s bedroom

The heart of the story

And here are pictures of the attic. I think these pictures bring home the human drama of Fruitlands more than anything. When you actually see it, you just want to sit there and ponder what went on in that dark, cramped and cold room:

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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…

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Pilgrimage to the heart(h) of Bronson Alcott

I am pleased to present this guest post by Helen Batchelder — she had the privilege of visiting the birthplace of Bronson Alcott.

You can still sign up to attend Helen’s two lectures on Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum – call 978-456-3924, ext. 291. Cost is $12 for members, $20 for non-members.

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Land impacts our development, actions, preferences, and constitutions.

Did you grow up on flat farmland? Near mountains? By rivers? Lakes? Streams? In a cityscape? I grew up in a quiet country town that had two major disturbances — the construction of a highway, and housing developments prompted by a boom in the job market thanks to Digital and IBM, but they were far from my drumlin, my arthritic ancient apple trees, and the gigantic rocks left behind by running glaciers. Likely this granted me a very different perspective on life and my place in it than I otherwise might have had, if the privacy of my childhood home had been the 34th floor of an apartment building in New York.  In my research on Amos “Bronson” Alcott, I kept turning to his hometown, picturing him, a youth, the first of his parents’ nine children, ambling about a sparsely wooded hill, gathering who he would be. I provincially imagined that hill to be like my drumlin, much smaller than the 420’ elevation of my hometown of Harvard, Massachusetts in which he would, in 1843, attempt a “Con-sociation” called Fruitlands. Continue reading

Three-part series on Bronson Alcott at Fruitlands Museum: genius or crackpot?

Last Wednesday I attended the first of three lectures on Bronson Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA, presented by Helen Batchelder, a local scholar.

Fruitlands in the dark

I have never been to Fruitlands before in the dark and it was disconcerting to see the lights over the mountains, reminding me it was 2017 and not 1843. Gazing down the road however, I could not make out the red farmhouse in the dark and for a moment, I could feel the intense loneliness and isolation of living there. The Fruitlands experiment was, if anything, high drama for two families and it was to impact them for the rest of their lives. To get a sense of the tragedy of Fruitlands, I highly suggest reading John Matteson’s account in Eden’s Outcasts.

from Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

Genius, deadbeat, visionary or crackpot?

Continue reading

Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa! Not a day over 217 and 184 ;-)

louisa coverNOTE: I just found out my publisher, ACTA, is giving away 15 free copies of Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message in honor of our favorite author’s birthday. Go here http://actapublications.com/louisa-may-alcott-illuminated-by-the-message/ and type in code HAPPYBIRTHDAY at checkout. Even if you have your own copy, order one as a gift for friend!

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As the birthdays of two of my favorite people dawns today, I can’t help but think how deliciously ironic it is that I am finally finishing Eden’s Outcasts, the Pulitzer prize-winning book on the life of Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson Alcott by John Matteson.

eden's outcasts big and yet I never finished the book until now. I just couldn’t. I loved the book so much I didn’t want it to end. I find that reading this compelling story of two such talented, creative, intelligent, and difficult people orders my mind and fills my heart. It is told with such elegance along with touches of humor and irony. Among other things, it explores the spiritual aspect of the Alcotts which was so important to them. Continue reading