Louisa May Alcott as grief counselor (on the fifth anniversary of this blog)

My obsession with Louisa played out in a rather odd way. Never a big reader until a few years ago, I’d find myself reading a biographical account of Louisa’s life (rather than read her own words) every few years. This began after reading Martha Saxton’s biography. After the reading (usually done during the autumn months) I would make a pilgrimage to Orchard House. That would satisfy my urge for a year or two, and then I’d repeat the process.

No longer a casual interest

lost summer 190My review of the latest biography on Louisa May AlcottAfter my mother’s passing in 2010, that passion for Louisa was ramped up in a big way. My dear husband had given me copies of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen months before my mother died but it was impossible to read them while she was ill. A couple of weeks after she was gone, I was ready for something new  and started reading. Coincidentally the PBS documentary of the same title by Reisen and Nancy Porter came out at the same time.

Getting to Louisa’s writing

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”
historicaldigression.com

Reisen’s love of Louisa’s canon finally got me to read Louisa’s books for the first time. In River of Grace I write,

It began not with Little Women, but with Hospital Sketches, a thinly veiled memoir of [Louisa’s] experience as a Civil War nurse. Her moving description of the death of a virtuous soldier named John Suhre and how she had nursed him acted as a soothing balm on my grief. She described death as noble, and her belief in the afterlife was unmistakable. Where once I had felt a kinship with Louisa because of our mutually shared mood swings, deep tempers, and passions for our art; now I identified with the woman who found sacredness and hope in death just as I had. While Louisa wrote mainly to support her family, it seemed that the act of creating helped her to work through her own grief after the tragic passing of her younger sister Elizabeth whom she called her “conscience” and “spiritual guide.” (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

This time I determined that my little reading binge would end with reading books and visiting Louisa’s home. I had to find other people as obsessed as I was with Louisa. It was just too much fun discussing my passion (which I did for an hour on the phone with Harriet Reisen; God bless her for indulging a total stranger!).

The seed was planted and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion was born on this day, August 18, in 2010.

Little did I know as I plunged deeper in to my passion that Louisa was acting as my guide through my grief. I had not been able cry over my mother because I was numb inside. I could not even remember anything about her except as she had been during the last few months: sick, ravaged, terrified and demented. I had been in battle mode for the last two years and that feeling continued for another year after she died.

Remembering Mommy

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

Louisa helped to draw me close to my mother again especially as I thumbed through her own copies of Little Women and Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag (Vol. 5) with her signed name plate. Slowly I recalled the vibrant, intelligent woman with “pizzaz” (as my brother-in-law called it). Mommy was curious and loved to learn. She poured over books and audited classes at her alma mater, Wellesley College. She was funny, animated (with a voice like a parrot), thoughtful and kind, and always interesting.

Beyond consolation

But more was happening as I read about and then wrote about Louisa: this passion was resurrecting my then-dormant creative life. Louisa’s own grief journey, beginning with the death of Lizzie, the marriage of Anna, and then continuing with the soldiers she had nursed (especially John Suhre), and how it had transformed her life and writing, helped me to understand what was happening:

I believe that the caring for and losing her sister acted as a catalyst to Louisa May Alcott’s transformation as an artist and a woman. The creative gifts of storytelling, play acting, and humor that she had used to minister to Lizzie were subsequently shared with countless soldiers, helping them to while away their lonely hours of pain. Letters sent home to family told the stories of the wounded. These stories, laced with humor and told with urgent realism and heart, compiled Hospital Sketches, a book which resonated with thousands of readers anxious for those first-hand accounts. Louisa’s creative gifts were honed and perfected through her painful journey. This nineteenth century author now was helping me to understand my own grief. She, like me, seemed to find an energy in grief and took action to work through it. We shared a common spirituality even though our religious backgrounds were quite different (I being Catholic, she influenced by her father’s Transcendentalism). To her, God was a loving Father and faithful Friend who revealed himself in nature and in everyday life. I too related to God in this fashion, seeing him in the natural world and in people around me, feeling him through the love of family and friends, tasting and being nourished by him in the sacred bread and the wine, and discerning him through prayer, the scriptures and reflection. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

One thing leads to another

Before I knew it, I was feeling the urge to learn more about writing. This led to dreams of crafting a book … and the rest, as they say, is history.

Has Louisa acted as a grief counselor for you? What do you think of her writing on death? Does it strike a chord with you?

To all of you

THANK YOU for your readership and especially for your friendship over these past 5 years. I have had to pleasure of meeting many of you in person and yes, we gabbed about Louisa and will continue to do so. 🙂 This passion never grows old but only grows deeper, thanks to all of you!

Seems appropriate on this, the fifth anniversary of this blog, to share this video one more time with you where I express in music and images my love of the Alcott family and my gratitude to Louisa for being my grief counselor and writing guide:

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Places that are redemptive, and damning: Monday presentation by Stephen Burby at the Summer Conversational Series

Note: Mr. Burby kindly gave me his presentation (handwritten notes and all) in lieu of the fact that I was unable to attend the Monday session of the Summer Conversational Series. I thank him for doing so.

This is a longer post than usual as I found his presentation to be quite thought-provoking.

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

Before attending this series, I was woefully ignorant of the concept of “place. ” Intuitively I understand about the need to create sacred spaces, whether it be places for prayer and contemplation, or rooms where I can create writing and music. I go to great lengths to create these spaces, considering every last physical detail such that entering these spaces immediately puts me into the “zone” where I can accomplish what I wish to do. Inhabiting such spaces brings me a great sense of happiness, peace and accomplishment.

A wider concept

I never understood however, the wider concept of place and sacred spaces; the speakers at last week’s Conversational Series have opened up a new world for me, a fresh lens from which to contemplate what I read in books and see around me.

3schoolpath

 

Louisa and place

560 steve burby1Mr. Burby’s presentation, “Out into the World:” Louisa May Alcott’s Sense of the World Beyond Concord.” continues to prime that pump. He begins by citing two classics by which he frames his discussion: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. He maintains that Louisa’s writing,

“frequently deals with the transfer of the sacredness from good individuals, most often in the form of the sacred feminine, to the spaces they come to inhabit.”

The place of home

Bachelard states that

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home …”

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

We see this time and again in Louisa’s works, particularly in Little Women, where the home is central to the development of the characters. Bachelard points out the positives (“We shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection…) as well as the negatives (“tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the stanchest ramparts.”). He also writes, “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” This is played out to perfection in Little Women.

Burby illustrates both sides of Bachelard’s notion of home, first through Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, and then through A Long Fatal Love-Chase.

Redemptive spaces

In Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, Burby shows how Louisa uses the Eternal Feminine (in the forms of nurses Tribulation Periwinkle and Faith Dane), to transform space from profane to sacred by injecting goodness, mercy, empathy, kindness and understanding.

hospital sketchesA woman’s influence

Burby cites Louisa’s description of the hospital in Hospital Sketches where she describes the “vilest odors” and chaotic atmosphere. Nurse Periwinkle seeks to transform that space:

“After bathing and dressing wounds for a number of them [the wounded soldiers], the scene is partially transformed.”

When she takes over the night shift, Nurse Periwinkle is given greater control over her environment, thus completing the transformation:

“By eleven, the last labor of love was done; the last ‘good night’ spoken; and, if any needed a reward for that day’s work, they surely received it, in the silent eloquence of those long lines of faces, showing pale and peaceful glances that lighted us to bed, where Rest, the sweetest, made our pillows soft, while Night and Nature took our places, filling that great house of pain with a healing miracles of Sleep, and his diviner brother, Death.”

Dual vocations

hospital sketches illustrationIf I might digress for a moment: in reading Burby’s citations and his analysis of Louisa’s transformation of space, it made me wonder about about Louisa. We know she had a vocation as a writer, but she also sensed a vocation for nursing. She was aware of her talent in both areas. She had had the opportunity to live each out, by nursing her sister Elizabeth which led to her ability to serve as a Civil War nurse, and by writing about such experiences and more. Both vocations served others well, one by healing and the other by providing.

As a nurse …

In each case Louisa could play out the role of Savior, a role both satisfying and burdensome to her. Yet which vocation was the most satisfying and which the more burdensome? Nursing brought her face to face with life at its core: brutally authentic, vulnerable and poignant. She could see the immediate consequence of her ministrations, whether it was to bring healing, comfort, consolation or just her presence as Death loomed. It was Lizzie who told Louisa how much that presence brought her strength as she faced her own painful end.

… and as a writer

Louisa_May_AlcottSuch life experiences were then expressed through Louisa’s writing, especially in Hospital Sketches and Little Women. Those of us who are writers know how cathartic, even exhilarating it can be to process feelings and get them down on paper, sometimes in poetic prose if we’re lucky. Writing brought its benefits to Louisa, relieving the chronic poverty and bringing material comfort and security at last to the “Pathetic Family.”

The costs

Both vocations exacted their costs. Nursing brought on the typhoid pneumonia which robbed Louisa of her good health for a life time. It sobered her greatly with memories that could never be forgotten.

Writing stole away Louisa’s cherished privacy and free creative expression, while too exacting a cost on her health.

So which vocation most satisfied Louisa? Which one was more worth the cost? Likely both were equally important and worked in tandem with each other. But these were questions that came to my mind as I read Mr. Burby’s presentation. There is no doubt that some of Louisa’s finest writing comes from her nursing experience.

Transformation of space brings redemption

civil war mulattoIn My Contraband, Burby shows how that same chaotic and dark space, the hospital, is transformed by presence of Nurse Faith Dane. Yet in this case, it is more about the transformation of persons within that space: Bob, the recently freed and wronged slave and his vicious white half brother who had killed Bob’s lover. While the half brother is not redeemed, Bob turns away from doing his brother harm thanks to the efforts of Nurse Dane. Burby writes,

“And it is here that the protagonist is able to assert her influence in the most positive way possible, turning the man–her contraband [to whom she was deeply attracted], the former slave, Bob–away from tragic revenge.”

The transformation is complete when Bob consummates their relationship in a symbolic and spiritual way, taking on her last name as his own; he would now be known as Robert Dane.

A place of damnation

long fatal love chase2Burby then turns to A Long Fatal Love-Chase to demonstrate how a beautiful space does not always denote goodness. He notes in particular a long description of the setting of Valrosa, Tempest’s villa in Nice. Burby believes that since Louisa had visited Nice during her first trip to Europe, it was likely she was describing a real place. He goes on to write,

“The description of Valrosa … suggests that is the finest setting for Rosamond, the protagonist … She is unconsciously the fairest and most striking ‘object’ in the setting.”

He points out that the beauty of the setting was illusory as Rosamond’s lover Tempest turns out to be her Mephistopheles.

Evil dominating

In this case, despite the presence of a female protagonist, Valrosa changed from a sacred to a profane place because of the domineering power of Tempest and the false premise upon which the space was based. Rosamond could not turn him.

Triumph of the Eternal Feminine

Thus Burby demonstrates Louisa’s realism yet again: life does not always turn out right. Goodness does not always prevail. In Louisa’s thrillers, goodness rarely prevails.

Yet the writing of hers that survives through the ages in the imaginations of many are the ones where the Eternal Feminine does in fact, triumph.

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Jo’s evolution as a creative, and as a woman

jo writing (norman rockwell)What did Jo March  mean when she said she wanted to create something “spendid?”

Perhaps gaining recognition for her writing. Maybe even being hailed as a great writer. Writing a book of artistic merit and universality that would stand the test of time.

Yet we find in Little Women that Jo’s goals would evolve from that solitary act of writing into a communal creation: a school for boys, founded in partnership with her new husband, Professor Bhaer. In the end, I believe she satisfied her desire to create something “splendid.”

Why caused her goals to change?

I’d like to offer my opinion and then I’d love to hear from you!

Here’s my theory.

A necessary act

joWriting was a legitimate and necessary creative activity for Jo. It helped her to release the tremendous energy inside of her that otherwise might have expressed itself in negative ways.  She had talent and much to share.

A practical way to help

Never happy to sit on the sidelines, Jo used her writing to help her family in practical ways as they coped with Mr. March’s absence along with poverty. Besides providing money, her stories entertained the others.

A means of retreat

Writing was a means of escape. Holed up in the garret, Jo could avoid dealing with growing up, something with which she was in open rebellion.

Meg and John get married; Father presides.

Meg and John get married; Father presides.

She fought vehemently against the idea of the family unit being changed with the addition of boyfriends/husbands (recalling her reaction to Meg and John, and her rejection of Laurie as a husband). As long as the immediate family remained intact, she could continue as she was. Womanhood was a frightening prospect as Jo feared it would restrain her spirit. She was like a wild colt refusing to be broken.

A means of verification

burning fireplaceWriting verified Jo as a person when nothing else would. When Amy destroyed Jo’s manuscript it was like Jo herself was burnt to a crisp in the fireplace. I believe Jo perceived Amy’s deed as an act of violence against her very self; therefore the depth of her rage was justified in her own mind, until it put Amy’s own life in peril. It was at this point that Jo’s creative energy (anger being a great force) posed a danger to herself and others.

A way to avoid the truth

Writing was an act that drew Jo into herself, far away from the real world into that safe place of fantasy which gave her consolation. Sometimes that withdrawal could be beneficial, particularly when her emotions were getting the better of her. But often that withdrawal was an escape from a reality she had to face–she could not remain a child forever.

The turning point

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

I believe the watershed moment for Jo was in her grief after she lost Beth.

Anyone who has grieved over someone knows that such a time can transform one’s life. Whether that transformation takes you forward in growth or leaves you behind, mired in the mud, is a singular choice.

A new idea of “splendid”

At first, willing to do anything to please the sister she so loved and admired, Jo agreed to Beth’s terms: to leave behind her old ambitions of doing something “splendid” to take on the more noble (and needed) task of caring for her parents. She soon found her promise hard to keep when faced with the prospect of living it out without the physical presence of her sister nearby as example:

“… something like despair came over her when she thought of spending all her life in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures, and the duty that never seemed to grow any easier. ‘I can’t do i. I wasn’t meant for a life like this, and I know I shall break away and do something desperate if somebody doesn’t come and help me.’ she said to herself, when her first efforts failed and she fell into the moody, miserable state of mind which often comes when strong will have to yield to the inevitable.” (from Chapter 42 of Little Women)

A desire to be good

As Jo had lost herself in her writing, she had also been consumed with nursing Beth. Louisa May Alcott herself believed she had a call to nursing that was nearly as strong as her call to be a writer. It was what gave her the courage to become a Civil War nurse. I believe that in nursing Beth (or in Louisa’s case, Lizzie), Jo found a way to be truly virtuous–acting out of sacrificial love for her sister. As much as she desired to live out her creative life, Jo wished also to be good. It was Louisa’s wish too, ingrained in her from her earliest days.

Finding consolation outside of writing

Where once writing provided the consolation, now the counsel of mother and father provided the comfort. Jo was learning to reach out to others rather than retreat into her fantasy world. While she had certainly confided in her parents before, it was more as a child looking for direction. Now she could confide in her parents as an equal, woman to woman, and woman to man:

“Then, sitting in Beth’s little chair close beside him, Jo told her troubles … she gave him entire confidence, he gave her the help she needed, and both found consolation in the act. For the time had come when could talk together not only as father and daughter, but as man and woman, able and glad to serve each other with mutual sympathy as well as  mutual love.” (Ibid)

Moving forward

Jo agreed to the process of the grief journey,  moving ahead rather than staying behind. She soon grew to find meaning in the mundane household tasks:

“Brooms and dish cloths never could be as distasteful as they once had been, for Beth had presided over both, and something of her housewifely spirit seemed to linger around the little mop and the old bush, never thrown away.” (Ibid)

The beginning of adulthood

In the process, a change took place within Jo, a capacity to long for love outside of her immediate family unit. It was the beginning of her maturing into an adult. Meg saw the potential, urging Jo to consider love:

“It’s just what you need to bring out the tender womanly half of your nature, Jo. You are like a chestnut burr, prickly outside, but silky-soft within, and a sweet kernal, if one can only get at hit. Love will make you show your heart one day, and the rough burr will fall off.” (Ibid)

And indeed, grief would prove to be the tool that would pave the way for “Grief is the best opener” as Louisa writes in chapter 42.

Learning to be herself

Little Women October 12, 2004 Credit Photo ©Paul Kolnik NYCJo tried to justify that living for her parents and not for herself was the “something splendid” that she had desired, but in fact that “something” was missing. In denying herself and living as Beth would, Jo was not living the life to which she was called. The suppression of her creative energy depleted that which fueled her joy, which made life exciting and delicious. It took her mother urging her to write again, even if just to entertain the family, for Jo to find that energy again and bring it back to life. It eventually lead to real success for her as a writer.

Issuing an invitation

And in the end it would be a poem she had written about the four chests in the garret that would issue an invitation (unbeknown to her) to a certain professor to seek out the woman he loved. This time she was ready, having recognized the loneliness in her life:

“I’d like to try all kinds. It’s very curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of natural affections, the more I seem to want. I’d no idea hearts could take in so many. Mine is so elastic, it never seems full now, and I used to be quite contented with my family. I don’t understand it.” (Ibid)

In this admission, Jo embraced adulthood, seeing beyond her tight family unit for the first time.

Lost or found?

jo and professor bhaerSome would argue that Jo in fact lost herself becoming a woman as she did not, in the end, become a writer. Instead, she marries her professor and founds a school for boys with him, using a gift from a most unexpected source–Aunt March’s Plumfield.

Was Jo’s evolution a sell-out by the author?

While it is well known that Louisa would have preferred keeping Jo single and writing, I do not get the sense that Jo was at all unhappy or feeling compromised with her decision to marry or to found the school. It is true that Louisa was compelled by her publisher and her fans to give Little Women a more conventional ending but the evolution of her fictional self from “wild colt” to mature woman felt natural to me. The creative energy Jo had once poured into writing could now be poured into making life better for unfortunate boys. Anyone who has been a teacher knows the creative fire burns bright within, expressing itself in so many ways.

Creativity and community

the boys at plumfieldJo had evolved from a solitary, strong-willed child who sought escape in her creativity (and who sometimes was controlled by its darker side), to a woman comfortable within a community, using her creativity to make life better for others. It is my belief that the giving away of what we have (and having it accepted gratefully by others) makes makes the creative act worthwhile and satisfying.

Jo March succeeded in her desire to create something “splendid.”

That’s my theory; what’s yours? Go for it!

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Elisabeth Alcott through the eyes of her father

lizzie alcott2By the time Elisabeth Sewall Alcott was born, Bronson had moved on from chronicling the daily activities of his daughters to exploring the soul. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson writes that “Elizabeth was fairer than her elder sisters and … was the model of serenity that Bronson had vainly hoped Anna and Louisa would be. (pg. 84, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, ebook)” Calling his work “Psyche, or The Breath of Childhood” (aka “An Evangele”), Bronson “with naïve eagerness, plunged into his impossible task.” (Ibid)

Bronson’s ideal

Elisabeth and Bronson were soul mates. While Anna was often referred to as his favorite (with the vast majority of his letters to his children addressed to her), he appears to have placed Lizzie on a higher plane. Anna was a real child with virtues and faults; Lizzie was theoretical, just like “Psyche.”

High standards

In an Ode he wrote to her at Fruitlands on her eighth birthday (most of which had nothing to do with his little girl), note the heights to which he places her (underscoring is my emphasis):

IV

fruitlands smHither we all repair
Our hope and love, to bear,
To celebrate
In rustic state,
Mid’st this refulgent whole
The joyful advent of an angel soul,
That, twice four years ago
Our mundane life to know,
Descended from the upper skies
A presence to our very eyes,
And now before us stands
And asketh at our bounteous hands
Some tokens of our zeal
In her celestial weal
Before us stands displayed
In raiment of a maid,
Unstained and pure her soul
As when she left the Whole

That doth this marvellous scene unrol [sic]
And day by day doth preach
The Gospels meant for each

That on this solid sphere
Designed for mortals were.

V
amaranth-767690… And be a flower that none shall pluck away
A rose in Fruitlands quiet dell
A Child intent in doing well;
Devote, secluded from all sin
Fragrant without, & fair within,
A plant matured in Gods device
An Amaranth in Paradise
(The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Herrnstadt, pg. 105-106)

Granted, this was Fruitlands and Bronson was at the zenith of his Transcendental zeal but subsequent letters to Lizzie (and they are few) rarely point out character flaws. No doubt the polar opposite of the letters he wrote to Louisa!

Idolized

Even as an emerging adult, Lizzie was idolized by her father as shown in this letter dated August 10, 1853):

“Elisabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail; the apartments all [word] their tidy mistress whose housekeeping throughout, for ought I can see, vies favorably with that of the absent Matron alike in neatness promptitude and efficiency to the credit of her teacher, and comfort of guests.” (Ibid, pb. 166)

Anxious yet absent father

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Invalid_-_Louis_Lang_-_overallDuring my visit to Houghton last Saturday (see previous post), I came across several references to Lizzie’s illness in Bronson’s letters. Although far from home (and inexplicably slow in returning there), he was deeply concerned about her welfare, as shown in this letter from November of 1857:

“Keep me informed of every matter pertaining to your welfare. And let me hear weekly if you can command the leisure from our imposed cares. Elisabeth’s condition you cannot fail to state. To her, and all, much love.” (Houghton Library, Amos Bronson Alcott papers MS Am 1130.9 (4))

Bronson is greatly concerned about Lizzie’s weight loss and refers to it consistently in his letters from 1857, in very exacting form (underscoring is my emphasis):

 “Anna promised and so will write: and the Invalid shall add her fortnight’s gain, if she can, in the pounds avoirsdupois and ounces exact, by the inevitable standard. Hoping for the good tidings from the family group, and that soon, I remain Yours, and Theirs ever …” (Ibid, November 20, 1857)

Advice to the Invalid

tumblr_mhneo1aZRC1r94vvxo1_500In a longer passage, Bronson offers advice to Abba regarding Lizzie’s care:

“I mean to have some quiet talk with Dr. Jackson, who comes up this afternoon from Glen Haven, and learn something helpful to Elisabeth if he has any information for us. Of one thing I am certain already: she must use water–warm water even–with great discretion now in her present enfeebled state, having no heat to spare in too frequent bathing; and be sure she never bathes in cold water, or before going to bed. The beef tea experiment she need not report.–Keep yourself warm, my Child, take fresh air as you can safely, ride rather than walk at present, keep the good watch and consult our experiences about your food, and sleep, and occupations, and, more than all else, encourage good hopes, esteeming yourself gaining as your spirits waken and your interest in life and the little things becomes more active and freshens from week to week. I do not say, day by day. You will have ebbs and langours, and little discouragements, but the months will measure gain, to you, if not in flesh just yet or weight, in comfort and slow mitigation of the old troubles; the cure working itself out for you in the reasonable manner and time. Not to lose is great gain, and the pledge of restoration. So be a good Child and get well in the best way.–And write me, sometimes about your day’s occupations and any thing you care to communicate. But be careful about using your eyes, or any of your poor senses, rashly or too long at once, Take care of the draughts of air, and practice your usual caution in every thing. I shall write to you now an then, and have you much in mind.” (Ibid, November 21, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pgs. 263-264)

Remaining positive

spoon with medicineBronson, naturally, is very concerned about Lizzie’s state of mind. What I found surprising was the total lack of reference to prayer or calling on God for assistance, strength or consolation. Lizzie was expected to use her own will to make herself better. Here is another example:

 “… Dear Lizzy. I shall hear particulars always gladly, not sadly now. As soon as may be, dispense with the pellets and powders, and find the strength that can feed itself and increase on the virgin substances–the social influences–friendly food for body and soul.” (Ibid, December 1, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pg. 267)

Gentle scolding

In this letter, dated December 14th of that same year, Bronson is obviously receiving news from Abba that Lizzie is resisting treatment. There is an added sense of urgency to this passage with a strong (and rare) admonition from Bronson:

 “I am anxious to hear. Your last letter brought agreeable news. Lizzy must replenish her Spirit by all good helps: flesh and weight will come–it may be so slowly and imperceptibly as to tell nothing to the senses and or the scales for some time–but she must not expect Nature to rally from such a shock forthwith to bring the health she so desires. Pray let me know just how she is, and how she Behaves by Night and by day. I can excuse every thing. Only she must take the part of painstaker about herself, and not defeat the helps and hopes of careful nurses and kindred, by any imprudences of hers. I will not talk for  for [erasure]–my precious patient, but come home to see it, eye to eye, if she will not mind me otherwise.” (Ibid, December 14, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott pgs. 269-270)

Rare words from a teenaged Lizzie

I was fortunate to find a rare letter from Lizzie written when she was seventeen. It is short and sweet, revealing little on the surface. However, I was stunned at her handwriting, so meticulous, not changed much from her Hillside journal except that it was even neater. Each line is perfectly straight. It looks like fine and simple typography. Yet between the lines of sweetness there is a sense of pathetic longing for her beloved, the ever absent father (I wish I had permission from Houghton to post the picture I took of the letter, but I don’t have it):

Dearest father,
I suppose the letters should not go without a word from me, as I promised I would write, We were all so happy this morning to get your beautiful letter, telling how pleasantly you were living, and of your success. We live along here without you, but I am sure miss you very much. Annie is very good about writing and so we get her pleasant letters every week, and I wish we heard as often from the dear father; but I suppose you are very busy, tho am sure, do not forget us. Your loving Lizzie.
(Houghton Alcott family additional papers, 1724-1927 MS Am 2745 (71)

Keeping vigil

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402When the passing finally came in March 14, 1858, Bronson’s beloved passed into eternity; he kept an all-night vigil by the wasted body that remained behind:

Bronson Alcott sat up with the body of his child all night. No one else approached him. His little lost Psyche, who had seemed to him in her infancy the most promising of all his daughters, alone kept him company. One of the brightest auguries of his life had vanished with her loss. (Katharine Anthony, Louisa May Alcott, pg. 89)

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Letter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore

lizzie alcott2Work is progressing, albeit slowly, on my book project. I am enjoying all aspects of the process from the thinking and planning while I drive (I’m one of those crazies that talks to myself all the time), to the research, to the paragraphs percolating in my head, to the final writing. I’m falling more in love with my characters if that is possible. I enjoy their company and their voices inside my head.

Sources in the writer’s own hand

Primary sources are vital to historical research; I was taught this by my seventh grade social studies teacher. I remember feeling excited when she explained that our textbooks would include original writings from those who formed and shaped our country. I’ve never lost that thrill of reading something written long ago, especially when you can read the person’s own handwriting.

Worth the effort

Lately I’ve been immersed in letters written by Abba to Bronson, her brother Samuel Joseph, and her daughters Louisa and Anna. I had requested and received PDF scans of several letters from the helpful librarians at Houghton Library and felt like I had won the lottery! The beauty of PDF files is that they can be easily enlarged, a necessity since Abba’s handwriting is so difficult to read. My respect for the tenacity of Eve LaPlante went up tenfold as I struggled over each word. Her compilation, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother is truly the product of blood, sweat and tears, making it all the more valuable.

north shore swampscott MAFrom sister to brother

One such letter, addressed to “My dear Brother” is dated August 25, 1857, written from Lynn, Massachusetts.  Abba had taken Elizabeth to an area known as the North Shore so that her daughter could experience the supposed healing effects of the ocean. My mother was born in Lynn; her family (the Breeds) was established in the seacoast city in the 1630s. She grew up in Lynn and neighboring Swampscott, another town where Abba and Elizabeth stayed during their sojourn. This is of personal importance because Abba cites a Dr. Newhall from Lynn as treating Lizzie during their stay. Because there were many marriages between Breeds and Newhalls over the years, I have a strong suspicion that I may be related to Dr. Newhall. I am currently researching that possibility and will report back if I find that we are kissin’ cousins. 🙂

Looking for answers

Abba wrote the following to Samuel Joseph regarding Lizzie’s condition (note that I couldn’t make out all the words and therefore left some out. I have corrected some small punctuation errors):

littlewomen00alcoiala_0421We have been in Lynn now about three weeks – Lizzy’s vacillating condition has left me from day to day in doubt what to write about … The first week was warm and pleasant and the change was grateful to her – she eat [ate], slept and lived more naturally than I have known her to do for 6 months – but the last two weeks have been cold, rainy, dispiriting me and her – and most unfavorable for her. Dr. Newhall (Charles’ Dr.) thought it best to remove her immediately back – thinks her lungs are slightly diseased and that the comforts of house and the society of her family are now all important … Aunty Bond sent Dr. Charles [Windship] down – he gives a different opinion … that Lizzy is in every way failed – but that she has no not even incipient disease of the lungs – her nervous weakness operates on the brain and lungs … pathetically – that another week of fine weather may produce a most salient effect – for I remain till next Mon. This will prove the experiment a gain or a failure – it will end (?) my faith in human science and my pocket of human dreams. I work on as hopefully as I can … such a scientific must – it seems to me the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess. (AMA to SMJ 25 August 1857 fro MS Am 1130.9 (25), Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Inspired by her surroundings

After writing such a distressing account, she waxes philosophical as she contemplates the scenery:

ocean wavesThe change of scene has been very beneficial to me. I had become morbidly apprehensive … in judgment and action. The very sight of the ocean has restored me to a sense of marginal (?)  power. From our … irritations, our faithless anxiety bubbles (?) before the immensity of ocean, the grandeur of rocks (?), … the feel that order, and Beauty, love and power around, that it is the order of Supreme law – the beauty of sublime art – the love of uniform (?) good will – the Power of eternal Night. Our own dependence it is so apparent – our helplessness so unmistakable we exclaim … from pure instinct truly a Lord liveth – and loveth! (Ibid)

Reading that made me think of how often she and Bronson, especially in the early days, must have sat together, sharing similar thoughts.

From iconic Marmee to real mother

Reading Abba’s letters in her own hand transforms her from the literary icon of Marmee to a flesh and blood person. Often I feel like I am reading letters written by my own mother or grandmother when I read hers. I recall from Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother that LaPlante described the poor condition of Abba’s eyesight so I can understand why her handwriting might be difficult to read. It’s amazing she could write letters at all considering the condition of her eyes!

That helpful Houghton librarian sent me a final tantalizing tease in her email, to quote: “there are a lot of other letters that deal with Lizzie’s collapse and the sojourn to the North Shore.”

Meat for the starving dog. Stay tuned …

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Louisa’s poetic tribute to her mother reveals beautiful insights on death

I have long maintained that Louisa’s most poignant writing revolves around death as evidenced in Beth March’s passing in Little Women and John Suhre’s noble death in Hospital Sketches.

Recently I found a blog post on the SevenPonds site that states so eloquently the very thoughts I’ve harbored about Louisa’s insights into death – that it is not a hopeless end but is in fact, a beautiful new beginning.

Here is a teaser from that blog post:

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

As its name suggests, “Transfiguration,” by Louisa May Alcott, is about change, and specifically change for the better. The poem was written about Alcott’s mother after her death, and it’s filled with so much love and admiration that one can’t help but feel better about death after reading it. The poem shows a sincere reverence for death, viewing it as an improvement on life. The first stanza makes this point perfectly clear:

Mysterious death! who in a single hour
Life’s gold can so refine.
And by thy art divine
Change mortal weakness to immortal power! (1-4)

Click to read the article in its entirety

Click to Tweet & Share: Louisa’s moving poetic tribute to her mother bestows hope, meaning and beauty on the shadow of death http://wp.me/p125Rp-1bJ

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Louisa has primed my pump and changed my life

I happened to stumble upon a great find: The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, an historical novel featuring Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. It covers the Civil War through the eyes of a fictitious Alcott cousin, Susan Gray, who comes to live with the Alcotts after being orphaned. Susan becomes Louisa’s constant companion, confidant and critic. Together they volunteer to serve as nurses in the Civil War where they meet Clara Barton; eventually Susan will work with Clara to continue her service in a most extraordinary way.

A life-changing book

Everyone has read books that have changed their life in some way. The Glory Cloak is one of those that I can count as life-changing. It was the right book to read at this time in my life. Besides giving me a new interpretation of Louisa’s life through the main character, Susan Gray, it also showed me plainly what it takes to write a good historical novel.

Personal history

It has taken me all of my life (56 years) to admit that I am a writer. Writing has lain dormant in me for so many of those years. As a child I read voraciously and wrote little books. I found my first biography of Louisa in The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard and read it so many times that the book is tattered and worn.

Turning away …

Discouragement from a 7th grade English teacher plus adolescence plus a new passion for the guitar steered me away from reading and writing for most of my life (with the exception of songwriting). Every five years or so I would tackle a new biography about Louisa, lose myself in it, and then move on. That’s all the reading I did. Until now.

Coming upon the second anniversary of my mother’s death (April 22), I have been lately reflecting on how much reading and writing about Louisa has meant to me. When my mother died, a large part of me went with her. My passion for music which had been dying anyway, was gone.

… and coming home

Adrift after several years of helping to care for my mother, I came upon two books that my husband had bought for me several months earlier. He knew of my love for Louisa. Those two books were The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches"
historicaldigression.com

Reisen’s book led me to Hospital Sketches, the first book of Louisa’s that I had ever read. The chapter known as “A Night” where she wrote so poignantly of the death of John the Virginian blacksmith, was a like a balm on my grief. Louisa wrote with such understanding about death, both emotionally and spiritually. After all, she was still grieving the loss of her sister, Lizzie, and her long-time friend, Henry David Thoreau. Her grief spoke to me.

Stoking the fire

It was then that I decided I wanted an outlet for all that I was feeling about Louisa and her writing, and this blog was born. Each day as I read, wrote and immersed myself deeper into her life, her work and her contemporaries, I discovered a fire that I thought had long ago been extinguished. Every now and then I would feel a wind under me, lifting me up as I would write. Research and taking notes became a passionate endeavor. That “lifting up” became more and more frequent such that now I long for those Saturday and Sunday mornings when I can at last lay aside work and family, hole up in my sacred space, and write.

A mission

I began to develop theories about Louisa. One in particular, her relationship with her younger sister Lizzie, has become a mission. Lizzie, the “shadow sister” often overlooked and dismissed. How many times have I heard that “no one would ever want to be  Beth!” Yet there are many, many Beths in this world and I believe I am one of them. When I see historical fiction about Louisa where Lizzie is referred to as “Beth”, I know the writer is dismissing her. Beth was Louisa’s glorification of Lizzie but she was not a real flesh-and-blood person; Lizzie was. I feel called to be a voice for Lizzie.

Not for the fainthearted!

The Glory Cloak has shown me a way to achieve this purpose. It first has taught me that you cannot call yourself a writer if you are fainthearted. It may seem like writing is a “safe” thing to do – after all, you are all by yourself, lost inside of your own world that no one else can enter … what’s risky about that?

Giving voice

Patricia O’Brien has taught me otherwise, showing me that provocative theories can be floated if they are backed up by a well-developed, gripping story. Characters like Lizzie, despite the lack of hard facts, can be fleshed out. Any character can have a voice.

Tools

O’Brien has shown me the tools she used to dig deeper, expanding and setting free, her imagination. I only know the generalities now and will need to work hard to get to the particulars, but The Glory Cloak assures me that it can be done.

Perched for a flying leap

from welovebirds.org

Historical fiction requires risk-taking with fan fiction being especially risky. How many millions of Little Women fans are out there? And how many of those fans have dug as deeply as I have, obsessed with the life of the author? I met about fifty of those types of fans in Concord several weeks ago at the Little Women panel discussion I attended. I felt right at home and very intimidated, all at the same time. It was exhilarating. It strengthened my resolve with regards to my own little mission.

Oil for the engine

The wonderful thing about writing is that all it takes to get the engine started again is a good book. Between work, Lent and Easter, I totally fell out of my writing routine. I’m so thankful I found a book as compelling as The Glory Cloak. It swept me away and in some ways, left me feeling sad. But it was the oil that primed this engine that was surely sputtering!

Getting into the book

In the next post I will get into more particulars about the book, and in the final post, I will get into the theories which O’Brien explored. Thanks to those theories, I see Louisa through a new lens, only adding to the richness of her life.

Thank you

Thank you for indulging me! One of the things I’ve failed to mention is how much is has meant for me to enjoy such great company on this journey. Through this blog I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of you, whether it be in person, on the phone or by email, Twitter and/or your own blogs and books. I feel privileged to be a part of such a special community. The writers, teachers, students of all ages and fans I have met have been most generous. You are a bighearted and welcoming group!


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