“A thousand kisses–I love you with my whole soul”: Relations between women in the 19th century, as reflected in Little Women

This comment from Diana regarding a previous post prompted a discussion on whether or not Louisa May Alcott was gay:

“What is your opinion of the evidence that she may have had some suppressed passion, such as crushes, on girls? Remember she said in an interview that she had been in love with so many girls in her life. This may have been an almost unconscious part of her complicated character; but it would need to be considered in examining her sexual energy. At any rate, if that energy was channeled into her writing, this aspect of it may have been an added component to the human richness of her genius, giving her an extra sensitive intuition into both sexes.”

It is tricky addressing this subject because the mentality of the nineteenth century was so different from our present day. Continue reading

Happy birthday! Bronson Alcott at 216, Louisa at 183

Louisa May Alcott had remarked in her journal that memories of her November 29th birthday were not always happy ones.

The gift of self-denial

The Temple School

The Temple School

There’s the famous story of birthday number 3, celebrated at her father’s Temple School where, in the end, she had to deny herself her own birthday treat and give it to a student because there were not enough. Her “gift” was praise and a kiss from her mother for her self-denial. Bitter sweet.

Letter from her father

Then there is this story which I recently discovered in my re-read of Madelon Bedell’s The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. On her tenth birthday, she received this letter from her father:

“The good Spirit comes into the Breasts of the meek and loveful to abide long; anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idelnesses, heedlessness, rude behavior, and all such as these drive it away, o grieve it so that it leaves the poor misguided soul to live in its own obstainate, perverse, proud, discomfort; which is the very Pain of Sin and is in the Bible called the worm that never dies, the gnawing worm, the sting of Conscience.” (The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 244)

Good grief!

bronson to louisa on her 7th birthday

from Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest


Bedell maintains that Bronson and Louisa may have been uncomfortable with the implied intimacy of sharing the same birthday, given their tempestuous relationship. In an effort to downplay the meaning, Bronson made sure every member of the family got a gift on their respective 43rd and 10th birthdays: Abba received a new rocking chair, Anna a silver pencil case and gold pen and inkstand, Lizzie two books. The birthday girl received the same gift as her baby sister Abbie: “little stories,” hers being titled “Flora’s Dial.” (Ibid) So only did every family get a gift on their birthdays, but some members got better gifts. How it must have stung Louisa’s heart to see the obvious favoritism Bronson showed towards her older sister (and where the money came from for such extravagance is a mystery).

Gradual reconciliation

512 louisa says goodbye to bronson

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

Yet, over the years, Louisa and Bronson came to appreciate one another as one matured and the other mellowed out. Her sacrifice of health during her Civil War nursing stint showed Bronson that his daughter was of extraordinary character. He was proud of her, and that pride continued through her literary success. It is said that he lived off of Louisa’s success in his subsequent conversation tours but could he have not also just been a proud father?

In the end they would share the closest of intimacies, dying within three days of each other, he inviting her to come “up” with him, pointing heavenward.

Happy birthday Bronson and Louisa!

Click to Tweet & ShareHappy birthday! Bronson Alcott at 214, Louisa at 181 http://wp.me/p125Rp-1Bg

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Abba, Bronson and Lizzie: a slice of family dynamics – what does it tell us?

In 1853, Elizabeth Alcott suffered a bout of depression. She was seventeen at the time and the family was destitute, living in Boston and constantly on the move. Abba wrote the following to Bronson about the episode:

lizzie alcott2“Elizabeth is in rather better spirits but it seems as if there had been some collapse of the brain – at times she seems immovable, almost senseless. Louisa and I both relieve her of all the work and send her to walk – but there is a great struggle going on in her mind about something. I try not to be curious. She could not bear to be sent from home and here nothing interests her. I should like to send her to take drawing lessons but do not see my way clear now.” Abba to Bronson, November 19, 1853 Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (26)

Previous to this depression, Elizabeth had always been known to her family as Little Tranquility: sweet, happy and harmonious. To her father, she was utter perfection. While at Fruitlands, Elizabeth turned eight and Bronson dedicated this Ode to her:

Fruitlands, Harvard, Mass. June 24, 1843

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard


… Before us stands displayed
In raiment of a maid,
Unstained and pure her soul
As when she left the Whole …

… 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 (pgs. 105-106, The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

Bronson wrote this letter to Elizabeth when she was five:

Concord, June 24, 1840

“My very dear little girl,
     You make me very happy every time I look at your smiling pleasant face–and you make me very sorry every time I see your face look cross and unpleasant. You are now five years old. You can keep your little face pleasant all the time, if you try, and be happy yourself, and make every body else happy too. Father wants to have his little girl happy all the time.” (pg. 50, The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

from bronson to lizzie 5th birthday

from Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott edited by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest

Fast forward to 1853 and notice how each parent perceives Elizabeth just before she suffers from the depression:

Abba to Bronson August 8, 1853 (she was in Syracuse visiting with her brother Sam):

abba“I feel no anxiety about home but hope you will remember that Lizzy must be cared for in many little ways or the work will oppress her. I shall write to her on Sunday [referring to a letter dated August 8, 1853].” Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (26) August 5, 1853

Check out Bronson’s response:

Bronson to Abba, June 19, August 10, 1853

amos bronson alcott“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. So please spare all anxieties and spend the century, if you can with the friends whose hospitalities you are gone from us to embosom …” (p. 166 The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

I have my own ideas on this but would love to hear yours first. What do you see here?


I read this last passage a while back, taken by Bronson’s admiration for Elizabeth. But now, reading it as a response to Abba’s request, I have a completely different feeling about it. All the more reason why I wish someone would collect the family letters and present them in a book showing the letters to and responses back from various family members, in essence, giving us a real conversation. Reading the response to the letter oftentimes completely changes the context of what you’ve read.

There is a good collection of letters from the family that could be compiled in this way. Somehow I have a feeling several of these letters will be transcribed by me for my project. I’m actually getting much better at reading Abba’s scrawl.🙂

We’ll see …

Click to Tweet & ShareAbba, Bronson and Lizzie: A slice of family dynamics – what does it tell us? http://wp.me/p125Rp-1ws

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“A Memorable Evening at the Alcotts’ House” as recalled by Edward W. Emerson

I recently picked up a lovely volume from the library entitled Louisa May Alcott An Intimate Anthology, put together the by New York Public Library using materials from their archives.

What’s inside

The book contains stories and essays Louisa wrote about herself, excerpts from her journals, intimate poetry, short stories and recollections from friends.

is futile …🙂

Although I already have much of what is in here, the book is so aesthetically pleasing with its squarish size, typography and illustrations that I know I’ll be visiting Amazon soon!

Who says print books are dead? Much as I love ebooks, there is still something very charming about a book like this.

Impressions from a neighbor

That being said, an essay by Edward W. Emerson, son of Ralph Waldo, caught my eye. What would be his impressions of his extraordinary neighbors, the Alcotts?

The home

Rare photo with the elm tree, from The Louisa May Alcott Collection at Brigham Young University http://net.lib.byu.edu/scm/alcott/adaptations.html

He obviously admired Orchard House and the simple elegance the Alcotts brought to it. Describing it as “extremely picturesque” with a “superb elm” which served as a “great parasol in summer,” he went on to describe the orchard of apple trees, “pink and white in May, and red and yellow in September” which gave the house its name.

The interior of the home was distinguished with plain and unpretentious décor. As an example, he described the windows as uncluttered with the usual array of curtains, shades and blinds which blocked the sun. Instead they were adorned simply with “pretty muslin curtains, made out of old party dresses:; the trees outside “temper[ed] the light.”

The sisters

An interesting side note is Edward’s description of Louisa for he obviously thought her to be the most physically attractive despite her boyish manner:

Louisa at the gate, drawn by May Alcott, from Louisa May Alcott An Intimate Anthology

“Louisa was very fine looking, had the most regular features of the family, and very handsome, wavy brown hair like her mother’s. She had always a rather masculine air, and a twinkle woke constantly in her eye at the comic side of things, a characteristic that carries many persons through hard experiences that crush or sour others. Her talk was always full of little catches from her favorite Dickens.”

He described Anna as “plain” with a sweet disposition and a quick sense of humor “without the ingredient of tartness that Louisa’s sometimes had.” May, “the darling of the family” was a “tall, well-made blond, the lower part of her face irregular, but she had beautiful blue eyes and brilliant yellow hair.”

“A memorable evening at the Alcotts’ house”

Edward elaborated on something I’ve longed wanted to know about: what was it like to spend an evening with the Alcotts? Biographies mention how the family would entertain neighbors on a weekly basis. What was it like to go over to Orchard House for a visit?

A typical visit to Orchard House began with a hearty greeting from Abba. Edward lauded the fact that everyone remained together calling it “bad taste” the way that young girls often slipped off to other rooms with their callers.

Parlor and dining room where gatherings took place. Courtesy of http:www.louisamayalcott.org

Enter Louisa

Louisa displayed her wicked wit and theatrical flair, appearing in costume as colorful characters from plays she had written. May, in high spirits, would play the piano encouraging raucous singing and dancing. As the evening wore down, “short stories on the porch might follow as twilight deepened into dark, and they were sufficiently ‘creepy.’”

Fun and games

The Alcotts loved their games such as pin-running and bean bag tossing. Edward remarked that to “play for a prize was unheard of. We played for fun, the best of prizes, and thus there was no unwholesome excitement …”

Young Edward with his mother Lidian

Warm memories, useful lessons

Reminiscing on those days, Edward celebrates the simple way that the Alcotts lived, noting that “Great pleasure may be had very simply and cheaply.” He continues,

“The family whose beautiful life I celebrate first made themselves happy in adversity by their methods, and later hundreds of others. One trait remains which I have hardly emphasized enough. I have never known a family who equaled the Alcotts in generosity, even in their poverty.”


Is it possible to imagine a time without TV, video games, computers and mobile devices? Edward thought life in his time was becoming increasingly complicated even in household life and amusements. Imagine what he would have thought with the ways we entertain ourselves today!

Next time the power goes out, think about Orchard House, a warm gathering of neighbors, and simple games, songs, dance and stories that passed the time so pleasantly.

Click to Tweet & Share:“A Memorable Evening at the Alcotts’ House” as recalled by Edward W. Emerson http://wp.me/p125Rp-12U

See a letter written by Louisa to her publisher regarding a sequel to Little Women

In conjunction with an exhibit at the Houghton Library at Harvard University entitled  Louisa May Alcott: Family Life & Publishing Ventures, Alcott scholars Daniel Shealy and Joel Myerson contributed a post to Houghton’s blog called “You’ve Got Mail” (highlighting various letters from Houghton’s vast collection) regarding a sequel to Little Women.

Here’s a tease. Be sure and click on the link to see the actual letter written by Louisa to Thomas Niles, her publisher.

You’ve Got Mail: Little Women II: Wedding Marches

Because Little Women is embedded in the American mind as a classic children’s book, readers often forget that Louisa May Alcott always viewed herself as a professional author who wrote in order to make money, much of which went to help support her parents and sisters, and later, nephews and a niece. Between 1868, when Little Women was published, and 1886, when Alcott recorded her last royalty statement, she received $103,375 from her publisher, Roberts Brothers. During that same stretch they printed 846,291 copies of her books, and between 1868 and 1898, when the firm was bought by Little, Brown, and Company, they printed 597,827 copies of Little Women in all its various formats. In comparison, Henry James earned $58,503 during the same period, and Herman Melville was paid, from all American and British sales of his books, $10,444.33 during his entire lifetime.

Click here to see the letter and the rest of the article.

Thanks to Two Nerdy History Girls: Breakfast Links: Week of May 21, 2012
By Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott for the tip!

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Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

A trip to a warehouse bookstore in the middle of nowhere produced a great find! I had just about given up the hope of finding something interesting until this book caught my eye:  Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985, edited by Anne M. Lyell.

What is so significant about Nonquitt? This is where Louisa May Alcott spent her summers in the last years of her life. This book was such a great find because of new pictures of Louisa, her nephews, the cottage she rented and the summer home she eventually purchased.

The book devoted a short chapter (chapter 9, pages 94-97 – all references come from these pages unless otherwise noted.) to Louisa with anecdotal stories of her summers in the southeastern Massachusetts seacoast town near New Bedford.

What brought Louisa May Alcott to Nonquitt?

Recollections from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian suggest that Louisa came to visit the family and fell in love with Nonquitt. He writes:

“I was spending a summer at Nonquitt and she came to visit a friend. I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda. She was tall, rather rustic looking, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her checks somewhat thin, her big, black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony.”

Louisa was in her late forties at the time, obviously showing the ravages of her constant battle with her health. Remembering how vibrant she once was, it is sad to read how much her poor health had aged her.

Renting the first cottage

Louisa rented a house in 1881, sharing it with her niece, then 2-year-old Lulu (daughter of younger sister May who had passed away soon after childbirth). Her older sister Anna also summered at the cottage with her two teenage sons, Fred and John.

Anna’s memories

Anna writes, “I went to Nonquit[t] where Louisa had a cottage, a lovely green paradise which offers everything one can wish. Here I rested, and for fun got up theatricals (as usual), charades, etc., and grew quite young and festive, and enjoyed my lark so much I didn’t not want to come home . . . we [Louisa and Anna] take turns and so keep our boys there eight or ten weeks.” (pg. 141, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, e-book version).

Still in love with the theatre

Louisa, Anna and sons Fred and John took active part in the summer theatricals (Fred and John are shown in the above picture). Having never outgrown her love of the theatre, Louisa wrote and rewrote scripts and took on the jobs of coach, scenery designer and stage manager.

Summer paradise

Louisa rarely did any serious writing while summering in Nonquit. Mostly she took great pleasure in watching her little niece, Lulu:

“My poppet is a picture of health, vigor and delightful naughtiness. She runs wild in this fine place with some twenty other children to play with – nice babies, well-bred, and with pleasant mammas for me to gossip with.” (from a letter to a friend, 1882)

The Pied Piper of Nonquitt

An anecdote from the New Bedford newspaper speaks of Louisa often out walking with her red parasol in hand, followed by a group of children (she was, of course the famous “Miss Alcott” by this time). The newspaper goes on to say:

“There seemed to be a certain magnetism about her that drew the little ones to her, and it was a familiar sight to see the famous writer seated on her porch, or on a rock on the beach, a dozen or more children grouped around her, while she told children’s stories to them . . . Then when a demand would be made for the retelling of some one particular story, she would purposely change some character or some situation in it. The children would immediately correct her, and tell to her in their own way, the stories she had previously related to them.”

Always writing . . .

Even though Louisa came to vacation in Nonquitt, she could never stop writing. She contributed several short stories to the local paper, the Nonquitt Breeze.

Buying her piece of paradise

In 1883, Louisa purchased her own property,a cottage at the northeast corner of Narragansett and Central Avenue (presently called Old Wharf Road). She recorded in her journal on June 24:

“To Nonquitt with Lulu and K. and John (Pratt), Fixed my house, and enjoyed the rest and quiet immensely. Lulu wild with joy at the freedom . . .” In July she wrote, “Restful days in my little house, which is cool and quiet, and without the curse of a kitchen to spoil it . . .”

Louisa took her meals at the local hotel.

Failing health

By the end of 1885, Louisa was troubled by vertigo and rheumatism. It was then that she began to destroy letters and journals that she didn’t want prying eyes to see.

June of 1886 was her last visit to Nonquitt before poor health settled in. In a letter to Mary Mapes Dodge (friend, and editor of St. Nichoas Magazine where many of her books had been serialized), Louisa writes:

“Lu and I go to Nonquitt next week; and after a few days rest, I will fire up the old engine and see if it will run a short distance without a break-down.”

She fought against her ill health and finished her last book, Jo’s Boys.

The fate of Louisa’s cottage

In 1888, Louisa died and the nephew she adopted, John Pratt Alcott, inherited the Nonquitt house. In 1907 it was sold to John’s brother Fred who added on to the house.

In 1945 it was moved one block and is owned as of 1987 by Daniel Strohmeier.

The store where I found the book

So where did I find this book?

The store is known as the Book Bear in West Brookfield, MA. They are decidedly old-fashioned, not accepting credit cards and not doing email! They do have a website (click on the name) so you can get an idea of what they have.

I definitely will be visiting again soon!

Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985 is available online through Amazon and other outlets (the link leads to Amazon). I look forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book.

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Referrals in Louisa’s journal to Little Women

Following up on Jillian’s post, I thought it would be fun to look back on journal entries that Louisa made that directly correlate with Little Women. I found these in Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips; the page citations come from this book. Note the comments Louisa makes after some of the entries.

April 1855

I am in the garret with my papers round me, and a pile of apples to eat while I write my journal, plan stories, and enjoy the patter of rain on the roof, in peace and quiet.

[ Jo in the garret. — L.M.A.] p. 411

October 1856

Made plans to go to Boston for the winter, as there is nothing to do here, and there I can support myself and help the family. C. [William Warland Clapp, editor of the Saturday Evening Gazette – he paid Louisa ten dollars for “The Rival Prima Donnas” and published several other stories] offers 10 dollars a month, and perhaps more. L. W., M. S., and others, have plenty of sewing; the play may come out*, and Mrs. R. Will give me a sky-parlor for $3 a week, with fire and board. I can sew for her also.

from GRAPHIC CLASSICS, focusing on the work of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Tom Pomplun and published by Eureka Productions.

If I can get A. L. to governess I shall be all right.

I was born with a boy’s spirit under my bib and tucker. I can’t wait when I can work; so I took my little talent in my hand and forced the world again, braver than before and wiser for my failures.

[Jo in N. Y. — L. M. A.] p. 411
*Louisa was supposed to have a play produced for the stage in Boston (I believe it was “The Rival Prima Donnas” but the producer died suddenly).

May 1868

Father saw Mr. Niles about a fairy book. Mr. N. Wants a girls’ story, and I begin “Little Women.” Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.

[Good joke. — L. M. A.] p. 413

August 1868

Roberts Bros. made an offer for the story, but at the same time advised me to keep the copyright; so I shall.

[An honest publisher and a lucky author, for the copyright made her fortune, and the “dull book” was the first golden egg ofnthe ugly duckling. 1885. — L. M. A.] p. 413

August 26, 1868

Proof of whole book came. It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds that will be the reason for it. Mr. N. likes it better now, and says some girls who have read the manuscripts say it is “splendid!” As it is for them, they are the best critics, so I should be satisfied. p. 413

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