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)
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) Continue reading →
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Reason for the change
Why the change? I have finally begun writing my book on Lizzie, beginning with a presentation that I will be making in the upcoming months which will reveal the essence of the book. Anyone who has written a book knows how it consumes you, leaving precious little left over for anything else!
I cannot take a sabbatical from my job so I must fit writing around my commitments (including this blog). As I anticipate it will be 3-5 years before the book is out, I intend on “staking my claim” to my theories through local presentations and this blog; the book will flesh out all the details.
So stay tuned, the “big reveal” coming … many exciting things are afoot!
On Saturday, Oct. 1
I had the distinct pleasure of touring the town of Walpole NH where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived in Walpole, NH from 1855 through 1857. I was accompanied by my sister Chris and friend Kristi Martin, a certified tour guide of the various Concord historical homes. The historical society has an exhibit known as “Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole” which ends October 22 but will start up again next spring. Town historian Ray Boas, author of a booklet by the same title, gave us the grand tour. Walpole has not changed all that much since the mid 1850’s so it was truly a journey back in time.
Photo by Kristi Martin. Used by permission.
A precious artifact
The exhibit included the piano given to Lizzie by Dr. Henry Bellows (more on this later) and needless to say, Kristi and I could not resist touching the keys and communing with the spirit of Lizzie. There are precious few places and artifacts associated with Lizzie so each to us is sacred.
Kristi Martin with Lizzie’s piano.
The Alcotts in Walpole
After ten sometimes tumultuous and often dreary years moving from one basement flat to the next (with some summertime reprises in homes of relatives to escape disease outbreaks), Bronson and Abba accepted a home free of rent from cousin Benjamin Willis. It proved to be a lifeline. The home on High Street was a duplex, just off the center of town.
The Alcotts lived on the west side of this home on High Street now known as the Alcott Apartments.
Walpole is the setting of giddy triumphs and the beginning of a family tragedy. It is the back story of Chapter 6 of Little Women, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful.”
At first the Alcotts found Walpole to be much to their liking. In comparison with the noise and dirt of the city, bucolic Walpole with its rolling farmlands and charming homesteads was a relief. Anna Alcott had served as a governess here back when the family lived at Hillside in Concord, in the home of Benjamin Willis.
The home of Benjamin Willis where Anna served as a governess.
Lights, drama, action!
Walpole is close to the Vermont border and Bellows Falls where people often took their summer vacations. This made Walpole a tourist spot as well.. A great many young people populated the town during the summer and a semi-professional theatrical group was formed as a result (which still exists today). Louisa and Anna took part in many productions. Louisa took the character/comedic roles while Anna took the romantic leads. They were both accomplished actresses who relished their time on the stage. World-famous actress Fanny Kemble even visited Walpole one summer.
This playbill lists the Alcott sisters in their roles. From “Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole” by Ray Boas, town historian; used by permission.
A generous gift
Dr. Henry Bellows, “the gayest of the gay” according to Louisa, summered in Walpole. He was the pastor of the prominent First Congregational (Unitarian) church in New York City (afterwards All Souls church) for forty-three years, until his death in 1882. He hit it off with entire Alcott family beginning with Bronson. He was also taken by the shy Lizzie, offering his piano for her use when he went back to New York for the winter. This is the basis of Beth and Mr. Laurence and his generous gift which makes for “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful” in Little Women. Bronson recorded the gift in his journal in 1855.
Houghton Library, MS Am 1130.9 Amos Bronson Alcott journal September 1855
The start of Lizzie’s decline
Walpole also served as the beginning of the first family tragedy. In July of 1855, Abba writes to brother Sam:
My dear brother . .. You may have heard how very sick my Lizzy has been. Scarlet fever took us all down in its various stages of virulence, but it fixed on Lizzy most tenaciously and her father and I watch her night and day with an anxiety most painful and intense, but she is [gaining] strength .. . .(page 192, My Heart is Boundless, edited by Eve LaPlante)
The story goes that Abba took care of a family who lived over a pig farm. Their children had caught scarlet fever. Lizzie, Abba and Anna would all catch it but Lizzie would nearly die from the disease. As we know, this was the beginning of a brutal decline which ended in death in March of 1858.
We only know that the property was owned by a deacon and the family in question were the Halls (pg. pg. 245, Amos Bronson Alcott by Frederick Dahlstrand’s biography of Bronson Alcott. Town historian Ray Boas, while unable to firmly identified where the family lived, surmised that they were nearby in a cluster of smaller homes.
Map of High and Rogers Streets showing where the Alcotts lived and where the Halls may have lived. (Google Maps — thanks to Ray Boas)
Site of theatrical performances
Mr. Boas took us to the various homes where the theater group performed its plays. One of those homes was owned by a Dr. Kittredge who treated Lizzie and recommended she be taken to the seashore. Plays were often performed in the attic of his home which could hold some two hundred people.
The home of Dr. Kittredge just off the town common.
I highly recommend a visit to the Walpole Historical Society exhibit. If you purchase Mr. Boas’ booklet, you will have a map showing the various sights in town. You can get a copy at www.rayboasbookseller.com.
With the foliage about to peak, you will find it a magical visit.
“I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.”
Louisa May Alcott, “Sketch of Childhood, by herself.”
Welcome to the third episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
Welcome to the third episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! While we may not yet feel the chill in the air here in New England, September is just around the corner and with it, Orchard House’s annual benefit, the 5K Run/Walk featuring three-time Boston Marathon winner, two-time Olympian and Louisa devotee Uta Pippig. Today I will talk with Jan Turnquist, executive director at Orchard House about this run/walk, now in its 11th year. This particular year features some exciting guests and a special presentation along with the run and walk. Click on the link to see all the details.
I’ll share a reading from Little Women that fits nicely with the episode’s theme, catch you up on the latest news and at the end of the podcast, we’ll hear from Louisa herself.
“But when nothing remained of all her three months’ work, except a heap of ashes, and the money in her lap, Jo looked sober, as she sat on the floor, wondering what she ought to do about her wages.
“I think I haven’t done much harm yet, and may keep this to pay for my time,” she said, after a long meditation, adding impatiently, “I almost wish I hadn’t any conscience, it’s so inconvenient. If I didn’t care about doing right, and didn’t feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally. I can’t help wishing, sometimes, that mother and father hadn’t been so dreadfully particular about such things.”
“Do you see what this means — all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running — and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed — that exhilarating finish in and with God — he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”
Continuing this fall is the special Alcott exhibit in Walpole, NH run by the historical society. The Alcotts lived in Walpole between 1855 and 1857. Among the items on display are posters advertising the plays Louisa and Anna took part in, and the piano loaned to the family by Dr. Henry Bellows which is immortalized in Little Women, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful;” I recently found Bronson’s journal entry about this episode:
From Bronson’s Journal, Monday, September 17, 1855 (Lizzie had been stricken with scarlet fever in July)
“Dr. Bellows lends his piano this morning for Elizabeth to use during the absence of himself and his family in New York. This is a kindness to E. and all of us, and will make our house here in the lane the more melodious till May next.
Elizabeth plays quite sweetly. Abby’s touch is bold … it is fortunate for the recluse, these gifts of theirs …”
Houghton Library: Amos Bronson Alcott papers, 1799-1888. MS Am 1130.12, pgs. 395, 396 September 17, 1855
The Wayside (part of the Minuteman National Park) continues to be open to the public from now through October 30, Sunday, Monday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Sundays, 11:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. The Wayside, known as Hillside when the Alcotts lived there, is where part one of Little Women took place. You can imagine scenes such as the girls acting out Pilgrim’s Progress on the stairs. The Wayside also housed Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family for several years, and Margaret Sidney, author of The Five Little Peppers series. It’s a fascinating tour — I recently did a blog post with pictures.
I recently visited Minuteman National Park’s North Bridge Visitor’s Center where I had the pleasure of going through Margaret Lothrop’s research for her book, The Wayside Home of Authors. She has transcribed several years of Bronson’s journals covering the Hillside period and beyond, passages that are not featured in Odell Shepherd’s book. Shepherd left out most of the family-related passages; thanks to Lothrop, these passages are now easily accessible, providing a window into Alcott family life and in particular, Bronson’s creativity which I think influenced May in her art. The museum technician, Steven Nevin, is very helpful and friendly, a joy to work with. The organization of the materials is clear and easy to follow. You can find a link to the summary of what is available on the show notes.
Walden Woods Project Library
Speaking of libraries, Walden Woods also has fascinating archives to explore. Their librarian Jeff Cramer is also very accommodating – he recently scanned and sent me an article on Junius Alcott, Bronson’s younger brother. You can find a link in the show notes for a summary of their holdings.
If you have an event you’d like me to share on this podcast, simply send me feedback using the SpeakPipe app, It will record your voice and send your message via email to me. It’s quick, easy and free to send your feedback—just click on the SpeakPipe app on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page. You can also click on the green “Start Recording” link in the show notes. I welcome all kinds of feedback: Ask questions, make comments, quote a passage, tell a joke, anything Alcott-related. I look forward to hearing from you.
Orchard House Annual 5K Run/Walk Sunday, September 11 at 11 am —
interview with Jan Turnquist
Jan shares some wonderful stories about this wonderful event and exciting news about a special presentation associated with the run. You can sign up for the run and find out more at www.louisamayalcott.org – the link will be on the show notes. If you run the race send me your pictures at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page.
I’d love to hear from you – right on the home page is a link to SpeakPipe App where you can leave audio feedback. Just click on the green “Start Recording” button. SpeakPipe App is also available on the Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Facebook page, in the left hand column under Apps. Just click on the icon and leave your message.
“It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if one only knows how to look at them.” (from “Marjorie’s Three Gifts,” 1877)
Welcome to the second episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:
During 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
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. 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:
All stories are available through Google Books or Project Gutenberg.
“Extraordinary Beauty in an Ordinary World: May Alcott and Women’s Painting during the 19th Century”
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.
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”
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.
Kristi Lynn Martin
“The Sacred Domestic, Memorialization, and Literary Imagination in the Alcott Sisters’ Sphere”
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.
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!
“Castles in the Air Versus Two Inches of Ivory: A Comparison of Louisa May Alcott’s Sisters with Jane Austen’s Bennets.”
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)!
“Five at Fredericksburg: Revising What We Know about The Battle that Transformed American Culture.”
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.
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.
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.”
I invite you to visit Jeannine Atkins’ blog to meet members of this special community — she captured it to perfection.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted and I apologize. I have a full time position which is a perfect writer’s job – deadly quiet for eight months out of the year. However, since March it has been busy here at the real estate office in the thick of the Spring Market–quiet will resume by the last week of June.
Busy with a plan
I have been busy however with my Lizzie project. I am convinced of the importance of my this work and want to make sure it gets out to the greatest number of people. Therefore, I devised a plan that will best facilitate this book getting out to the public.
I first surmised that since I have no official academic credentials (except for a BS in Elementary Education) and no connections to any college or university, that I will have to create some credentials. This blog certainly helps but I know I will have a much better chance of getting my book picked up by a prominent publisher (and attract the attention of a literary agent) if I am published in an academic journal.
Being a published author already won’t hurt but my books are in a totally different genre (if anything, they trained me to become a professional writer and that’s huge!). I basically have to start from scratch.
It definitely takes a village!
One thing I’ve learned about writing is how vital it is to be a part of a community. This community is a huge help along with the Louisa May Alcott Society (at $10 per year, the best deal in town!) and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (especially the Summer Conversational Series). I have developed relationships with wonderful people who have been so supportive and are eager to help. One of them has already agreed to be a reader.
I am in week three of the twelve weeks and feeling confident about where the paper is going. There’s a long way to go yet but if anything, it will help to synthesize the mountain of research I have which can make this project quite daunting. What has saved me so far is great attention to organization. This is huge.
Up and down
Those of you who have already had papers and books published know what this journey is like–exhilarating one moment, and discouraging and frustrating in the next. It’s a roller coaster ride with quite the pitch!
I hopefully will get back to more regular posts soon as work calms down next month. In the meantime though, I did want to let you know that the love of my life, this book, is progressing.
Thanks, as always, for your support! You people keep me on track and hold me accountable.
The Musical Wonder House was housed in a sea captain’s house circa 1852.
While doing my spring cleaning I came across a CD of favorite hymns, played on exquisite music boxes. My husband and I acquired the CD at a most unusual museum, The Musical Wonder House in Wiscasset, ME. Rich and I vacationed in nearby Booth Bay Harbor back in the 1980’s and spent many days at the Musical Wonder House. We gave up dinners so we could take home a beautiful box of our own (see below). As we’re both musicians and Rich is a collector (Beatles and Linda Ronstadt paraphernalia) this museum really spoke to our hearts. The museum unfortunately closed in 2014.
A glimpse into Lizzie’s musical world
The CD, called Songs of Praise, contains favorite sacred songs along with music of the great masters such as Handel, Gounod and Martin Luthor. Since the heyday of music boxes was between 1830 and 1900, I think it’s safe to assume that many, if not all of these pieces were familiar to Elizabeth Alcott. It has given me a glimpse into her musical world. Continue reading →