Sibling rivalry – did “Little Women” spur May on to success?

In reading through the large collection of letters and journal entries I have from Alcott family members, it occurred to me that with a few exceptions, the sisters did not disparage one another. This is remarkable since sibling rivalry and age differences can present many challenges. Since any show of anger was frowned upon in the Alcott home, the girls had to find other stealth ways to work out any negative feelings.

Demanding little sister

There were certainly occasions when criticism was warranted. The most striking example was a letter from Anna during the crucial period of Elizabeth’s illness describing Abby May’s “demands.” Letters at this time were flying back and forth between the daughters and the parents as to where they should live:

Abby says, By all means find a house in or near Boston within walking distance as her drawing and music are the only friend she cares for; that this winter if of the utmost importance to her, and she wishes to be there most decidedly but — if it can’t be, Concord Village is next best and if any chance for teaching should offer these, she will consent to go. She wishes to say that she has made a solemn vow not to touch a pencil, crayon, or paint brush till she is well, that she shant go to school, study or do anything till Dr. Geist has cured her. That she is tired of being sick, & determined to get well immediately, & that Mother must command the Dr. to send her a stock of medicine directly with full directions for its use, that she may spend her time in getting well all ready for the winter campaign. She is willing to be guided, but can’t give up her drawing, & strongly inclines to the city, as of course we all do in our hearts, tho our better judgment advises the country. (Unpublished letter by Anna Alcott to Bronson Alcott September 10, 1857)

Anna never called out her sister for her selfishness. Note too however that she did not whitewash her sister’s words. This is why I call Anna the family secretary — she simply recorded what transpired, making her letters some of the most valuable (along with the fact that they are easy to read!).

from Houghton Library Amos Bronson Alcott papers MS Am 1130.9 (27)

Since Louisa had the hardest time controlling her feelings, there were occasional slips either against Anna or Abby  May. She wrote this to her mother:

I hardly dare to speak to Annie for fear she should speak unkindly and get me angry. O she is very very cross I cannot love her it seems as though she did every thing to trouble me but I will try to love her better. (from the Fruitlands display, Fruitlands Museum)

from the Fruitlands display, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, MA

In her younger years she was hard on herself whenever she was mean to any other family member:

Sunday, 24th. I was cross to-day, and I cried when I went to bed. I make good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I shall be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so am very bad. (September 24, 1843, pg. 45, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott)

Every now and then she’d take a jab at Abby May: “Ab doing nothing but grow.” (1852 “Notes and Memoranda, pg. 68 Journals)

Expressing herself through fiction

There may have been no outward disparaging but the typical tensions between big sister and little sister were described for all to see in Little Women with Louisa’s portrayal of Amy. I had always wondered how May must have felt seeing her first portrayed as selfish and spoiled, and later, giving up on her dream of being an artist.

In Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, (see review) Jeannine Atkins granted my wish. She imagined May’s growing resentment as Louisa read pages from Little Women out loud to the family. One episode in particular was stinging:

One evening, her hand tightened on her pen as Louisa read an episode in which the youngest sister shoved a manuscript into the fireplace. May cried, ‘I would never burn your work! I was the one who encouraged you to write this novel!’

‘I told you, it’s a story.’

‘Even if you didn’t use the scrambled version of my name, don’t you think people will recognize the niminy-piminy chit with her wretched attempts to burn images on wood with a hot poker?’

‘I’ll make it up to you.’ (pg. 140)

Big sister, baby sister

Concord Sketches from AbeBooks.com

Atkins also imagined the scene where May received the first copy of her book called Concord Sketches (containing twelve sketches of Concord landmarks) and her reaction to reading the preface written by her now-famous sister Louisa. In part it read,

These sketches, from a student’s portfolio, claim no merit as works of art, but are only valuable as souvenirs, which owe their chief charm to the associations that surround them, rather than to any success in the execution of a labor of love, prompted by the natural desire to do honor to one’s birthplace.” (Concord Public Library Special Collections).

May Alcott, Still Life with Bottle, 1877. Oil on canvas. Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, Orchard House, Concord.

May was no quitter despite the fact that Louisa failed to take her seriously. I submit that the combination of Amy March and the preface written for Concord Sketches drove her all the more to prove herself as worthy of the same crown Louisa now wore. I can imagine May remembering these incidents as she relished over her triumph over her painting being accepted into the prestigious Paris Salon:

My dear Marmee’s heart will be delighted to hear that my little picture is accepted at the great Salon exhibition, where from 8500 works sent in, only 2000 were accepted, and mine was thought worthy a place among the best. Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.” (pg. 182 May Alcott a Memoir by Caroline Ticknor)

Payback was sweet. And the best part was by that time, Louisa had come to appreciate her baby sister’s many talents and virtues. They were to become close in later life until they were separated by May’s untimely death. In appreciation of May, Louisa wrote  Diana and Persis but was unable to finish due to her grief. (see previous blog post)

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Fruitlands through the years in sight and sound

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

Richard  Francis Interview

Fruitlands then and now

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

Upper photo courtesy of Harriet Lothrop Papers, Minuteman National Park

Front of the house

Foyer

Kitchen

Dining room

Dining room

The study

Alcott’s bedroom

Charles Lane’s bedroom

The heart of the story

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

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A trivia backstory: how is it that Catholic holy cards show up in Louisa’s stories?

Beth’s chest, illustration by Scott McKowan

While researching my biography on Elizabeth Alcott, I did a very careful re-read of Little Women using Daniel Shealy’s excellent annotated edition. In the course of my reading I found many interesting little details. One of them involved the poem in Chapter 46 which brought Professor Bhaer to Jo’s side. Called “In the Garret,” a particular verse in Beth’s segment caught my eye (I italicized it for emphasis):

My Beth! the dust is always swept
From the lid that bears your name, As if by loving eyes that wept,
By careful hands that often came.
Death cannonized for us one saint, Ever less human than divine,
And still we lay, with tender plaint, Relics in this household shrine–
The silver bell, so seldom rung,
The little cap which last she wore,
The fair, dead Catherine that hung
By angels borne above her door.
The songs she sang, without lament, In her prison-house of pain,
Forever are they sweetly blent
With the falling summer rain.

Roman Catholics (like me) will likely know to which these lines in italic apply … for everyone else, Louisa (Jo) is referring to a holy card, a small card in color, often framed in lace featuring a print of a saint, Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. Because the reference is so specific and yet quite random, I believe such a picture in fact hung over the door of Lizzie’s sick chamber.

So who was this “fair, dead Catherine?”

Daniel Shealy provided a footnote:

Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), born in Siena, Italy, was, like Beth, the second youngest child in a large family. As a young girl she saw visions and devoted herself to Christ. At age sixteen, she became a Dominican tertiary, a lay member of the Dominican order, and tended to the sick and poor. Saint Catherine was canonized in 1461. (pg. 508, Little Women: An Annotated Edition)

Tracking down the holy card

How would the Alcotts, who had no affiliation with any formal religion, have come across a holy card featuring St. Catherine of Siena? It was not easy to find the answer! Certain aspects of religious history are not readily available through libraries. And you have to use the right keywords to find what you want (which I finally figured out).

It helps to have friends in high places.

I contacted a priest friend of mine who is interested in relics and prayer cards and he was able to help me fashion a plausible scenario. He told me that during the 19th century, holy cards were handed out to Catholic children as gifts after they made their first communion. A search on Wikipedia confirmed that and added confirmation as another occasion.

Images of St. Catherine

Doing a search using the terms “holy card 19th century Catherine of Siena” I found images that could describe what was referred to by Louisa in her poem:

from Jared’s board on Pinterest

from the Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1970); Margaret M. Lothrop Notebooks: Alcott Series

Bronson and Abba had purchased Orchard House; while the house was being renovated they resided in half a house on Bedford Street (just off of Monument Square). Here Lizzie lived out her final days. Irish Catholic immigrants who had built the railroad had worshipped in Concord since the 1840s. If you recall in Little Women, from her sickbed Beth made little treasures and dropped them out of her window to the school children that passed by daily; Louisa writes in her journal that Lizzie did the same, taking great pleasure in their glee at receiving them. As Lizzie was so emaciated by that time, it is possible that one of the children, feeling grateful for the little treasure yet also feeling sorry for the invalid, offered his or her holy card of St. Catherine to the Alcotts to put over the door to Lizzie’s chamber.

Holy cards and Rose in Bloom

Holy cards and saints appear again in Rose in Bloom. In chapter 2, Rose and Charlie are discussing saints found on holy cards on the table. Rose prefers the modest and poor Francis of Assisi while Charlie chose the dashing St. Martin of Tours as his favorite.

In the end he declares his preference for Rose,

“I’d like the golden-haired angel in the blue gown if you’ll let me have her. She shall be may little Madonna, and I’ll pray to her like a good Catholic.”

How would Louisa know of these saints?

The holy cards present in Rose in Bloom would have most likely have been encountered during Louisa and May’s European tour as they visited many churches. This is well documented in Little Women Abroad. It’s quite possible they brought home cards as souvenirs; many were framed in lace and considered quite pretty, and they were easy to obtain being quite inexpensive. They visited Europe in 1870-71; Rose in Bloom was published in 1876.

Attraction and revulsion

The sisters were deeply attracted to the Roman Catholic Church for its beauty and mystery while at the same time repelled by what they deemed as ancient superstitious ritual. The Church being a storehouse to some of the greatest art ever produced, it certainly would attract May. The Church also provided interesting characters for Louisa’s stories as evidenced by Father Ignatius in The Long, Fatal Love-Chase along with the encounter with a young priest written about in Shawl Straps.

p.s. — Update on my book

With regards to my work on Elizabeth Alcott, I am toiling away on an essay that I hope to submit to the New England Quarterly. I have never worked so hard in my life on any piece of writing! I keep writing myself into the weeds. 🙂 When it is complete and submitted, I will share the essence of it with you. This is the prelude to the book. All I can say right now is that there are some interesting rumblings going on with this book. Stay tuned!

 

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Gossip from overseas: stories from “Little Women Abroad” by those mapcap Alcott sisters

I am pleased to present this guest post by Elizabeth Hilprecht, a regular reader whose insightful comments you have most likely read. We have been having a wonderful email chat back and forth about Daniel Shealy’s Little Women Abroad and I asked her if she would share some of the wonderful stories taken from letters to home written by Louisa May Alcott and her sister May describing their European exploits. She graciously accepted.

Little Women Abroad is a valuable book including a lengthy introduction, seventy one letters from Louisa and May (with fifty eight published for the first time) and many pages of drawings by May Alcott. Daniel Shealy’s scholarship is impeccable. Besides the colorful stories are letters about the death of John Pratt and the grief experienced by the sisters and business correspondences between “Jo” and “Tom” (Louisa and Thomas Niles, her publisher).

Little Women Abroad also provides a valuable look into the world of two independent and successful sisters (one already established and the other on the cusp) providing a bird’s eye view of Europe in the nineteenth century. We are indeed fortunate that the Alcott family so valued letter writing; Bronson in particular felt that letters should be saved and savored — he ended up transcribing all the letters sent to him and Abba during the daughters’ first year in Europe.

Here are some of Elizabeth’s initial thoughts. Continue reading

The Palace Beautiful: The Little Women trail #5

This is a wonderful tour of the places where Jo March and family members dwelled through the real-life Alcott family members. My thanks to the “Much Ado about Little Women” blog.

Much ado about Little Women

By Trix Wilkins

There is something intriguing about the history of a home – who designed it and why, what accomplishments occurred under its refuge, who might have met within its walls and what precious moments might have consequently transpired? This trail follows the homes from the life of Louisa May Alcott that appear to make cameo appearances in Little Women – from their humble homes in Concord to the Hancock family manor in Boston.

The March sisters’ plays: Hillside House (now known as The Wayside)

“In a suburb of the city…an old brown house, looking rather bare and shabby, robbed in of the vines that in summer covered its walls, and the flowers which then surrounded it.”

According to Louisa’s teacher, Henry David Thoreau, Hillside was haunted by one of its previous owners. Despite this, Louisa spent happy early teenage years here and it became one of the homes…

View original post 1,298 more words

Call for proposals for 2017 Summer Conversational Series

“Noble Companions and Immortal Labors”*:
The Alcotts, Thoreaus, and the Quest for Social Justice

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House SUMMER CONVERSATIONAL SERIES
Sunday, July 16 – Thursday, July 20, 2017

thoreauTranscendental neighbors and thinkers Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau shared ideals and hopes for changing society.  Ever interested in improving the world to make it a better place to live in, they and their families worked publicly and also behind the scenes to stand up for social justice and put themselves on the line for others.  The women as well as the men were committed to furthering the cause of justice, freedom, and equality in their communities and in the world at large. Continue reading

Pilgrimage to the heart(h) of Bronson Alcott

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

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

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

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