May Alcott’s call to the creative life is our call

I had the pleasure last night of attending a presentation by Elise Hooper regarding her new book, The Other Alcott (see previous post for review). Among the many interesting aspects of her talk was the idea of women and artistry and the difficulty in claiming your vocation as an artist.

May’s dilemma

Elise pointed out that what made May’s story particularly interesting to her was the fact that May was not overshadowed by a man but by another woman, and her own sister to boot! Hooper recalled chapter one of The Other Alcott in which Little Women is published to rave reviews for the writing while the illustrations are roundly panned. As the baby sister seeking not only to emerge from her sister’s shadow but also to be taken seriously for her own talent, the public’s response to her drawings must have been humiliating.

This episode sets up the dual premise of the book – claiming ownership of one’s creativity, and sibling rivalry.

A great challenge

Elise spoke at length of the obstacles that women in the nineteenth century faced in fulfilling vocations that fell outside of wife and mother. While women of today certainly have an easier time pursuing careers, we know that with all the hats we have to wear it still is a tremendous challenge.

Learning to own it

Elise and I spent a lovely dinner together before the presentation to discuss this subject. We both admitted to the difficulty of claiming the title of “writer” and “artist.” It was so much easier to say we were craftsmen, something that she pointed out to me as I explained why I often don’t consider myself to be a “true” writer because I am not compelled to write for its own sake, but rather, to use writing as a tool to speak to things I care about (and in that respect, it is a compulsion). She then gently pointed out how I was viewing my writing as a craft rather than art and she is right. I went on to explain how I love the editing process best where I think of myself as a potter with clay, shaping the meaning, tweaking the words, and infusing a bit of poetry into the prose. After I shared that with her, we both agreed it was in fact, art.

Spokesperson for May

Along with Elise’s love of the Alcotts, her own background as an Art History major, amateur painter and high school teacher of English and History uniquely qualifies her to explore May’s life through the vehicle of fiction. There was an infectious nature to her presentation that told me this story was her own as well in many ways. It’s a universal theme highlighted in The Other Alcott.

Sisterhood

The book and our encounter reminded me of a common phenomenon in Louisa’s books – the sisterhood. We think first of the March sisters in Little Women and how each of them had her specific role to play in the development of the other three. We recall Polly Milton (An Old-Fashioned Girl) and her sisterhood of poor, single, working women and how their purpose-filled lives shaped Fanny’s growth into a useful and contented woman. And then there is Christy Devon (Work: A Story of Experience) who emerges from the grief she suffered due to the loss of her husband to create a supportive group of women meant to build each other up so as to reach out to others in the world.

I am reminded of such a sisterhood every time I get together with other Alcott enthusiasts. I see the wonderful support given to each member of our group (whether it is here on the blog or at gatherings such as the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House) as we pursue our creative vocations. I know I would be nowhere in my writing were it not for the support I have received especially through the Louisa May Alcott Society along with this blog community.

And this, in part, I think, explains the continuing appeal of Louisa May Alcott. The themes she espoused in her writings some 150 years ago still resonate with women today despite all the changes in our world. Some things, fortunately, never change.

 

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Book Review: The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper (@elisehooper) | Twitter

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from the author for review purposes.

Lounging on my wicker love seat with the koi pond (and its sprinkling fountain) in view,  I had a most enjoyable summer read with The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott by Elise Hooper.

May Alcott fleshed out

Abigail May Alcott, the prototype for Amy March in Little Women comes across in this debut novel by Hooper as vivacious, ambitious and thoughtful, struggling to be seen in her own right as an artistic talent as well as a viable, caring woman. Living in the shadow of her famous (and older by eight years) sister Louisa, May encounters the problems of all the “babies” in families: that of being taken seriously.

Sibling rivalry

The book opens with the family receiving the first reviews of Little Women including the less than sterling comments about May’s illustrations. Devastated, May attempts to hide her shame from Louisa who, in typical older sisterly fashion, minimizes the critique commenting,

“I know it must be a bit of a shock since everything always seems to go your way, but you’ll recover. Somehow I always do.”

She then abruptly changes the subject, asking about May’s current beau, Joshua Bishop. After everyone has left the house, May tears apart her sketchbook and burns the pages in frustration.

This incident sets up the core of the novel: the tension between sisters who are similar in temperament, and the younger sister’s feelings about achieving her ambition and proving herself to her family.

Genuine struggles

In reading May Alcott’s letters, one gets the sense that she did not grapple from angst.  More guarded and perhaps less introspective than Anna and Louisa, she kept up a cheerful facade. One forgets that she too had her inner struggles. Hooper does a good job of imagining May’s doubts, regrets and struggles. She comes across as well-rounded, real and very likeable.

For example we see May galled over her portrayal in Little Women as the selfish, vane and pretentious Amy. Her anger is soothed by sketching:

“When she sketched, it felt as though she had a fever, a good fever, a fever that warmed her insides and made the rest of the world melt away …”

In the midst of that pleasure, she knows it’s make or break time:

“If she stopped creating, what was left? A slow slide into spinsterhood? She’d be stuck in Concord forever … She needed her art …”

Art, love and sacrifice

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

Pursuing art as a profession required sacrifice especially when it came to relationships. Joshua Bishop, her love interest, is charming, wealthy and kind; if May had truly been Amy March, he would have been her Laurie. But May knew Joshua could not abide her artistic ambition. This set up her relationship with future husband Ernest Nieriker towards the end of the book, one of my favorite parts. Ernest comes to life as charming and thoughtful with a keen sense of fun. As a talented musician he can empathize with May’s artistic self. Hooper presents a deeper and more realistic relationship than what we can gather from May’s letters to the family.

Sisters, sisters …

The most complex was her relationship with Louisa, the older sister, the family breadwinner and May’s  only means of support. Louisa, who was temperamental, often condescending and jealous of May’s streak of supposed “good luck.” Hooper paints their relationship as close but difficult at times — a portrayal of competing siblings who love each and their their family deeply.

Europe and professional growth

Self portrait by Mary Cassatt – IAHLQ-4ePxivhw at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain

Hooper describes the course of May’s art education in Europe, again providing the struggle that was missing from May’s accounts to her family. There were times when being the sister of the world famous Louisa May Alcott was costly as May discovers in one escapade with an instructor. May’s budding relationships with other professional women artists (including Mary Cassatt) were especially satisfying; Hooper employed these relationships well to explore the world of professional art for women. These relationships would enable May to find the confidence to pursue her art without her sister’s help.

Writer’s choice

Hooper takes editorial liberty with facts in order to craft a better story, and she explains her choices at the end of the novel. I would highly recommend reading her comments before embarking on the book so as to take that liberty with her. Hooper’s choices are logical, making for a more compelling read.

Weak ending

As much as I loved The Other Alcott, I was disappointed with the ending. I became quite involved with May and knowing how the story actually ended, prepared myself for a good cry. That did not happen. I don’t want to completely spoil the ending but suffice it to say that I did not find it satisfying.

Recommended reading

That being said, I still highly recommend The Other Alcott. It reads quickly, sweeping you into May Alcott’s world of nineteenth century art, love, Europe and Louisa May Alcott. I will remember it fondly as the first book I read on my new patio in front of the koi pond — a fitting way to break in my new favorite reading place.

 

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A rare look at Louisa May Alcott’s life as an invalid and a patient

You never know what you will find out from a librarian. Or where research will lead you. That’s what makes it so addictive.

The Alcotts and Homeopathy

My research on Elizabeth Alcott has recently led me into the world of alternative medicine. The Alcotts were followers of Homeopathy, a popular alternative to traditional medicine in the nineteenth century founded by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician. Transcendentalists were among the earliest advocates of Homeopathy as opposed to Allopathy (traditional medicine). In her book, A Vital Force: Women in American Homeopathy, Anne Taylor Kirschmann writes,

“Many were attracted to Hahnemann’s metaphysical view of disease causality, his emphasis on the connection of mind and body in healing, and his insistence that only the spirit-like activity of mediinal substance (rather than the material drug) would influence a disordered spirit — the root cause of all disease.” (page 31)

Homeopathy, unlike Allopathy, was based on the premise that “like cures like.” Tiny doses of natural remedies first increase the symptoms but then cure the disease. The Alcotts turned to Hahnemann’s book, Organon of the Healing Art to treat small pox in 1850 and scarlet fever in 1856. Lizzie’s final physician, Dr. Christian Geist, was a homeopathic practitioner.

Alcott collections across the country

I discovered that along with Louisa May Alcott, many suffragettes supported homeopathy. This led me to send an inquiry to a professor I found online who had written on homeopathy. While he was not able to help, he referred me to a reference librarian at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library of Yale University who sent me many fascinating links to places around the country that contain archives related to the Alcotts. Along with the well-known collections at Harvard University in Cambridge and the New York Public Library are collections at the University of Virginia and Brigham Young University. In fact, much of Madeleine B. Stern’s research is found at Brigham Young.

Here is the link to the various archives.

A previously unpublished story

Now for my discovery. Brigham Young has a previously unpublished story by Louisa May Alcott written near the end of her life when she was living in the nursing home of Dr. Rhoda Lawrence, also a homeopathic practitioner. Called “A Free Bed,” it includes an introduction and notes by Madeleine Stern. Brigham Young University published a limited number of copies of the story (350 to be exact), each bound with twine and printed on handmade paper. And, each edition is numbered. I was able to acquire copy number 114 on Amazon for a good price.

Stern’s notes describe how the manuscript was found and authenticated. Discovered along with numerous letters in the 1960s in the attic of a Wellesley, Massachusetts home (the town I grew up in and now work in), the home had belonged to the daughter of a Boston minister who published and edited a religious periodical. Stern speculated that the manuscript might have been submitted for publication in his magazine.

Sterns describes the manuscript as a minor story consisting of 11-1/2 pages. It is initialed “L.M.A.” at the end. As of 1978, a printed version of “A Free Bed” had not been located.

How the manuscript was authenticated

Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (from Wikipedia)

Sterns went on to write that the story, although undated, can be traced to the end of Louisa’s life thanks to a reference to a “Dr. Z” in the manuscript. “Dr. Z” turned out to be Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska, founder of the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She was connected to Dr. Rhoda Lawrence when the hospital was moved to Roxbury in 1872 where Dr. Lawrence’s rest home would be located.

Dr. Zakrzewska was also well known to Ednah Dow Cheney who served on the board of directors of the hospital along with Louisa’s cousin, Samuel E. Sewell.

Converting her life to fiction

Stern describes “A Free Bed” as a “static” story with no real plot, calling it rather “an emotional and ethical profession.” It consists of a conversation between two women at a hospital, one who is lamenting her condition, and the other, offering hope through a life filled with purpose. The story gives us a glimpse into Louisa’s life as a patient and her struggle to maintain a purposeful life despite being plagued by ailments and pain.

Stern shared a passage from a letter from Louisa describing how she converted her life into fiction:

“Any paper, any pen, any place that is quiet suit me … Now … I can write by two hours a day … While a story is underway I live in it, see the people, more plainly than real ones, round me, hear them talk.” (page 3, Introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, “A Free Bed” by Louisa May Alcott).

Madeline B. Stern as a young woman

Parallels to real life

I immediately saw the parallel between the two characters, Mrs. Moody and Mrs. Cheerable, and Jo and Beth / Louisa and Lizzie. Louisa often said that Lizzie was her spiritual guide and I knew that her sister’s influence was best revealed in her writing. Louisa, like Lizzie, became an invalid and suffered greatly from her illness. She had been most impressed by Lizzie’s even temperament and her industry. Mrs. Cheerable described little gifts that she made for patients she had “adopted” from a free bed she endowed to the hospital. She sought to convince Mrs. Moody of the benefits of focusing on others as a means of coping with one’s own suffering. In typical Lizzie style, Mrs. Cheerable empathized with the patients who shared her free bed; she was not afraid to become emotionally involved even though the sick person might not recover. By the end of the story, Mrs. Moody agreed to visit the current occupant of the free bed because of Mrs. Cheerable’s admiration of the woman’s attitude and courage.

I have a dear elderly friend whom I visit every week who in every way is Mrs. Cheerable. I have known my friend for seven years and during that time I have taken copious mental notes of how she deals with her illness. No matter how poorly she feels, she rises every morning with purpose.

Louisa struggled to imitate her saintly sister in the hopes of better coping with her many ailments. Her moody temperament made it that much harder to do so. Always an Alcott however, she was resilient and tenacious. “A Free Bed” assured me that no matter how much she suffered, Louisa May Alcott faced her fate with grace.

Thank you to Brigham Young University, Madeleine Stern and the Wellesley woman who found the manuscript for giving us yet another glimpse into the life, mind and heart of Louisa May Alcott.

 

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Summer Conversational Series 2017 at Orchard House wrap-up

As promised, here is a summary of the Summer Conversational Series presented between July 16 and the 20th. The theme this year is “‘Noble Companions and Immortable Labors'” the Alcotts, Thoreaus, and the Quest for Social Justice.”

Lis Adams, Education Director of Orchard House

I was only able to attend two sessions, on Tuesday and Wednesday. At the end of this post is a link to my notes from the presentations. Unfortunately my evil tablet did not properly save my notes from Wednesday so I only have notes from the first presentation of that day. I tried to summarize the other two and provided links for further information.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Orchard House, could not be with us this year as she is in Ireland acting as consultant to the new BBC Little Women series. Education Director Lis Adams did a wonderful job of running the series and introduced the speakers.

On Tuesday the presentations included:

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Cathlin Davis “From Story to Action: Social Justice in Louisa May Alcott’s Fiction”
Dr. Davis is the leading expert on Louisa’s juvenile tales. She led us through a series of stories that outlined Louisa’s approach to social justice, an approach which is just as timely today as illustrated through an organization she highlighted, The Heifer Project.

Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters

Gabrielle Donnelly “Bread, Roses, and One-Liners:
Jokes and Feminism from Louisa May Alcott to Tina Fey”

Ms. Donnelly’s presentation was thought-provoking as well as humerous as she linked together feminism and humor (just as Louisa did; she cited an example of Jo March in Little Women). What made the presentation particularly interesting was the fact that one of the attendees is a standup comedienne who performed for many years in Las Vegas with headlines such as Wayne Newton. She provided many colorful stories.

Gabrielle based on her presentation on a song called “Bread and Roses” (she asked me to sing the song and I gladly complied). Here is a video of the song from the movie, “Pride:”

Jane Sciacca and Michelle Blees

Michelle Blees and Jane Sciacca “The Alcotts at Hillside: Their Beliefs and Actions”
Michelle and Jane are tour guides for the Minuteman National Park Service at The Wayside (known as Hillside when the Alcotts lived there). They gave a fascinating account of the history of The Wayside with its storied authors, and its link to the National Underground Railroad. These are photos of the displays — just click on the thumbnail to see the larger photo.

On Wednesday the presentations included:

Jason Giannetti

Jason Giannetti “Concord’s Transcendental Conscientious Objector”
Mr. Gianetti discussed the activism of famous Transcendentalists such as Henry David  Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. He called on us to be today’s Transcendental Conscientious Objectors which sparked a lengthy, spirited conversation which Bronson would have approved of wholeheartedly.

NOTE: the following two presentations are the ones where my notes were sadly lost. I did include a summary in the notes available at the end of this post.

Dr. Kristina West

Kristina West “Growing Tomorrow: A Transcendental Education”
Dr.  West hails from London and lives right across the way from the original location of Alcott House in Ham. She described the teaching techniques of Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott which so endeared them to children. She then highlighted Louisa’s contribution.

Jennifer Schünemann “Save the Mother, Save the Child:
The Pandemic Exploitation of Women and Its Effect on the World.”

Jennifer Schünemann of Durga Tree International

Ms. Schünemann heads the New England chapter of Durga Tree International, an organization working tirelessly to help victims of human trafficking. This presentation was quite sobering but Ms. Schünemann was able to provide hope and answers beginning with how we behave as consumers, making sure we are more conscious of who actually makes our products and how they are treated. My notes contain website information so you can find out more and even become involved. This is a program I would highly recommend.

Here are my notes from the series that you can download. Summer Conversational Series 2017 Tuesday

As always, such a joy to attend! I’ve made many wonderful friends through this series and agree wholeheartedly that each year it is like going to summer camp!

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What would you like to know about the woman behind Beth March?

I need your help.

I am writing my book proposal for the biography on Elizabeth Alcott and I need more input from you as a fan of Little Women. Here are a few short questions — if you could comment below with your answers, that would really help. And thank you!

  1. What would you most like to know about Elizabeth and why?
  2. What do you know already about her?
  3. Who is your favorite March sister is and why? If Beth is not your favorite, why?
  4. Do you think Beth is a relevant character for modern readers and why or why not? What would make her more “real” to you?

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Rambling about “Little Women”

My commute to work is one hour or more each way so I have to do something to entertain myself. I tend to have what I call “brain dumps” while driving and when I do, I whip out my phone and turn on the Dragon app. Then I dictate what I’m thinking. A good portion of my writing is done in this fashion.

Today I had such a “brain dump” so I thought I’d share it with you. I’ve been enjoying the Much Ado about Little Women blog and realized I’d love to write more often about what I think about Little Women.

So here goes!

Thoughts on Chapter 42, “Alone”

I have written before about this, my favorite chapter.. The most nuanced and grown-up chapter in the book, it shows Jo’s willingness to allow grief to reshape her. Consumed with honoring her dead sister Jo was determined to follow to the letter of the law Beth’s exhortation on taking care of the family by renouncing her writing ambition. Marmee’s wisdom however led Jo to understand why she found this so difficult to do—it simply wasn’t in her makeup to do what Beth had instructed. She could not be Beth and needed to find her own way to care for the family while remaining true to herself.

Choice of husbands

Part of remaining true to herself was to reject Laurie as a potential husband. In our love for Laurie we forget that he was not entirely supportive of Jo’s writing. Professor Bhaer, however, was. In fact, it was Jo’s poem about the four chests in the attic that touched his heart. He disapproved of Jo’s blood and thunder stories because he thought she was capable of better and inevitably, he was proven correct.

A new life

In allowing the creative process of grief to shape her future, Jo was able to realize a life that to her was very satisfying (even if some readers disagree). She could expand her world to help others, especially the boys she loved so dearly. She was able to start her own family. And in time, with acquired wisdom, she was able to write as she had desired.

This is why Little Women is such a satisfying read for me. Even though she resisted the idea of making Jo a married woman I think Louisa still revealed desires for herself through Jo. While I have yet to read Jo’s Boys, at least through Little Women and Little Men, Jo was free in a way that Louisa it was not. Jo did not impose the chains of duty upon herself as Louisa did.

Was it fair that Amy won the trip to Europe?

On another front, with regards to Amy getting the trip to Europe—I believe Amy deserved that trip. Unlike Jo who rendered her service to Aunt March in a begrudging way, complaining to her sisters about her aunt and clearly not enjoying her company, Amy in fact did enjoy being with Aunt March. That made Amy tmore agreeable companion. Jo felt entitled to that trip and that was wrong. While at first it appears unjust because of Jo’s service, it was the way that service was rendered that caused Amy to be chosen. There is something to be said about that verse from scripture, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Lucky or gifted?

Like May, Amy was not just “lucky.” Calling her sister “lucky” betrayed Louisa’s/Jo’s resentment towards her sister’s natural ability to get along with others. Louisa/Jo had a lot of difficulty with casual niceties and small talk and people were put off by that. She couldn’t help being the way she was but to resent May/Amy because of her natural ability was unfair.

Who is the shy one?

Beth is often characterized as timid and shy but in many ways Jo was shy as well. Both sisters felt unworthy and in need of improvement, even redemption. Yet while Beth retreated from life, Jo pursued a better course, doing battle with her life like a warrior, determined to prove she was worthy. Beth died, and Jo lived.

What do you think?

Share your ramblings!

 

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Summer Reading Recommendation: The Courtship of Jo March

Trix Wilkins of the Much Ado about Little Women blog (an excellent blog, by the way, all about Little Women) has written a most intriguing re-imagining of Little Women with different endings for characters. In her description of the book she writes,

Set in the early 1870s, this re-imagining of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is for all who have ever wondered how things might have worked out differently for the beloved March sisters – the life Beth might have led, the books Jo might have written, the friends they might have made, and the courtship that might have been…

Authoress Jo March has lost her elder sister Meg to matrimony. When the aristocratic Vaughns – elegant Kate, boisterous Fred, thoughtful Frank, and feisty Grace – re-enter their lives, it seems her younger sisters Beth and Amy, and even her closest friend Laurie, might soon follow suit.

Yet despite the efforts of her great-aunt March, Jo is determined not to give up her liberty for any mortal man. What else is a writer to do but secure music lessons for her dearest sister, and befriend aspirant journalist Tommy Chamberlain?

The Marches’ neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence was born with looks, talent, and wealth – and Jo is convinced he has a promising future in which she has no part. He is as stubborn as Jo, and has loved her for as long as anyone can remember. But what will win a woman who won’t marry for love or money?

Wilkins is offering a sample thirty pages of the book free which you can order here. In reading those pages I was immediately caught up in the story. Wilkins does a fine job of imitating the voice of Louisa May Alcott; the characters feel true to their origins. Already in those thirty pages I saw clever ideas and insights into characters that made me want to read more. I will purchase the paperback version sometime this summer and then write a review. This is a perfect summer read, especially for those of us who can’t get enough of Little Women!

Here is all the purchasing information you will need for The Courtship of Jo March. Wilkins is giving away a special package with each book, both the e-book and the paperback.

And in the meantime, be sure and visit her blog, Much Ado about Little Women.

And speaking of blogs …

Tarissa’s In the Bookcase blog is running her annual June Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. Be sure and visit her site — it’s easy and fun to participate. If I can get out from under with my current non-Alcott reading before the end of the month, I’ll chime in too!

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