Living history – Marianne Donnelly as Louisa May Alcott

“What fun we had this evening when Louisa May Alcott came to visit her childhood home at Fruitlands!”

Facebook post from the Fruitlands Museum

It was indeed great fun taking in the living history performance by actress and historian Marianne Donnelly at the Fruitlands Museum Vistor’s Center. Her bigger-than-life portrayal of Louisa May Alcott was a sight to behold.

Donnelly beautifully captured the awesome life force of Alcott along with her flair for the dramatic and sharp sense of humor.  It was not hard to imagine her as Louisa with her rapid-fire delivery, engaging the audience at every turn.

The first vote

“Louisa” opened the program with a vivid commentary regarding the women of Concord participating in their first election (that of school committee). As the first woman to vote in Concord, she shared her pride, citing her mother’s own wish which she was unable to fulfill. With typically Alcottian sarcasm and humor she voiced frustration at the narrow mindedness of the people of the town. She reminded us of the work ahead for women’s suffrage which would take another forty years.

Life at Fruitlands

She then turned back the clock to 1843 when, at ten, she and her “consociate family” lived at Fruitlands. “Louisa” provided a colorful description of life in the failed Utopian community (the vision of Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane) which included its eccentric family members, cold showers, and insufficient meals of apples, bread and water accompanied by the tedium of endless metaphysical conversation. Donnelly’s imitation of Charles Lane was priceless, feigning the grim expression so evident in the one surviving photo of the English Transcendentalist. She captured both the insanity and the poignant human drama of Fruitland to the delight of her audience.

Civil War nurse

Moving ahead several years to 1862, “Louisa” entered into a more serious vein, recounting her time as a Civil War nurse. Using an adaption of her short story, “The Contraband,” “Louisa” illustrated with brilliant fire her outrage with the institution of slavery as she described the mental and physical suffering of Robert (the contraband).

Sairey Gamp

We were then treated to “Louisa’s” personification of Sairey Gamp, a favorite Dickens character used to entertain her patients. A brave audience member volunteered to help with the skit.

After sharing with us the price she paid for her service (typhoid pneumonia and chronic ailments due to mercury poisoning) she concluded by leading us all in a solemn and lusty rendition of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“Ask me anything.”

“Louisa” wrapped up her program taking questions from the audience. We asked her to choose those books of hers that were her favorites (Moods, Work, and her potboilers). We inquired about her romance with Ladislas Wisniewski (and she shared how he and Alf Whitman made up the character of Laurie in Little Women). We asked about Bronson and whether she in fact understood her father’s transcendentalism (“No!”). She shared many other personal anecdotes and reminded us that she was not at all ladylike (and damn proud of it).

Donnelly answered questions about her own colorful life which made me think that Louisa would have found many a wonderful story to tell drawn from Donnelly’s rich experiences.

It was a magical evening in the presence of the “great lady.” Marianne Donnelly is available for her living history performance of Louisa May Alcott and would love to hear from you. You can write to her at mdonnelly00@gmail.com. Here is a video of one of her performance:

A big reveal is coming ….

Last night I made an announcement to the audience of a big reveal coming soon on this blog. I have been made privy to an exciting discovery from a local scholar … details coming, stay tuned!

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The Alcott daughters as beneficiaries of their parents’ progressive ideas on education

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)

False ideas

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)

A danger to health

Sex in Education by Edward H. Clark, M.D.

It was argued that the education of women should be discouraged because of the supposed danger of mental stimulation on a woman’s physical health. In fact, it was declared a “disastrous error” by medical writers in 1870 to educate girls who were experiencing puberty: “the female between 12 and 20 must concentrate on developing her reproductive system … likewise, during the growth of the female reproductive system, brain work must be avoided.” It was also suggested that girls should be restricted in brain work due to their monthly cycles. (pg. 69).

Dr. Edward H. Clark, in his book Sex in Education, claimed that brain work left women in poor health for the rest of their lives and presented case studies to prove his point. Despite the fact that his book was denounced for its lack of rigorous scientific study, Sex in Education went through seventeen editions in thirteen years. (pgs. 70-71)

Keeping women in their place

Many of the theories equating the ill health of women with the “overstimulation” of their minds through education were unsubstantiated. Even when disputed by appropriate scientific research, the misinformation persisted because of the popularity of the ideas. (pg. 71) Along with warnings regarding health were concerns about the influence of higher education on a woman’s femininity, placing in doubt her ability to fulfill her roles as wife and mother. Education had the effect of making a woman “coarse” and “forceful.” (Ibid) Undoubtedly those ideas sought to keep men in power and women in the home.

Education of the Alcott girls

In the midst of all of this, Abigail Alcott sought to send two of her girls, Lizzie and Abbie May, on to higher education. She was determined that each of her daughters have trades and become self-supporting (Anna spent ten years teaching while Louisa perfected her writing craft which would eventually support the entire family). In 1853 Lizzie was to attend the newly opened Girls High School in Boston (aka, The Normal) to train as a teacher. Abbie May, attending the Bowdoin public school at the time, aspired to follow in her sister’s footsteps. Both had discussed together the idea of attending public school as May writes in her journal on September 13, 1852,

“Lizzie and I as we sat and sewed we talked about going to a public school, and think we had better go although it will be hard the first day.”

The Bowdoin School today, converted to apartments

The idea was suggested by a man – Samuel Joseph May. In a letter to his sister dated October 15, 1850 he writes,

“If your good girls are inclined to teachers would it not be well for them to spend a year under the discipline of the Normal School? I have thought if they would go there, I would see if I could by of my friends the means to support them there, each one year. But they may already be sufficiently skilled in teaching and managing children.”

Ambition of a mother

There was never a question in any family correspondence or journal entry as to the girls’ fitness to be educated; Abba in fact insisted on it. As a young woman she was denied the formal education that she craved. It was Samuel Joseph who allowed her to read his books and partake in his education, if only informally.

While neither Lizzie nor May ended up attending the Normal, they both, along with their older sisters, read voraciously throughout their lives. Lizzie and May received private tutoring in Boston, first by Elizabeth Peabody and then by a Miss Seymour before May entered the Bowdoin School in late 1852.

Laying a good foundation

Bronson had educated the girls when they were young, teaching them writing, spelling, reading and geography along with simple arithmetic and science. Daily journal writing was required. He and Abba both encouraged outdoor play with plenty of fresh air and exercise. The greatest gift both parents gave to their daughters was their lifelong support and encouragement of their creativity. Because Bronson had an affinity with younger children and thus lost interest in his girls’ education when they became teenagers, Abba stepped in.

Equal standards

Despite being educated by their father, Charles Strickland, author of Victorian Domesticity believed that Bronson’s teaching contained no sexual bias; he expected the same of his daughters as he expected of himself. (pg. 34, Strickland) Record of a School, which documented his tenure at the Temple School,  included transcriptions by his assistant, Elizabeth Peabody of class discussions demonstrating Bronson’s lack of bias towards his students. Both boys and girls attended his classes.

While the education of the Alcott daughters was spotty at times, they were exposed to the richness of literature that many other girls could only hope for. Louisa’s lack of formal education in her teens was more than made up for by Mr. Emerson’s library where she could borrow books at will and discuss them with the famous Transcendentalist lecturer and author who encouraged her writing. Her mother, sensing Louisa’s talent plus her need to vent her energy, encouraged her daughter’s writing with gifts of pens and comments in her journal.

A great return

Despite many years of hardship from poverty, the Alcott girls were exposed to educational opportunities not normally available to girls. There was never any consideration in the Alcott household that education endangered their daughters; rather education was seen as an opportunity for a better and more self-sufficient life. Both parents made it a priority producing daughters who were well read, imaginative and talented.

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Petition drive begun for a memorial plaque for May Alcott Nieriker

I have gotten to know some amazing people through this blog; one of them is a young British scholar, Azelina Flint. Like many of us, she is fascinated by May Alcott. And like us, she is grieved that May was eventually buried in an unmarked common grave just outside of Paris (see previous post).

That, now, will hopefully change.

And you can make it happen!

Azelina has begun a drive to petition officials for an official plaque to be displayed at the Montrouge Cemetery acknowledging May Alcott Nieriker.

She has created a short video about the drive and May’s legacy:

Here’s how you can help.

  1. Sign the petition. 
  2. Spread the word! Share the petition on social media with the #don’t_forget_May.
  3. Follow Azelina on Twitter at @Don’t_forget_May and retweet any tweets you see on the petition.
  4. Share this blog post along with the previous post about the story behind May’s buriel.
    Link for this post:
    https://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/2017/10/09/petition-drive-begun-for-a-memorial-plaque-for-may-alcott
    Link for May’s buriel:
    https://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/2011/11/02/in-search-of-may-alcott-nieriker/

I will keep you posted as to the results.

International forum on May Alcott Nieriker in the works!

Universite Paris Diderot (Wikipedia Commons)

Azelina has also secured funding to convene an international conference on May at Universite Paris Diderot for June of 2018. There’ll be a panel on May’s influence on Louisa’s writing. I will let you know of the particulars as I hear of them.

The year 2018 is looking more and more exciting! Don’t forget to Sign the petition and share, share, share!

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As the Masterpiece Theater production of Little Women approaches, a key question is posed

We just passed the 149th anniversary of the publication
of part one of Little Women.

Happy Anniversary!

And we have an exciting year ahead of us, particularly with the three-part Masterpiece Theater production of Little Women coming up in the Spring (with Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House acting as consultant!).

In anticipation, the producers put together a podcast of various women answering the all-important question: What does Little Women mean to you?

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/podcasts/bonus-what-little-women-means-to-you/

Take a listen and then share your thoughts — what does Little Women mean to you?

I know for me, Louisa May Alcott changed my life for the better in so many ways (with Little Women being an important element). I grew up with tomboy Louy; a grown-up Louisa guided me through my artistic life, and muse Louisa guides me in my writing. Alcott’s amazing candor and authentic feel for all aspects of life continues to touch me every day.

How about you? Share your thoughts …

p.s. I just started listening to Jo’s Boys and would love to start up a discussion on this last book of the series. Chapter 3 in particular amazed me …

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You can never tour Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House too many times

Recently I took in a tour of Orchard House (I’ve lost count how many times I’ve toured this wonderful home) and learned some fascinating new information with regards to the renovations made to the house.

Merging the main house with a cottage

The tour guide disclosed information from the Fox family whose ancestors had owned the cottage that had been on the property of Orchard House, and which Bronson merged with the home. The kitchen and 3/4 of the dining room along with May’s bedroom was part of this separate cottage which Alcott and Thoreau pushed down on logs over snow to attach to the main house.

I had noticed that the ceiling beams of the dining room encompassed 3/4 of the room; the rest of the room had been a porch that was enclosed to finish off the room. Bronson then installed the back staircase to May’s bedroom. As I am in the middle of reading a fascinating essay entitled “‘A Power in the House'” — Little Women and the Architecture of Individual Expression by David Watters” (found in Little Women and the Feminist Imagination edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark)) and which describes how the layout and architecture of Orchard House (especially Bronson’s renovations) influences the members of the March family, I found this tour particularly timely! Kudos to Nancy (whom I am guessing was a well-loved teacher in her day) for a wonderful tour!

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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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