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

Coming attractions for 2017 (and a summing up of 2016)

Abby May Alcott's diaries from 1852 and 1863 - get to know the real Amy March.

courtesy of the Houghton Library, Louisa May Alcott additional papers, 1845-1944: MS Am 1817, folder 56

Abby May Alcott’s diaries from 1852 and 1863 —
getting to know the real Amy March.

May Alcott Nieriker's delightful foray into writing -- mentoring other women artists.

May Alcott Nieriker’s delightful foray into writing —
mentoring other women artists Continue reading

Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa! Not a day over 217 and 184 ;-)

louisa coverNOTE: I just found out my publisher, ACTA, is giving away 15 free copies of Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message in honor of our favorite author’s birthday. Go here http://actapublications.com/louisa-may-alcott-illuminated-by-the-message/ and type in code HAPPYBIRTHDAY at checkout. Even if you have your own copy, order one as a gift for friend!

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As the birthdays of two of my favorite people dawns today, I can’t help but think how deliciously ironic it is that I am finally finishing Eden’s Outcasts, the Pulitzer prize-winning book on the life of Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson Alcott by John Matteson.

eden's outcasts big and yet I never finished the book until now. I just couldn’t. I loved the book so much I didn’t want it to end. I find that reading this compelling story of two such talented, creative, intelligent, and difficult people orders my mind and fills my heart. It is told with such elegance along with touches of humor and irony. Among other things, it explores the spiritual aspect of the Alcotts which was so important to them. Continue reading

“Diana and Persis” – compelling, revealing, biographical, and thus, tragically incomplete

By the 1870s, Louisa May Alcott and her baby sister May had become close companions. Although quite different in temperament, both shared that burning ambition to become the artists they were meant to be – Louisa as a best-selling author, and May as an acclaimed painter, exhibiting at the Paris Salon.

Unearthing a treasure

diana-and-persis-sarah-elbertIn the 1970s Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert discovered an untitled manuscript of 138 pages at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Titling it Diana and Persis, the book was published in 1978. There are a couple of cryptic mentions, first in Louisa’s journal, dated December of 1878:

“ … begin work on an art novel, with May’s romance for its thread.” (pg. 211, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; Madeleine B. Stern, associate editor).

And in May’s journal, dated January 28, 1879:

“Louisa is at the Bellevue writing her Art story in which some of my adventures will appear.” (pg. 7, Diana and Persis, edited by Sarah Elbert).

Continue reading

Happy Halloween! A treat for Little Women fans: “Norna, or the Witch’s Curse,” the annotated version

What a treat for Halloween and beyond! Juvenilia Press is announcing a new, annotated version of “Norna, or the Witch’s Curse:”

norna-or-the-witchs-course

You can find out more at www.arts.unsw.edu.au/juvenilia.

“Norna, or the Witch’s Curse” is the play performed in Chapter 1 of Little Women. It is part of a book issued in 1893 by Roberts Brothers known as Comic Tragedies by Jo and Meg. Anna and Louisa wrote the plays; sadly the book was published after Anna’s death.

As the flyer mentions, the plays written by Louisa and Anna were performed in the Hillside barn.

little-women-theatre

Here is a page out of Comic Tragedies (which I acquired last spring at The Barrow in Concord, the go-to place for books on and by Louisa May Alcott):

norna-or-the-witchs-curse

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Halloween than to read these plays — you can read them online here.

My thanks to P. B. for the tip!

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A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography

The 1930s was an interesting time in Alcott scholarship. The year 1932 marked the one hundredth year of Louisa’s birth. 1938 not only marked the 50th anniversary of Louisa and Bronson’s death but also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Thus in 1937, two important biographies were released – Odell Shepherd’s Pedlar’s Progress on Bronson Alcott (see previous post) and Katharine Anthony’s Louisa May Alcott.

Reception of the biography

alcotts bedellAnthony’s book was not well received. Although deemed substantive and scholarly by reviewer Frederic L. Carpenter (writing for the New England Quarterly in December of 1938), he roundly criticized her need to psychoanalyze Alcott, calling the results “unfortunate” and “ridiculous.”

martha saxton 190That, however, was 1938. More modern biographies by Martha Saxton in 1977 and Madelon Bedell in 1980 conduct their own psychoanalysis which makes for fascinating and often, uncomfortable, reading. This was true as well with Anthony’s book.

Controversies

And yet, Anthony’s book reads like a novel. It was one of the first adult books I read on Louisa (after Martha Saxton and Madeleine Stern). Knowing so much more now after years of research, Anthony’s take on Louisa affirmed much of what I had suspected and raised new controversies. I will focus on two of those controversies for this post.

A threesome at Fruitlands

Charles-Lane

Charles Lane

The first involves the relationship between Abba, Bronson and Charles Lane. Those of us knowledgeable of Fruitlands are aware of the complexity of the relationship between these three. Madelon Bedell has suggested a possible homosexual relationship between Bronson and Charles Lane. Other biographers think perhaps Lane was attracted to Abba despite the fact that he urged Bronson to be celibate. There is no doubt that Abba had many issues with Lane during the utopian experiment. In noting Charles Lane’s curious return to the Alcott family two years after Fruitlands, Anthony describes the difficulties Louisa experienced from this odd arrangement:

“For Louisa, who wished to see everything through her mother’s eyes, this reinstatement of the dragon was devastating. Her letters and diaries of that summer show how piteously distracted was her state of mind. If her mother, having once demolished the beast, had turned the sword in his body, all would’ve been plain sailing. But she saw now that the relation between the three grown-ups was a more complicated situation than she had any idea of and it gave her the feeling of a nerve-racking dilemma.  She wrestled precociously with her mother’s contradictory character, and the struggle made her sometimes despondent and sometimes reckless. The departure of Mr. Lane brought her providential relief.” (Louisa May Alcott, pg. 54)

Carpenter in his review called this section of the book “unpleasantly ambiguous,” wondering if Anthony was suggesting some kind of secret liaison between Lane and Abba since Bronson left for New York during his stay.

Going after Abba Alcott

abbaFor me, it was the beginning of a quiet vendetta against Abba Alcott by Katharine Anthony. With regards to the family’s need to move to Boston due to financial need, Anthony writes,

“A perverse vision had come to Mrs. Alcott while still in Concord. Both of her older daughters were earning wages. Anna was teaching away from home, and Louisa had begun to teach also, having opened a school in the barn. By a reversal of the usual process between parents and children, the girls set an example for their middle-aged mother. Mrs. Alcott, having steadily refused to see the necessity for working prior to her marriage when the necessity for it had been most apparent, now at once saw it very clearly. Just when her family needed her attention most, she decided to go forth and become a wage earner. Their finances had not become any worse, because Anna and Louisa had begun to bring a little money into the home. But Mrs. Alcott’s heroism drove her just at that point to take her spectacular plunge into a life of wage earning.” (Ibid, pg. 74)

Very different take

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Was Anthony’s criticism of Abba influenced by the time the author lived in? Women’s roles were still pretty much confined to the home in the 1930’s. Despite the fact that Anthony was a professor at Wellesley College along with being an accomplished author and scholar, she appeared to judge Abba by rather conventional standards. I am not aware of any other biographer taking the point of view that Abba did not need to go to work in Boston. Anthony insinuates on the next page that Abba’s efforts were not all that successful, citing no records of the reports she wrote on her work that were said to be excellent (such records now exist at the Houghton Library). She discounts the value of Abba’s intelligence office, writing that “The only domestic service job that Mrs. Alcott secured, as afar as we know, is the one she turned over to her daughter Louisa …” (Ibid, pg. 75)

Valuable analysis

Anthony’s various insights throughout Louisa May Alcott are interesting to say the least and they don’t just apply to Louisa. Anthony provides meaningful sketches of each member of the family (and in my opinion, she is one of the few to give Lizzie her due). Her analysis of Louisa is not oppressive or overbearing such as is the case with Martha Saxton (although I believe Saxton’s book has value) because she does not dwell on the amount of detail that Saxton reveals. The point, however, still gets across.

Health issues

louisa readingMuch has been made of Louisa’s health after her service as a nurse in the Civil War. After surviving both typhoid pneumonia and the mercury poisoning from being dosed with calomel, Alcott suffered from a wide variety of physical disorders including pains in her legs, headaches, digestive disorders, vertigo, the loss of her voice, etc. Historians and medical doctors Bert Hirschhorn and Ian Greaves suggested Lupus, an immune disorder, possibly triggered by the mercury poisoning (see Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)..

Louisa kept careful track in her journals of her health problems and often blamed “nerves” and overwork for her difficulties. Considering the heavy load that she carried in being head of the family and the breadwinner, it is not surprising. In the waning years of her life, she became obsessed with her health as she could find no relief.

Possible cause

Katharine Anthony offers her suggestion for Louisa’s health problems: shell-shock. Citing the Great War and the mental and nervous disorders in the veterans, she surmises that Civil War veterans would have also suffered similar trauma. “It was some form of shock to which Louisa May Alcott succumbed as a hospital nurse in 1862,” she writes (Ibid, pg. 252). Such an injury to the nervous system could afflict the victim for the rest of her life. Anthony also believes Alcott was predisposed to such a condition given her high strung nature.

from alcott.net

Lulu Nieriker, from alcott.net

There is no doubt that Louisa lamented repeatedly in her journal regarding the onslaught of her life and writing (aka, overwork) on her nerves. Between sudden fame for a woman who did not feel worthy, the untimely deaths of John Pratt and May Alcott, the care of May’s daughter and their aging father, and the self-inflicted pressure to continue writing (and earning), it is no wonder Louisa May Alcott had health issues.

Louisa’s last days were painful, difficult and sad as despair overtook her. The final pages of Louisa May Alcott describe those days with a haunting eloquence as Anthony marvels at Alcott’s ability to continue churning out cheerful and meaningful stories for the young even to her dying day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Celebrating the re-opening of The Wayside — a peak inside

After a three year renovation, the home of famous authors Louisa May Alcott, Nathanial Hawthorne and Margaret Sidney is finally open! I recently toured the house and was allowed to take pictures of each room, some of which I will share in this post.

The force behind the preservation of the home

the wayside home of authorsSidney (aka Harriet Lothrop of The Five Peppers series) is the mother of Margaret Lothrop, author of The Wayside: Home of Authors (which you can read online) originally published in 1940. After her mother passed away in 1924, Lothrop sought to preserve The Wayside which had housed such luminary authors. She opened the home to visitors and eventually sold the property to the National Park Service in 1965 after succeeding in 1963 in having the home declared a National Historic Landmark.

Voices of the Alcotts

The portion of The Wayside devoted to the Alcotts contains many passages from previously unpublished journal entries by Bronson and daughter Elizabeth; Lizzie had kept a detailed record, mentioning games, names of neighborhood children, duties performed and different little trips taken by the family to Walden and surrounding areas.

Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9:I. Letterbooks of Amos Bronson Alcott (24) Family letters and diaries from 1837 to 1850. Vol.I. Domestic -- diary of Elizabeth

Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9: I. Letterbooks of Amos Bronson Alcott (24) Family letters and diaries from 1837 to 1850. Vol. I. Domestic — diary of Elizabeth

Bronson as artist

Lothrop describes Bronson as a philosopher who loved the defenseless and believed that education “should fit the individual for the joy of independent thought.” She recalled Alcott’s failed attempt at Utopia with Charles Lane at Fruitlands and how the family came to acquire the old Cogswell house, dubbing it “Hillside.”

From The Wayside: Home of Authors by Margaret Lothrop

From The Wayside: Home of Authors by Margaret Lothrop

She went on to describe how Alcott beautified Hillside first through his vegetable and flower gardens, stone walls and terraces, and then through various structures such as the arbor or summer house, built on one of the terraces. Alcott loved creating beauty and function in and around his home (including shower/bathing system in one of the additions to the house that even young Elizabeth could use on her own, and the creation of a small reservoir in the field across the street complete with a “rustic structure, for Bathing, and an alcove for retreating from the summer heat and rains” – Bronson in his journal). His appreciation of beauty and his way of approaching these projects as future works of art demonstrate a link between him and his youngest daughter May’s artistic talent.

summerhouse longcamp.comEmerson was so taken with Alcott’s rustic structure that he commissioned Bronson to build a similar retreat for him on his property for a stipend of $50. Needless to say it was the subject of town gossip for months to come.

Father and daughter gardening together

Bronson took great pains with his gardening and wrote extensively on it in his journals. All of the children helped out with Elizabeth enjoying it the most. Recently I came across a journal passage from Bronson dated June 1, 1846 where he describes his pleasure in working side by side with Lizzie in the garden. Her love of gardening is expressed in her own journal. I have often thought that the communication between Bronson and Elizabeth was more non-verbal, expressing their affection for each other through their actions. Bronson’s warm pleasure in gardening with his daughter is evident in the short journal entry.

Houghton Library, Houghton Library, MS Am 1130.12: IV. Journals and diaries of Amos Bronson Alcott (15) Diary for 1846. Vol. XX. Concord, Mass. 123f.

Houghton Library, MS Am 1130.12: IV. Journals and diaries of Amos Bronson Alcott (15) Diary for 1846. Vol. XX. Concord, Mass. 123f.

The beloved room of her own

front with kitchen addition

Bathhouse addition (now serving as a kitchen)

Location of Louisa's room

Location of Louisa’s room

Bronson, with help from neighbors, expanded the size of the house by cutting a separate structure (the wheelwright’s shop) in half and adding it to either end of the house. The eastern end became the aforementioned bathhouse (with storage for wood) while the western end housed Bronson’s study where he did his reading and study, and educated his children. There were also two small rooms in the back providing Louisa and Anna with their cherished private rooms. Louisa’s room unfortunately no longer exists due to the addition of the tower by the Hawthorne’s but the window delineates the location of the room (where evidence of the door to the garden which Louisa wrote about, exists).

The Pilgrim’s Progress staircase

former front door -- across the way, the "Pilgrim's Progress" staircase

former front door — across the way, the “Pilgrim’s Progress” staircase

One of the biggest thrills was seeing the actual staircase where the Alcott girls played Pilgrim’s Progress, carrying their burdens on their backs up and down the narrow stairs, as mentioned in Little Women. Across from the stairs is a bay window which used to be the front door to the home. Lothrop writes,

“One of their diversions was to listen to a story, and then to enact what they had heard. Christian, in Pilgrim’s Progress, was a favorite character whose adventures they imitated. Louisa has described in Little Women the girls’ journeys on the terraces, through the house, and up to the flat roof – the ‘Celestial City,’ – where they ‘sang for joy in the sunshine.’”

A pilgrimage

Lothrop’s write-up in The Wayside is sanitized, barely mentioning the financial trouble of the family, Abba’s anxieties and Bronson’s struggle back from the profound failure of Fruitlands. But it does paint a lovely portrait of the happiest times in Louisa’s life and that of her sisters. The presence of the family is palpable in the rambling old house – it is a pilgrimage to visit there.

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small graphic for sidebarp.s. Have you listened to the latest episode of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion: The Podcast! yet? Hear interviews from some of the leading Alcott scholars including Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson at the recent Summer Conversational Series on iTunes and also here.

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