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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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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“Poppy’s Pranks” reveals the childhood of Louisa May Alcott

I am listening for a second time to Harriet Reisen’s fine biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women. In discussing Louisa’s childhood Reisen makes many references to a story Louisa wrote for her first children’s series, Morning-Glories and Other Stories. Having little experience with writing children’s stories, Louisa opted to learn by doing, thus preparing her for the job as editor of the children’s magazine, “Merry’s Museum.” As Madeline B. Stern put it, “Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at Orchard House.” (Louisa May Alcott, A Biography, pg. 163).

This of course begins to set the stage for Alcott’s greatest triumph, Little Women. But back to Louisa’s own childhood …

The story which Reisen refers to is “Poppy’s Pranks.” Both Reisen and Stern note that Poppy’s experiences are Louisa’s.

Of Poppy Louisa writes that she was not necessarily a willful child “but very thoughtless and very curious. She wanted to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere: she feared nothing, and so was continually getting into scrapes.” After reading this story it is a wonder that Louisa’s mother Abba didn’t go completely gray with worry over her little hoiden; Poppy’s escapes are hair-raising!

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

From hanging out a third-story window with her head upside down, to jumping off of the highest beam in the barn at the dare of a friend (and spraining both ankles), to rubbing peppers in her eyes and eating tobacco only to be brought home deathly ill in a wheelbarrow … Poppy’s pranks were legendary. The prank that really got me came as a result of Poppy wishing to imitate country girls by going barefoot. Despite her mother forbidding her to do so, Poppy took off her shoes and proceeded to pierce her foot with a pitchfork. Ouch! Fearful that she would develop lock jaw, a potentially fatal outcome of her accident (suggested to her by her friend Cy), Poppy in dramatic style, prepares for death by bequeathing all her belongings. She is a bit disappointed when she fully recovers. She truly did want to experience everything!

Louisa mixes fact and fiction so skillfully that I am never totally sure what is true. It doesn’t matter. It’s obvious that she was Poppy and must have been a force to contend with in a household where peace was supposed to reign supreme. That force would evolve into the amazing quantity, quality and variety of her writing over her adult life.

We as readers are very fortunate that “Poppy” put her enormous life force to such good use.

You can download Morning-Glories and Other Stories from archive.org — just click on the title. “Poppy’s Pranks” are on page 89.

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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

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!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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