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The portion of The Wayside devoted to the Alcotts contains many passages from previously unpublished journal entries by Bronson and daughter Elizabeth; Lizzie had kept a detailed record, mentioning games, names of neighborhood children, duties performed and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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Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark

The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role models.

alcott family horiz

Role reversal

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

To begin with, Bronson’s refusal or inability to work to support his family necessitated that his wife Abba take on the breadwinner role. When her health began to suffer, Louisa took over, spending the rest of her life keeping that “Alcott Sinking Fund” (as she dubbed it) afloat, sacrificing artistic growth, independence and her own health.

Career minded

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

The Alcott daughters were educated and well read. They were encouraged to think, to create, to pursue their dreams. Abba wanted to be sure her girls could support themselves. Both parents encouraged the girls in their career interests with the results being Louisa becoming a best selling author and youngest sister May realizing some success as accomplished painter before she died prematurely.

Run, jump, play!

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

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

Physical activity was very much the norm. The girls were allowed to play like boys, running and jumping, talking long hikes into the woods, playing into the mud and coming home dirty. Louisa writes about her many hair-raising escapades in “Poppy’s Pranks” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag Volume IV. Louisa and May, being the most physically robust of the sisters, continued with physical activity into their adulthood: Louisa took daily runs while May went rowing and horseback riding.

Romance and marriage

Unlike most Victorian parents, Bronson and Abba did not pressure their daughters to marry. Louisa, of course, never took the plunge nor did she consider it even though she had a romance with a man several years her junior in Europe known as Ladislas Wisniewski (although the nature of that romance is in question–see previous post). Despite herself, she did receive at least one marriage proposal.

alcotts as I knew them coverThere are few references even to romance when the sisters were of traditional marrying age. Anna appears to have had some sort of relationship while teaching in Syracuse but she was ultimately rejected. Louisa wrote a single cryptic line in her journal in 1853 about her seventeen-year-old sister Lizzie having a romance with “C.” Clara Gowing, in her book The Alcotts as I Knew Them described it as “A little affair of the heart about that time, which did not meet the approval of her parents …”  May, a flirtatious sort, was the one sister who had many flings, most notably with next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne.

Marriage as rebellion

Pratt-2528Only two of the daughters married and both rather late. Anna married John Pratt when she twenty-nine. In a sense, she rebelled against her family’s unconventional lifestyle, preferring to start a family of her own. She was happily married to John for ten years before he tragically died; they had two sons.

May the cougar?

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

May too, rebelled in a sense, opting to remain permanently in Europe rather than being near her family. Career was first and she had rightly determined that she could not become a great artist without living in Europe. She then married a man considerably younger than herself (and successfully lied about her age – the wrong age is on her death certificate since husband Ernest Nieriker provided the information.).

Motherhood

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.

The right to vote

And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.

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Louisa May Alcott was not the only Alcott working off sexual energy

From Women and Health in America (first edition) there is this intriguing essay titled “What Ought to Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century” by Carl N. Degler.

Quoting Dr Charles Taylor, 1882—

“It is not a matter of indifference whether a woman live a single or a married life … I do not for one moment wish to be understood as believing that an unmarried woman cannot exist in perfect health for I know she can. But the point is, that she must take pains for it.” “some other demand for the unemployed functions, must be established. Accumulated force must find an outlet …” (pg. 50)

Following the doctor’s orders

We already know that Louisa May Alcott channeled her tremendous energy into her creativity–writing. Louisa, however, was not the only physically vibrant and passionate Alcott sister. What about May? Continue reading

“A thousand kisses–I love you with my whole soul”: Relations between women in the 19th century, as reflected in Little Women

This comment from Diana regarding a previous post prompted a discussion on whether or not Louisa May Alcott was gay:

“What is your opinion of the evidence that she may have had some suppressed passion, such as crushes, on girls? Remember she said in an interview that she had been in love with so many girls in her life. This may have been an almost unconscious part of her complicated character; but it would need to be considered in examining her sexual energy. At any rate, if that energy was channeled into her writing, this aspect of it may have been an added component to the human richness of her genius, giving her an extra sensitive intuition into both sexes.”

It is tricky addressing this subject because the mentality of the nineteenth century was so different from our present day. Continue reading

Where did Louisa May Alcott’s sexual energy go? And what fueled it?

By The Bostonian - Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

By The Bostonian – Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

Julian Hawthorne once speculated about Louisa May Alcott: “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could such a nature so imaginative, romantic, and passionate escape it?”

Choosing the life of a spinster

Louisa made the conscious decision to remain single, preferring to “paddle my own canoe.” Much has been made of her parents’ marriage, at times tumultuous, and how her mother was so burdened with her father’s inability to earn a living (a topic for another day). It was just that burden that Louisa assumed early as evidenced in her first journal writings which coincidentally concurred with the darkest years of Abba and Bronson’s marriage. She became the man of the house. Continue reading

Don’t miss the special exhibit of rare artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

On Thursday I toured Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was anxious to see the artifacts pictured in The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson and took a vacation day to see them as November can get swallowed up in holiday preparations.

If you live anywhere near Concord and can get to this exhibit, do so. The artifacts are on display only through the month of November.

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

I made a complete list of the artifacts on display. I wish I could show you pictures but taking photos is prohibited at Orchard House; you will need to get a copy of The Annotated Little Women.

Here goes:

In the kitchen:

  • First editions of Hospital Sketches and Little Women
  • Original photos of the Hosmer cottage known as Dove Cote and Orchard House (the one with the unique fence built by Bronson).

In the dining room:

  • A quote from Louisa, handwritten, circa 1869
  • An autographed dance fan including the autographs of Louisa, May and Ellen Emerson.

In the parlor:

  • Three Pickwick Club badges
  • A display dedicated to Anna and John including the original marriage certificate and photographs

In Louisa’s room:

  • Louisa’s homeopathic medicine kit (including a list of ailments treated by the medicines)
  • A lock of Louisa’s hair
  • Sketches of Louisa by May, one familiar (“The Golden Goose”), one not (she has a cat at her feet)
  • A photo of Alf Whitman sitting on the half moon desk
  • Original versions of publicity photos of Louisa circa 1870, 1875, 1880, and two from 1887.
  • An ad for Little Men
  • A sculpture by Daniel Chester French of two owls cuddling–this artifact was acquired just three weeks ago.

In May’s room:

  • Tracings May did of drawings by John Flaxman circa 1857; she then copied the tracings around the moldings of the windows
  • Original watercolor of Ernest Nieriker by May in their Meuden salon – the color was especially brilliant.
  • Original photograph of Alice Bartlett and May.

In the hallway under Lulu’s portrait:

  • An original copy of Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply by May Alcott Nieriker

In Bronson and Abba’s room:

  • Lizzie’s sewing kit, given to her by her father on her twenty-first birthday in 1856, It was surprisingly compact and featured a lovely inscription by Bronson.
  • A little book of Abba’s “Recipes and Simple Remedies” plus two original photos, one I had not seen before taken in 1850 but it is so small that it would be impossible to reproduce. The other was familiar, circa 1858.
  • Sketches of Frederick Pratt by May, one on a rocking horse and the other, playing Lizzie’s melodeon.
  • Small photos of John Pratt as a baby and toddler
  • Original photo of Lulu in the carriage

The best was saved for last–in Bronson’s study:

  • May’s original sketch of Bronson
  • Various original photos of Bronson
  • Original lithograph of the Temple School in Boston
  • And a display containing:
  • A lock of Lizzie’s hair with a tiny inscribed note in her perfect penmanship
  • Another lock of Lizzie’s combined with a lock of Bronson’s
  • Lizzie’s New Testament, an exquisite tiny book which originally belonged to Bronson–he gave it to Lizzie and then it was bequeathed to May.
  • Bronson’s copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, also a tiny book (though a little bigger than the New Testament and a lot thicker) with beautiful engraving

I was grateful for being in a small group so that I could examine each artifact freely. My only wish is for the lighting to have been better as it was a cloudy day and I wanted to see every detail (how I wish I had had my super duper reading glasses!).

I must say that all the different artifacts belonging to Lizzie that were given to her by her father (and especially the two locks of hair entwined) told me much about the special relationship between Bronson and his Psyche.

Don’t miss this great exhibit!

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Why are you obsessed with Louisa? Why am I?

River of Grace is available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

I pondered that question during the two years spent writing my book, River of Grace. Because Louisa was an important part of this book, I had to figure out first, why I was obsessed with her, and second, how she has acted as my grief counselor, and as a result, guiding me back into my creative life.

Early attraction

I knew that as a child I was attracted to tomboy Louy. In River of Grace I wrote,

Louisa had captured my imagination as a girl. I was introduced to her through a story of her life given to me by my aunt. I felt a kindred spirit with the tomboy who put on plays with her sisters in the family barn, struggled with a bad temper, wrote stories in the apple tree, and longed for a room of her own. As an adult I identified with Louisa’s severe mood swings and how she lost herself in her writing, falling into what she called her “vortex.” Having experienced many of these things myself, I found that reading about Louisa helped me to understand myself a bit better. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

joan howard story of lma 190That children’s biography was Joan Howard’s The Story of Louisa May Alcott. It was wonderful meeting another little girl who loved to put on plays and write, and had bad temper tantrums, just like me. And she craved time alone, cherishing her sacred spaces, just like me.

Meeting the adult Louisa

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

My first adult encounter with Louisa was Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. As much as Saxton has been criticized for her scholarship, that book taught me a lot about depression and its relationship to anger (depression being anger turned inward). The mood swings I experienced in my twenties were epic; at the same time I was at the peak of my musical creativity and songwriting. Knowing there was another young woman who had experienced that made me feel a little less alone in the world,

Going to the source

Louisa May Alcott Her Life, Letters and JournalsReading Louisa’s own words certainly helps in figuring it all out. I am currently going through Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals. While I don’t care all that much for Cheney’s writing (too disjointed), I am enjoying hearing Louisa speak for herself.

The misery …

I had to smile at this passage from Louisa’s journal:

John Brown’s daughters came to board, and upset my plans of rest and writing when the report and the sewing were done. I had my fit of woe up garret on the fat rag-bag, and then put my papers away, and fell to work at housekeeping. I think disappointment must be good for me, I get so much of it; and the constant thumping Fate gives me may be a mellowing process; so I shall be a ripe and sweet old pippin before I die.

I am not the only one who throws a hissy fit when my creative plans are interrupted. I’ll bet she vented out loud a lot in that garret! And I’m willing to bet she suffered from aggravation as much as I do. No wonder she had headaches (I do too!).

And the pleasure …

This was during her first draft of Moods:

All sorts of fun was going on; but I didn’t care if the world returned to chaos if I and my inkstand only “lit” in the same place.

It was very pleasant and queer while it lasted; but after three weeks of it I found that my mind was too rampant for my body, as my head was dizzy, legs shaky, and no sleep would come.

Oh yeah. Totally get that! Especially the first part.

I’ll continue on this vein in the next post where I will explain how Louisa became my grief counselor.

Why are you obsessed with Louisa?