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

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

Fiction or non-fiction? How should I tell the story of Lizzie?

Note: Although I had promised a series of posts on women’s health in the nineteenth century, I need to postpone those posts until I clear up a problem with citing an important source. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I thought I would share this with you.

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

Doing a book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott presents a problem: how do you get inside the head of someone who was so private? While one can speculate by “reading between the lines” when pouring over family letters, it’s hard to fully explore the private line in a biographical setting.

At one time, I was considering doing a fiction book (like Jeannine Atkins’ wonderful Little Woman in Blue) but decided against it because I am not a fiction writer. I read very little fiction, preferring biographies and essays. It seems to me one ought to be immersed in fiction to write fiction.

However, I did try my hand at it with a couple of attempts. This piece was going to be the introduction to a fiction book and I thought you’d like to see. I have another one, less finished, that I’ll show you in the next post.

I have to admit, I enjoyed writing these pieces. Maybe I will continue writing them if only to prime the pump for the real thing.

Here goes:

Prologue

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

I’m hovering over my body laid out on the bed. Where has my hair gone? My face is so thin, hollow and pale. I look like a skeleton. At least the pain is gone. I see my mother and sister gazing up at me. There’s a look of wonder in their eyes although their cheeks are wet. Louisa is looking at Marmee and she’s saying, “What did you see?” I wonder where I am going, I hope it’s someplace with lots of flowers and sun. And music! Will I hear angels singing where I am going?

I thought I wanted to leave but now I’m not sure. The pain was terrible, even the ether didn’t help. Poor Father, he tried. I just couldn’t look at his face so consumed with sadness and worry. I just couldn’t look.
I don’t want to leave my family. Not just yet. I want to see what happens next. Will Anna marry John Pratt? From what she told me, he’s a very nice man. Funny too. Anna deserves someone nice.

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Amy March from Little WomenWill my little Abby May become a famous artist someday? I want to see! Her drawings and paintings are so wonderful. She loves pretty things just like I do but she knows how to capture and keep them forever on paper. I can only remember.

And Louy. My Lu. I shall miss her so. She made me feel alive. She was so unafraid and me, well, I never wanted to leave the house. She will write a great book one day, I imagine lots of great books. Her head is always so full of stories.

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersDear Marmee … oh Marmee, don’t cry! It wasn’t your fault. Those children, they were so sick. I wanted to help too. I wish I had been stronger, for you. You are my hero! How I wish I could sit in your lap right now, lean my head on your bosom and murmur “I love you.” Because I do. How could I not? You showed me what it means to be kind and giving. There was nothing you wouldn’t or couldn’t do.

Father, Father! You and I, we are one. I didn’t understand your words but your heart and mine, we were one. You were like Jesus to me. I wish I could snuggle close to you right now and tell you that. How I will miss your sweet, quiet voice. When you’d talk to me, it was like being outside in the sun, so warm, so peaceful.

lizzie alcott graveMy dear family! I have to leave now. God is good, I’m sure; He will let me watch over you. Keep my memory, let that console you. Come and visit me at Sleepy Hollow. Under the shade of the big elms we can be together.
I want to tell your story. My family, what a story! Lu, you have to tell it. I will help you. I will fill your mind with sweet memories. Oh yes, I know, we had it hard sometimes. I remember that gnawing in my belly and the only thing to fill it was that dry graham. I never told Father but I didn’t like it. It was like eating paper. But it was so sweet how he used to shape it into my favorite animals. It didn’t make it taste any better but the love he put into it made it sweeter somehow.

Lu, please tell our story, won’t you? Walk with me through the years, through those funny plays you and Anna used to put on that had us laughing, crying and shouting for more. Encore! Now that I am gone from this earth, maybe I can get inside your mind and watch the birth of your stories. I was always amazed at how you could stew on stories, cooking them to perfection while chopping vegetables in the kitchen. That head of yours was always so busy!
I hope there are kittens in Heaven. Remember all my kittens? So soft and furry, I loved hearing them purr. Maybe I will see all my pussycats again, running around in Heaven.

Did you know what went on inside of me? I know, I wasn’t good at sharing. I had many thoughts, many feelings but I was afraid to share. You and Anna, you were so smart! You had so many great thoughts to share. Father and Mother, they liked listening to your journals. I know they wanted me to share too but I just couldn’t. I was selfish, clinging to them as I did. And our family, we had hard times. I didn’t want to add to that with my little crosses. Sometimes those crosses got heavy though. This last cross was especially heavy. I died on this cross. Does that mean now that I am like Jesus?

What will God look like? Everything is very bright around me. How I wish I could tell you, shout to the world how happy I feel at this moment even as I say goodbye to you. Oh but dear family, I am not gone from your hearts.

Lu, I know you are the storyteller but I want to tell our story too. Now that I am well, I am free. For some reason, I no longer feel afraid to share what’s inside of me. I have so much that I want to tell you. May I tell you?

Marmee, Lu, there’s a mist around me, is that what you see? You are watching me rise up to Heaven, just as Father said I would. Isn’t God good to give you this glimpse of me, well, happy, ready to take on my brand new life. Father used to read the Holy Bible to us, remember? I’m glad he did that because I got to hear the word of God. It was hard to understand then but now I understand it all. I am rising up to God just like it says in the Bible: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” I never knew what incense was; I think Father said it was like smoke. Smoke goes up into the air. But now I am a mist. Marmee, Louisa, you’re getting smaller and smaller. I wish I could reach out my arms to you for one last goodbye. My mist will stay with you, cover you like a sweet, light blanket on a summer’s night. Wrap myself around you. Remember me.

And I will remember you.

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Coming attractions for 2016

Teasers for the new year … coming soon.:-)

beth doll combined

Beth doll, bequeathed to me by a special friend for inspiration

 

Beth doll, bequeathed to me by a friend for a special inspiration

My Christmas gift, and a great find.

 

how to study art cheaply3-560

May, the author and cheerleader

Reading this now ... eye-opening!

Reading this now … eye-opening!

Stay tuned!

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Current most popular posts

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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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