My 3 days with Louisa (conclusion): Windows into the past, and a lasting memento

When I requested Lizzie’s diary at Houghton Library, I received a thick, bound volume full of many treasures.

Some of those treasures included Anna’s childhood diaries.

Anna is an engaging writer

While Lizzie’s writings read more like lists, Anna’s read like little stories.

Anna was very faithful about keeping her journal and lamented if she missed a day. Sometimes she missed several, and she’d lament about that.

Scenes from her past

What particularly struck me were the scenes she described, opening little windows into the past. Here she describes a walk with Lizzie:

from Boston, Wednesday, October 23, 1839 – “I had a pleasant walk on the Common with Elizabeth and the Rufoellis this morning We played hide behind the trees. The leaves were fallen, and were brown and yellow.” (MS Am 1130.9 (24), Alcott Pratt collection, Houghton Library).

Lively descriptions

This description of a trip from Boston to Scituate on the stage was colorful:

from Scituate to Boston, Wednesday, Septmber 28, 1838 – “The stage came for us this morning and took us and all our baggage. There were a good many passengers inside and on the top. We saw some Indian women at Hingham near where the Steam Boat stops. They had long hair and loose gowns and rings in their ears. One of them was making a basket. It was pleasant sailing in the steam boat. I was glad when we got to our house in Boston, and saw the Russells and the Duttons. Everything seemed strange to me about the house. We played in the garret with Elizabeth and Mary Russell, as we used to before we went to Scituate.” (Ibid)

Visits with the relatives

Living in Boston, there were many visits with Grandfather May, Uncle Samuel May, cousin Louisa Greenwood and Aunt Lucretia. Here she describes a picnic the family attended:

from Scituate, Thursday, September 12, 1838 “We went to a Pic Nic on Afranipit this afternoon, Father, mother, Uncle Samuel, Aunt Lucretia and Louisa went with me, It was four or five miles. The tables were in a grove near the road, and spread with cakes, apples, peaches, melons, raisins and other good things, I liked the music. Uncle Samuel made a short speech to the people. They stood still to hear him. In the evening we played and told stories at Uncle Samuel’s. We came home in the dark. Father carried Elizabeth in his arms.”(Ibid)

Fodder for stories

It occurred to me as a writer that Anna’s stories and descriptions set up great scenes. I could definitely see a children’s writer especially making good use of these sources.

Handwriting tells its own story

Anna’s handwriting, like Lizzie’s, is very neat and consistent. Lizzie’s letters are upright while Anna’s slant; her handwriting flows more easily than Lizzie’s.

Anna’s journals are beckoning me back for further study.

A final note

My three days with Louisa May Alcott were a dream come true. The sense of fellowship created during those conversations at Orchard House was tremendously satisfying and the visit to Houghton was the perfect follow-up. I look forward to my vacation at Christmastime to visit the library again, and to see Orchard House adorned for the holidays.

A lasting memento

I have to share with you my thrilling memento from my days with Louisa: a personal autograph in my copy of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father from John Matteson. He is aware of the work done here at Louisa May Alcott is My Passion and offered a wonderful word of encouragement.

You can imagine it took a while for my feet to touch the ground after reading this: 🙂

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My 3 days with Louisa (part 5): Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

My last of three days with Louisa was spent in the most intimate fashion, buried in papers written by the hands of her sisters and father at the Houghton Library at Harvard Square in Cambridge.

What is Houghton like?

Unlike Harvard’s main library, the Grand Dame known as Widener, Houghton is the little sister tucked away behind the Dame. It is formal, yet cozy.

All are welcome

Registering for a pass was simple and quick; Houghton truly welcomes anyone with a sincere desire to learn. After receiving my card, I was ushered into the reading room which was filled with students and scholars lost in research.

Seeing Lizzie’s diary

At last I would get to see what I had been longing for: Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s diary at Hillside. Except for a few short letters, this diary is the only record of length from the “shadow sister.” She began writing it at age eleven.

Difficulty getting beneath the surface

Biographers have had a hard time cracking the nut that is Lizzie. Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women writes:

“The third Alcott daughter is impossible to pin down. She appears never to have asked anything of anybody or of life itself.” (pg. 140, ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)

Commenting directly on the Hillside dairy, Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts Biography of a Family writes:

“One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling and never find it.

So it is too with the girl herself. It was all hidden behind the serene countenance, the robust rosy features and the evasive blue eyes …” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Perhaps they were looking for the wrong thing.

What I saw

I haven’t yet poured over all of Lizzie’s diary but the reading so far has told me this much:

  • Lizzie liked order in her life.
    Anna wrote in her diary, “”I think I love order and so does my sister Elizabeth.” (from Scituate July 1839, Monday the 25th, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library).
  • Her small, precise and consistently neat handwriting portrays a little girl who was self-contained and conscientious; it suggests a very even temperament (just my opinion, I’m no handwriting expert!)
  • Math was one of her favorite subjects.
    Although I’ve only read a few pages so far, she mentions several times doing “sums in Division.” She writes, “I came into studies and did a few sums in Division. I like to do them very much. It does me some good to do them.” (Hillside, Concord, June 24, 1845, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library)
    Lizzie was said to be good at playing the piano; often musicians are good mathematicians. The understanding of music theory comes a lot more easily to a mathematical mind. This is why I call my math genius husband the “official” musician in our house because of his thorough knowledge of music theory. Math baffles me, and so does music theory which is why I play music strictly by ear.
  • Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

    She loved flowers and dolls.
    Lizzie writes of picking flowers and playing with her “dollies” on numerous occasions in her diary. I disagree with Bedell that she showed no “reaction” in her writings; her reactions were subtle. It was plain to this reader anyway that Lizzie appreciated beauty and derived pleasure from picking and studying flowers (recall the Botony report she wrote for Louisa’s family newspaper, The Olive Leaf).

  • She enjoyed observing the world around her and wrote precise notes.
    For a girl who supposedly didn’t have a lot to say, Lizzie wrote detailed entries in her diary.
  • She was very happy at Hillside.
    Lizzie doesn’t have to say that she was happy – it is obvious in the day-to-day rhythm of activities that she describes. Again the even temperament is very evident.
  • She looked upon keeping a journal as a daily homework assignment rather than as a way to express herself; I wonder if she would have done it were it not required of her.
    Several times she mentions writing in her journal because her father asked it of her. Her diary ends with “I now have finished my journal and am going to give it to Mother.” She had fulfilled her obligation.

Intensely private

The open sharing of journals and diaries between family members was commonplace yet Lizzie was uncomfortable with the idea, often refusing. Bedell writes,

“She was too shy to read her earnest, noncommittal little record, even to her parents and sisters.” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Is there a possibility that the more ordinary Lizzie was intimated by the genius that surrounded her? I know how I am around my older sister whom I revere for her take-charge attitude and capableness – I become like mush and always defer. Lizzie, I get you!

A developing theory

These are certainly not earth-shattering (nor original) revelations. It does however, fuel a theory I’ve been simmering in my head: Lizzie was a normal girl of average ability surrounded by, buried by, intense genius. Biographers are looking for that same spark that flickered in Anna, bloomed in May and roared like a bonfire in Louisa. Surely since Lizzie came from the same stock, she’d have that spark of brilliance too.

Not necessarily.

In my household of four, we have three members who are somewhat eccentric and artistic, obsessing over our passions. We live in our own worlds.

The fourth member is the opposite. She has her finger on the pulse of this world and keeps us grounded in it.

Perhaps Lizzie played that role too. I look forward to finding out more as I continue to read her diary.

In the next post I want to share things I found in Anna’s diary. It makes me want to go back for a lot more in my next visit to the “Holy Grail” that is Houghton Library. 🙂

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The vacation of my dreams: 3 days with Louisa May Alcott

What’s your dream for the ultimate summer vacation?

Is it a trip to a new and/or exotic place?

Is it time all to yourself to do whatever you wish?

How about both?

That’s been my dream for many summers and this year, it came true.

New and exotic places

Back in June, our whole family (including two twenty-something children) traveled to Los Angeles to visit with my brother-in-law and his wife. He directs for The Simpsons and has been with the show approximately fifteen years. We did Disneyland, the whole Hollywood thing, and caught up and reconnected with each other. It was wonderful and I still miss them both very much.

Then there was this week.

Doing whatever I wished

I had four days off all to myself as my husband’s vacation time was used up. I indulged in my passion and spent a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation.

It far exceeded all my expectations and stoked the fire of my passion all the more.

How does one spend a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation? If you live near Concord and Cambridge, that’s easy!

Summer Conversation Series

I spent the first two days at Orchard House for their annual Summer Conversation Series. Speakers included Eve LaPlante, (whose new book, Marmee and Louisa The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother will be a blockbuster) and John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.

I will offer individual posts for these two speakers. Their presentations just blew me away!

Becoming part of the family

I got to reconnect with my dear friend Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters and made many new friends.

The best part was being able to spend two days with people as passionate about Louisa as I am. I felt like I was at home.

The picture features, L to R, front: Sylvia Willis and Gabrielle Donnelly; back: Lis Adams, director of Education at Orchard House, and Jan Turnquist, Executive Director.

Affirmation

Feeling incredibly empowered and affirmed in my writing with regards to this blog and the book project I’ve undertaken, I felt like God was shouting at me, “Yes, yes, you can do this, I want you to do this!”

The Summer Conversation Series far exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to share with you highlights from LaPlante’s and Matteson’s presentations.

Detour to Walden

Having taken my kayak, the Sylvia Yule with  me for the trip, I stopped at Walden Pond to observe the place where Henry David Thoreau made his mark.

The pond is small and the water pristine. I saw the cove where Thoreau had built his little house and marveled at the beauty.

The day was incredibly hot and every nook and cranny of the pond was filled with swimmers. Several people were swimming across the pond.

I too did my share of swimming,  never wanting to leave the warm and clear water.

I will have to come back and walk the trail and see the pile of stones where  Thoreau’s house once stood.

The Holy Grail – Houghton Library

Next it was the long-awaited trip to Houghton Library at Harvard University. I have longed to go there ever since I visited the Special Collections room at the Concord Library (see previous posts, part one and part two).

Shaky knees!

I was excited and scared all at once. Harvard is the home to some of the greatest scholars in the world. Who was I to go visit their library? I was surprised when I got to the train station and found my knees literally shaking! (It didn’t help that station had a huge, long, drop to the bottom where the subway was and the escalator was excruciatingly slow! I felt like I did sitting in a seat in the back row of an old theatre, where you feel pitched forward, really to fall into the audience. It was terrifying!)

The grounds where giants walked

Arriving at Harvard, I felt a surge wash over me as I thought of all the great minds that had walked the campus, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. The courtyard was crowded with students and visitors from all over the world.

They are now my family

Little Women illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Upon arriving at the library, I sat down in the reading room and ordered the first batch of papers that I wanted to read.

The first time I read papers handwritten by Louisa (back at the Concord Library), it felt mystical, spiritual. This time as I read diaries by Anna and Lizzie, it felt like I was reading the words of family members.

And I knew The Alcott family was now an integral part of my family.

Details coming …

In the next post, I’ll share details of Eve LaPlante’s reading of her new book. Mark November 6 on your calendar (and not just because it’s Election Day!) – her book will be available then.

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The Field Trip of a Lifetime! (part two)

To continue with my account of  the field trip of a lifetime, there were many more treasures that I found at the Concord Free Public Library:

A May Alcott Nieriker Exhibition

Regular readers of this blog know of my esteem for May Alcott Nieriker. I discovered (first to my dismay and then to my delight) that the library had held an exhibition of May Alcott Nieriker’s artwork and other artifacts back in late 2008 and early 2009 (dismayed because I missed it, especially when I saw that Daniel Shealy, Joel Myerson (editors of several prominent books on Louisa May Alcott including The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott and The Journals of Louisa May Alcott;  Shealy edited Little Women Abroad and Alcott in Her Own Time) and John Matteson (Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts) made presentations).

The exhibit had quite the effect on the curator of the Special Collections room and her assistant as they became quite taken with May Alcott. They appreciated my interest and the assistant even went to the trouble of bringing out many of the copies of the paintings and drawings that had been included in the exhibition. She also gave me the program which listed each item, and included pictures of May’s artwork (which, as you know, is hard to come by on the internet).

Here’s a link to information about the exhibit.

I also had the privilege of seeing and touching a letter May had written to her mother labeled “My Dearest Mamma,” written from Europe. Her handwriting was far more carefree than Louisa’s, and thus, really hard to read (I have to commend the biographers who have struggled over these handwritten letters, trying to decipher what the writer was trying to say). May was a more carefree individual so it fits that her handwriting reflected her spirit.

There were letters from her husband, Ernest Nieriker, first regarding the birth of her child, and then her death, her final wishes regarding Lulu, and finally a list of her personal effects which were going to the Alcott family. He shares his difficulty in giving up the child: “It is very hard for me to give up now my little Lulu May, when I think to catch glimpses of May in her eyes and admire May’s graceful hands in miniature . . . Nothing will procure me consolation, happiness will be possible when I have joined her in that purer world where separation need be feared no more . . .”

I also saw a letter from Abba and her handwriting surprised me. I wish I was a handwriting expert because Abba’s handwriting was flowing, rushing, rather like a river, more like May’s than Louisa’s; Louisa’s was very controlled and neat, sometimes with hatchet-like marks where she crossed her t’s. Knowing what I know about the lives of these women, it was interesting to see how their handwriting reflected their lives.

Letter to a family member about a family death

The biggest discovery of the day was Louisa’s letter to her cousin Eliza May Wells about the death of her younger sister, Lizzie, mainly because as I began to read it, I had no idea that Lizzie was the subject. And Lizzie has always been of special interest to me.

Noted as the “shadow sister” by biographer Madelon Bedell in her biography, The Alcotts, and the basis for Beth in Little Women, Lizzie is something of a mystery. The more I read about her, the less I know. Beth is certainly a romanticized version of Lizzie (most especially in her death), a loving tribute by her sister. But the real woman is unfortunately someone we will never know despite the fact that she kept journals just like the rest of the family. She never allowed the reader into her inner self. Or perhaps there was no inner self. We will never know.

I was so taken by this letter of Louisa’s that I took out my notebook and copied the letter, word for word. I knew a letter like that must be in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (and it is ) but I didn’t want to take the chance that I wouldn’t be able to find it. It was that important to me.

The other oddity (for me) was that the letter was dated March 19 – my birthday!

Louisa’s prose was simple and poignant. There were familiar details, such as Lizzie putting away her needle because it “felt too heavy,” and there were details I hadn’t known about her funeral, especially the fact that no one was invited except the immediate family and Bronson’s closest Concord friends: “We asked no one to the funeral & sent no word to Boston for we wished to be alone, & father’s friends did all we needed more beautifully & acceptably than any we could have asked & everything was simple & quiet as she would have liked it.”

There was a curious last paragraph: “Dear Eliza perhaps if I asked you now you may be able to forgive & forget whatever un[kind]ness you may believe me guity of, & I hope you may sometime learn to know me as I really am, I have been
Your grateful & loving cousin
Louisa” I wondered if Louisa felt guilty for not inviting her cousin and her family to the funeral, or was there some other issue? If it was the former, it’s too bad she had to burden herself with guilt like that in the  midst of her grief. Here is where a greater knowledge of the mid 19th century would be helpful, and just how important propriety was here.

Letter from a reader regarding Moods

This letter was dated March 19 as well!

Addressed to a “Mr. Ayer,” I hand copied part of this letter as well (the whole letter is included in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott). Knowing the ambivalent relationship she had with her readers, it was interesting to see how she responded to the criticisms of this particular reader. It’s too bad there isn’t a record of his letter as well.

I found an interesting paragraph that described how young women responded to Moods, and it gave a window into Louisa’s now well-known feminist leanings: “I think Moods will do no harm to the pure hearted, & for them alone it was written. That it has done some good I already have proofs in the letters I receive from good women who have tried to d0 their duty, & became meek martyrs instead of happy workers in God’s world; young girls thank me for the warning I have unconsciously given them, & more than one minister has assured me that with all its faults, the book has taught a lesson that many needed to learn.”

These two letters have really peaked my interest in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott as well as The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. It is revealing to hear Louisa speak in her own, unedited voice (except, of course, for all the letters and journal entries she didn’t let us see!).

Final Oddities

I had mentioned how two of the letters I found were dated March 19, my birthday. Here’s another weird coincidence: an invitation to John Alcott Pratt from Carrie M. Hoyle, secretary of the Louisa M. Alcott Memorial Association dated May 17, 1912. Why odd? Hoyle is my maiden name! I had discovered that little fact in searching for information about my father’s family but to actually see her handwriting . . . that was pretty cool.

So, that’s my awesome field tip! I hope many of you will get a similar chance to go. It’s pretty amazing.

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

Those who want to become as talented a writer and artist as May was
can find info about classes through an accredited online college
to enhance their knowledge.
It can be rare that someone is as multi-talented as she was.

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

Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)


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The Field Trip of a Lifetime! (part one)

I have been anticipating my vacation between Christmas and New Year’s for several months because of a very special field trip I planned – a visit to the Concord Free Public Library where I would come into contact with the actual letters and manuscripts of my favorite author, Louisa May Alcott. The weather was beautiful and warm after the blizzard we had experienced earlier in the week; it was the foreshadowing of an extraordinary day.

The Concord Free Public Library’s William Munroe Special Collections section contains archives of handwritten letters, manuscripts, first edition books and drawings from the Alcott Family which anyone can request to see. All I had to do was ask the main reference librarian who referred me to the Special Collections section in the basement of the library. I want to publicly thank the curator, Leslie Perrin Wilson and her assistant, Constance Manoli-Skocay for their kindness and generosity to this total neophyte. I step very much outside my comfort zone entering this academic arena, much aware of my lack of study and experience, and they went out of their way to to guide me on this wonderful journey.

I knew I would be excited at the prospect of seeing and touching actual letters and manuscripts, but I had no idea just how much it would grip me. I spent several hours at the library in wonder at what I saw, and when I left, my heart was pounding and my head was spinning!

Flower Fables

It started with a request to see certain folders of papers, and the first thing I saw was a collection of fairy stories to Ellen Emerson that would eventually end up in Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables. It was all neatly handwritten by the teenaged Louisa on unlined paper, each line perfectly straight and perfectly spaced. And it was signed “Louy.” Occasionally there was a small edit (a scratched out word). She had hand bound the stories in a pretty folder and it gave me such a special thrill to leaf through the precious little book and read the stories. As a child I had dreams of being an author and used to write little books which I also hand bound. I’m certain the reading of Joan Howard’s book, The Story of Louisa May Alcott, fueled that dream. To hold in my hands a hand bound edition of a book created by Louisa who also dreamed (and became) an author was indeed a spiritual experience.

The Olive Leaf

Next I got a chance to see issue number 2 of the Olive Leaf (the Samuel Pickwick Edition), the family newspaper created by the sisters to cheer the family during their times of poverty. It was set up in 3 columns like a newspaper and included poems and stories.

“Thoreau’s Flute”

One of the most touching papers that I saw was Louisa’s poem about Henry David Thoreau, written in her own hand, entitled “Thoreau’s Flute.” I paused as a I looked at it, knowing how she felt about him. I understood that it took her awhile to process his death and I believe she finally was able to express herself when she became a nurse at the Union Hospital in Georgetown during the Civil War. Another spiritual experience.

Chapters from Little Women

Then I got to see two chapters from part two of Little Women (“Our Foreign Correspondent” and “Heartache”), written on blue paper with fading brown ink (probably was black at one time). There was some edits throughout, such as in this line from “Heartache” – “Oh Teddy, I’m so sorry, so desperately sorry I could slap kill myself if would do any good . . .”

It struck me how difficult it must have been for a publisher to put together a book without errors. Handwriting can be hard to read at times. Louisa’s writing had a pattern that was easy to figure out but I imagine it was still was a challenge. I noticed that the letters all leaned to the left and it occurred to me that she may have written it left handed. In other writings that I saw, her handwriting looked different, leaning to the right. I know she had to resort to writing left handed when her right hand became cramped.

Louisa’s Will

As this post is getting quite long, I will end with Louisa’s last will and testament, picking up in the next post with other extraordinary things I saw.

Louisa’s will was fairly simple considering how much she was worth. It was only a few typed pages (I can imagine today it would have been much longer and a lot more complicated!), dated July 10, 1887. The primary focus was the care of Lulu, making sure that she got the lion’s share of her money. Older sister Anna was named the Executrix of the estate, and her son John, legally adopted by Louisa and renamed John Sewall Pratt Alcott, was given charge of the copyrights. She directed that youngest sister May’s paintings and drawings be kept in the family; upon Anna’s death, the copies May made of certain Turner paintings would be donated to the Art Museum of Boston “as they are the best copies in the Country, and should be seen and used by many.” She did designate that one or two pieces of art be given to May’s husband, Ernest should he desire them.

In the next post . . .

When I post again, I will share more about May as I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing copies of many of her works. Plus, I came upon two especially special letters written by Louisa which touched me so much I hand copied both of them.

Usually Alcott enthusiasts come to Concord to see Orchard House and Sleepy Hollow; I would but definitely add the Special Collections room of the Concord Free Public Library to that list. It’s a visit I will not soon forget.