Sibling rivalry – did “Little Women” spur May on to success?

In reading through the large collection of letters and journal entries I have from Alcott family members, it occurred to me that with a few exceptions, the sisters did not disparage one another. This is remarkable since sibling rivalry and age differences can present many challenges. Since any show of anger was frowned upon in the Alcott home, the girls had to find other stealth ways to work out any negative feelings.

Demanding little sister

There were certainly occasions when criticism was warranted. The most striking example was a letter from Anna during the crucial period of Elizabeth’s illness describing Abby May’s “demands.” Letters at this time were flying back and forth between the daughters and the parents as to where they should live:

Abby says, By all means find a house in or near Boston within walking distance as her drawing and music are the only friend she cares for; that this winter if of the utmost importance to her, and she wishes to be there most decidedly but — if it can’t be, Concord Village is next best and if any chance for teaching should offer these, she will consent to go. She wishes to say that she has made a solemn vow not to touch a pencil, crayon, or paint brush till she is well, that she shant go to school, study or do anything till Dr. Geist has cured her. That she is tired of being sick, & determined to get well immediately, & that Mother must command the Dr. to send her a stock of medicine directly with full directions for its use, that she may spend her time in getting well all ready for the winter campaign. She is willing to be guided, but can’t give up her drawing, & strongly inclines to the city, as of course we all do in our hearts, tho our better judgment advises the country. (Unpublished letter by Anna Alcott to Bronson Alcott September 10, 1857)

Anna never called out her sister for her selfishness. Note too however that she did not whitewash her sister’s words. This is why I call Anna the family secretary — she simply recorded what transpired, making her letters some of the most valuable (along with the fact that they are easy to read!).

from Houghton Library Amos Bronson Alcott papers MS Am 1130.9 (27)

Since Louisa had the hardest time controlling her feelings, there were occasional slips either against Anna or Abby  May. She wrote this to her mother:

I hardly dare to speak to Annie for fear she should speak unkindly and get me angry. O she is very very cross I cannot love her it seems as though she did every thing to trouble me but I will try to love her better. (from the Fruitlands display, Fruitlands Museum)

from the Fruitlands display, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, MA

In her younger years she was hard on herself whenever she was mean to any other family member:

Sunday, 24th. I was cross to-day, and I cried when I went to bed. I make good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I shall be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so am very bad. (September 24, 1843, pg. 45, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott)

Every now and then she’d take a jab at Abby May: “Ab doing nothing but grow.” (1852 “Notes and Memoranda, pg. 68 Journals)

Expressing herself through fiction

There may have been no outward disparaging but the typical tensions between big sister and little sister were described for all to see in Little Women with Louisa’s portrayal of Amy. I had always wondered how May must have felt seeing her first portrayed as selfish and spoiled, and later, giving up on her dream of being an artist.

In Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, (see review) Jeannine Atkins granted my wish. She imagined May’s growing resentment as Louisa read pages from Little Women out loud to the family. One episode in particular was stinging:

One evening, her hand tightened on her pen as Louisa read an episode in which the youngest sister shoved a manuscript into the fireplace. May cried, ‘I would never burn your work! I was the one who encouraged you to write this novel!’

‘I told you, it’s a story.’

‘Even if you didn’t use the scrambled version of my name, don’t you think people will recognize the niminy-piminy chit with her wretched attempts to burn images on wood with a hot poker?’

‘I’ll make it up to you.’ (pg. 140)

Big sister, baby sister

Concord Sketches from AbeBooks.com

Atkins also imagined the scene where May received the first copy of her book called Concord Sketches (containing twelve sketches of Concord landmarks) and her reaction to reading the preface written by her now-famous sister Louisa. In part it read,

These sketches, from a student’s portfolio, claim no merit as works of art, but are only valuable as souvenirs, which owe their chief charm to the associations that surround them, rather than to any success in the execution of a labor of love, prompted by the natural desire to do honor to one’s birthplace.” (Concord Public Library Special Collections).

May Alcott, Still Life with Bottle, 1877. Oil on canvas. Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, Orchard House, Concord.

May was no quitter despite the fact that Louisa failed to take her seriously. I submit that the combination of Amy March and the preface written for Concord Sketches drove her all the more to prove herself as worthy of the same crown Louisa now wore. I can imagine May remembering these incidents as she relished over her triumph over her painting being accepted into the prestigious Paris Salon:

My dear Marmee’s heart will be delighted to hear that my little picture is accepted at the great Salon exhibition, where from 8500 works sent in, only 2000 were accepted, and mine was thought worthy a place among the best. Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.” (pg. 182 May Alcott a Memoir by Caroline Ticknor)

Payback was sweet. And the best part was by that time, Louisa had come to appreciate her baby sister’s many talents and virtues. They were to become close in later life until they were separated by May’s untimely death. In appreciation of May, Louisa wrote  Diana and Persis but was unable to finish due to her grief. (see previous blog post)

ADDENDUM: I was discussing this letter from Anna with a friend just now and I was reminded that although May was 18, she had been sheltered by the family and perhaps was not as mature at 18 as say Louisa was (who I believe was an old soul in a young body). As this sickness was a first for all of them, it might have been more difficult for May to process. She and Lizzie had been inseparable as children and even in Boston until May went to school. I did always think she was trying to protect herself from a truly horrendous situation which might explain her tone in that stanza I quoted.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Sav
louisa may alcott for widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!

Keep up with news and free giveaways
on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message,
and River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

both books for LMA blog widget

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

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!

Click to Tweet and Share: Happy Halloween! A treat for Little Women fans: “Norna, or the Witch’s Curse,” the annotated version http://wp.me/p125Rp-27x

Share on FacebookFacebook-logo-ICON-02

Share on Google+google+

space-holder2

louisa may alcott for widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!

Keep up with news and free giveaways
on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message,
and River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

both books for LMA blog widget

Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole — visiting the NH town where the Alcotts lived from 1855-1857

Ray Boas, Walpole town historian

Ray Boas, Walpole town historian

On Saturday, Oct. 1
I had the distinct pleasure of touring the town of Walpole NH where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived in Walpole, NH from 1855 through 1857. I was accompanied by my sister Chris and friend Kristi Martin, a certified tour guide of the various Concord historical homes. The historical society has an exhibit known as “Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole” which ends October 22 but will start up again next spring. Town historian Ray Boas, author of a booklet by the same title, gave us the grand tour. Walpole has not changed all that much since the mid 1850’s so it was truly a journey back in time.

2-560-km-me-with-outdoor-sign

Photo by Kristi Martin. Used by permission.

A precious artifact

The exhibit included the piano given to Lizzie by Dr. Henry Bellows (more on this later) and needless to say, Kristi and I could not resist touching the keys and communing with the spirit of Lizzie. There are precious few places and artifacts associated with Lizzie so each to us is sacred.

Kristi Martin with Lizzie's piano.

Kristi Martin with Lizzie’s piano.

The Alcotts in Walpole

After ten sometimes tumultuous and often dreary years moving from one basement flat to the next (with some summertime reprises in homes of relatives to escape disease outbreaks), Bronson and Abba accepted a home free of rent from cousin Benjamin Willis. It proved to be a lifeline. The home on High Street was a duplex, just off the center of town.

The Alcotts lived on the west side of this home on High Street now known as the Alcott Apartments.

The Alcotts lived on the west side of this home on High Street now known as the Alcott Apartments.

Walpole is the setting of giddy triumphs and the beginning of a family tragedy. It is the back story of Chapter 6 of Little Women, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful.”

Family connection

At first the Alcotts found Walpole to be much to their liking. In comparison with the noise and dirt of the city, bucolic Walpole with its rolling farmlands and charming homesteads was a relief. Anna Alcott had served as a governess here back when the family lived at Hillside in Concord, in the home of Benjamin Willis.

The home of Benjamin Willis where Anna served as a governess.

The home of Benjamin Willis where Anna served as a governess.

Lights, drama, action!

Walpole is close to the Vermont border and Bellows Falls where people often took their summer vacations. This made Walpole a tourist spot as well.. A great many young people populated the town during the summer and a semi-professional theatrical group was formed as a result (which still exists today). Louisa and Anna took part in many productions. Louisa took the character/comedic roles while Anna took the romantic leads. They were both accomplished actresses who relished their time on the stage. World-famous actress Fanny Kemble even visited Walpole one summer.

This playbill lists the Alcott sisters in their roles. From "Louisa May Alcott's Walpole" by Ray Boas, town historian; used by permission.

This playbill lists the Alcott sisters in their roles. From “Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole” by Ray Boas, town historian; used by permission.

A generous gift

Dr. Henry Bellows, “the gayest of the gay” according to Louisa, summered in Walpole. He was the pastor of the prominent First Congregational (Unitarian) church in New York City (afterwards All Souls church) for forty-three years, until his death in 1882. He hit it off with entire Alcott family beginning with Bronson. He was also taken by the shy Lizzie, offering his piano for her use when he went back to New York for the winter. This is the basis of Beth and Mr. Laurence and his generous gift which makes for “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful” in Little Women. Bronson recorded the gift in his journal in 1855.

lizzie piano

Houghton Library, MS Am 1130.9 Amos Bronson Alcott journal September 1855

The start of Lizzie’s decline

Walpole also served as the beginning of the first family tragedy. In July of 1855, Abba writes to brother Sam:

July 29,1855
My dear brother . .. You may have heard how very sick my Lizzy has been. Scarlet fever took us all down in its various stages of virulence, but it fixed on Lizzy most tenaciously and her father and I watch her night and day with an anxiety most painful and intense, but she is [gaining] strength .. . .(page 192, My Heart is Boundless, edited by Eve LaPlante)

The story goes that Abba took care of a family who lived over a pig farm. Their children had caught scarlet fever. Lizzie, Abba and Anna would all catch it but Lizzie would nearly die from the disease. As we know, this was the beginning of a brutal decline which ended in death in March of 1858.

We  only know that the property was owned by a deacon and the family in question were the Halls (pg. pg. 245, Amos Bronson Alcott by Frederick Dahlstrand’s biography of Bronson Alcott. Town historian Ray Boas, while unable to firmly identified where the family lived, surmised that they were nearby in a cluster of smaller homes.

Map of High and Rodger Streets showing where the Alcotts lived and where the Halls may have lived. (Google Maps)

Map of High and Rogers Streets showing where the Alcotts lived and where the Halls may have lived. (Google Maps — thanks to Ray Boas)

Site of theatrical performances

Mr. Boas took us to the various homes where the theater group performed its plays. One of those homes was owned by a Dr. Kittredge who treated Lizzie and recommended she be taken to the seashore. Plays were often performed in the attic of his home which could hold some two hundred people.

The home of Dr. Kittridge just off the town common.

The home of Dr. Kittredge just off the town common.

I highly recommend a visit to the Walpole Historical Society exhibit. If you purchase Mr. Boas’ booklet, you will have a map showing the various sights in town. You can get a copy at www.rayboasbookseller.com.

With the foliage about to peak, you will find it a magical visit.

Here is a slideshow of the entire visit:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Click to Tweet and Share: Louisa May Alcott’s Walpole — visiting the NH town where the Alcotts lived from 1855-1857 http://wp.me/p125Rp-25D

Share on FacebookFacebook-logo-ICON-02

Share on Google+google+

space-holder2

louisa may alcott for widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!

Keep up with news and free giveaways
on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message,
and River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

both books for LMA blog widget

 

 

Save

Save

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.

Click to Tweet and Share: Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark http://wp.me/p125Rp-21L

Share on FacebookFacebook-logo-ICON-02

Share on Google+google+

space-holder2

louisa may alcott for widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!

Keep up with news and free giveaways
on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message,
and River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

both books for LMA blog widget

 

 

Inside the heart of Bronson Alcott

sonnetscanzo00alcorichIn the last post covering John Matteson’s talk at the Colonial Inn I mentioned Bronson Alcott’s Sonnets and Canzonets, published in 1882 and how they reveal the heart of the man. Each sonnet or canzonet is dedicated to his wife, daughters and many luminary friends such as Ralph Waldo  Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.

Presenting an entertaining dilemma

The sonnets and canzonets are not labeled by name so the identity of the person must be discerned from details provided in the piece. It makes for a fun detective game trying to figure out about whom Bronson was writing. The book is available on archive.org so I challenge you to read it and see if you can identity all to persons.

bronsonalcott1Did Bronson love?

Many do not associate Bronson with devotion and tenderness. After all, how could a man love his family and yet not provide for them? How could a man so seemingly narcissistic, so lost in the clouds of philosophy, understand what it means to love others?

Revealing the heart in earthly experience

But as we know, life is never that black and white. Bronson was, in fact, devoted to his family and his friends. It took many years for him to recognize that love is not merely pure, perfect and theoretical; it is in fact very imperfect. Earthy and physical. Messy, wrenching, and glorious. No life event drove that home to him more than death, whether it be losing two daughters to it, or nearly being deprived of another through her service to the dying.

And so I share with you sonnets to his four daughters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. Judge for yourself the heart of this complex and all-too-human philosopher.

Here are sonnets for Anna, Louisa and Elizabeth:

Anna Alcott

Anna Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Elizabeth Alcott

Elizabeth Alcott

And finally, May Alcott.

Judging from the length of this sonnet, May’s unexpected death shook Bronson to the core:

Do you believe Bronson loved his family well over his entire life? Why or why not?
What do you feel was his greatest contribution to his girls?

louisa may alcott for widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!

Keep up with news and free giveaways
on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message,
and River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

both books for LMA blog widget

 

Current most popular posts

most popular posts

Save

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!

louisa may alcott for widgetboth books for LMA blog widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!

Keep up with news and free giveaways on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message, and River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Find Susan’s books here on AmazonPurchase Susan’s CD.