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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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?

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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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The Louisa May Alcott Society celebrates their tenth anniversary with a visit from “Louisa!”

On a cool and cloudy day a group of dedicated teachers, writers, academics and hard-core fans gathered together at ground zero to celebrate the love of an author who had, in one way or another, transformed their lives.

Thus was the gathering of the Louisa May Alcott Society as we celebrated ten years as an official organization.

columbine-640Greeted at the door of Orchard House by sweet lilacs and lovely columbines, the society entered the home where they encountered “Louisa May Alcott,” eager to take the group of 20+ on a special tour of her home.

In the parlor

We sat on the floor of the parlor as “Louisa” lovingly described her home and family, sharing delicious details of the wedding of Anna and John Pratt in that very parlor, the theatrics put on in the adjoining dining room (complete with mad dashes upstairs for quick costume changes) and her impressions of the George Healy portrait hanging there (“I looked like a relic from the Boston fire!” she bemoaned).

Leaning Orchard House

louisa and friends3-640“Louisa” described her father’s rather unique renovations and expansion of Orchard House (“which caused it to lean”) with the addition of the tenant house creating the dining room, kitchen and addition bed chamber above which housed May.

Moods

I enjoyed her description of the famous mood pillow, empathizing fully with “Louisa’s” desire not to be disturbed when lost in the vortex of creativity.

We gazed at May’s paintings in each of the rooms, sighed over Lizzie’s piano and appreciated Abba’s fine china before heading upstairs to the room where Little Women had been written.

Where Little Women was written

One can never enter that room without pausing over the small desk where the inkstand (a lovely glass holder with quill pen positioned over it) and pages from Little Women lay. Draped over the bed was Anna’s lovely gray wedding dress. Artifacts and tools of Louisa’s needlework were displayed on a table nearby.

May’s training

louisa and friends2-640May’s bed chamber produces the same level of awe. As we gazed at her drawings on the wall, “Louisa” described how her sister’s artistic training in Europe caused her to improve by leaps and bounds. Apparently in Europe May was exposed to training that would have been denied her in America, including the study of cadavers (which greatly improved her ability at portraiture). It was this level of training that transformed May into a serious artist. “Louisa” went on to brag how her sister was commissioned to copy the Turners which secured her position in the professional art world.

Special family heirlooms

Entering the master chamber, we were treated to a close-up view of the nursery where Johnny and Freddy Pratt had stayed after their father passed away. Here I found myself with a lump in my throat as I gazed at the dolly that Lizzie had made with the face painted by May. It took all of my strength not to touch that doll.

“Louisa” pointed out the quilt on the master bed made by her mother; that evoked a collective gasp of appreciation.

The magic never ends

We ended the tour in Bronson’s study and May’s art studio where “Louisa” noted with confusion the “chairs all set up” and the “strange device” (TV and DVD player) that filled the studio. What was May up to now?

Orchard House never fails to produce its magic and we all fell under the spell.

Happy anniversary!

The get-together culminated with champagne toasts, sweets, cheese and crackers and fresh fruit, stimulating conversation and vows to continue growing the society.

Judging from the attendance and the enthusiasm, I would say the Society is strong, growing and healthy. It is an honor to be a part of such a wonderful group.

LMA society2-640

Membership

Anyone serious about Louisa can join; dues are only $10 per year. We communicate by email on a regular basis and the website www.louisamayalcottsociety.org, provides resources.

To members of the society: you have helped me to better understand why I am so passionate about Louisa May Alcott. Even yesterday I discovered new reasons to continue my study and build my appreciation of this fascinating woman.

Come and join us!

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What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

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Concord in Autumn: walking the path Louisa walked

Concord, home to Louisa May Alcott. I have been a student of Louisa on and off, for most of my life. Back in August of 2010 I decided to commit myself to study and share my reflections with you. I have so enjoyed all the book discussions and your wonderful comments about our favorite author.

Autumn at its peak in front of the Concord Free Public Library

I have always visited Concord in autumn. Since I’ve immersed my life into Louisa’s, the visits have taken on a mystical quality, most especially in autumn. The colorful falling leaves, brilliant sunshine and crisp air make Louisa more alive to me than ever.

The Concord Free Public Library

Now that I’ve discovered that much of what is at Houghton Library at Harvard University is also available at the Concord Free Public Library through an extensive microfilm collection, I can easily access all I need to research this blog and a future book I wish to write. Concord is only 45 minutes away from home, and also close enough to where I work in Wellesley that I can go there after work to do research.

So today I spent a couple of hours reading Anna’s diary from 1840 (which I will be writing on once I finish it) and then decided to walk the path Louisa and her family walked so many times, from downtown Concord to Orchard House.

Continuing on to Orchard House

I took many pictures which I’m happy to share with you in this slide show.

Being able to read the words of family members in their own handwriting really adds to the mystical connection I feel with the Alcotts.

I am indeed very blessed! I look forward to sharing with you in the future what I’ve discovered from my reading.

In the meantime, enjoy your virtual walk from downtown Concord to Orchard House on a crisp and beautiful October day.

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