Book review: Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy

I am delighted when Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters (see previous post) offered to review this wonderful new edition of Little Women. Ed.

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

560 LW Shealy1There are two ways to read Daniel Shealy’s new annotated version of Little Women (Belknap Press, $35.00): the sensible way and the irresistible way. The sensible way is to open at the beginning, and read through to the end, checking the footnotes as you go. That is the sensible way.

Every detail you could ever want

The irresistible way, is to open at the beginning … read the first couple of footnotes … realize that this book will tell you every single thing that you have ever wondered about in the background to Little Women … and proceed on a wild treasure hunt of March family trivia that will take you zig-zagging across the text until your head spins.

  • Was the town where the Marches lived really based on Concord? (No – although there are similarities between the Marches’ house and Hillside, the Alcotts’ house when the daughters were teenagers, the house in the book is quite specifically located in a ‘suburb’ of Boston while the more rural Concord is 18 miles away.)
  • What really were pickled limes? (Precisely what they sounded like, and, inexplicably, hugely popular with nineteenth century schoolchildren).
  • What was the game called ‘Rarey’ that Laurie played with his horse while Amy sketched him? (Not a game at all, interestingly: there was famous horse whisperer of the time called John Rarey, whom apparently Laurie was emulating).
  • Did May Alcott, the real life inspiration for Amy March, ever really sleep with a clothes pin on her nose? (Yes, and was less than delighted to have had this fact immortalized in print).

Many ways to read

The bad thing about reading the book the irresistible way is that it will leave you dazed and giddy, with your mind stuffed with far too much information properly to process. The good thing is that, after you have suitably sown your Alcottian wild oats, you will then have the time to go back and read the book the sensible way to see what you’ve missed.

For the fan and the scholar

Quite simply, the book is the Little Women lover’s dream come true. It’s physically imposing, with pages that are nine inches wide and divided into two columns: the text of the book runs through the two inner columns, while the outer are devoted to the footnotes. And what footnotes they are. There is something in them for everyone, from the neophyte who needs to have it explained that that beloved Alcottian adjective ‘decided’ means ‘determined’ in modern English, to scholars of all levels, of literature, of history, of women’s studies, of social studies, and of just plain fun.

Pages 246-247 - the footnotes are in red, the book text in black. The exquisite design of this book is exemplified through the choice of type (note the lovely drop cap at the beginning of the chapter) and the quality of the paper. From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Pages 246-247 – the footnotes are in red, the book text in black. The exquisite design of this book is exemplified through the choice of type (note the lovely drop cap at the beginning of the chapter) and the quality of the paper.
From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Serious facts, fun trivia

Information comes trivial and weighty, and the skill with which all of it is woven around the text is exemplary.

A chance comment of Marmee’s that she doesn’t want the girls to ‘delve like slaves,’ leads to a concise, but full, outline of the antislavery movement.

Similarly, the information that Meg’s husband John Brooke went to fight in the Civil War and was wounded – although we are told that the real life John Bridge Pratt did not go to fight at all – provides an opportunity for some sobering paragraphs on the ‘horrific’ human cost of the War on the population in general.

Louisa and her alter ego, Jo

Louisa’s real-life literary career is recounted alongside Jo March’s fictional one; and no less meticulousness is given to detailing the various fashionable fineries with which all sisters adorn themselves throughout the book. Louisa’s views on marriage are expounded, as are her views on women’s emancipation; Bronson Alcott’s philosophy is given its due airing, as is a history of salt cellars, a recipe for beef tea, and a completely delightful anecdote which I had never heard before, about a visit to Boston by the then Prince of Wales in 1860, during the course of which he captured the heart of Louisa and a friend by winking to them flirtatiously as he passed by in a carriage.

Classic illustrations through the ages

Pages 336-337 features a delightful depiction of Amy, foot stuck in plaster; illustration by Frank Merrill, 1880 version. From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Pages 336-337 features a delightful depiction of Amy, foot stuck in plaster; illustration by Frank Merrill, 1880 version.
From Little Women: An Annotated Edition by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Daniel Shealy. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Nor are the treasures of this book confined to its words. Running through the pages is a veritable wealth of illustrations, ranging from historical photographs of Louisa, her family, and the time she lived in, to book illustrations from different editions of Little Women, to stills from the various movies.

You will flick from Norman Rockwell’s no-nonsense depictions from 1937, to Frank Merrill’s elegant pen and ink figures from 1880 (my personal favorite is of Jo wearing glasses and addressing the Pickwick Society), to the sweetly wistful sisters of Barbara Cooney from 1955.

You will find stills of Katharine Hepburn as Jo in 1933, Christian Bale as Laurie in 1994, and a lavishly made-up Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949.

Picture, pictures and more pictures

Along the way you will chance on other joys – the warmly welcoming interiors of the magnificent Orchard House museum in Concord, a Victorian mourning locket, an old playbill, a group of early suffragettes, or sometimes, just because it’s pretty, an illustration of a sweet pea or a dahlia. Amy would approve wholeheartedly.

Totally worth it

This book is not a casual purchase: priced at $35.00 and weighing in at a whopping 4.2 pounds, it is not something you’ll be slipping into your basket on the spur of the moment. But for the person in your life who loves or could learn to love Louisa May Alcott, and who you think deserves a special treat – be it your daughter, your best friend or even (why not?) yourself – it is worth each penny of cost and each ounce of weight several times over.

Gabrielle Donnelly is the author of the novel The Little Women Letters, published by Touchstone.

Click to Tweet & Share: Gabrielle Donnelly (The Little Women Letters) reviews the new annotated Little Women, edited by Daniel Shealy

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!


Final Thoughts on “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Reading the last few words, I slowly closed Mr. Emerson’s Wife and felt a welling up inside of emotion. I was so tied to the character of Lidian Jackson Emerson that I felt they were her emotions too.

This is how Amy Belding Brown’s book hit me. I lived inside of Mr. Emerson’s Wife for the last couple of weeks, crawling inside the head, the skin and the heart of Lidian Jackson Emerson. I loved Mr. Emerson as she loved him, felt the bitter disappointment and anger of promises not kept, and swooned over Henry David Thoreau, sensing the touching of souls as he and Lidian grew closer to each other.

A growing appreciation for words

There are times when I am so grateful I am a slow reader! Although this book could be read very quickly, it shouldn’t be. I savored every line, for the first time really appreciating the art of writing and how beautifully words could express thoughts, feelings and actions.

The value of words has been on my mind a lot lately. In my spiritual reading, I read how Jesus Christ is known in the gospel of John as The Word. In a book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, the Orthodox priest writes about idle talk and how words can be as equally life affirming and devastating, and how we as humans are the only creatures gifted with the ability to make words. It’s an awesome gift that carries a solemn responsibility.

Books like Mr. Emerson’s Wife fill me with desire to savor more words, and to commit more words to paper (and computer). I am eternally grateful to Meg North who suggested on her blog that aspiring writers should have their trusty notebook and favorite pen with them at all times. I do (in fact I have separate notebooks for different things I’m researching, and each has its own favorite pen). I love composing on the computer but there’s something very organic and cool about writing with a pen and getting the smudged ink on my fingers.

But I digress. I’d like to offer some final thoughts on Lidian Jackson Emerson and her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as imagined by Amy Belding Brown (with a lot of historical facts to back up her theories).

Among my top favorite books

Mr. Emerson’s Wife is the most emotionally engaging book I’ve ever read and ranks right up there with my other top 3: Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Little Women. Gone With the Wind was a sweeping epic with fascinating characters and a take on the South by a true southerner which challenged some of my perceptions about the pre and post Civil War South. It was the most fun I’d ever had reading. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the right book at the right time as my children were the same age as Harry, Hermione and Ron (and my Stephen is like Harry). That synchronicity will unfortunately never happen again. And I reveled in the domestic spirituality, sisterhood and semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women.

An honest commentary on marriage

Mr. Emerson’s Wife moved me so because Brown made Lidian, Waldo and Henry leap off the pages straight into my mind and heart. They truly were flesh and blood people to me, navigating the complexities of marriage, friendship, life, death and love in Victorian New England. Brown wrote an honest and balanced commentary on marriage which not only applied then, but applies today. Despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed an unusually happy marriage for the last 32 years, I could still keenly identify with some of the trials that Lidian went through with Mr. Emerson (as she called him). The world still revolves around the man on occasion in this ‘enlightened’ age. Yet, because of this book, I felt compelled to remark to my husband  how truly lucky I was to have him as my lifelong companion; I came to appreciate our marriage even more.

Awakened feminism

This book awoke in me a renewed care and concern for women and their place in the world. The political nature of feminism today long ago turned me off to women’s issues (particularly the obsession with Pro Life/Pro Choice – I am Pro Life). When I was a young mother, I felt left behind by feminists, feeling undervalued as a mother and wife. While reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, I sensed that my eyes were opening, seeing things around me (even in my own family) that told me the battle for women’s rights (particularly in the area of health) is far from over. I feel a much stronger obligation to guide my 22 year old daughter in the right direction, making sure that she is tending to her education and her development. Fortunately she already has a strong sense of herself and does not base her entire existence upon having a man in her life (even though she is in a serious relationship with a wonderful young man).

Lidian’s struggles

Lidian struggled with a brilliant and revered husband who was often cold and indifferent (and yet entertained the vivacious Margaret Fuller on regular occasions, inviting her to live in their home, and taking long walks at night with her, both lost in discussion). She competed with the memory of a young, beautiful and saintly first wife whom Emerson spoke of frequently in a voice filled with grief and loss. Her own excellent mind and creative energies were subjugated to her husband’s whims and demands with little regard to her needs. Suffering much injustice, her frustration at times was very high (especially when she had to hold her tongue) and I felt that frustration keenly. A successful marriage, of course, does take two and Brown subsequently, does not place all the blame on Emerson as Lidian could wield a sharp tongue and could be demanding and unforgiving in her own way. She also made the mistake of being lost in her children at the expense of her husband. Marriage is, if anything, a delicate balance.

Lidian and Waldo experienced several devastating losses in their married life, beginning with the death of Waldo’s younger brother Charles, Henry’s brother John, and culminating with the loss of their first-born son Waldo at the tender age of 5. Grief can sometimes bring couples together but in this case, it drove them apart. Emerson’s reaction to grief was to shut down and shut out the world, losing himself in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, while Lidian needed to express her feelings. This along with other things caused her to turn to Henry David Thoreau for consolation and friendship.

Thoreau came across as a much warmer man than I had imagined even though he was also equally brilliant, complex and contradictory. I had always thought of him as so solitary that he never formed really close relationships but he obviously did. And rather than give away too much of the story, I leave you to find out for yourself by reading this wonderful book.

Ready to read more

I am not ready yet to leave the world of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller and plan on reading more about each of them. I am intrigued by Emerson’s motivations for abandoning traditional Christianity and the ministry in favor of developing his own way (which did not necessarily lead to God). And I’m getting more and more interested in Thoreau and what makes him tick. I am grateful to any book that deepens my desire to learn.

Finally, as I continue to read Louisa May Alcott’s Moods, I am struck by the irony of how that book is also about one woman loving two men (men based on Emerson and Thoreau). Unfortunately Moods now rings a little hollow as the characters are not so deeply developed and the writing is strained and over-thought. I will still finish Moods but I don’t expect it to affect me in the same way. I only wish Louisa had discovered her realistic writing style when she wrote this story.

Be sure and visit Amy Belding Brown’s website – she details how she wrote the book and shares stories about the many influential (and unsung) heroines of Transcendental Concord.

and p.s. I may get the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown over the weekend for coffee and conversation, stay tuned . . .

Book review: Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

I just finished reading Harriet Reisen‘s book (which I bought for myself), Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women and already wishing I could turn back the clock and read it all over again. It’s been a wonderful companion this past month. Having read several biographies on Louisa May, I wondered if I could learn anything new, and indeed I did! This book had all kinds of tidbits to please passionate hobbyists like myself, but also presented such a comprehensive picture to newcomers and enthusiasts of Little Women who wanted to know the real life woman behind their beloved Jo.

I discovered this book by watching a terrific documentary which aired on PBS this past winter. I had never seen any films on Louisa May before and was thrilled to see this one. I felt the actress who portrayed Louisa captured her spirit admirably and I couldn’t wait to read the book.

For those who want to dig into Louisa May’s life, you must first become intimately acquainted with her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, and her mother, Abigail May. A good portion of the first half of the book details their lives and the lives of their young daughters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. To some (myself included) this section was a bit dry and tedious. But if you hang on and get to where Louisa grows into adulthood, the pace and feel of the book greatly picks up. I would not have appreciated the second half nearly as much if I had not ‘done my homework’ with the first half.

Reisen beautifully captures the spirit of Louisa May, portraying a much more complex woman than the one hinted at in Little Women’s Jo. I found much to love,  but also wondered sometimes how much I would have liked her. For example, while I can understand Louisa’s desire for privacy (and people can be very rude), still, I can’t help wishing she had been more gracious towards her fans. I know for sure she wouldn’t have appreciated this blog! 🙂

Rather than get into a summary of the book, I’d rather point out two things about this book that changed my perceptions and greatly fueled my passion.

The first is Reisen’s treatment of Bronson, who was equally as complicated (if not more so) than his famous daughter. Talk about ambiguity! There are times when Bronson seemed so narcissistic, so self-absorbed, that often his family was in danger of starving! Sometimes he seemed outright mad (think of Fruitlands and Charles Lane). And then slowly, over the years, he grew into a gentle and wise sage, charming many (especially women) with his ideas. And he grew to love and appreciate his difficult second daughter who shared his birthday but was so opposite from him. The last few times that he and Louisa were together I found very touching, and his poem about Duty’s Faithful Child brought a tear to my eye. Reisen’s treatment of him showed him as a complete man, someone worthy of scorn and criticism, but also someone worthy of love.  I thank the author for showing, finally, a more complete view of Bronson Alcott.

The second thing this book did for me was to open up the richness of Louisa’s writing. This is going to sound very strange coming from someone so passionate about Louisa May Alcott, but I never liked her writing! I’m not a natural reader and found the 19th century form of writing so cumbersome. After Reisen’s description of Hospital Sketches, however, I felt compelled to read it. Finding it in its entirety online, I read it with great fervor. It was just as the critics had said: funny, poignant, insightful . . . I couldn’t get enough of it. Of course it helps that I love the Civil War period and greatly appreciated the first hand accounts from Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle. But no one writes as poignantly about death and dying as Louisa does. Her depth of experience with death and her deep understanding of it shines through in her writing. Having lost my mother a few months ago to a long illness, I find reading scenes such as the death of her beloved John in Hospital Sketches (and Beth in Little Women) tremendously helpful in dealing with my own grief. Somehow Louisa manages to convey hope and it truly comforts me.

Having had my eyes opened at last to the richness of Louisa’s books, I’ve started reading Little Women for real this time, and have lined up several of her adult books to read as well.

Therefore, I can say with certainty that Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women has changed my life. I have now become a reader.

You can find this book on Amazon or in your favorite bookstore. It’s also available at Orchard House’s gift shop, should you be fortunate enough to be able to visit it.

Addendum, June 2017

Audio Book edition

DVD of PBS American Masters film

Seven years later I consider Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women a must read. If you are curious about the creator of Jo March, this book will tell you most everything you want to know. Reisen’s obvious love for Alcott’s writing shines through with references to her well-known books (Little Women, Little Men, An Old-Fashioned Girl) and many less familiar stories and books (Hospital Sketches, her many blood-and-thunder stories, her first novel  The Inheritance and numerous juvenile short stories). Published in 2010, the book revealed much new information about other family members including Elizabeth and May.

I am on my third read having bought the audio book. Reisen does the reading, providing us with additional insight by the nature of her read.

Having bought the DVD of the PBS American Masters program of the same title, I have watched that several times as well.

If you are interested in getting to know the author of Little Women, you can’t do better than to make Louisa May Alcott, the Woman Behind Little Women your first read.





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