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

courtesy of

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.).




May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.

The right to vote

And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.

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Louisa May Alcott was not the only Alcott working off sexual energy

From Women and Health in America (first edition) there is this intriguing essay titled “What Ought to Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century” by Carl N. Degler.

Quoting Dr Charles Taylor, 1882—

“It is not a matter of indifference whether a woman live a single or a married life … I do not for one moment wish to be understood as believing that an unmarried woman cannot exist in perfect health for I know she can. But the point is, that she must take pains for it.” “some other demand for the unemployed functions, must be established. Accumulated force must find an outlet …” (pg. 50)

Following the doctor’s orders

We already know that Louisa May Alcott channeled her tremendous energy into her creativity–writing. Louisa, however, was not the only physically vibrant and passionate Alcott sister. What about May? Continue reading

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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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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson


Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1853 to 1858. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.


Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

It feels like a lifetime since I started reading March by Geraldine Brooks a little over a month ago. Between this work and The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, my way of thinking has gone through a transformation. Fortunate, because otherwise, I never could have appreciated March.

Opening the mind

Historical fiction has proven to be a game-changer, slowing opening my mind like a can opener struggling over a can of tuna fish. My black and white approach to the world is changing as I learn how to embrace the shades of gray that life often is.

It takes a lot more courage to live in a gray-shaded world. March has shown me that.

Not for the faint of heart

As stated in a previous post, Geraldine Brooks’ writing is aggressive: poking, prodding and shaking the reader out of complacency. March is not a leisurely spring read.

The book opens with a letter March is writing to Marmee and the girls, taken from Little Women. Quickly the story moves from “sweet words” to gruesome descriptions of battle and desperate escape. Right away March is placed in a compromising position in his effort to save a dying soldier, eventually having to let him go as they struggle together to cross the river. This is only one of many events that will torment March with guilt.


As in Little Women, March is portrayed as an idealistic minister and dedicated abolitionist. Brooks recalls her motivation for writing March in an article by Linda Sickler of the Savannah Morning News:

“I was interested in what happens to idealists at war, people who go to war because of highly idealistic beliefs, but then find their ideals challenged by the very nature of war,” Brooks says. “I was thinking about this in the context of the Civil War.

“Then I remembered the absent father in Alcott’s novel, about whom we hear very little, except that he has enlisted to minister to the Union troops,” she says. “It seemed to me he would be an excellent vehicle through which to explore this question.”

March and Bronson Alcott

Brooks delves into the life of Bronson Alcott as the means of fleshing out March. It’s the obvious choice and a perfect one to boot: Bronson is the poster boy of impractical idealists.  In an interview for the PBS American Masters documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, Brooks admitts to an “immense soft spot” for Bronson. She also points out the difficulty of living day-to-day with such an idealist but contends that “they’re the ones that make the moral strides that lead humanity forward in its thinking … [Bronson] moved the bar to where we’ve all caught up with him now.”

Drawing upon real life

Bronson’s life story, beginning with his youth at Spindle Hill, followed by his career as a peddler, and culminating with his vocation as an educator and reformer, shapes the life of March. Brooks uses this history to create a convincing story of a loss of innocence and a fall from grace.

Ongoing themes

March explores several themes including the horror and insanity of war, the loss of innocence through moral failure, the meaning of courage and the necessity of compromise.

Interpretations of war

I couldn’t help but make a comparison between Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and March when it came tothe descriptions of war, injury and death. Disquieting and disturbing, Brooks paints the consequences of war with a broad brush of senselessness and cruelty while Louisa manages to draw out nobility and meaning in the midst of the chaos. Undoubtedly the eras in which these two works were written explain the differences in interpretation but I found myself longing for the comfort that Louisa provides.

Innocence lost

March’s loss of innocence and its consequences constitute the heart of the book. The clash of idealism with reality is violent, and the result is that the idealist is quickly reduced to a very frail man with feet of clay.

Not only are March’s values challenged in the public arena with the war and slavery, but in the private as well with regards to fidelity. Although March is deeply in love with his wife Marmee, he is also in love with a slave woman he meets in his youth, Grace Clement. Having met her on one of his peddling trips, he now keeps a lock of her hair along with the locks of Marmee and his daughters, in an envelope close to his bosom.

The meaning of courage

Lapses in courage haunt March as well. Fear and his instinct for survival undercut his idealism, resulting in two deaths and great suffering for others. In lamenting his own weakness, March recalls the daughter with the deepest capacity for courage, his little Mouse, Beth.

Overcoming her extreme shyness, Beth befriends a slave girl, Flora, hidden in the March home. Beth is the only one Flora will open up to. As a result of the strong bond between them, Beth summons the courage to protect her by standing up to the magistrate who wants to take Flora away.

Through the examples of March and Beth, Brooks demonstrates the need for self-sacrifice as the only means by which courage can be drawn. March discovers to his deep shame and horror that he does not have that capacity. Impractical idealist that he is, he never takes into account how lofty ideas will play out in the arena of life.


March is not the only character who is all too human.

Part One of the book is narrated by March but switches to Marmee’s voice in Part Two since March is lying desperately ill in the hospital. Marmee, as depicted in Little Women, goes quickly to Washington to be by his side. It is here that she too discovers the idealist with the feet of clay.

She learns of his relationship with Grace by meeting the woman in person. Marmee learns through Grace of the horrors her husband faced during his service, details of which he never conveyed in his letters.

His compromises with regards to fidelity and truth leave Marmee feeling betrayed and angry. Soon, however, she finds that she too must compromise on the truth when it comes time to write to her girls of their father’s progress. It is this questioning of herself that causes Marmee to compromise on her anger and rededicate herself to her husband. Recognition of mutual brokenness ultimately preserves the union.

The verdict?

March is a compelling, albeit uncomfortable, read. Brooks does a masterful job of integrating the history of the Alcotts along with the story of Little Women to create a multi-layered, epic story with deeply moving characters. Every element of this story is painted in shades of gray, challenging the lofty idealism of the characters often portrayed in black and white terms. The true strength of the characters lies in their ability to adapt to the changing landscape. Fidelity is challenged but not sacrificed.

I am a reader who is evolving. March has proven to be an important stepping stone to a more sophisticated and critical approach to reading. It is an excellent companion to Little Women, providing a decidedly adult approach. It broadens and deepens the story of the March family.

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First thoughts on March

I decided upon reading March that I would read with an open mind. Fan fiction is a risky business (although calling March “fan fiction” doesn’t feel quite right, it’s a decidedly more serious work). The reader comes in with all kinds of pre-conceived notions and expectations, and the author can quickly fall out of favor if those expectations are not met.

Having read reviews on Amazon, I knew I’d have to keep an open mind.

Taking no prisoners

March is a powerful read; Geraldine Brooks doesn’t pull any punches. Based on the mostly absent character of Mr. March from Little Women, Brooks fleshes out the character, describing his experiences as a chaplain in the Civil War and how it changed him.

Little Women presents such a sanitized version of Mr. March that the reader has no sense of what he’s been through or what makes him tick. He’s a two-dimensional mystery and Brooks seeks to remedy that.

Jumping right in

Right from the start, she dives into the heart of the matter – the consequences of the Civil War (and any war) on the individual soldiers.

War ain’t pretty!


Chapter 1 is full of very graphic descriptions of injuries and death. Being a rather sensitive soul, I find the need to read over these sections quickly. A leaden feeling in the stomach means memories that will haunt me in the middle of the night. I have a hard enough time sleeping!🙂 War, however, is far from pretty and a realistic dose is a good thing.

Mr. March and Bronson Alcott

Chapter 2 gets into one of the major hot buttons of the Civil War – slavery and its abolition. Brooks jumps back in time to a 19 year-old March, working as a peddler in the South. This is where background reading on Bronson Alcott really helps. It so enriched the chapter for me being able to draw the parallels between Alcott and March.

The destructive force of slavery

March meets a slave named Grace whom he finds compelling and attractive – this plays out in a later chapter. He also discovers his vocation as a teacher when he is asked to teach a very bright slave girl how to read.

March and Roots

He then comes face to face with the ugliness of slavery and what it does to both black and white. Corrupting the white slave owner from within, the black slave suffers the consequences. I don’t want to give away too many details but suffice it to say I had a sudden urge to check out the episode of Roots where Kizzy is sold off because she helped a fellow slave to escape by forging a traveling pass. Sandy Duncan’s performance as the plantation owner’s niece, Missy Anne, had always impressed me. Here was the perfect example of how slavery corrupted someone from within. Kizzy felt brutal betrayal from her lifelong friend Missy Anne because Missy Anne failed to “protect her”; Missy Anne felt betrayed as well because Kizzy was “stupid” enough to help a fellow slave escape. Very haunting, just like this chapter.

What was Geraldine Brooks thinking?

It was in Chapter 4, however, where I began to figure out Brooks’ intention for this story. Here March meets Marmee; Brooks writes:

“After the service, her brother presented Miss Margaret Marie Day, whom everyone in the family called by the affectionate childhood name of Marmee.”

Her intention

Most provocative! A charming idea, but surely a stretch. Everyone who has cherished Little Women knows that the name of Marmee came from Lousia’s own use of the name for her own mother. Perhaps Brooks means for the name to be used for both as it does sound like a nickname for “mother.” Still, she took a big risk here of alienating readers.

This leads me to believe that Brooks means to be provocative. She wants to poke, prod and shake up the reader so that in no way the reader can remain lukewarm. A strong negative reaction is better than no reaction at all!

I have to admire that kind of courage in a writer; it makes me happy to suspend my expectations and go with the flow of this book.

Death and dying

I plan on using a separate post to explore Chapter 3. Brooks’ view of death is quite different from Louisa May Alcott’s view as shown in Little Women and Hospital Sketches. In the video I posted the other day featuring John Matteson, he read a chapter from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , where Louisa goes off to war. He cites many of the passages from Hospital Sketches that I had planned on re-reading after reading Chapter 3 of March. How timely that that video came along when Chapter 3 was so fresh in my mind. J

Have you read March? Were you able to suspend your expectations? What did you think?

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