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 (Unpublished letter by Anna Alcott to Bronson Alcott September 10, 1857)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.

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Fruitlands through the years in sight and sound

Recently a reader (thank you Michelle!) sent me a wonderful interview with Richard Francis, author of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. Francis does an excellent job of clarifying a complex situation (anyone who has studied the Fruitlands experiment in depth knows what I mean!). It was presented on The Woman’s Hour on BBC, hosted by Jenni Murray.

Richard  Francis Interview

Fruitlands then and now

I thought too that you might enjoy a tour of Fruitlands through the ages. I combined photos from Clara Endicott Sears’ book, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands with photos I took on my last visit there:

Upper photo courtesy of Harriet Lothrop Papers, Minuteman National Park

Front of the house

Foyer

Kitchen

Dining room

Dining room

The study

Alcott’s bedroom

Charles Lane’s bedroom

The heart of the story

And here are pictures of the attic. I think these pictures bring home the human drama of Fruitlands more than anything. When you actually see it, you just want to sit there and ponder what went on in that dark, cramped and cold room:

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A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography

The 1930s was an interesting time in Alcott scholarship. The year 1932 marked the one hundredth year of Louisa’s birth. 1938 not only marked the 50th anniversary of Louisa and Bronson’s death but also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Thus in 1937, two important biographies were released – Odell Shepherd’s Pedlar’s Progress on Bronson Alcott (see previous post) and Katharine Anthony’s Louisa May Alcott.

Reception of the biography

alcotts bedellAnthony’s book was not well received. Although deemed substantive and scholarly by reviewer Frederic L. Carpenter (writing for the New England Quarterly in December of 1938), he roundly criticized her need to psychoanalyze Alcott, calling the results “unfortunate” and “ridiculous.”

martha saxton 190That, however, was 1938. More modern biographies by Martha Saxton in 1977 and Madelon Bedell in 1980 conduct their own psychoanalysis which makes for fascinating and often, uncomfortable, reading. This was true as well with Anthony’s book.

Controversies

And yet, Anthony’s book reads like a novel. It was one of the first adult books I read on Louisa (after Martha Saxton and Madeleine Stern). Knowing so much more now after years of research, Anthony’s take on Louisa affirmed much of what I had suspected and raised new controversies. I will focus on two of those controversies for this post.

A threesome at Fruitlands

Charles-Lane

Charles Lane

The first involves the relationship between Abba, Bronson and Charles Lane. Those of us knowledgeable of Fruitlands are aware of the complexity of the relationship between these three. Madelon Bedell has suggested a possible homosexual relationship between Bronson and Charles Lane. Other biographers think perhaps Lane was attracted to Abba despite the fact that he urged Bronson to be celibate. There is no doubt that Abba had many issues with Lane during the utopian experiment. In noting Charles Lane’s curious return to the Alcott family two years after Fruitlands, Anthony describes the difficulties Louisa experienced from this odd arrangement:

“For Louisa, who wished to see everything through her mother’s eyes, this reinstatement of the dragon was devastating. Her letters and diaries of that summer show how piteously distracted was her state of mind. If her mother, having once demolished the beast, had turned the sword in his body, all would’ve been plain sailing. But she saw now that the relation between the three grown-ups was a more complicated situation than she had any idea of and it gave her the feeling of a nerve-racking dilemma.  She wrestled precociously with her mother’s contradictory character, and the struggle made her sometimes despondent and sometimes reckless. The departure of Mr. Lane brought her providential relief.” (Louisa May Alcott, pg. 54)

Carpenter in his review called this section of the book “unpleasantly ambiguous,” wondering if Anthony was suggesting some kind of secret liaison between Lane and Abba since Bronson left for New York during his stay.

Going after Abba Alcott

abbaFor me, it was the beginning of a quiet vendetta against Abba Alcott by Katharine Anthony. With regards to the family’s need to move to Boston due to financial need, Anthony writes,

“A perverse vision had come to Mrs. Alcott while still in Concord. Both of her older daughters were earning wages. Anna was teaching away from home, and Louisa had begun to teach also, having opened a school in the barn. By a reversal of the usual process between parents and children, the girls set an example for their middle-aged mother. Mrs. Alcott, having steadily refused to see the necessity for working prior to her marriage when the necessity for it had been most apparent, now at once saw it very clearly. Just when her family needed her attention most, she decided to go forth and become a wage earner. Their finances had not become any worse, because Anna and Louisa had begun to bring a little money into the home. But Mrs. Alcott’s heroism drove her just at that point to take her spectacular plunge into a life of wage earning.” (Ibid, pg. 74)

Very different take

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Was Anthony’s criticism of Abba influenced by the time the author lived in? Women’s roles were still pretty much confined to the home in the 1930’s. Despite the fact that Anthony was a professor at Wellesley College along with being an accomplished author and scholar, she appeared to judge Abba by rather conventional standards. I am not aware of any other biographer taking the point of view that Abba did not need to go to work in Boston. Anthony insinuates on the next page that Abba’s efforts were not all that successful, citing no records of the reports she wrote on her work that were said to be excellent (such records now exist at the Houghton Library). She discounts the value of Abba’s intelligence office, writing that “The only domestic service job that Mrs. Alcott secured, as afar as we know, is the one she turned over to her daughter Louisa …” (Ibid, pg. 75)

Valuable analysis

Anthony’s various insights throughout Louisa May Alcott are interesting to say the least and they don’t just apply to Louisa. Anthony provides meaningful sketches of each member of the family (and in my opinion, she is one of the few to give Lizzie her due). Her analysis of Louisa is not oppressive or overbearing such as is the case with Martha Saxton (although I believe Saxton’s book has value) because she does not dwell on the amount of detail that Saxton reveals. The point, however, still gets across.

Health issues

louisa readingMuch has been made of Louisa’s health after her service as a nurse in the Civil War. After surviving both typhoid pneumonia and the mercury poisoning from being dosed with calomel, Alcott suffered from a wide variety of physical disorders including pains in her legs, headaches, digestive disorders, vertigo, the loss of her voice, etc. Historians and medical doctors Bert Hirschhorn and Ian Greaves suggested Lupus, an immune disorder, possibly triggered by the mercury poisoning (see Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)..

Louisa kept careful track in her journals of her health problems and often blamed “nerves” and overwork for her difficulties. Considering the heavy load that she carried in being head of the family and the breadwinner, it is not surprising. In the waning years of her life, she became obsessed with her health as she could find no relief.

Possible cause

Katharine Anthony offers her suggestion for Louisa’s health problems: shell-shock. Citing the Great War and the mental and nervous disorders in the veterans, she surmises that Civil War veterans would have also suffered similar trauma. “It was some form of shock to which Louisa May Alcott succumbed as a hospital nurse in 1862,” she writes (Ibid, pg. 252). Such an injury to the nervous system could afflict the victim for the rest of her life. Anthony also believes Alcott was predisposed to such a condition given her high strung nature.

from alcott.net

Lulu Nieriker, from alcott.net

There is no doubt that Louisa lamented repeatedly in her journal regarding the onslaught of her life and writing (aka, overwork) on her nerves. Between sudden fame for a woman who did not feel worthy, the untimely deaths of John Pratt and May Alcott, the care of May’s daughter and their aging father, and the self-inflicted pressure to continue writing (and earning), it is no wonder Louisa May Alcott had health issues.

Louisa’s last days were painful, difficult and sad as despair overtook her. The final pages of Louisa May Alcott describe those days with a haunting eloquence as Anthony marvels at Alcott’s ability to continue churning out cheerful and meaningful stories for the young even to her dying day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Meet and greet with author Eve LaPlante at Fruitlands

I had the pleasure of having my books signed by author Eve LaPlante at Fruitlands yesterday. The setting was lovely: typically cold for December with light snow falling.

The spirit of Fruitlands

fruitlands

Having just completed a series of books on Fruitlands (which I will be writing about soon), the spirit of the Fruitlanders was palpable to me. I pictured the Alcotts and Charles Lane huddled inside the drafty house and felt the cold, not only of the air, but of the oppressive tension that surely hung in the air. Food was unappetizing, whatever was left of it, and the fire in the fireplace could not throw off enough heat or cheer to help.

Setting the stage

eve laplante reading1The situation was desperate and very soon, a brave mother of four would make a life or death decision that would save her family but put her own future at risk.

Recalling the enormous struggles Abigail Alcott faced at Fruitlands and throughout her married life set the stage for Eve LaPlante’s presentation for her books, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother.

She spoke of the problem of a public woman.

Hunger for knowledge

LaPlante recalled Abigail’s love of learning and the bitterness of being denied the formal education that her brother (and all men) was entitled to. Abigail certainly had the intellect as demonstrated by her successful year of study at a Duxbury boarding school through a certain Miss Allen. Samuel Joseph, older brother and mentor, had arranged it all, empathizing with his younger sister. He continued to provide her with the books he himself had studied.

Passing down gifts and dreams

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Abigail loved to learn and she passed down that love to daughter Louisa who was also gifted intellectually.

LaPlante mentioned Abigail’s desire to use her gifts; she had dreamed of teaching and writing and resisted getting married until she met Bronson. Here was a man, she thought, with whom she could live out those dreams.

In the end, she poured herself into her daughters and helped one to become a world famous author.

Restricted life

LaPlante spoke passionately and eloquently of the cultural norms that severely restricted Abigail, frustrated Louisa and caused great distress for Bronson. They were all square pegs who did not wish to fit into round holes.

Basic rights for women

Abigail was an early supporter of women’s suffrage and she passed this down to Louisa. It was a risky stance to take – even Samuel Joseph’s wife Lucretia did not support it despite the fact that her husband advocated for it!

LaPlante used a scene in Concord in 1875 to illustrate one particularly odious norm of women not appearing in public, based upon a literal interpretation of a passage of scripture from St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12, New International Version ©1984)

ulysses s grantPresident Ulysses S. Grant visited Concord for the centenary of the start of the American Revolution and Abigail and Louisa were there to hear him speak. Louisa recalled men scoffing at them for appearing in public and wrote that she was “ashamed of Concord that day.”

She would soon live out her mother’s dream of women voting by being the first to vote in Concord for a local election.

Book signings

After LaPlante’ s presentation a lively discussion ensued with the audience, mostly centering on her marriage to Bronson. With the Fruitlands farmhouse off in the distance as seen through the windows of the Wayside presentation room, this seemed like an appropriate conclusion to the presentation.

LaPlante signed several books after her presentation and graciously went back up the steep hill to the museum shop to sign more.

I very much enjoyed talking with her and having my two questions addressed: the dichotomy of Abba’s relationship with Bronson (idolizing and encouraging her husband in his utopian schemes while at the same time expressing great frustration and anger at his unwillingness to take on paying work), and how Samuel Joseph, also a reformer and activist, balanced family life with his activism.

Of course I had my two books signed:

eve laplante autographs

Here’s my review of Marmee & Louisa.

Check out LaPlante’s website to see if she will be doing a book signing in your area.

Click to Tweet & ShareMeet and greet with author Eve LaPlante at Fruitlands http://wp.me/p125Rp-1kD

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For Moms and their ‘Little Women’

In honor of Mother’s Day, I am delighted to present this guest post by Barbara Solomon Josselsohn reprinted with permission from NYMetroParents.

A two-day trip to Concord, Massachusetts and the home of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, is a great way to commemorate Mother’s Day—or any other time set aside just for the girls. Explore this weekend getaway and experience unforgettable memories, Little Women style.

To me, Louisa May Alcott is the quintessential feminist, a working woman who earned enough from writing to pay the bills, support her impractical father, and have a bit left over to vacation in Europe, where she reportedly enjoyed the company of a dashing younger man. To my teenage daughter, she’s an exquisite role model, a talented writer compelled to give life to the scores of beguiling characters dancing around in her head.

So when the opportunity arose for Rachel, then 15, and me to steal away for a weekend last summer, we could think of no better place than Concord, home to our favorite storyteller.

We left Westchester on Saturday morning, and after stopping for lunch on the way, arrived in Concord in the early afternoon. A long, shady road led us directly to Orchard House, home to the Alcotts between 1858 and 1877 and the place where 36-year-old Louisa would write her classic novel, Little Women. The structure of the house is unchanged since the mid-19th century and the majority of furnishings once belonged to the family, so the feeling of authenticity is palpable. As we learned from our guide, the Alcotts were a tight-knit, accomplished group: Dad was a visionary, Mom was a social-justice advocate, oldest daughter Anna (Meg in Little Women) was an actress, and youngest daughter May (Amy) was an acclaimed artist whose paintings adorn the house. (A fourth sister, Elizabeth, died young, as did her namesake in the book, Beth.)

Of course, the best part was exploring Louisa’s bedroom and examining the half-moon shaped desk, nestled against a wall and between two windows, which her father built for her and where she would write her masterpiece. We learned lots of charming personal nuggets, such as the fact that Louisa had what she called a “mood pillow”—a small bolster that she’d position in one way or another to let her family know her temperament at any given moment. My daughter loved this idea so much that she bought a replica in the gift shop, to inform us of her changing moods.

Our guide said not to miss the historic and nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the Alcotts are buried. So after a quick stop in the center of Concord for iced tea and muffins, we were on the road again.

Within Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, we found “Author’s Ridge,” a rocky, shaded hill that serves as the final resting place for the entire Alcott clan as well as the great American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathanial Hawthorne. It was here that we thought about the Alcott family’s later life, which was not entirely happy. Specifically, Louisa’s sister Anna was widowed as a young mother, and her sister May died soon after giving birth to a daughter. (Louisa would go on to raise the little girl as her own.) Louisa, who never married, suffered from chronic health problems, and died at age 56. It’s nice to think that she is buried close to her parents and surrounded by her sisters, the core of her life and the inspiration for so much of her creative output.

We stayed in Boston that night, thinking that we could use a little action after so much quiet and contemplation, and we chose a hotel right on the harbor and steps away from Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Taking full advantage of this location, we had a tasty seafood dinner alfresco and then strolled the area, enjoying the street performers, shops, and summer breeze coming off the water.

The next morning we headed to the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard (45 minutes from Boston) to explore one of the lesser-known chapters in Louisa’s life. It seems that her father, like his friends Emerson and Thoreau, was a member of the Transcendentalist movement, which held that connecting with nature was the key to spiritual enlightenment. Partnering with like-minded philosophers, Alcott moved his family to a farmhouse, now the Fruitlands Museum, when Louisa was 10, in an effort to withdraw from society and live only on what they could grow. The problem was, the group knew nothing about farming, and Alcott’s retreat lasted a mere seven months.

Though Alcott left Fruitlands disillusioned and disappointed, his effort was not a total failure, as it inspired Louisa years later to write Transcendental Wild Oats, a deliciously funny, largely autobiographical account of her family’s ill-fated experience.

Today, Fruitlands is home to the restored farmhouse and museum, as well as to Fruitlands Café, a magnificent open-air eatery. Its canopied patio sits atop an enormous hill with a spectacular view of the Noasha Valley, and the altitude creates a lovely breeze even on the warmest summer day. Rachel and I enjoyed a lunch of fresh salads and homemade ice cream for dessert. More important, we had the chance to savor a relaxed, uninterrupted mother-daughter conversation—something we don’t get to do often enough, thanks to the rush of everyday life.

After lunch we stopped at the gift shop and spent way too much on a stack of Louisa’s lesser-known books—yes, they’d be cheaper on Amazon.com, but it felt more special to buy them here. Then it was back to Boston. We dropped in on the New England Aquarium for a quick visit because it was so close to our hotel, and then enjoyed the warm late-afternoon sun on a bench near the harbor, sipping iced Starbucks drinks and picking out which books we each wanted to read first.

We left Boston early Monday morning, and were soon back to our everyday routines. My only regret about the weekend is that it went by so fast—and I truly hope we’ll do it all again one day soon.

An Alcott Adventure: Mark these important places on your itinerary:

Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a freelance writer based in Scarsdale, NY  and the mother of three children. You can read her blog, Just Another Working Writer

Book Review: “Becoming Little Women”

An experiment in a utopian community that only lasted seven months should have easily been forgotten in history, even if it included historically important people. Yet the fascination with Fruitlands continues as evidenced by Richard Francis’ book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia which came out this year. There is no doubt that Fruitlands was a cathartic experience for young Louisa May Alcott.

Fruitlands for children

Considering the extraordinarily complex and bizarre nature of the thinking behind Fruitlands, I was quite surprised to find a children’s book written about that very subject. Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins is an engaging fictional account based on the writings of Alcott family members.

The essence of Fruitlands

Atkins presented the philosophy behind Fruitlands in a concise and simple manner that children could understand (and adults could benefit from). Founded by Transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Englishmen Charles Lane, Fruitlands was meant to help those living in the community to achieve divine perfection through simple living and high-minded thinking. The diet and methods of farming were devised to avoid any action that would support the slavery of humans, and of animals. The community was to live as one family where the children would have many “fathers” and “mothers”; the bonds of human love and family were discouraged in favor of the “consociate” family, meant to achieve a higher, divine form of love.

Becoming Little Women opens with the Alcotts and Lanes moving from Concord to the Fruitlands farm in Harvard during a dreary rain storm. It is a fitting beginning for an experiment not only doomed to failure, but also perpetrating one of the most traumatic crises to strike the Alcott family.

Louisa at 10

Atkins paints a picture of a ten year-old Louisa, full of life, vigor, imagination and stamina. She sits in an apple tree spinning stories and poems while eating apples. She races through woods and fields with her sisters and William, the son of Charles Lane. She dreams up and performs dramatic plays with her sister Anna as a way of releasing the tension of the experience of Fruitlands which was growing darker by the day. Atkins shows a conflicted Louisa, struggling with her temper and tongue, trying to force the square of a vigorous temperament to fit into the circle of her father’s concept of serenity and perfection.

Tragic character portrayal

Becoming Little Women‘s study of characters truly propelled the story. I appreciated her portrayal of the tragic William, abandoned by his mother to be raised by the remote, grim and self-absorbed Charles Lane. There is little written about this young boy so Atkins takes literary freedom to infuse life into him. The result is a believable and sad portrait of a child whose father has little or no regard for him, and who eventually abandons him to a Shaker community for a time. William fades into history and we never know what became of him, but Atkins makes you feel for him and wonder if he ever knew happiness or love. Louisa, in typical big-heartedness, embraced and befriended him, offering him the sisterly affection he had never known.

Anna as a flesh-and-blood young girl

Atkins also fleshed out Louisa’s older sister Anna. Often portrayed in real life as saintly and the mirror image of her father, Atkins digs into Louisa’s portrayal of her as Meg in Little Women, rounding her out as sometimes vain, envious of others, and competitive with Louisa for the approval of her parents. Anna emerges as a believable girl of twelve with a vibrancy often missing from other accounts.

Marmee’s trial

Abba Alcott or “Marmee” is painted as the endless workhorse, carrying the true burden of Fruitlands while the men wiled away endless hours in high-minded talk. Many accounts of Fruitlands paint Abba as the reason why the experiment failed because of her fierce devotion to her immediate family. Atkins paints a realistic portrait of Abba, heroic in her efforts, yet stressed,  bitter and often desperate as she tried to reach Bronson and bring him back down to earth to face reality. Women being so restricted in their actions as they were in this era, Abba is shown constantly pushing the edge of the envelope to save her family, even considering separating from her husband to save her children.

Grown-up issues for children

I felt vested in these people as they struggled through this experiment in utopian living. Fruitlands was more like Purgatory than Eden, and through these vibrant characters, I felt their joys and conflicts, tensions and traumas.

Atkins deals with the very grown-up issues of family conflict that can lead to separation, the struggle to live up to parental expectations, and the consequences of living with people who have little regard for the needs of others. Most of what happened in the story felt authentic and age appropriate although there was one event which felt a bit too “current” and too adult for a children’s novel.

Learning from children’s books

I enjoy reading children’s novels because of their ease of reading (the big type helps too!) and I often learn a great deal from them. It was, after all, a children’s novel that introduced me to my passion for Louisa in the first place (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard). 🙂

Therefore I highly recommend Jeannine Atkin’s Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands as an enjoyable read and a way to feel the experience of Fruitlands and mid 19th century living.

In my next post, I will share an interview with Jeannine, finding out more about how she fleshed out these characters and came to write a children’s book about a difficult subject.


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Setting the stage for a major disappointment

Louisa knew she was about to inflict a major blow on her fans. Countless girls had implored and demanded that Jo and Laurie be married, but the stubborn author refused to give in. She never wanted Jo to marry in the first place but figured she’d create a “funny match for her” instead (see my post on “Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?“). I went along for the ride and felt pretty good about Professor Bhaer as her impending spouse, and felt he was a good match for her.

So it caught me by surprise as I read chapter 35, Heartache, and found myself weeping as Laurie desperately declared his love for Jo since I knew it would lead to nowhere happy nor good. I didn’t realize how vested I was in the character of Laurie and his love of Jo. Although I still feel Professor Bhaer is the best match for her, I couldn’t help but think that Jo worked a little too hard to push him away as if she had to convince herself that loving him in that way wasn’t right for her.

This is the one place in Little Women where the logic of the story fails. In the author’s real life, there were many good reasons why she feared marriage and fiercely remained a spinster. Louisa had witnessed her mother’s suffering over the years being married to her immensely impractical and self-absorbed father (and no, I don’t hate Bronson Alcott, he had many stellar qualities along with as many fatal flaws). She nursed feelings of betrayal when her father nearly abandoned her mother and family after the Fruitlands debacle. This was after the family suffered incredible poverty, nearly starving and freezing to death because her father and other members of the community wouldn’t or couldn’t do the labor required to make Fruitlands work. Louisa suffered real trauma as a result of Fruitlands, and that was only one of many incidents that shaped her view of marriage. To Louisa, marriage was slavery – the end of her independence, which meant more to her than love.

She infuses this aversion of marriage into Jo but without the experiences of life that shaped that aversion. Jo, for all intents and purposes, grew up in a very happy home where the marriage of her mother and father was sound and good. There’s no reason offered for Jo’s aversion to marriage except that she was “odd” – a rebellious, passionate and fiercely independent girl. There’s no premise for the thought that marriage to Laurie (or any man) would entail loss of freedom. For example, I always found her reaction to Meg’s engagement and marriage as unnatural.  At one point she even wished she could “marry” Meg to keep her in the family! Quite a strong, and odd, reaction in my view.

So it’s no wonder that her contemporary readers cried “foul” at the pairing of Jo and Professor Bhaer even though Louisa laid out a good case for it in chapters 33 and 34. But the logic of her lawyer-like argument could not blunt the blow. After all, everyone loved Laurie. He also seemed perfect for Jo – dear trusted friend, handsome, charming, intelligent and good, yet high spirited like her. It was the dearest wish to see the two of them married and living happily ever after.

I guess through my tears I was crying “foul” too, despite myself. But I must admit, it makes the story a lot more compelling in the long run.

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


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