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

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

Demanding little sister

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

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 (Unpublished letter by Anna Alcott to Bronson Alcott September 10, 1857)

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

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

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

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

from the Fruitlands display, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, MA

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

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

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

Expressing herself through fiction

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

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

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

‘I told you, it’s a story.’

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

‘I’ll make it up to you.’ (pg. 140)

Big sister, baby sister

Concord Sketches from AbeBooks.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

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

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

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

both books for LMA blog widget

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Louisa’s first letter in honor of her baby sister – original handwritten letter from the Houghton Library

I visited the Houghton Library in mid July and was greeted with the most wonderful surprise: Houghton is now granting permission to post the actual handwritten letters from the Alcott family!

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to share these letters with you! I have photographed probably over a hundred pages of letters (mostly of other family members; I plan on going through Louisa’s at a later date).

It seems most appropriate to begin by posting (possibly) Louisa’s very first letter, along with Anna and Lizzie, in honor of the birth of their new baby sister Abbie May. Here is the letter: Continue reading

Recent discovery of Thoreau’s notes sheds light on tragic drowning of Margaret Fuller

The Houghton Library at Harvard University has acquired the complete set of notes made by Henry David Thoreau as he visited the site of Margaret Fuller’s drowning along with her husband and little son aboard the steamship Elizabeth.

thoreau-fuller

Here is a teaser from the article, published in the Harvard Gazette:

A recent Houghton Library acquisition is shedding new light on the tragic drowning of Margaret Fuller and on what Henry David Thoreau found as he investigated the death on behalf of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Here’s Thoreau, he is being sent by Emerson, also a very important figure to our collections, to investigate the death of Margaret Fuller. And the Fuller papers are here,” said Leslie Morris (photo 2), the curator of modern books and manuscripts, who helped acquire the manuscript. “It really plays to three of our major figures here at the library. It brings them together … and it’s something that’s been completely unknown to scholarship.”

Here is the transcription of Thoreau’s notes.

 louisa may alcott for widget00 cover smallAre 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 book, River of Grace!

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

Lizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral

abbaIn my continuing research on Elizabeth Alcott, I find that letters by her mother offer the most poignant moments. I am already obsessed with Lizzie and Abba’s comments act as gasoline on an already roaring fire. I’m told that obsession with a character will produce a good story; I sure hope so!

I believe in using primary sources and since the Alcott family papers are so voluminous, it will be a long time (perhaps years) before I get through everything I want to read. I made the mistake (!) of venturing into the handwritten pages of Bronson Alcott’s journals only to find many more references to Elizabeth than I had thought existed. And we know what a prolific journal writer Bronson was!

I have amassed already a large photographic collection of letters and journal entries which I am slowly going through and transcribing (as the handwriting will allow – some of it is pretty hard to read). I came across this letter from Abba to her brother Samuel Joseph May which brought tears to my eyes:

invalid… Dr. Geist pronounces Lizzy’s care hopeless – “atrophy consumption of the nerves – with wasting of the flesh.” She has failed rapidly lately – sees that dissolution is near – is calmly quiet cheerful waits the great change which shall relieve her misery – I can lay no … of finery on the altar of the Lord than this gentle spirit – I have struggled to save her for the past year; but sometimes before our greatest peace, comes out of hardest strife – and I now feel that my darling will be in safer hands than her mother’s – she wrote in my journal that beautiful hymn of aspiration by Mrs. Flower –

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee
E’en though it be the Cross that raiseth me,
Yet nearer to thee
Nearer to thee

She writes notes to Mary Sewall, Cousin Louisa and persons who are attentive to her – and everybody has been very kind – Mr. Emerson’s carriage and Mrs. Wheeler always at her service. The weather is very fine and exercise has been very important to her but she fails so perceptibly that we try nothing now but comforts – bed and chair, couch, raw beef, milk toast, cocoa, a wood fire day and night, and … looks to greet her beautiful expectant eyes …

Source: Abba to Sam, January 21, 1858; the letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

The idea of Lizzie in her weakened state writing those lyrics in her mother’s journal touched me deeply. I am hopeful the actual page of that journal exists – another treasure to look for at the Houghton Library.

I had read several accounts of Lizzie’s funeral and the singing of her “favorite hymn” and always wondered what it was. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” could possibly be the one (it’s also the hymn played by the band on the sinking Titanic). There’s nothing like music to make a connection.

Here’s a rendition by the Morman Tabernacle Choir.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Text: Sarah Flower Adams, 1805-1848
Music: Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

1.    Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

2.    Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I’d be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

3.    There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

4.    Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

5.    Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Addendum, August 18, 2015: Beth’s favorite hymn as revealed in Little Women:

Recently I learned that Beth March’s favorite hymn was “Come Ye Disconsolate;” this in fact could have been Lizzie’s favorite hymn and the one played at her funeral. There is one line revealed in Little Women: “Earth hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.” (my thanks to Elizabeth Hilprecht for identifying the hymn).

Here is the hymn on Youtube:

And here are the lyrics:

Come Ye Disconsolate

By Thomas Moore

  1. Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
    Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
    Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
    Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.
  2. Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
    Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
    Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
    “Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.”
  3. Here see the bread of life, see waters flowing
    Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
    Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
    Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.

 

Click to Tweet & ShareLizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral http://wp.me/p125Rp-1CM

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
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!

Yentl dared to dream and now, so do I

For the first time in my life, I have to courage to dream and dream big. My passion for Louisa May Alcott fuels it. And it’s led me on a thrill ride adventure that gets better every day.

Be as One

Note: This is a post I wrote nearly a year ago, right after I started this blog. It talks about dreams, and I am happy to report that some of them are already coming true. It is especially sweet for me to read this and know I have been moving forward, confident of what I feel called to do. It took me over fifty years to become confident enough to take a chance and dream, and then work to make the dream come true.

I hope this post inspires you to chase after your dreams too.

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

barbra streisand a happening in central parkRecently I rediscovered early Barbra Streisand and her classic live album, “A Happening in Central Park.” As when I was a child, this performance…

View original post 810 more words

Letter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore

lizzie alcott2Work is progressing, albeit slowly, on my book project. I am enjoying all aspects of the process from the thinking and planning while I drive (I’m one of those crazies that talks to myself all the time), to the research, to the paragraphs percolating in my head, to the final writing. I’m falling more in love with my characters if that is possible. I enjoy their company and their voices inside my head.

Sources in the writer’s own hand

Primary sources are vital to historical research; I was taught this by my seventh grade social studies teacher. I remember feeling excited when she explained that our textbooks would include original writings from those who formed and shaped our country. I’ve never lost that thrill of reading something written long ago, especially when you can read the person’s own handwriting.

Worth the effort

Lately I’ve been immersed in letters written by Abba to Bronson, her brother Samuel Joseph, and her daughters Louisa and Anna. I had requested and received PDF scans of several letters from the helpful librarians at Houghton Library and felt like I had won the lottery! The beauty of PDF files is that they can be easily enlarged, a necessity since Abba’s handwriting is so difficult to read. My respect for the tenacity of Eve LaPlante went up tenfold as I struggled over each word. Her compilation, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother is truly the product of blood, sweat and tears, making it all the more valuable.

north shore swampscott MAFrom sister to brother

One such letter, addressed to “My dear Brother” is dated August 25, 1857, written from Lynn, Massachusetts.  Abba had taken Elizabeth to an area known as the North Shore so that her daughter could experience the supposed healing effects of the ocean. My mother was born in Lynn; her family (the Breeds) was established in the seacoast city in the 1630s. She grew up in Lynn and neighboring Swampscott, another town where Abba and Elizabeth stayed during their sojourn. This is of personal importance because Abba cites a Dr. Newhall from Lynn as treating Lizzie during their stay. Because there were many marriages between Breeds and Newhalls over the years, I have a strong suspicion that I may be related to Dr. Newhall. I am currently researching that possibility and will report back if I find that we are kissin’ cousins. 🙂

Looking for answers

Abba wrote the following to Samuel Joseph regarding Lizzie’s condition (note that I couldn’t make out all the words and therefore left some out. I have corrected some small punctuation errors):

littlewomen00alcoiala_0421We have been in Lynn now about three weeks – Lizzy’s vacillating condition has left me from day to day in doubt what to write about … The first week was warm and pleasant and the change was grateful to her – she eat [ate], slept and lived more naturally than I have known her to do for 6 months – but the last two weeks have been cold, rainy, dispiriting me and her – and most unfavorable for her. Dr. Newhall (Charles’ Dr.) thought it best to remove her immediately back – thinks her lungs are slightly diseased and that the comforts of house and the society of her family are now all important … Aunty Bond sent Dr. Charles [Windship] down – he gives a different opinion … that Lizzy is in every way failed – but that she has no not even incipient disease of the lungs – her nervous weakness operates on the brain and lungs … pathetically – that another week of fine weather may produce a most salient effect – for I remain till next Mon. This will prove the experiment a gain or a failure – it will end (?) my faith in human science and my pocket of human dreams. I work on as hopefully as I can … such a scientific must – it seems to me the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess. (AMA to SMJ 25 August 1857 fro MS Am 1130.9 (25), Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Inspired by her surroundings

After writing such a distressing account, she waxes philosophical as she contemplates the scenery:

ocean wavesThe change of scene has been very beneficial to me. I had become morbidly apprehensive … in judgment and action. The very sight of the ocean has restored me to a sense of marginal (?)  power. From our … irritations, our faithless anxiety bubbles (?) before the immensity of ocean, the grandeur of rocks (?), … the feel that order, and Beauty, love and power around, that it is the order of Supreme law – the beauty of sublime art – the love of uniform (?) good will – the Power of eternal Night. Our own dependence it is so apparent – our helplessness so unmistakable we exclaim … from pure instinct truly a Lord liveth – and loveth! (Ibid)

Reading that made me think of how often she and Bronson, especially in the early days, must have sat together, sharing similar thoughts.

From iconic Marmee to real mother

Reading Abba’s letters in her own hand transforms her from the literary icon of Marmee to a flesh and blood person. Often I feel like I am reading letters written by my own mother or grandmother when I read hers. I recall from Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother that LaPlante described the poor condition of Abba’s eyesight so I can understand why her handwriting might be difficult to read. It’s amazing she could write letters at all considering the condition of her eyes!

That helpful Houghton librarian sent me a final tantalizing tease in her email, to quote: “there are a lot of other letters that deal with Lizzie’s collapse and the sojourn to the North Shore.”

Meat for the starving dog. Stay tuned …

Click to Tweet & ShareLetter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore http://wp.me/s125Rp-5637

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
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!

The vacation of my dreams: 3 days with Louisa May Alcott

What’s your dream for the ultimate summer vacation?

Is it a trip to a new and/or exotic place?

Is it time all to yourself to do whatever you wish?

How about both?

That’s been my dream for many summers and this year, it came true.

New and exotic places

Back in June, our whole family (including two twenty-something children) traveled to Los Angeles to visit with my brother-in-law and his wife. He directs for The Simpsons and has been with the show approximately fifteen years. We did Disneyland, the whole Hollywood thing, and caught up and reconnected with each other. It was wonderful and I still miss them both very much.

Then there was this week.

Doing whatever I wished

I had four days off all to myself as my husband’s vacation time was used up. I indulged in my passion and spent a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation.

It far exceeded all my expectations and stoked the fire of my passion all the more.

How does one spend a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation? If you live near Concord and Cambridge, that’s easy!

Summer Conversation Series

I spent the first two days at Orchard House for their annual Summer Conversation Series. Speakers included Eve LaPlante, (whose new book, Marmee and Louisa The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother will be a blockbuster) and John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.

I will offer individual posts for these two speakers. Their presentations just blew me away!

Becoming part of the family

I got to reconnect with my dear friend Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters and made many new friends.

The best part was being able to spend two days with people as passionate about Louisa as I am. I felt like I was at home.

The picture features, L to R, front: Sylvia Willis and Gabrielle Donnelly; back: Lis Adams, director of Education at Orchard House, and Jan Turnquist, Executive Director.

Affirmation

Feeling incredibly empowered and affirmed in my writing with regards to this blog and the book project I’ve undertaken, I felt like God was shouting at me, “Yes, yes, you can do this, I want you to do this!”

The Summer Conversation Series far exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to share with you highlights from LaPlante’s and Matteson’s presentations.

Detour to Walden

Having taken my kayak, the Sylvia Yule with  me for the trip, I stopped at Walden Pond to observe the place where Henry David Thoreau made his mark.

The pond is small and the water pristine. I saw the cove where Thoreau had built his little house and marveled at the beauty.

The day was incredibly hot and every nook and cranny of the pond was filled with swimmers. Several people were swimming across the pond.

I too did my share of swimming,  never wanting to leave the warm and clear water.

I will have to come back and walk the trail and see the pile of stones where  Thoreau’s house once stood.

The Holy Grail – Houghton Library

Next it was the long-awaited trip to Houghton Library at Harvard University. I have longed to go there ever since I visited the Special Collections room at the Concord Library (see previous posts, part one and part two).

Shaky knees!

I was excited and scared all at once. Harvard is the home to some of the greatest scholars in the world. Who was I to go visit their library? I was surprised when I got to the train station and found my knees literally shaking! (It didn’t help that station had a huge, long, drop to the bottom where the subway was and the escalator was excruciatingly slow! I felt like I did sitting in a seat in the back row of an old theatre, where you feel pitched forward, really to fall into the audience. It was terrifying!)

The grounds where giants walked

Arriving at Harvard, I felt a surge wash over me as I thought of all the great minds that had walked the campus, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. The courtyard was crowded with students and visitors from all over the world.

They are now my family

Little Women illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Upon arriving at the library, I sat down in the reading room and ordered the first batch of papers that I wanted to read.

The first time I read papers handwritten by Louisa (back at the Concord Library), it felt mystical, spiritual. This time as I read diaries by Anna and Lizzie, it felt like I was reading the words of family members.

And I knew The Alcott family was now an integral part of my family.

Details coming …

In the next post, I’ll share details of Eve LaPlante’s reading of her new book. Mark November 6 on your calendar (and not just because it’s Election Day!) – her book will be available then.

Click to Tweet & Share: Would this be the vacation of your dreams: 3 days with Louisa May Alcott  http://wp.me/p125Rp-15i

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
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!