Work: Staring madness in the face

The Yellow Wallpaper by Kaitaro

A ticking time bomb lay inside of Louisa May Alcott and she knew it.

It went off with her father, her Uncle Junius, and eventually, herself.

Her journals alluded to it.

Her creativity was fueled
by it.

And chapter 5 of Work: A Story of Experience gives us a detailed look inside.


Having left the employ of the Saltonstalls as governess, Christie is offered a position as companion to an invalid woman. Observing the opulence of the home, Christie exclaims, “What a happy family the Carrols must be!”

Beauty masks the ugly secret within.

Sadness …

As Mrs. Carrol introduces Christie to her ward (daughter Helen), Christie suspects that a deep sadness lies beneath the stately exterior of Mrs. Carrol. Upon meeting Helen she finds a young woman in despair. Christie’s heart goes out to Helen and they become close. As Christie reads to her, sings to her and listens to her confidences, Helen appears to be improving.

… Madness

Eventually it becomes clear that Helen is depressed to the point of suicide. And the ugly secret? The family has a history of insanity.

Death spiral

Helen reviles her mother for marrying her father even though she knew the insanity he carried in his genes would be passed down. Helen herself, deeply in love and engaged to be married, is forced to break her engagement once she discovers the truth. The loss of her true love breaks her spirit.

Spiraling downward into despair, Helen eventually takes her own life.

Close to home

Alcott biographers have noted the episodes of madness in the family.

Bronson’s episodes

John Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts speaks of Bronson’s mysticism which teetered back and forth between sanity and madness. The breakdown he experienced after the collapse of his cherished Fruitlands nearly killed him. Recovery was slow and in Boston, Bronson suffered a relapse. During this episode, he endured hallucinations which he documented with feverish fury (pg. 225 ebook, Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson).

Bronson’s younger brother

Bronson’s younger brother Junius, also a mystic, suffered similar episodes. At the age of thirty-two, he suddenly committed suicide by matter-of-factly walking into machinery at his factory (pg. 238, Ibid).

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

Louisa’s moods

Louisa’s roller coaster mood swings are well documented. She could fall into furious, exuberant vortexes where she would crank out an enormous amount of writing. And then she would sink into despair.

She lamented her violent temper, so poignantly illustrated in chapter 8 of Little Women, “Jo Meets Apollyon” (see previous post)

She also considered suicide but thought it cowardly:

“My fit of despair was soon over, for it seemed so cowardly to run away before the battle was over I couldn’t do it. So I said firmly, ‘There is work for me, and I’ll have it,’ and went home resolved to take Fake by the throat and shake a living out of her.”(pg. 169 ebook Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen).

Chapter 7 of Work, “Through the Mist,” details Christie’s attempt at suicide – this will be covered in the next post.

The stigma of mental illness

There were two things that intrigued me about “Companion:” how mental illness was regarded in Louisa’s day, and the case Louisa built to justify Helen’s suicide.

It’s no surprise that mental illness was to be kept secret as it was a source of shame. Such a tremendous stigma was attached to it that families carrying the genes were discouraged from marrying as demonstrated with the Carrols.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Shopot

Hidden away

How many times have we read about women locked away in attic rooms while they work through their madness? Who can forget Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre or the woman depicted by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper?” Helen had experienced similar treatment, hidden away from the world which she recounts to Christie:

“She [Christie’s mother] hides the truth; she hides me, and lets the world believe I am dying of consumption; not a word about insanity,  … This is why I was not sent away, but for a year was shut up in that room yonder where the door is always locked.”

Each to his own

Helen displays the family trait through her morose spirit. Her two brothers, also aware of their fate, deal with it in different ways: Augustine as a priest through penance and prayer, and Harry through constant, empty recreation. A younger sister, Bella, had not yet been told.

Close to home

A raw authenticity marks Louisa’s description of Helen’s despair as she shares the family secret with Christie. Gazing at the picture of her lover on the wall, Christie and the reader can keenly feel Helen’s pain.

The storm brews

Just when it seemed Christie’s presence was helping, Bella returns home for the Christmas holidays. Helen discovers that her beautiful younger sister has a lover and “a terrible unrest grew upon her [Helen], bringing sleepless nights again, moody days, and all the old afflictions with redoubled force.”

Shocking outcome

Suddenly Helen grows calm as Christmas approaches. She adorns herself in a pretty dress and celebrates with family around the tree.

And then, after finally agreeing to see her mother at bedtime, Helen quietly slices her throat with a knife. She dies in her mother’s arms.

Building the case

Suicide (often closely connected with insanity) carried a stigma of its own. In religious circles it was considered a fast track to Hell (the Catholic Church identified it as a mortal sin back in the fourth century thanks to the arguments of Saint Augustine). In the middle ages, suicide victims were further victimized by the public with bodies hung or dragged through the streets.

Justifying suicide

While the view on suicide softened somewhat in the nineteenth century, it still was much frowned upon. Yet Louisa, using a lawyer-like logic through the heart-wrenching testimony from Helen, seems to justify suicide:

” ‘You [Christie] have done much for me, and God will bless you for it, but you cannot keep me sane. Death is the only cure for a mad Carrol, and I’m so young, so strong, it will be long in coming unless I hurry it.’

She clenched her hands, set her teeth, and looked about her as if ready for any desperate act that should set her free from the dark and dreadful future that lay before her.”

Scholars analyzing the worthwhile social implications of Work for women don’t often mention what is to me, pretty controversial.

Close association

Could it be that the close relationship between insanity and suicide justified the act? Did the victim suffer in the afterlife as well?

“Companion” was a revealing look at the anguish suffered by a family with a history of mental illness. As the Alcott family shared this history, perhaps it is safe to assume we readers are privy to a similar anguish, suffered by the author.

Perhaps this is one reason why Louisa never married?

John Matteson, when asked a question at the Orchard House Summer Conversation series this past July about why Louisa never married remarked that he thought it crossed Louisa’s mind that she should not marry lest she pass down the genes.

While there is no concrete proof that this was a consideration, certainly it was a powerful concern as demonstrated in Chapter 5 of Work. Yet Anna and May both married, so who knows?

In the next post, I will discuss Chapter 7, “In the Mist” where Christie considers suicide.

Are we reading again the thoughts of the author as she considered it?

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Polly finds the palace not so beautiful after all

In chapter 3 of An Old-Fashioned Girl, it’s obvious that the newness of living the privileged city life has grown old for Polly:

Polly soon found that she was in a new world, a world where the manners and customs were so different from the simple ways at home, that she felt like a stranger in a strange land, and often wished that she had not come. In the first place, she had nothing to do but lounge and gossip, read novels, parade the streets, and dress; and before a week was gone, she was as heartily sick of all this, as a healthy person would be who attempted to live on confectionery.

Even Fanny’s little sister, 6 year-old Maud, was caught up in this life:

But Miss Maud was much absorbed in her own affairs, for she belonged to a “set” also; and these mites of five and six had their “musicals,” their parties, receptions, and promenades, as well as their elders; and, the chief idea of their little lives seemed to be to ape the fashionable follies they should have been too innocent to understand. Maud had her tiny card-case, and paid calls, “like mamma and Fan”; her box of dainty gloves, her jewel-drawer, her crimping-pins, as fine and fanciful a wardrobe as a Paris doll, and a French maid to dress her. Polly could n’t get on with her at first, for Maud did n’t seem like a child, and often corrected Polly in her conversation and manners, though little mademoiselle’s own were anything but perfect.


It certainly sounded like an empty and shallow life, not unlike what I read in Little Women in the chapter, “Vanity Fair.”  Meg was very drawn in by all the finery but soon came to her senses thanks to Laurie. Polly was also attracted to the wealth and fine clothes, but definitely not to the lifestyle.

Why would girls live like that?

I found myself wondering how anyone could live this way and obviously author Louisa May Alcott thought a lot about it too. It’s a stinging indictment of how women could prove to be their own worst enemies. Perhaps it was because there were so few meaningful opportunities for women in Louisa’s day but to surrender to a “confectionery” life (love that analogy) seemed akin to intellectual and emotional death. My impression is that although Susan B. Anthony and her cohorts had a hard time with men trying to convince them of the need of rights for women, they had a much harder time with their own!

Polly runs outside to escape

In an effort to fight against this “confectionery” lifestyle, Polly slipped out when she could to take a run (Louisa, by the way, loved to take runs as a way of working off her excess energy). On one occasion she found herself at a hill where other children were sliding in the snow. She joined in the fun and found that Fanny’s “horrid” brother Tom was there as well so they joined forces for a wonderful day of fun. I admired Polly’s nerve (as did Tom) to fight convention but unfortunately, she gave in when she faced the disapproval of Fanny and her mother. She caved in, vowing not to go out sledding again (heaven forbid a young lady should engage in such a physical activity in public, and with a boy!). Tom, who had been warming up to Polly, promptly dismissed her. Poor Polly!

Can one be a rebel alone?

It reminded me of the one time I took a public stand against being forced to do something with the girls when I wanted to do what the boys were doing instead. In 6th grade, the girls were assigned to read Jane Eyre while the boys were to read Treasure Island. I protested, asking why I had to read Jane Eyre just because I was a girl. I was then allowed to join the boys in reading Treasure Island. However, it’s hard to be a rebel alone – I felt so uncomfortable with the boys that I caved in and joined the girls to read Jane Eyre. The book didn’t really do anything for me at the time. 🙂

Giving into temptation – will the formula wear thin?

Back to Polly who then goes down that “dark path” of caving in to pressure to buy something expensive and fashionable for herself (bronze boots) rather than use the money as it was originally intended (to buy gifts for her family). Here’s where An Old-Fashioned Girl begins to feel like Little Women, falling into the familiar pattern of teaching a moral lesson as was done so many times in Little Women. This, of course, was Louisa’s trademark, and was something readers either loved or found fault with. I personally find it comforting though I wonder if I will find the formula wanting as I continue reading.

Polly is an easy character to like and I find the study of privileged girls interesting. I look forward to the continual building of Polly’s relationship with Tom – that is obviously leading somewhere. 🙂