What would you like to know about the woman behind Beth March?

I need your help.

I am writing my book proposal for the biography on Elizabeth Alcott and I need more input from you as a fan of Little Women. Here are a few short questions — if you could comment below with your answers, that would really help. And thank you!

  1. What would you most like to know about Elizabeth and why?
  2. What do you know already about her?
  3. Who is your favorite March sister is and why? If Beth is not your favorite, why?
  4. Do you think Beth is a relevant character for modern readers and why or why not? What would make her more “real” to you?

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Summer Reading Recommendation: The Courtship of Jo March

Trix Wilkins of the Much Ado about Little Women blog (an excellent blog, by the way, all about Little Women) has written a most intriguing re-imagining of Little Women with different endings for characters. In her description of the book she writes,

Set in the early 1870s, this re-imagining of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is for all who have ever wondered how things might have worked out differently for the beloved March sisters – the life Beth might have led, the books Jo might have written, the friends they might have made, and the courtship that might have been…

Authoress Jo March has lost her elder sister Meg to matrimony. When the aristocratic Vaughns – elegant Kate, boisterous Fred, thoughtful Frank, and feisty Grace – re-enter their lives, it seems her younger sisters Beth and Amy, and even her closest friend Laurie, might soon follow suit.

Yet despite the efforts of her great-aunt March, Jo is determined not to give up her liberty for any mortal man. What else is a writer to do but secure music lessons for her dearest sister, and befriend aspirant journalist Tommy Chamberlain?

The Marches’ neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence was born with looks, talent, and wealth – and Jo is convinced he has a promising future in which she has no part. He is as stubborn as Jo, and has loved her for as long as anyone can remember. But what will win a woman who won’t marry for love or money?

Wilkins is offering a sample thirty pages of the book free which you can order here. In reading those pages I was immediately caught up in the story. Wilkins does a fine job of imitating the voice of Louisa May Alcott; the characters feel true to their origins. Already in those thirty pages I saw clever ideas and insights into characters that made me want to read more. I will purchase the paperback version sometime this summer and then write a review. This is a perfect summer read, especially for those of us who can’t get enough of Little Women!

Here is all the purchasing information you will need for The Courtship of Jo March. Wilkins is giving away a special package with each book, both the e-book and the paperback.

And in the meantime, be sure and visit her blog, Much Ado about Little Women.

And speaking of blogs …

Tarissa’s In the Bookcase blog is running her annual June Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. Be sure and visit her site — it’s easy and fun to participate. If I can get out from under with my current non-Alcott reading before the end of the month, I’ll chime in too!

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A trivia backstory: how is it that Catholic holy cards show up in Louisa’s stories?

Beth’s chest, illustration by Scott McKowan

While researching my biography on Elizabeth Alcott, I did a very careful re-read of Little Women using Daniel Shealy’s excellent annotated edition. In the course of my reading I found many interesting little details. One of them involved the poem in Chapter 46 which brought Professor Bhaer to Jo’s side. Called “In the Garret,” a particular verse in Beth’s segment caught my eye (I italicized it for emphasis):

My Beth! the dust is always swept
From the lid that bears your name, As if by loving eyes that wept,
By careful hands that often came.
Death cannonized for us one saint, Ever less human than divine,
And still we lay, with tender plaint, Relics in this household shrine–
The silver bell, so seldom rung,
The little cap which last she wore,
The fair, dead Catherine that hung
By angels borne above her door.
The songs she sang, without lament, In her prison-house of pain,
Forever are they sweetly blent
With the falling summer rain.

Roman Catholics (like me) will likely know to which these lines in italic apply … for everyone else, Louisa (Jo) is referring to a holy card, a small card in color, often framed in lace featuring a print of a saint, Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. Because the reference is so specific and yet quite random, I believe such a picture in fact hung over the door of Lizzie’s sick chamber.

So who was this “fair, dead Catherine?”

Daniel Shealy provided a footnote:

Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), born in Siena, Italy, was, like Beth, the second youngest child in a large family. As a young girl she saw visions and devoted herself to Christ. At age sixteen, she became a Dominican tertiary, a lay member of the Dominican order, and tended to the sick and poor. Saint Catherine was canonized in 1461. (pg. 508, Little Women: An Annotated Edition)

Tracking down the holy card

How would the Alcotts, who had no affiliation with any formal religion, have come across a holy card featuring St. Catherine of Siena? It was not easy to find the answer! Certain aspects of religious history are not readily available through libraries. And you have to use the right keywords to find what you want (which I finally figured out).

It helps to have friends in high places.

I contacted a priest friend of mine who is interested in relics and prayer cards and he was able to help me fashion a plausible scenario. He told me that during the 19th century, holy cards were handed out to Catholic children as gifts after they made their first communion. A search on Wikipedia confirmed that and added confirmation as another occasion.

Images of St. Catherine

Doing a search using the terms “holy card 19th century Catherine of Siena” I found images that could describe what was referred to by Louisa in her poem:

from Jared’s board on Pinterest

from the Harriet M. Lothrop Family Papers (1831-1970); Margaret M. Lothrop Notebooks: Alcott Series

Bronson and Abba had purchased Orchard House; while the house was being renovated they resided in half a house on Bedford Street (just off of Monument Square). Here Lizzie lived out her final days. Irish Catholic immigrants who had built the railroad had worshipped in Concord since the 1840s. If you recall in Little Women, from her sickbed Beth made little treasures and dropped them out of her window to the school children that passed by daily; Louisa writes in her journal that Lizzie did the same, taking great pleasure in their glee at receiving them. As Lizzie was so emaciated by that time, it is possible that one of the children, feeling grateful for the little treasure yet also feeling sorry for the invalid, offered his or her holy card of St. Catherine to the Alcotts to put over the door to Lizzie’s chamber.

Holy cards and Rose in Bloom

Holy cards and saints appear again in Rose in Bloom. In chapter 2, Rose and Charlie are discussing saints found on holy cards on the table. Rose prefers the modest and poor Francis of Assisi while Charlie chose the dashing St. Martin of Tours as his favorite.

In the end he declares his preference for Rose,

“I’d like the golden-haired angel in the blue gown if you’ll let me have her. She shall be may little Madonna, and I’ll pray to her like a good Catholic.”

How would Louisa know of these saints?

The holy cards present in Rose in Bloom would have most likely have been encountered during Louisa and May’s European tour as they visited many churches. This is well documented in Little Women Abroad. It’s quite possible they brought home cards as souvenirs; many were framed in lace and considered quite pretty, and they were easy to obtain being quite inexpensive. They visited Europe in 1870-71; Rose in Bloom was published in 1876.

Attraction and revulsion

The sisters were deeply attracted to the Roman Catholic Church for its beauty and mystery while at the same time repelled by what they deemed as ancient superstitious ritual. The Church being a storehouse to some of the greatest art ever produced, it certainly would attract May. The Church also provided interesting characters for Louisa’s stories as evidenced by Father Ignatius in The Long, Fatal Love-Chase along with the encounter with a young priest written about in Shawl Straps.

p.s. — Update on my book

With regards to my work on Elizabeth Alcott, I am toiling away on an essay that I hope to submit to the New England Quarterly. I have never worked so hard in my life on any piece of writing! I keep writing myself into the weeds. 🙂 When it is complete and submitted, I will share the essence of it with you. This is the prelude to the book. All I can say right now is that there are some interesting rumblings going on with this book. Stay tuned!

 

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The Palace Beautiful: The Little Women trail #5

This is a wonderful tour of the places where Jo March and family members dwelled through the real-life Alcott family members. My thanks to the “Much Ado about Little Women” blog.

Much ado about Little Women

By Trix Wilkins

There is something intriguing about the history of a home – who designed it and why, what accomplishments occurred under its refuge, who might have met within its walls and what precious moments might have consequently transpired? This trail follows the homes from the life of Louisa May Alcott that appear to make cameo appearances in Little Women – from their humble homes in Concord to the Hancock family manor in Boston.

The March sisters’ plays: Hillside House (now known as The Wayside)

“In a suburb of the city…an old brown house, looking rather bare and shabby, robbed in of the vines that in summer covered its walls, and the flowers which then surrounded it.”

According to Louisa’s teacher, Henry David Thoreau, Hillside was haunted by one of its previous owners. Despite this, Louisa spent happy early teenage years here and it became one of the homes…

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Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message only $5 till Christmas

louisa coverLooking for a great gift for a Louisa lover in your life? How about yourself? My publisher, ACTA, has reduced the price of my book, Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message from $10.95 to only $5 up until Christmas!

Here’s a sample that you can read.

Click here to order your copy.

And a Merry Christmas to you!

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Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa! Not a day over 217 and 184 ;-)

louisa coverNOTE: I just found out my publisher, ACTA, is giving away 15 free copies of Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message in honor of our favorite author’s birthday. Go here http://actapublications.com/louisa-may-alcott-illuminated-by-the-message/ and type in code HAPPYBIRTHDAY at checkout. Even if you have your own copy, order one as a gift for friend!

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

As the birthdays of two of my favorite people dawns today, I can’t help but think how deliciously ironic it is that I am finally finishing Eden’s Outcasts, the Pulitzer prize-winning book on the life of Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson Alcott by John Matteson.

eden's outcasts big and yet I never finished the book until now. I just couldn’t. I loved the book so much I didn’t want it to end. I find that reading this compelling story of two such talented, creative, intelligent, and difficult people orders my mind and fills my heart. It is told with such elegance along with touches of humor and irony. Among other things, it explores the spiritual aspect of the Alcotts which was so important to them. Continue reading

Happy Halloween! A treat for Little Women fans: “Norna, or the Witch’s Curse,” the annotated version

What a treat for Halloween and beyond! Juvenilia Press is announcing a new, annotated version of “Norna, or the Witch’s Curse:”

norna-or-the-witchs-course

You can find out more at www.arts.unsw.edu.au/juvenilia.

“Norna, or the Witch’s Curse” is the play performed in Chapter 1 of Little Women. It is part of a book issued in 1893 by Roberts Brothers known as Comic Tragedies by Jo and Meg. Anna and Louisa wrote the plays; sadly the book was published after Anna’s death.

As the flyer mentions, the plays written by Louisa and Anna were performed in the Hillside barn.

little-women-theatre

Here is a page out of Comic Tragedies (which I acquired last spring at The Barrow in Concord, the go-to place for books on and by Louisa May Alcott):

norna-or-the-witchs-curse

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Halloween than to read these plays — you can read them online here.

My thanks to P. B. for the tip!

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