Why are you obsessed with Louisa? Why am I?

River of Grace is available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

I pondered that question during the two years spent writing my book, River of Grace. Because Louisa was an important part of this book, I had to figure out first, why I was obsessed with her, and second, how she has acted as my grief counselor, and as a result, guiding me back into my creative life.

Early attraction

I knew that as a child I was attracted to tomboy Louy. In River of Grace I wrote,

Louisa had captured my imagination as a girl. I was introduced to her through a story of her life given to me by my aunt. I felt a kindred spirit with the tomboy who put on plays with her sisters in the family barn, struggled with a bad temper, wrote stories in the apple tree, and longed for a room of her own. As an adult I identified with Louisa’s severe mood swings and how she lost herself in her writing, falling into what she called her “vortex.” Having experienced many of these things myself, I found that reading about Louisa helped me to understand myself a bit better. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

joan howard story of lma 190That children’s biography was Joan Howard’s The Story of Louisa May Alcott. It was wonderful meeting another little girl who loved to put on plays and write, and had bad temper tantrums, just like me. And she craved time alone, cherishing her sacred spaces, just like me.

Meeting the adult Louisa

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

My first adult encounter with Louisa was Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. As much as Saxton has been criticized for her scholarship, that book taught me a lot about depression and its relationship to anger (depression being anger turned inward). The mood swings I experienced in my twenties were epic; at the same time I was at the peak of my musical creativity and songwriting. Knowing there was another young woman who had experienced that made me feel a little less alone in the world,

Going to the source

Louisa May Alcott Her Life, Letters and JournalsReading Louisa’s own words certainly helps in figuring it all out. I am currently going through Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals. While I don’t care all that much for Cheney’s writing (too disjointed), I am enjoying hearing Louisa speak for herself.

The misery …

I had to smile at this passage from Louisa’s journal:

John Brown’s daughters came to board, and upset my plans of rest and writing when the report and the sewing were done. I had my fit of woe up garret on the fat rag-bag, and then put my papers away, and fell to work at housekeeping. I think disappointment must be good for me, I get so much of it; and the constant thumping Fate gives me may be a mellowing process; so I shall be a ripe and sweet old pippin before I die.

I am not the only one who throws a hissy fit when my creative plans are interrupted. I’ll bet she vented out loud a lot in that garret! And I’m willing to bet she suffered from aggravation as much as I do. No wonder she had headaches (I do too!).

And the pleasure …

This was during her first draft of Moods:

All sorts of fun was going on; but I didn’t care if the world returned to chaos if I and my inkstand only “lit” in the same place.

It was very pleasant and queer while it lasted; but after three weeks of it I found that my mind was too rampant for my body, as my head was dizzy, legs shaky, and no sleep would come.

Oh yeah. Totally get that! Especially the first part.

I’ll continue on this vein in the next post where I will explain how Louisa became my grief counselor.

Why are you obsessed with Louisa?

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How “Moods” is helping me to get to know Louisa May Alcott, and myself, better

Progressing through Moods, I can see that even though I love it, it may not be a book to suit everyone’s tastes. Of all the current biographies (meaning in the last 30 years) that I’ve read or are reading on Louisa (Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography by Martha Saxton, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen and Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever), only Saxton seems to have really liked Moods on its own merits. I was going to read and comment on her chapter on Moods but decided to wait until I’ve read the book because I don’t want to read all the spoilers. But I will comment on her take once I’m done.

At any rate, I know my interest in Moods may be rather unique. If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s personal. What I’m discovering is how much Louisa and I could have shared in common regarding our interests and temperaments, and I believe that is what drew me to her in the first place. Saxton’s biography, heavy-handed as it is, pointed that out to me. I never did suffer from the extremes of moods that Louisa suffered from (and lately my emotional landscape has evened out nicely) but I can very much relate to her turbulence, anger and depression: how such things can make life miserable and yet feed creativity.

Having just finished chapters 3 and 4 of Moods (the earlier incarnation), Sylvia-as-Louisa is showing me some of the interests I could have shared with Louisa. Chapters 3 and 4 laid out the story of a 3-day camping trip including Sylvia, her brother Mark (or Max), Warwick and Moor. I imagine most people might have been bored with Louisa’s seemingly endless descriptions of what it was like out in the boat, how serene it was, what the world looked like from the water, etc., etc. As an avid kayaker and naturalist, I reveled in the descriptions (especially since we’ve been buried in snow and cold here in the Northeast!). I was transported into our tandem kayak on a beautiful and hot day, lazily drifting down river, drinking in the scents and sounds, spying on people’s houses and dreaming of a summer place of our own, and mostly, loving the silence and the peace. The descriptions were so authentic that I knew she must have spent time rowing and perhaps enjoyed it as much as I do. After several minutes adrift on the water, Louisa writes:

“Slowly they drifted onto the current, slowly Warwick cleft the water with reluctant stroke, and slowly Sylvia’s mind woke from its trance of dreamy delight, as with a gesture of asset she said, ‘Yes,  I am reading now. That was a happy little moment, and I am glad to have lived it, for such times return to refresh me when a many a more stirring one is quite forgotten.”

Exactly how I feel. It’s like when you’ve just finished a delicious meal and then eat it all over again in your mind, just to relish the feeling.

Immediately after, Sylvia sees a fire off in the distance and wants to explore it, oblivious to the possibility that it might be dangerous (and of course it turns out to be!):

“A moment after she added, eagerly, as a new object of interest appeared: ‘Mr. Warwick, I see smoke. I know there is a wood on fire; I want to see it; please land again . . . I love fire, and that must be a grand one, if we could only see it well.’ “

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that; you might call me a fire chaser! I could do that with tornadoes too (yes, I’ve seen the movie Twister a million times and love it every time). The point is, I really connected with Sylvia’s desire to chase that fire.

Finally, there was the moment shared between Warwick and Sylvia which I’m figuring must have happened between Louisa and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa describes a scene where Warwick is feeding wild birds bread crumbs out of his hand, and my ‘love’ for Warwick grows as does Sylvia’s:

“The appearance of a thirsty sparrow gave her thoughts a pleasant turn, for, sitting motionless, she watched the little creature trip down at the pool, drink and bathe, then flying to a willow spray, dress its features, dry its wings, and sit chirping softly as if it sang its evening hymn. Warwick saw her interest, and searching, in his pocket, found the relics of a biscuit, strewed a few bits upon the ground before him, and began a low, sweet whistle, which rose gradually to a varied strain, alluring, spirited, and clear as any bird voice of the wood. Little sparrow ceased his twitter, listened with outstretched neck and eager eye, hopping restlessly from twig to twig, until he hung just over the musician’s head, agitated with a small flutter of surprise, delight, and doubt. Gathering a crumb or two into his hand, Warwick held it toward the bird, while softer, sweeter, and more urgent rose the invitation, and nearer and nearer drew the winged guest, fascinated by the spell . . . His last fear conquered, and he flew confidently to Warwick’s palm, pecking the crumbs with grateful chirps and friendly glances from its quick, bright eye. It was a pretty picture for the girl to see; the man, an image of power, in his hand the featured atom that, with unerring instinct, divined and trusted the superior nature which had not yet lost its passport to the world of innocent delights that Nature gives to those who love her best.”

All my life I have been a passionate (albeit it amateur) bird watcher and I’ve had the privilege of having wild birds feed out of my hand. It happened at a bird sanctuary in the Hamptons on Long Island, known for the birds being so tame that they will literally feed out of your hand. Louisa, being so keen an observer, must have witnessed that wonder for herself and I believe I know just how she must have felt.

These various experiences, of course, advance the love story and Warwick and Sylvia grow closer, walking hand in hand through the woods and back to the camp. I very much enjoy how they try to read each other and then describe each other to their colleagues. People watching is also something I’m passionate about and I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it.

I apologize since this post has really been all about me and not much about Moods! Pretty self-indulgent. 🙂 I’m just really surprised at how much I’ve learned about why I am passionate about Louisa May Alcott from reading this lesser known work of hers. I’ve often pondered why I have this obsession – Moods is helping to shed some light on that.

That being said, I can hardly offer an unbiased, intelligent review of this book. I can only offer how it speaks to me. Hopefully it will speak to you too.

Getting to know the principal characters in “Moods”

The 1882 version of Moods includes 3 interesting chapters which develop the principal characters of the novel and their interaction with each other.

Geoffrey Moor

Chapter 2 gives us a glimpse into Geoffrey Moor, based upon the loyal, lifelong friend of Bronson Alcott, and the Good Samaritan who quietly and discreetly helped the Alcott family on countless occasions when the family was destitute. Emerson was kind in other ways to the family, encouraging the child Louisa’s love of reading by loaning her books from his library and often discussing them with her. Louisa jokingly commented that she used to borrow his books the way she borrowed his kittens. As she grew older, he supported her writing as well. Emerson always seemed to be there at the most important moments, kissing the bride, Anna, on her wedding day, or breaking the news gently to Louisa about the passing of her sister, May.

Louisa imagined herself as Bettina to Emerson’s Goethe, writing love letters in the night and leaving them at his door. Subsequently there is a reference to Bettina and Goethe in the chapter as Sylvia shares with Moor her admiration of Goethe, wishing she was Bettina:  “I always envied Bettina and longed to be in her place. People now adays are so unheroic and disappointing, even the famous ones.”

My impression of Sylvia’s attraction to Moor is that he was a port in the middle of her storm, the turmoil that was her constant shifting of moods. Moor had a inner tranquility about him, a maturity born of  patient suffering (taking care of his sister for 5 years until she finally passed away). He had 30 years of life experience heightened by virtuous sacrifice  which mellowed him and made him wise and kind. She, on the other hand, saw herself as as constantly pulled back and forth by her emotions, causing her to be impulsive. Moor seemed attracted by Sylvia’s sheer life force, leading him out of his sadness. There’s a good basis for their attraction to each other.

Sylvia Yule

In chapter 3, Louisa, in typical fashion, takes a “time out” from the book in a rather amusing fashion (naming the chapter “Dull, but Necessary”) to enlighten the reader with vital information about Sylvia and her life. I had seen this tact used several times in Little Women and thought it odd, but the chapter was hardly dull and definitely necessary! Knowing about her parents’ unhappy marriage, the death of her mother upon her birth, and her lifelong craving for love set the stage for Sylvia’s other potential love interest, Adam Warwick.

Adam Warwick

Chapter 4 introduces us to Adam, fashioned after the other great love interest in Louisa’s life, Henry David Thoreau. I admit that I don’t know a lot about Thoreau apart from his friendship with the Alcotts, and often it is his softer side: his interest in nature, his way of delighting the child Louisa with fantasy-laced stories of the natural world that I’ve seen. Thoreau, however, was also known as an iconoclast demonstrated in his most well-known essay of an individual’s protest against the government, “Civil Disobedience.” He was known to have spent a night in jail for not paying his poll tax. Louisa obviously admired Thoreau’s strength of character, intellect and adherence to his principles as she describes Adam as the “manliest man” she has ever met, not only in demeanor but in stature, standing a head taller than Moor. The story plays out with Adam saving Sylvia from nearly drowning after being caught unexpectedly in the high tide and leads to a meeting of the minds as both enjoy watching people and discerning their characters. Here is a very different love interest, setting the stage for the conflict to come.

As a side point, I’ve read in at least three biographies that Louisa’s near attempt at suicide is used in two works: her other major adult novel, Work A Story of Experience, and a short story, ” Love and Self-Love.” I’m curious as to why Moods is not also cited since there is definitely a contemplation of suicide by Sylvia in this chapter (though I am not certain as to how serious it really was). It is not driven so much by despair as it is grief over never knowing her mother, and a fierce longing, a fantasy-type desire to join her mother in the afterlife. It makes me wonder if Louisa’s thoughts at the Mill Dam to throw herself into the water in despair figured into this episode for Sylvia.

A Personal Connection

I am very much enjoying Moods so far. When I was younger, I was subject to the kind of interior distress Sylvia describes with her turbulent moods, and I felt guilt over that distress as I think she might have too. I also have a deep temper like Louisa that would often turn inward, causing depression. Aging has its advantages, one of them being a mellowing out of the peaks and valleys, and I no longer experience that kind of distress (my devotion to my Catholic faith helps a great deal too). But when I first learned of Moods through a reading of Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography back in my 20s, I felt an emotional connection to Louisa, seeing a kindred spirit. As a child I had shared Louisa’s love of acting and producing plays, and in writing, but once I learned of her very adult emotional turmoil, I made a much deeper connection. Why I didn’t read Moods after finishing Saxton’s biography is beyond me, but reading it now brings back powerful memories of a time when I was a slave to my emotions. My connection to Moods is quickly becoming very personal. And knowing how personal Moods was to Louisa makes the reading of it even more powerful.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”

I’m currently reading chapter 6 in Susan Cheever’s book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography which focuses on the years of 1863-65 when Louisa would serve as a nurse in the Civil War, and taste her first literary successes. Louisa had been writing her “blood and thunder” tales to earn money for “the pathetic family” and many believe these stories provided escape and pleasure for her as well, even as she referred to them as “rubbish.” I just read my first one, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” winner of the $1oo prize in 1863 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a pulp weekly similar to the National Enquirer today (minus the TV and movie celebrities).

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” is pretty mild stuff if you read it from the perspective of a 21st century reader. It helps to have some idea of what life was like and what was expected of men and women in the 1860s to truly appreciate this story. I know some but found myself wishing (as I did while reading Little Women) that I knew so much more so that I could feel the full impact.

However, I still found it to be a satisfying psychological thriller and marveled yet again at how carefully Louisa lays out the story so that it achieves the maximum effect. It requires some preliminary details which I found a bit boring, but I knew they were necessary for the “good stuff” later on. What I liked was that I never was really sure how this story would end up (and I had to avoid reading the ending in Cheever’s book and in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask, where this story is found.) As I read on, I became more and more interested and found the very last page of the story to be very satisfying. In one sense the ending was surprising but in another, very typical for Louisa. I’ll leave it for you to find out. 🙂

You can find “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” in Behind a Mask and you can also download it online for free.

As a side note: reading Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask reminded me again of why I love her treatment of Louisa.  It’s so balanced. It maintains that Louisa did have many good moments in her life and was not continually miserable despite her burdens (some self imposed). Martha Saxton’s biography was so depressing, making me feel like Louisa never had a happy day in her life. Cheever’s biography leans that way and often Reisen’s does too. I find it hard to believe that Louisa never found consolation in doing what she was meant to do. Sure, she had a martyr complex from time to time and yes, she suffered from many physical ailments that had no cure, but she also had a spirit bigger than life, a spirit that lived in her writing even if she couldn’t always express that spirit in her daily living. It could be that because Louisa was an actress at heart, she might have been melodramatic sometimes in her perception of things (and she poured a lot of that into her “rubbish”). I also find it hard to believe that there was never a moment of pleasure in writing Little Women. Perhaps there wasn’t, but the story flows so well that it’s hard to believe it was all drudgery. There are so many parts of that book that to me seem truly inspired.

Pardon my indulgence as a fan, having the audacity to hang out my shingle and analyze when likely, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Wouldn’t Louisa be horrified! I can’t help it, she is just so very interesting to me.

Incidentally, one last thing: I posted some links on the corresponding Facebook page to this blog that I think you would be interested in. One of our readers posted on her blog about a book based loosely on Little Women, and there’s a fascinating article about Hannah Ropes, the matron in charge of the hospital where Louisa served as a nurse.

 


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