Elizabeth’s form of genius; Beth’s power in Little Women (guest post by Kristi Martin)

Warning: this is a long post but I believe, well worth the time. I was so fascinated when I first heard the presentation at the Summer Conversational Series that I opted not to take notes and just enjoy it!)

560 kristi martin

Kristi Martin

At the recent Summer Conversational Series, Kristi Marti (tour guide de force; she has been a guide at nearly every major historical home in Concord) presented her paper on the genius exhibited in each of the Alcott sisters. Normally we don’t think of genius extending to the quieter sisters Anna and Elizabeth; Kristi presented a compelling argument in favor of Lizzie’s form of genius which extends in the character of Beth March in Little Women. Kristi was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper, a portion of which I am presenting here as a guest post.

From “Beth’s Stage-Struck!”: The Alcott Sisters and “the Difference Between Talent and Genius,” presented on Monday, July 14, 2014 at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House:

Surrounded by genius

560 kristi teaching2The daughters of Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott were no strangers to “Genius.” Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May were immersed within a community of New England’s most renowned literary and artistic intellects, with Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and artist Washington Allston among their parents’ dignified and intimate friends. Indeed, Hawthorne and Emerson were the Alcott family’s sometime neighbors in Concord, with Thoreau living in the same town. Like the four muses, each of the four sisters possessed striking talents in different branches of the arts: Anna possessed a passion for theater, Louisa had a gift of words and expression, which took a literary bent; Elizabeth was a musician; and, the youngest, May, was an accomplished artist …

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kristi weaves her discussion of the Alcott sisters in with the fictional March sisters. Here she begins her discussion of Beth’s importance to the story, and the real life young woman Beth was based upon:

Beth’s unsung role in Little Women

jo and beth… But Jo does have a conscience. As Beth lay ill with scarlet fever, Jo tells Laurie, “Beth is my conscience, and I can’t give her up.” (Little Women, pg. 188) With Beth confined to her sick bed it becomes clear that quiet, shy, and domestic Beth has perhaps the largest sphere of influence in the novel. “Everyone missed Beth. The milkman, baker, grocer, and butcher… even those who knew her best were surprised to find how many friends shy little Beth had made.” (Little Women, pg. 186) As Jo witnessed Beth’s physical distress, she “learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition to live for others, and make home happy by the simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.” (Little Women, 185) Meek and too often taken for granted, I contend that Beth is in fact the most powerful character in the novel. Her influence is quiet, but potent. It is Beth who suggests the girls buy Christmas presents for Marmee, rather than themselves (Little Women, pg. 7) It is Beth who sanctions Laurie’s admittance into the Pickwick Club. “Yes, we ought to do it, even if we are afraid,” Beth advises her sisters, “’I say he may come…’ This spirited burst from Beth electrified the club…” and Laurie was voted in unanimously (Little Women, pg. 108). It is Beth who makes the invalid Frank laugh more than he has in “ever so long.” Amy boasts of her sister’s captivating qualities, “Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be…,” Amy, of course “meant ‘fascinating.” (Little Women, 104) Beth’s strength is both a moral power and a useful power.

Lizzie’s sense of humor

lizzie alcott2Alcott scholars have been disappointed in the archival material left by Elizabeth Alcott. Unassuming and private, Elizabeth’s writings are not overtly revelatory when compared to the voluminous journals and letters left by other members of her family. Her family too was troubled by her quiet evasiveness, her father complaining that she hid her “feelings in silence.” (Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 247). Family biographer Bedell wrote, “One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling, and never find it.” (Bedell, pg. 248) This, however, is somewhat of an exaggeration. Alcott biographer John Matteson refers to “spirited arguments” Elizabeth had with a friend over vegetarianism, but he too concludes that Lizzie seemed “never to have wanted more from life than a quiet, comfortable smallness.” (John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, pg 186) Yet, Susan Bailey has uncovered some of Lizzie’s letters in the archives of Houghton Library, which are more telling. There is a passive aggressiveness in some of her letters to her father, the yearning for attention and affection. Other family members’ letters intimate her depression during her final illness, the “natural rebellion” that Louisa hints at in Little Women as well. Lizzie possessed a resiliency and the Alcottian humor of her mother and sisters, too. As she was dying in 1858, Louisa wrote in her journal that Lizzie was trying to keep her sister’s spirits up (The Journals, pg. 88). Louisa also delighted in Lizzie’s letters, telling Anna that Lizzie “writes me the funniest notes.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 9). This sense of humor comes through strongly in one of Lizzie’s extant letters written to her family, while she and her mother Abba were traveling for Lizzie’s health. Lizzie teasingly admonishes her father that if “he grows thinner on her account … I shant write any more letters … and he will not know how I am. It must seem so good not to have to run every minute to my bell or hush all the time. I know you miss your little skeleton very much don’t you.[sic]”. Telling of her journey, she recalled a woman who “put her head” into the carriage “very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long.” She seems to have disliked the impertinent concern of some: “Miss Hinkley came in, and was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me, she will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit,” (Letter, August 6, 1857; see previous post with entire letter) sounding like Louisa.

Was Lizzie actually like Beth?

beth and jo march from little womenDistinctly unlike Beth in Little Women, who “was too shy to enjoy society,” (Little Women, pg. 380) at the seashore, Lizzie was ecstatic at the idea of visiting the ocean. She wrote, “Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn.” Far from not wanting a world beyond her home, she declared that she was “not homesick one grain,” but enjoying herself at the Sewall home in Boston. She reported that she played checkers in the evening, and went often to Boston Common in company with Tom, which was “delightful.” In this letter, Lizzie did not seem to shrink from society, but rather to observe those around her. As with the woman in the carriage, Lizzie wrote of her cousin Mary: “She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food…” Those around Elizabeth seem to have been concerned and solicitous for her comfort and welfare. (Letter, August 6, 1857) Like Beth, Lizzie seemed to make friends wherever she went. Louisa wrote after the funeral that the family had longed for their uncle Samuel May or Theodore Parker to preside over the service, remarking that Parker “loved Lizzie and always missed her face when she was not at church.” (The Letters, 33)

Making sense out of death

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

In Little Women, Beth is able to die peacefully, content in the knowledge that “her life had not been useless.” (Little Women, pg. 427) She entreated Jo to take her place in the household, assuring her, “you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world.” (Little Women, pg. 428) Both Beth and Lizzie’s death is presented as “the good death.” Like “Sylvia” in Alcott’s Transcendental novel Moods, Beth/Lizzie “proved that she did know how to die,” a Thoreauvian principle, that Alcott envisioned as “strength purified and perfected…,” an “unconscious power, which we call influence of character .. which is the nobelest.” Alcott, Louisa May. Moods. (Ed. Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pg. 203) Both Beth and Sylvia’s deaths, perform an Emersonian compensation, in which the true purpose is gained within a seeming loss. It is Beth, the domestic character, who is Jo’s conscious. Beth thus comes to represent true genius in the novel, which in Alcottian terms is the higher conscious that she embodies. In giving writing advice to an admirer, Louisa quoted Michael Angelo: “Genius is infinite patience.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 231) It is Beth/Lizzie who exemplified infinite patience, both in the novel and real life. When Jo finally has success with her writing, it is only when she writes a story with “truth in it,” and she credits her parents and Beth for the goodness that is in her book. (Little Women, pg. 446)

How do you feel about Beth’s role in Little Women? Did she possess genius? Were you surprised at the sauciness of the real life Elizabeth?

Kristi also had many interesting things to say about May Alcott which I will present in the next post.

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Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.