Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Woman Behind Little Women


Again, a research project I am in the process of revising. Right around the time I finished this paper, Harriet Reisen's outstanding biography Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women was published, which will lead me to change the title of this particular study as I expand upon it. In the meantime, a (brief) background of the psychology behind my dear Louisa's work.





            The Woman behind Little Women
                                 Nicole Kapise
                  [16 November 2008]
                  

Over the course of forty years, Louisa May Alcott wrote twenty-eight books, countless letters, and kept a journal on a regular basis. Her fictional pieces showcase a myriad of characters, all very human, many based on people she knew and loved, such as her sisters and friend Alf Whitman, the inspiration for Little Women’s ‘Laurie’ (Stern, vii). 
            Her more popular books feature proud, thoughtful, ‘proper’ women; her ‘blood and thunder’ thrillers, written under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, focused on their polar opposite. Scheming, greedy and self-serving, these women went against the grain of Victorian American society, and even Alcott herself. Alcott’s journals, kept from 1843 to 1888 (ages eleven to four days before her death at fifty-six) show her to be a very complex, driven woman. Much like Miss Celia from her novel Under the Lilacs (1877) Alcott longed to “do good, to be good in all she does,” (Cheny, 22) but she found herself lacking. Similar to Rosamond Tempest (A Long Fatal Love Chase, 1866) Alcott longed to break free from the chains that held her: her high-minded, free-thinking incapable father.
            Just as she modeled her Little Women characters after her sisters, Alcott put herself into Miss Celia and Rosamond, placing her aspired virtues on the former and her impulsive ‘improper’ behavior in the latter. However, Rosamond succeeds where Alcott believed she failed. In the end Rosamond overcomes her faults and escapes from her life of sin; to the day she died Alcott felt she had to atone for the willful, passionate nature that so vexed her father, and though she realized her dream of giving her mother every comfort in her old age, Alcott died wishing she could have done something good with her life.
            Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, the second daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail (May) Alcott. From birth Louisa’s relationship with her father was a difficult one, as Bronson’s Transcendentalist philosophy led him to believe that his fair coloring made him a more spiritually pure, “angelic” being. Dark-haired Louisa was a thorn in his side, and would continue to be, regardless of how much she strove to please him.
            Bronson Alcott’s unconventional views on education cost him several school stewardships, and it soon fell to Abigail, Louisa, and the oldest daughter Anna to support the family of six. At fourteen Louisa went to work, housekeeping and taking in sewing, and became a governess at seventeen. Her first paid publication occurred in May of 1852 (age sixteen) with The Rival Painters: a Tale of Rome appearing in Olive Branch Magazine. The five dollars Alcott was paid for this story exceeded the paltry amount she was paid for seven weeks’ work as a housekeeper in Dedham, MA, and set the stage for further literary endeavors. December 1852 saw The Masked Marriage published in Dodge’s Literary Museum, and The Rival Prima Donnas in the Saturday Evening Gazette in November 1854. Only a month later her dreams of “true writing” would come true when her first book, Flower Fables was published in December 1854 (Myerson & Shealy, 64-68). The end of Alcott’s journal for 1854 lists the following:
                                                School.            100
                                                Sewing.             10
                                                Flower Fables.   35
            Alcott’s income of $145 for the year far exceeded Bronson’s income of the same year, as he was not teaching, but traveling and lecturing for free (womenwriters.net).
            Alcott continued to write, teach and sew for another seven years and in 1862 became a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. She served for six weeks until typhoid pneumonia forced her to return to Concord. Her collection of essays from this time was published as Hospital Sketches in August 1863. That December The Rose Family and On Picket Duty, and Other Tales was published. A year later her first novel Moods was published. It was this that would make her a household name, four years before Little Women.
            Unbeknownst to her fans, Alcott was leading a double life. In 1866 she wrote a thrilling tale of deceit, lust and murder, then hid it away, never to be published. A Long Fatal Love Chase was far too improper for publication, she thought. It would appear in 1995, unearthed in Harvard University’s Houghton Library by editor Kent Bicknell. Building on the theme she couldn’t let go of, Alcott continued to write lurid ‘blood and thunder’ tales and publish them as A.M. Barnard. These hidden stories comprised the bulk of Alcott’s income for years, paying off the family’s massive debts and providing for her youngest sister’s education: “Wrote a little on poor old “Success” but being tired of novels I soon dropped it & fell back on rubbishy tales, for they pay best & I cant afford to starve on praise, when sensation stories are written in half the time & keep the family cosy,” (Myerson & Shealy, 139).
            In December 1877 Alcott began her serial story Under the Lilacs. This story would run in St. Nicholas until October 1878. It is a testament to Alcott’s versatility as a writer to examine the personalities of her characters. Little Women, based largely on her family, gives readers the image of a close-knit family of four sisters, each very different from the others. Marmee is Abigail Alcott to a tee: loving, loyal, and giving to all in need. Father March is perhaps Alcott’s ideal father, away serving as an army chaplain while Bronson merely meditated on spirituality.
            Rosamond Tempest, Alcott’s protagonist in A Long Fatal Love Chase is much like Jo March, though older, and bitter, railing at her lot in life. Conversely, Rosamond may be a closer reflection of Alcott’s true nature than Jo March is. Alcott’s fiery spirit is evidenced in Rosamond’s opening lines: “I tell you I cannot bear it! I shall do something desperate if this life is not changed soon. It gets worse and worse, and I often feel as though I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom,”(A Long Fatal Love Chase, 1). This impetuous passion is reflected in Alcott’s journals: (1843) “I was cross today, and cried when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so am very bad,” (Myerson & Shealy, 45).
            (1846) “I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins, and it doesn’t seem to do any good! Now I’m going to work really, for I feel a true desire to improve, and be a help and comfort, not a care and sorrow, to my dear mother,” (59). In an 1882 review of her journal, Alcott adds a footnote to her 1843 entry: [Poor little sinner! She says the same at fifty.—L.M.A.]
            Rosamond’s impassioned desire for change leads her to the arms of her grandfather’s “most promising pupil” Phillip Tempest. Deciding he wants a change from his wandering ne’er do well life, Tempest decides to take Rosamond at her word: “Law and custom I know nothing of, public opinion I despise, and shame and fear I defy, for everyone has a right to be happy in their own way,” (A Long Fatal Love Chase, 5). When Tempest takes to sea with Rosamond, intent on making her his mistress, Rosamond’s sense of propriety catches Tempest in its snare and to keep Rosamond from throwing herself overboard, he marries her. A year later Rosamond’s faerie-tale world crashes at her feet when she learns her husband is a bigamist and she is his mistress after all. Rosamond flees, and the chase is on. For someone of Alcott’s social class, this idea of false marriage and divorce was incredibly radical. When Bronson’s “Fruitlands” commune experiment failed, Abigail spoke openly of taking her children and leaving him: “In the eve father and mother and Anna and I had a long talk. I was very unhappy, and we all cried. Anna and I cried in bed, and I prayed God to keep us all together,” (Myerson & Shealy, 47). Tempest’s abandonment of his first wife Marion, and his unlawful custody of their son Ippolito was Alcott’s veiled allusion to this threat to her parents’ marriage.
            In direct contrast to Rosamond is Under the Lilacs’ Miss Celia. From her first words she is amiable, obliging and kind, wholly focused on the eager little boy who leaps to her aid: “Leaning down, Miss Celia slipped a new quarter into his hands, saying, ‘Lita wants me to give you this for taking the stone out of her foot,’ ” (Under the Lilacs, 47). In Miss Celia we see none of Rosamond’s impetuous spirit, but she is in no way lackluster. Miss Celia is an independent young woman, wealthy, well-educated, and determined to make a change in the quiet little village that becomes her home: “The success of her first attempt at being a public benefactor pleased Miss Celia very much, and suggested other ways in which she might serve the quiet town, where she seemed to feel that work was waiting for her to do,” (179).
            Miss Celia is who Alcott strove to be: kind, thoughtful of others, a benefactor to those in need. Blinded by her imagined faults, Alcott never realized that she was the kind of person she wished to be. “I shall give him a set of schoolbooks, and try to get him ready to begin when vacation is over. An education is the best thing we can give him…” (Under the Lilacs, 160), writes the former governess and schoolmarm.
            With the financial security brought by her many successes, Alcott began to offer aid to may others. In an 1877 entry in her journal she writes: “Help to buy the house for Nan (Anna), ― $4500. So she has her wish and is happy. When shall I have mine? Ought to be contented with knowing I help both sisters by my brains. But I’m selfish and want to go away and rest in Europe. Never shall,” (Myerson & Shealy, 205). Alcott viewed her own wants as selfish, and her pleasure in helping others was dampened by the audacity to want something for herself. Miss Celia gives to her community freely, asking nothing in return; to her young readers Alcott was imparting a lesson in morality. Alcott’s poem My Kingdom, written at fourteen (1846) appears in Under the Lilacs, attributed to Miss Celia: “A little kingdom I possess,/ Where thoughts and feelings dwell;/ And very hard I find the task/ Of governing it well./ For passion tempts and troubles me/ A wayward will misleads/ And selfishness its shadow casts/ On all my words and deeds…” (88).
            An 1845 entry in her journal gives ‘a Sample of our Lessons.’: “’What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr. L. I answer:― Patience, Love, Silence, Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance, Industry, Respect, Self-Denial. ‘What vices less of?’ Idleness, Willfulness, Vanity, Impatience, Impudence, Selfishness, Activity, Love of cats. ‘What is gentleness?’ Kindness, patience, and care for other people’s feelings. ‘Who has it?’ Father and Anna. ‘Who means to have it?’ Louisa, if she can. [She never got it.― L.M.A.(1882)]” (Myerson & Shealy, 55-56). This footnote comes from a woman who provided for both parents in their elder years, secured a home for her sister Anna and her two sons, paid for her sister May’s education and raised her daughter Louisa May Nieriker after May’s death in 1879.
            From the late 1870’s to her final journal entry on March 2, 1888 Alcott writes frequently of her lingering illness brought on by mercury poisoning from calomel treatments for her 1862 bout of typhus. She chastises herself for being “cross & blue, weak & disappointed.” Mourning the loss of her health, she still tried to see the silver lining: “The hospital experience was a costly one for me. Never well since. Yet it turned the tide & brought success,(1885)” (Myerson & Shealy, 255).
            In her fifties Alcott was still fighting to control the spirit that birthed Rosamond Tempest. Just as Rosamond made the proper decision and fled her false marriage, Alcott continued to reign in her passions. Instead of lashing out in her dissatisfaction and irritation (she once said she found writing for children incredibly dull) she poured her angst into her characters.
            Rosamond leaves her lovely carefree life at Valrosa, but her vivacious spirit continues to plague her. Her love for Tempest turns to bitter hatred, and it takes a doomed romance with a Catholic priest for Rosamond to finally realize the true road to happiness is not in love with another, but in temperance and love to herself, a goal Alcott never consciously achieved. Unfortunately this revelation comes too late, as Tempest kills Rosamond in a fit of jealousy.
            In contrast, Miss Celia finishes her life happy and loved, the wife of a minister and the spiritual mother to her happy little village. Later entries in Alcott’s journals show her to have accepted her faults and perhaps made peace with herself: “September 1 (1887)…Dr W. very kind but not encouraging. On this day Sept. 1st I make a prophesy. The end is not far off. The Drs see it & I feel it. Amen,” (Myerson & Shealy, 311).
            “January 1 (1888)…A happy day & great contrast to Jan 1st of last year. Then I was ill & hopeless & sad. Now though still alone & absent from home I am on the road to health at last & feel hopeful after much tribulation & pain for two years. Very grateful for my many mercies & better for my trials I trust,” (327).
            Alcott’s final journal entry on March 2, 1888 is short, filled with commonplace notes: “Fine. Better in mind but food a little uneasy. Write letters. Pay Ropes $30, Notman 4. Sew. Write a little. Lulu to come,” (Myerson & Shealy, 334). This simple household list is a stark contrast to Rosamond’s final words: “Let her sail or let her stay. I shall not be turned aside by this unfortunate meeting. Phillip may follow. I shall go straight on and defy him to the last,” (A Long Fatal Love Chase, 169). Two pages later she is dead, her boat run down by Tempest’s yacht. To close this book, Alcott figuratively killed the passionate, willful spirit that plagued her throughout her life.
            For the gentler side of her personality, Miss Celia, Alcott writes a pretty closing: “ ‘Come over, by-and-by, little friends, and let me thank you for your welcome― it certainly is a warm one.’ The closed gate where the lonely little wanderer once lay was always to stand open now…for a hospitable welcome henceforth awaited rich and poor, young and old, sad and gay, under the lilacs,” (Under the Lilacs, 242).
            Though Alcott loved children and was glad to help them in any way she could (she regretted in a letter to Edward Evrette Hale in 1863 that she was unable to accept a position as a nurse at the newly opened New England Hospital for Women and Children) her true passion was writing mature literature. Hospital Sketches, Moods, Success and A Modern Mephistopheles opened the doors to literary fame, and with these books she did what her father failed to do. In her efforts to prove her worth to Bronson, the “Possessed One” poured her spirit into her pen, writing stories and poems and in later years articles for the suffragette publication The Woman’s Journal. She notes with glee in 1879 that she was the first woman in Concord, MA to vote in the village’s school committee election.
            Alcott wrote because she loved literature, but also because it was a way she could make a difference. Like Rosamond Tempest, Alcott took her life into her hands, shaping her destiny with her pen strokes, and she never lost her willful spirit, regardless of how diligently she crushed it beneath the boot-heel of convention and gentility. Like Miss Celia, Alcott spent her life giving, first to her family then to the public, asking only for quiet and rest in return, but she failed to acknowledge the good she did. It is through characters like these, as well as her journals, that readers can glue together the scattered pieces of Louisa May Alcott’s restless spirit and see the indomitable woman behind Little Women.
             








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Alcott, Louisa May. Behind a Mask: the Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Madeline Stern, editor. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, Inc, 1975.
Alcott, Louisa May. Letter, Edward Evrette Hale, June 25, 1863; Hale Family Papers. (Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA)
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Alcott, Louisa May. Louisa May Alcott On Race, Sex and Slavery. Sarah Elbert, editor. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1997. (Title by editor)
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Alcott, Louisa May. Under the Lilacs. Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books, 1996.
Cheny, Ednah D. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals. Boston, MA: Roberts Bros., 1890. (Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA)
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Wells, Kim. “Louisa May Alcott and the Roles of a Lifetime.” WomenWriters.net. 1998. 11/16/08. http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess/lma.html

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