By Trix Wilkins
What a compelling read. I had originally planned to muse over this book throughout the month of the Louisa May Alcott reading challenge. What actually happened was: book in hand at 11am, read it through lunch, read after dinner, then after going to bed could not sleep so got up at 11pm and kept reading until I finished it at an unmentionable hour (suffice to say I went immediately for coffee after school drop-offs).
The woman behind Little Women is a brilliantly written and deeply researched biography that neatly straddles the line between empathy with the various people who appear and rigorous consideration of the historical, social and economic contexts they navigated. She strikes the balance between bald truth and the art of gently revealing it, treating people with respect without trying to hide anything of who they were.
It’s a hard thing to be both sympathetic towards the people one is writing about and at the same time sensitively call a spade a spade – Harriet does this well.
What she also does really well in this book is tease. I enjoyed reading about the significant others to Louisa so much that when a section ended and I was to read no more about them, I found myself thinking, “Wait, what?! What happened next?” (So this biography prompts the desire to read additional biographies. For example I now want to know more about: Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller and John Pratt.)
She also brought the men in Louisa’s life to the fore, weaving in moments such as Louisa’s suggesting to Alf Whitman that they run off as sailors across the Atlantic to have adventures in Europe (I will attempt the tease myself and leave it at that).
5 new gems I discovered about Louisa
Of course there are more than 5 gems in this book – I filled several pages noting things I didn’t know about her and was thrilled to find out! – but a blog post has to stop somewhere, hence I’ve chosen 5 that particularly touched my heart and mind…
She became an abolitionist at the age of 3
When bounties were placed for the capture and delivery of abolitionists to be tarred and feathered, British abolitionist George Thompson and editor William Lloyd Garrison were targeted. Louisa hid under the bed whilst the abolitionists gathered at the Alcotts’ and from then on was in the thick of the cause. Her sympathy for the equal worth of slaves was further developed when she fell into the Boston Public Garden Frog Pond and nearly drowned before being rescued by an eight year old black boy.
She lost her first love to “a fever”
As a teenager, Louisa had a romance with a boy named Augustus who went to boarding school and with whom she exchanged letters. He promised to return for her, inviting her to go “boating and berrying and all the rest of it again.” He never did – for in a matter of weeks, he died from “a fever.”
Her mother Abigail (Marmee) set up the household post-office
During her father’s frequent absences her mother set up a post office in their home like the one that appears in Little Women, which the sisters took turns looking after as post-master. They would write letters and make parcels for each other, and it became a beloved family institution.
Her sister Anna (Meg) was the one to have started a school
In Little Women, Jo has the idea of starting Plumfield when the estate is bequeathed to her upon the death of Aunt March; in history, it was Louisa’s elder sister Anna who opened a school when she became the sole family breadwinner at the age of 19, and later would teach at a psychiatric hospital.
Louisa herself actually disliked teaching, “spending those days giving lessons to small children was not the future she had planned,” though she was willing to as she valued education. She and Anna gave evening classes in literacy to immigrant and black women, and for a short time Louisa would open a school at Beacon Hill (but once it closed for the summer she made no plans to re-open it). She not only advocated for abolition but also the rights of slaves to literacy.
She held a masked ball for her 21st birthday
I love this little tidbit about Louisa. In Little Women Jo has a fabulous time showing up to a new year’s eve masked ball dressed as Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals; Louisa herself gave a masked ball for her coming of age 21st birthday party in which she dressed “in fancy costume,” according to her mother Abigail. (Whether this was as Mrs Malaprop is uncertain, though she certainly acted this particular role in the Walpole Amateur Dramatic Company’s performance of The Rivals.)
“No born brother was ever dearer…He did more to make us trust and respect men than anyone I know, and with him I lose the one young man whom I sincerely honored in my heart.”
“Words were Louisa’s playthings for the tongue and the page, her non-violent means to power, her passport to riches.”
“Her mother was her salvation; even surrounded by strangers and overburdened with responsibilities, Abby could be counted upon to notice, sympathize, and care.”