Little Women. To many, Louisa May Alcott’s tale of domestic struggles is a childhood standby that kept many lanterns--or flashlights--burning beneath suspiciously domed comforters. Since its publication in 1868, countless young women have found themselves in romantic Meg, headstrong Jo, fine Amy, and selfless Beth. But how much do you know about the real March sisters--Anna, Louisa, Lizzy, and Beth Alcott-- who inspired the classic tale of domestic joys and woes? With the Alcott family’s historic home Orchard House (the setting for the fictional Little Women) just an hour north of Norwell, the Alcott family history is one of activism, trial, and success that is more entwined with our own than one might think. This two part series will delve into the life of the Alcotts, their family connection right here in Norwell, and the contemporary relevance of the beloved tale. Armed with knowledge of the past, present, and future of the now-famous Concord family, perhaps we can learn just how and why the Marches have found such a well-loved place on bookshelves around the world.
In the mid-19th century, the small town of Concord, Massachusetts was home to some of the greatest thinkers and writers of the day. This mecca of literature and philosophy drew watersheds such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Among these philosophers was the renowned educational activist Amos Bronson Alcott. After moving his wife and daughters all around the Northeast in search of a home (including a brief time spent in the Boston commune Fruitlands), Alcott’s friends finally convinced him to calm his restless spirit at the Orchard House, affectionately (or perhaps exasperatedly) dubbed “Apple Slump” by his wife. Alcott was drawn to the budding new philosophy called Transcendentalism, a philosophy that emphasizes the connection between individualism and nature and discouraged blind faith a religious or political doctrine. A true Transcendentalist, Alcott established a school in Boston to educate both boys and girls, even admitting the first African American student in Boston. However, his school closed when his ideals became too radical for the Boston parents, evidence of one of the truths of Alcott’s life: that even the most noble ideas cannot pay the rent. “Our philosopher”as his girls affectionately called him, would need to rely on his wife and children to carve out a sustainable living.
Abigail May Sewall Alcott was a force. Louisa certainly had a lifelong study of character and determination from her mother; in addition to managing her four daughters and her home, “Marmee” was an outspoken activist for causes like prohibition and abolition. In addition to being a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Abba was one of the first social workers in Boston. Although born into wealth as the youngest daughter of Dorothy Sewall and Colonel Joseph May, Abba chose to pursue a life of activism and service with the man whom she loved. Although frequently frustrated by her husband’s inability to consistently support the family, Abba unequivocally stood by her husband and his ideals, claiming that she could “ as easily learn to live without breath”(Orchard House) than her husband. Above all, Abba, the base for the character Marmee in Little Women, ensured that her girls received a fine education, encouraging them to pursue their passions with all of the talent and determination that they possessed.
A detail of Little Women that was taken straight from the lives of the Alcott sisters was the creation of original theatricals to give to their friends and neighbors as a gift at Christmastime, when financial restrictions limited their holiday wallets. From a young age, the eldest sister Anna Alcott (or Meg March in the book) had great talent upon the boards. Her skill inspired one visitor to the Alcotts to claim that “Anna could cause handkerchiefs to come out and much swallowing of lumps in the throat”(Orchard House). In fact, through the Concord Dramatic Union, Anna met and fell in love with John Pratt, the counterpart of John Brooke in the novel. Their modest wedding in the parlor of Orchard House was attended by a small circle of friends including “Mr. Emerson”, who played the flute while the happy couple danced. While marriage found Anna “more calm and serene than ever before”(Anna’s Diary), her younger sister Louisa had a very different idea about her future.
In an age when marriage was too often an economic proposition in which a woman’s freedom was sold to the highest bidder, Lou Alcott preferred to “paddle her own canoe”. Born with a quick temper and a sharp tongue, Louisa was a lover of her own independence, the love of which burned in Louisa’s literary counterpart Jo. As quaint Concord afforded the budding writer precious few opportunities to “let out [her] pent-up energy”(National Museum of Civil War Medicine), when the Civil War broke out, Alcott jumped at the chance to support the abolition cause and escape her small town life by signing up as a Civil War Nurse. While in Little Women, Mr. March was the one to fight in the war, reality found Louisa on the front lines treating the wounds and minds of the injured. Louisa paid a price for her service, though: after contracting mercury poisoning from the medicine used to treat her typhoid fever, she returned home. Upon her return, Louisa published Hospital Sketches, a collection of her experiences as a nurse. However, it wasn’t until Little Women was published did she find widespread success. The book of domestic struggles and joys that she didn’t think would be interesting to anyone suddenly allowed her to support her family as she had always wanted to, giving them a stability that they had never before had. For the first time, young girls saw a heroine who was boyish and strong, literary and intelligent. Louisa’s fans became so enthralled with the writer as to call upon her home in Concord, so much so that Louisa began answering the door claiming that she was the maid. However, the Alcott family’s newfound happiness was constantly dampened by a tragic loss years before.
Elizabeth Sewall Alcott possessed an uncommon selflessness and was adored by all, especially Louisa. Known as the ‘angel in the house’, Lizzie lived for her family, delighting them with her musical talents. While her gentle silence tended to conceal her innermost feelings, “the fullest portrait of Elizabeth is to be found within the pages of Little Women, where she was portrayed as the gentle "Beth March ``''(Orchard House). When she passed away at age twenty two due to effects from her earlier battle with scarlet fever, her family mourned the loss of a truly good and innocent spirit. In contrast to this gentility, however, was the youngest Alcott sister.
Although Abigail May Alcott was the youngest of the bunch, her spirit was anything but small. An artist from a young age, May filled her little blue room in the Orchard House with sketches of gods and goddesses drawn from the books lent to her by “Mr. Emerson.” Encouraged by her progressive parents to study drawing, Amy March learned from some of the best artists in Boston. Then, after Louisa’s great success with Little Women, the kind older sister was able to send her on three separate trips of study to Rome, London, and Paris. In addition to achieving success of her own, such as when one of her still life paintings was accepted into the 1877 Paris Salon, May worked to give other female artists of modest means a way to study art abroad, even publishing a guidebook for young female artists to study in Europe cheaply. Just like her sister, May took advantage of her own success to better others. And, she even insisted upon keeping her artistic career alive after she married. May Alcott was determined to by mother and artist, wife and career builder. However, success and passion do not always result in longevity; May died just six weeks after her daughter was born. Young Lulu was sent to live with her aunt Louisa, who would love and care for the child until Louisa’s death in 1888.
From tragedy to triumph, struggle to succeed, we have examined the lives of the Alcott family through the lense of history. In the next addition of this series, we will examine the heroines of the book itself to understand how and why right now is the best time in the world to be a Little Women fan.