I’ve posted here before that the book I’ve re-read most in my life is probably Little Women. I started reading it when I was about ten or eleven, and I’ve read it over and over since then, understanding it differently as I grew older. If you told me I’d read it more than a hundred times, I might believe you; I expect to read it many more times before I’m done.
I’ve always understood that Little Women has a lot of autobiographical content in it. But until I read this biography, Louisa May Alcott, by Harriet Reisen, I didn’t know what sort of a patchwork it was: bits of Alcott’s childhood and adulthood, some pieces taken directly from her life and her journals, other pieces romanticized or given a glow, other pieces completely invented. And of course, some parts of her life left out entirely. How could it be otherwise?
Louisa Alcott was born in 1832, the daughter of Bronson and Abigail Alcott. Bronson Alcott was a minor member of the Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau. Those gentlemen certainly had their occasional issues with structures of authority (see “Civil Disobedience” for a good example), but Bronson Alcott went much further, declaring that work for wages was beneath him, that eating meat was murder (not a widespread 19th century opinion), and that he and his family should only bathe in cold water. He tried to earn money by giving speeches, or “Conversations,” about his principles, but they were surprisingly unpopular, and his family was always grindingly poor. Abby, Louisa’s mother, took in sewing and occasionally taught school, which were the only genteel ways for a woman to earn money; it kept the family fed, but little else. In Little Women, Louisa Alcott gives the March family a servant, but her own family always did their own basic chores. While she praised the dignity of honest work, she longed to be “rich and happy before I die.”
Of course, as soon as Louisa was old enough, she took to her pen to support her family — something she could excel at, and something she loved doing (as opposed to being in a schoolroom or scrubbing floors.) She wrote to suit her audience — from fairy tales to Christmas stories to lurid pulp fiction about the fate of young girls who accept hashish-laced candies from strangers. (Pro tip: not good.) She wrote novels looking at marriage in new ways; she furiously supported temperance and abolition. And in the middle of all of this, she went to nurse Civil War soldiers and dispatch sketches from the hospital, so everyone would know the experience of “our boys.”
This time at the front destroyed Louisa’s health. She contracted typhoid pneumonia, and was given calomel for it, which contains high doses of mercury. She didn’t recover from the pneumonia for months, and her health was never the same again. There’s a theory that this grave illness — and its “cure” — triggered an autoimmune response, and that for the rest of her life she suffered from lupus. There’s no real way to diagnose such a disease at this distance in time, but doctors from Johns Hopkins have made a pretty good stab at it in their paper “Louisa May Alcott: Her Mysterious Illness.”
Reisen’s biography does a lovely job of showing Louisa’s relationships, especially with her immediate family. Her mother Abby was as tempestuous and hot-headed as Louisa herself, and we see the faint echo of Marmee’s confession that when Jo was small, she herself had a temper; Lizzie’s quiet, early death mirrors Beth’s; older sister Anna is the gentle dove, and May is the artist who has her path smoothed by her sweet temperament. Laurie, it turns out, was based on a young Polish man named Ladislas Wisniewski whom she met on her travels. It seems clear their connection was brief, good-natured, and romantic — a sort of fling with no major expectations on either side, with Ladislas’s youth and energy being one of his main attractions. (Go, Louisa!) The one character whose personality does not appear to be at all the way it appears in the novel is Bronson Alcott’s. Louisa’s father was probably mentally ill, suffering from chronic depression and perhaps from hallucinations and delusions. He was often hypercritical of Louisa and the rest of his family, and certainly rarely did any work to support them. He had young female devotees as he got older, and spent his time in “conversations” with them, which at least kept him busy. Not exactly the wise, gentle March father who is portrayed in the pages of Little Women. That at least is a lovely little piece of wishful thinking.
Louisa’s great satisfaction as she got older was to provide for those she loved by her writing: to make her mother comfortable in her old age, to care for her niece when her sister May died in childbirth. Her novels were tremendously popular during her life — she was mobbed by fans, a bit the way Dickens was, though she didn’t capitalize on that the way he did — and she was able, indeed, to be “rich and happy before she died.” That was in 1888, at the age of 55. She died only two days after her father did.
I enjoyed this biography a great deal as an introduction to Louisa May Alcott’s life, but I would by no means say it was perfect or exhaustive. Reisen has that biographer’s trick of saying things like “no doubt wits at the time made thus and such a joke” or “no doubt Abby thought thus and so” without a shred of evidence that it happened. She doesn’t pay much attention to social history, either; she glosses over what Trancendentalism is, and what it must have been like to live in Concord at that time; she doesn’t talk a lot about the abolitionist movement; she barely touches on the woman’s suffrage movement. Some of that context would have put Louisa May Alcott’s life into perspective, instead of the isolation it currently stands in. But even so, it was very interesting to read about the life of such a vivid, strong, intelligent person, the author of some of my favorite books.
Do you like Louisa May Alcott? Have you read any of her pulp fiction? What’s your favorite of hers?