First off, big thanks to Henry Holt for sending me a copy of this all the way from New York; I emailed and begged for it months ago and as I got no response, I presumed my pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Much to my joy, a couple of months ago a package from the Big Apple arrived on my doorstep, and inside was this gem of a book that has given me much reading pleasure over the past couple of weeks. I have had my eyes opened to the world of Louisa May Alcott, and to the significance of her novels, which I had previously dismissed as just heartwarming children’s books. A complex and brilliant woman who moved amongst the most glittering, intellectual circles of her time, Alcott’s fire burned brightly both in life and after her death, through her much loved books. Sadly, she has become a misunderstood and drastically undervalued figure in recent years, as her writing style has gone out of popular fashion and the story of her remarkable and revolutionary life been lost in the mists of time.
Looking at the cabinet card photographs of Louisa, produced for her legions of young fans during her own lifetime, she appears to be just another staid, plain faced Victorian maid, with nothing to distinguish her features, and no twinkle in the placid stare of her dark eyes. She is only really known today for her famous Little Women series of books, written for children, an audience for which, as I have discovered from Harriet Reisen’s remarkable, illuminating biography, Louisa never had any serious intention of writing. She was proudest of her adult fiction; of her dark, thrilling tales of subterfuge and murder, drug taking and daring adventures that she dashed off, like her alter ego Jo March, for trashy magazines in order to make a living. She also wrote two long novels for adults, her magnum opi, still available in paperback; Moods and Work, which explore the deeper issues that preoccupied Louisa during her lifetime; equal rights for women, the importance and necesssity for women to be able to work, the power of finding a deeper spiritual meaning in life, the abolition of slavery, and the importance of making a loving marriage, or none at all. Largely educated by her Transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott, now just a footnote in the lives of his vastly more famous friends, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc, but in his day a very famous and well respected leader in this educational and spiritual movement, she grew up surrounded by intelligent, passionate, liberal, forward thinking men and women who would mould her character and mindset for life. Probably her greatest influence was her remarkable mother, Abby, whose tireless energy, magnificent zest for life, fierce intelligence, and faithful, loving nature, would prove to be Louisa’s source of inspiration, and the pillar of strength she so needed in a childhood marked by disruption and worry.
Louisa grew up into an ambitious, determined, passionate and fascinating woman, who promised herself she would become rich and successful, no matter what the cost; but not for her own gain, but that of her family. Her father, while in possession of a magnificent brain, could not turn his intelligence into earning power. Encouraged by his adoring wife, who believed him to be on a different plane to other men, he made no discernible effort to establish a steady income for his family, preferring to pursue ill advised educational endeavours and write books that no one wanted to read. As debts piled up, the family moved from place to place to escape them, and far from the tranquil, cosy life the March girls live despite their genteel poverty, Louisa, her three sisters, and her parents, grew up in grinding poverty, living in rented rooms and surviving on borrowed credit. Little Women, far from representing a reflection of Louisa’s upbringing, or depicting a saccharine, sentimental Victorian ideal, actually depicts the childhood Louisa wished she had experienced, and was angry that her father had never been able to provide. Pitied by her rich relations, Louisa felt demeaned and embarrassed by constantly having to be the recipient of charity; her prolific output and fierce pace of work, often pushing herself into periods of illness so severe she couldn’t work for months on end, were fuelled by her desire to be financially independent, and never have to beg at the door of her relatives for aid again.
In many ways, reading this biography saddened me. Not having known much about Louisa before, I had presumed she was a sweet, religious Victorian matron, writing nice stories with her children at her feet in a spacious, comfortable house somewhere. Reading about her tumultuous and frequently frustrating life, lived rushing around between family members, taking care of various relatives, working herself to exhaustion to provide for everyone who depended on her, frequently sacrificing her own dreams to ensure the happiness of those she loved, completely overturned my expectations of her, and revolutionised my understanding of her writing and her importance in history. A pioneer in every sense of the word, she pushed herself to succeed, and wasn’t afraid of risking her reputation, or her life, for what she believed in. She marched against slavery, campaigned for woman’s suffrage, nearly died while nursing Civil War soldiers, and wrote daring stories that would have shocked everyone she knew if she had put her real name to them. She supported her entire family through her writing, and raised her niece after the death of her youngest sister. Hers was a life marked by frustration, disappointment, immense grief, and debilitating pain and illness. However, despite this, she had an immense capacity for love and generosity, and for finding joy and pleasure in life. She adored her parents and sisters, and the depiction of the March sisters’ personalities and strong bond is not so far from the truth. It’s just a shame that the settled, peaceful, cosy hearthside picture of the March family was never something Louisa achieved for herself, or for her family. Louisa died in pain and alone, in a nursing home. She never married, or had children, and she had to cope with the grief of losing her beloved mother, two of her sisters, and her brother in law. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was one well lived regardless. It’s a real shame that her greatest legacy is a novel that doesn’t adequately express her vivid, incredible, remarkable personality, and one that she never thought much of. As much as I love Little Women, it is telling that Louisa didn’t think much of it. It is a mark of her personality that the writer of one of the greatest and most beloved works of fiction ever written still thought she could have done better.
Even if you have no interest in Louisa May Alcott’s novels, this biography is so brilliantly written that you can’t fail to be enthralled by this story of a most remarkable woman. It cannot come more highly recommended; I loved every minute of it, and Louisa’s wonderful, sparkling and passionate personality has inspired me to dare to achieve my dreams, as she did hers, no matter what the cost.