Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ by Harriet Reisen

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.

20 comments

  1. This sounds wonderful. I read Eden’s Outcasts last year, which was fascinating but not as enjoyable as I hoped. Sounds like this would succeed where that book did not! I think I always had the impression that Alcott was Jo March so, really, why bother reading a biography about her when I could just read Little Women? Clearly, there is was more to her and much left for me to learn!

    1. It really is a brilliant book, Claire. I’ve eyed up that Eden’s Outcast’s many times but it’s interesting to hear you didn’t think much of it. Isn’t it funny how you just assume you know someone famous when actually their life was so different from the imagined? I too thought Louisa May Alcott had had the life she depicted in Little Women and I am a little sad that she didn’t, if I’m honest. I’m glad she was as exciting and revolutionary as she was, but I wish she had have experienced the happiness in life she allowed Jo March to.

  2. What a compelling review! If Louisa May is looking out from wherever she has transcended to, I’m sure she is smiling and thinking that yes, all that work and toil and effort and worry and sacrifice made a difference.

    Don’t you wonder if she would have enjoyed the internet and blogging and such? I rather think she would. You have opened up so much dialogue, from across the pond and from such distant countries. What a remarkable tool from the woman who worked so hard and was so misunderstood, using both hand to write, some 140+years ago from the publication of her Little Women.

    1. Thanks Penny! Glad you enjoyed it – I hope Louisa is thinking just that, because she really does deserve to know the impact her life made.

      Yes I think she would – though I think she would probably have remained anonymous. I can imagine her going into discussions about her and her work and pretending to be just another fan, and enjoying reading what everyone thought of her!

  3. I did quite a lot of research on the Alcott family in preparation for leading a group discussion of Geraldine Brooks novel ‘March’ and like you was very surprised by the complexity of the life that lay behind the favourite books of my childhood. Have you read her two later books for children, ‘Eight Cousins’ and ‘Rose in Bloom’ where she explores her own philosophical beliefs more fully than in the March books? I think you would enjoy them. I shall certainly be on the look out for a copy of this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    1. No I haven’t read Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, but I very much want to! I am hoping the library has them as I would really like to have a summer of immersing myself in her books. I’m also intrigued by the ‘March’ book and I’m going to keep an eye out for that at the library too. I hope you manage to find a copy of the bio and read it – it’s really so fascinating. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  4. How absolutely fascinating. Coincidentally (and slightly off topic) I was rereading What Katy Did Next last night – according to the blurb Susan Coolidge had been told by the publisher who had published her first book to try to produce something in the style of Louisa May Alcott.

    1. Oh that is interesting! I haven’t re-read that in ages – I wonder what Susan Coolidge’s life was like! Another author for me ro rediscover, perhaps?!

  5. I only found out that she wrote adult novels recently and was stunned. This biography sounds really good, designed to bring a wider appreciation for Alcott (not everyone likes Little Women after all) and explain just how complex she was. I think it’s interesting how many authors of children’s classic wanted to be remembered for their books for adults (Richmall Crompton springs to mind).

    1. It’s amazing how unknown her other works outside of the Little Women series are. I haven’t read them so can’t comment on whether they’re any good or not, but from the description of them in the biography, it sounds like they’re the kind of Victorian idealist fiction that fell heavily out of fashion in the early 20th century, and that’s probably why they’re not known today. Yes, I was going to mention that but forgot – Frances Hodgson Burnett was the same. Her adult novels are good but not spectacular; it’s a shame she didn’t appreciate the talent she had as a children’s author, because she truly was brilliant at writing for younger people.

  6. She sounds like an amazing person. I can see how the story of Little Woman echoes that experience of not being able to achieve that Victorian ideal through lack of money. Sounds like a fascinating book! Great review🙂

  7. I also assumed Jo March was a portrait of Alcott herself and had no idea she led such a tumultous life. It’s interesting to know what a strong activist she was.

  8. I actually have a physical sense of heaviness in my chest now, I had no idea of what this woman’s life was like! The image I had of Alcott was one of sitting at a table in the garden, writing whilst drinking cups of tea. Searching for a customer’s book request last Autumn, I did spy a book of murder mysteries by Alcott and had a moment of ‘well, when did she write those?’ and then it passed. I’m feeling quite guilty now that I fell into the stereotype without knowing more about the woman behind the books.

    1. Me too Darlene, me too! It’s interesting how easy it is to have an image of someone and to let that become your reality. I had heard of her mystery stories but I presumed it was someone else with the same name – I didn’t want to believe the author of Little Women could have been so racy! It is sad that she never had the lovely life Jo March did but at the same time, she had an incredible legacy in her books that ensures she will never be forgotten, and from what I have gathered about Alcott from this biography, she would have valued that more than brief happiness while she was alive.

  9. Wasn’t she an amazing woman? I was fascinated by this as well. I’ve only read Little Women and one of her more sensational novels (The Long Fatal Love Chase), but I snapped up several other books after I read this. PBS aired a documentary also made by the author which was realy good but covered the same ground as the book.

    1. She really was, Danielle! I’d like to see that documentary and I wonder whether it’s available in the UK? I’m definitely interested in reading her sensational novels now – A Long Fatal Love Chase sounds wonderful!

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