Who Was That Woman Behind "Little Women"?
Louisa May Alcott. Colorized version of black and white photo taken of the author at about age 25
by Joyce L. Faiola
This year marks the 150th anniversary of publication of the first volume of Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women. A film version of the story set in contemporary times has been released already and a second version, set in the Civil War-era that is truer to the original story, is being filmed in part in Harvard center and a scene was shot this week in Groton’s Old Burial Grounds.
Alcott has a further connection to this area as her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, led an experiment in Utopian living, which came to be known as Fruitlands. Today that farmhouse is part of Fruitlands Museums in Harvard.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Her father (Amos Bronson Alcott) was a self-educated son of a Connecticut farmer who was a teacher, lecturer and writer who did not earn enough income in his lifetime to keep his family from poverty. Her mother (Abigail ‘Abby’ May) was an educated woman from a prominent and wealthy Massachusetts family.
Alcott’s family was often destitute and in one 10-year period they moved 30 times, sometimes living on bread and water to survive. One of their addresses was a basement flat in the poorest slum of Boston. Louisa worked at every job she would find; including, servant, teacher, nanny, seamstress, laundress, and personal companion.
Despite her poverty, Louisa was lucky. She had a very close and loving relationship with her mother (whom she honored in the character of Marmee in Little Women). She was raised in a household of learning and meaningful conversation as both her parents were strong abolitionists and temperance supporters. Her mother was an ardent suffragette who became Massachusetts’s first paid social worker in 1848.
From the earliest years Louisa was an independent and active force of nature, who ran (jogged) every day in the forests and fields near wherever she lived. “I believe in a former life I was a horse or a deer.” She was gifted with intelligence, focus, and determination. She vowed, “I would rather remain a spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
From her journal, “I’m going to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her. I will do anything to help the family and plan to become happy, rich and famous before I die.”
Throughout her life, Louisa had the company, companionship and conversation with the best minds and most original thinkers of her day. They included Ralph Waldorf Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, Nathanial Hawthorn, and the abolitionists Frederick Douglass (the most famous and photographed man of his day) and Julia Ward Howe. She had a relationship with the writer, suffragette and like-minded feminist Margaret Fuller (who for a short time lived on Pleasant Street here in Groton). Emerson not only loaned her books, but also often provided funds for the family’s food and housing.
At the age of 19 Louisa published for the first time a poem under the name Flora Fairfield. At 22 she began to publish under her own name. Her first assignments were for magazines; they were short stories of fiction, many of which featured characters and scenarios that were considered ‘unsuitable’ for a woman to write. Topics included cross dressers, spies, prostitution, murders and so on.
The money from these ‘sketches’ provided the financial support her family so desperately needed.
As Louisa’s fame and wealth increased after the publication of Little Women and other books, her sister May (Amy March in the novels) died after childbirth and May’s daughter Louisa (Lulu) came to live in the Alcott’s Beacon Hill home in Louisville Square with Ms. Alcott delighting in her new young charge.
The household employed 10 servants and life was good because of Louisa’s earnings.
Even with this welcome and much appreciated financial stability, Louisa’s health was slowly deteriorating. Back in 1869 while she was working as a nurse in a hospital caring for Civil War casualties in Washington DC, Louisa had contracted Typhus fever. She was given the mercury-laced medicine Calomel. She believed this ‘medicine’ was responsible for her ailing health which may have caused the autoimmune disease Lupus to invade her body and ultimately kill her with a stroke at the age of 56.
In her lifetime Ms. Alcott published 30 books which sold more than 1.8 million copies and earned her $100,000 in the 20 years of her lifetime her books were published. (Three of her books were published under A.M. Barnard.) That translates today into a million dollars. By comparison Henry James earned $25,000 dollars in his lifetime and Herman Melville, just $10,000.
L.M. Alcott was one of the first writers in the world to become a brand as her books have been translated into almost every language on the globe. She shared her birth date with her father, November 29, and he died two days before her.