In Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story, author Eve LaPlante tells both Louisa May Alcott's story as well as that of her mother, Abigail. Readers come away with an entirely new view of the Alcott family, and a better understanding of the parental influence on the woman who was to become the most successful novelist of her time.
For several generations, young girls have grown up reading Little Women, usually identifying with and wanting to be Jo (Louisa), the tomboy sister who aspired to be a writer. Eve LaPlante was the luckiest reader of us all, however, because she is a descendant of the Alcott family. One day LaPlante was helping to clear out a family attic, when she came upon a trunk that contained long-forgotten letters and papers belonging to the Alcott family.
In piecing together these letters and journals as well as working with additional source material, LaPlante discovered that Louisa's mother, Abigail, was not the self-effacing background player as described in other accounts of the family. She was a strong woman with a mind of her own who fought for universal civil rights and advocated for women's suffrage and abolition. As early as 1833, she was among the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Brother Also Held Progressive Beliefs
Abigail was not the only May family member to take strong positions. Her brother, Samuel Joseph May, a clergyman, spent his life advocating for women's rights as well. While Samuel May advocated for improved rights, Abigail was caught living in a world where, as a woman, she had few choices: women could not vote, own property, or speak in public.
Despite her upper-class upbringing, Abigail had no interest in following the path society laid out for her. She had no intention to marry, but then when she was older she met Bronson Alcott, a philosopher/teacher with an active mind whom she felt she could love. They eventually married.
Despite Bronson's intelligence, he had a fatal flaw. He was unable or unwilling to accede to the wishes of those who employed him to run their schools, so he was constantly moving on. In between assignments, he felt no responsibility to provide support for the family, feeling that his thoughts, his trips for public speaking, and his philosophizing with friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were more important that earning a living.
This left Abigail to seek ways to provide for the family. She asked for loans from her family, and frequently sought lodging from relatives for herself and her daughters during Bronson's long speaking tours. She also took in sewing and eventually worked as a social worker in order to earn the income that would keep the family fed. All the daughters also helped with sewing from very young ages and they took tutoring jobs as soon as they were old enough.
Louisa Made Money from Writing
Louisa did all sorts of work to help bring in money for the family. When she began to see that she could make money by selling her stories, this became an important focus for her. She loved writing, and it brought in badly needed money.
As her classic, Little Women, went on to being a bestselling title, the book paved the way for Louisa to write other titles for a young audience, and she soon became the best-paid author of her day.
As Louisa May Alcott became more and more successful, Bronson proudly wove into his speeches his contribution to encouraging his daughter, the writer. His friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, likely also led to the assumption that this scholarly father would be the one to encourage his daughter in writing for publication. In the process, Abigail's contributions and personality faded into the background.
However, as revealed to us by LaPlante, Abigail was the inspiration behind Louisa. She not only encouraged her daughters to always keep journals, but she kept journals herself from which Louisa drew some of her story material. Abigail was also a strong proponent for women's rights so while all the daughters were influenced by her beliefs, Louisa was the one who most strongly lived her life according to the tenets of her mother.
As La Plante writes, "Louisa dreamed of a world in which women would have the same public rights as men--to vote, travel, speak out, and run governments."
While some critics have written that Louisa was never free to live her own life because of the demands of the family, one need only look at Abigail's initial hesitance to marry to understand that Louisa may never have been interested in signing over to one's spouse all of one's legal rights; she was her mother's daughter.
In addition, Louisa suffered from what LaPlante says medical experts now speculate was lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disorder. With that in mind, Louisa May Alcott may have been happiest with the make-believe worlds she could create and control. Marriage and motherhood may have seemed daunting with her ongoing health issues as well as the needs of her very close relationships with her mother and sisters.
The Challenge of a Dual Biography
The art of biography involves providing readers with enough detail to enlighten them without giving so much day-to-day material that it bogs down the story. In choosing to do a dual biography, Eve LaPlante doubly challenged herself to give us "enough" without it being too much. She succeeds beautifully. Readers come away with a better understanding of the author of a book many of us treasured, and a warm and satisfied feeling of the relationship between Louisa and her mother.
When her first book, Flower Fables, was published in 1854, Louisa dedicated it to her mother: To "my earliest patron, gentlest critic [and] dearest reader. Whatever beauty or poetry to be found in my little book is owing to your interest in and encouragement of all my efforts from the first to the last..."
Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother is available in paperback, and Eve LaPlante has also collected and edited a companion book, My Heart is Boundless, Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa's Mother, also now in paperback. This second book permits readers to absorb for themselves the writings of this strong, principled woman.
For more stories of inspirational women, also visit www.americacomesalive.com
Follow Kate Kelly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AboutAmerica