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Paddling her own canoe: Louisa May Alcott


“I will make a battering ram of my head and make my way through this rough and tumble world”

-- Louisa May Alcott


Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, requires no introduction to most adult readers; most of us have read the abridged versions as children, and savored the complete novel as we grew older. The story of the March sisters - a young adult novel in modern terms - was so popular when it came out in 1868 that the fervor it inspired among readers can only be compared to the frenzy one saw for the Harry Potter series. Little Women was translated into 50 languages; it has been adapted into several plays and movies, into ballet and even anime. More than 150 years after it was published, the book retains its popularity and has never been out of print.


Reading and re-reading Little Women as many times as I did, as a child and a teenager, I realized I knew little about its writer - the fiercely independent Louisa Alcott who in real life was even braver than the version of herself in the book.


Little Women is a work of ‘auto-fiction’ the modern term we use for fictionalized autobiographies. The March family in the novel was based on the Alcott family. The four Alcott sisters – Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, and May – became Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy respectively in the book. The connections are clear. The oldest Alcott sibling Anna (like Meg March) wanted nothing more than a family of her own; she married John Pratt (John Brooke in the book), and had children, but she always struggled financially. Lizzie, the kind and patient sibling (Beth March), died of long-drawn-out complications from scarlet fever. May Alcott (Amy March) was an aspiring artist and became rather a good one in her thirties when she lived in Paris. Louisa was the scribbler and independent spirit - our heroine Jo March. The mother (“Marmee”) was modeled on Abigail Alcott, their long suffering and hard-working mother.


A few aspects in the book did diverge from real life. The ‘genteel’ poverty that the Marches endure in the novel, was much more harsh in the case of the Alcotts. The family enjoyed intellectually rich company in Concord - Ralph Waldo Emerson lived down the road and was a family friend (Louisa worshipped him), Thoreau was like an older brother to the Alcott girls, Nathaniel Hawthorne was a friend and neighbour – and yet materially, the Alcotts struggled constantly and were perpetually in debt. Before Louisa was 10 years old, the family had moved homes at least twenty times. Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, was a philosopher and education reformer, respected by the Concord elite. Yet he could not hold down a job, and every venture he undertook was a failure. He simply could not provide for his family.


The Alcotts were thus forced to rely on the generosity of well-off relatives and friends, and on Abigail’s constant toil. Anna and Louisa shared in this effort as they grew older, taking on various odd jobs to get by. Louisa knew privation and hunger and it affected her deeply as a child. She wrote about how when she was 15, she sat by herself on a hill once and swore to herself “I will do something by and by. Don’t care what. Teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family. And I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die. See if I won’t!”


Her entire writing career was therefore a mercenary one – she knew she had only her brains and her pen to support her family and pay off their debts. Her initial writing was much like Jo’s in the book – psychologically complex tales of violence, lust, revenge, and betrayal that the papers loved to run, and people loved to read. She churned out story after story. While Anna married, and May travelled with older/richer benefactors, and Lizzie was long gone, Louisa was relegated to the role of caretaker and provider.


She craved independence; she decided that marriage was not for her, that she would rather stay single and “paddle her own canoe”.


When the civil war broke out, Louisa volunteered as a nurse and served at an army hospital in Georgetown for several weeks before serious illness forced her return home. In Little Women, it is the father who is away at war. In real life, it was Louisa that served at the front.


Recovering from this experience, Louisa slowly returned to her writing life, penning short stories and serials that the newspapers acquired with reasonable regularity. It paid the bills. Louisa was not counted among the serious writers of Concord; this was not only because she was a woman or that she belonged to a younger generation than say an Emerson or Hawthorne, but that her fiction until that point was commercial - racy thrillers that were written under a pseudonym, children's stories, serial fiction. She was yet to attempt a novel.


Bronson Alcott had long been convinced that a story based on the Alcott family would find readers - stories of real people and real lives. Louisa’s publisher at the time agreed. Louisa initially struggled with the idea, she was not yet ready to fictionalize her childhood and share it with the world. But she worked it out gradually, making tiny changes (for instance, deciding to change the family’s poverty from “grueling” to “genteel”). “Marmee, Anna and May all approve of my plan,” she wrote, “so I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls, never knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it”.


Louisa finished the book in a matter of weeks. It came out in two parts – Little Women in 1868 and Good Wives in 1869. Louisa was 36 when the first part came out, after almost two decades of toil as an adult. The story is a coming-of-age tale of the four March sisters, with their unique personalities, the conflicts and complications of sibling relationships, their experiences with poverty and hardship, their loves and losses.


Interestingly, the one family member who is not a main character is the father, who is absent from the story for the most part (away at the war). Alcott may have found her father’s failures and personality too complicated to bring on to the page. But it may also have been a novelistic choice (the burdens the girls had to shoulder may not have worked out in the story if the father was actively on the scene).


The one sticking point was the story arc for Jo. Louisa did not realize what she had let herself in for by setting up Jo and Laurie as an inseparable pair in the first book. Her readers (and her publisher) expected them to walk down the aisle in the second. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry”, she complained, “as if that were the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone” Louisa wanted Jo, like herself, to end up a successful but single writer, this was true to the character and to the message she was trying to send to young women, of possibilities beyond matrimony. In the end though, caving to commercial pressure, she did have Jo marry, but unable to resist, she played her own little trick to subvert expectations.


The book was an instant and massive success. It was deemed to be an early work of ‘domestic realism’ in the canon of American literature and earned her legions of readers and devoted fans. Louisa became America’s biggest literary celebrity.


Advised by her agent, she retained the copyright to her work, an unusual choice at the time and the smartest decision she ever made. From continuing royalties, she achieved two of her three goals – she was rich, and she was famous. The money was useful, to her and her family. It meant a more comfortable life, especially for her ageing parents. She did not care much for fame and was more annoyed than flattered by all the literary pilgrims who trooped to Orchard House (their home in Concord), hoping to catch a glimpse of the author, of “Jo” or any of the other “Marches”. As to happiness, this proved more elusive. Her life was so defined by toil and by her duty to her family that by the time she had enough money, she didn’t have the health to enjoy it. She had chronic issues that could not be clearly diagnosed (recently, medical experts have said, based on research, that it is likely that she suffered from Lupus, an auto immune disease).


After the success of Little Women, she continued to write at a brisk pace; two more books in the Little Women canon followed – Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Everything she wrote after Little Women sold exceedingly well.


Louisa had a final bout of illness and died on March 6, 1888, aged 56. She was unaware that her father had died two days before. There was no one by her side.


Read Charlotte Brontë’s life. A very interesting, but sad one. So full of talent; and after working long, just as success, love, and happiness come, she dies. Wonder if I shall ever be famous for people to care to read my story and struggles. I can’t be a C.B., but I may do a little something yet.” (From Louisa Alcott's journal, entry dated June 1857)


Sources:

The primary source for this post is a wonderful biography of Louisa Alcott, by Harriet Reisen (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women), that I read a few years ago. It was an honest and sympathetic account of Louisa Alcott’s life; an enlightening read.

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