Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lazy Day... and Louisa May

I had every intention of going for a walk, but I spent the afternoon on the sofa covered by my cozy throw, in a coma. Now it's dinner time and I have a grand total of 60 of my proposed 10,000 steps.

That's what I get for staying up all night finishing an excellent book, Marmee & Louisa, by Eve LaPlante. I've read several biographies of Louisa May Alcott, and this one uses new source materials relating to Louisa's mother, Abigail May Alcott (and the illustrious, reforming May family) which were thought to have been burned by Louisa and her father Bronson in the years after her death. The author discovered much of these in her attic — she is a great-niece of Abigail and a cousin of Louisa, and inherited trunks of family memorabilia from an aunt. She tells the Alcott story in a fresh, compelling way, revealing Abigail May Alcott's profound and loving influence on Louisa.

Insisting that women were equal to men and capable of doing whatever they set their minds to, Abigail encouraged Louisa to express herself in words from an early age, buying her notebooks and blank journals so she could write every day. Abigail kept a daily journal herself and was a wonderful writer in her own right as well as a dedicated abolitionist and women's suffragist. The Alcott family was desperately poor as Louisa was growing up, since Bronson was incapable of providing for his family and left it to the womenfolk to beg, borrow, work at menial jobs, sew, teach, and take in boarders. Both Louisa and her mother led difficult, often disappointing lives, beset by family hardships and perpetual debt. They often felt trapped, not having the freedom men had to earn a living and work for human rights. Unlike Little Women, Louisa's family story didn't have a happy ending, where everyone finds love and fulfillment. But there's still a ribbon of joy that runs through their story, fed by Abigail's loving, generous spirit.

The family moved about 30 times in 30 years, often renting rooms in Boston. This doesn't include all the extra moves that daughters Anna, Louisa, and May made separately, to support their family by working as teachers or servants. Louisa preferred Boston as she was bored in Concord, especially in winter. Their Concord houses were cold and uncomfortable until she was successful with Little Women and could afford central heating and other improvements.

Now I want to watch the Susan Sarandon/Winona Ryder film of Little Women again. I always believed that Sarandon's portrayal of Marmee (who is Abigail) as a strong-minded reformer ahead of her time was an unusual, intelligent choice. This book confirms that as the truth.

I had forgotten that Abigail and Louisa were descendants of Samuel Sewall (1652-1730). He was the only one of the judges at the Salem witch trials who later publicly apologized and atoned for his decisions. He wore sackcloth in repentance for the rest of his life and wrote what was probably the first antislavery tract in the Colonies. LaPlante has also written his biography, which I plan to read.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this book review. I would read your blogiom for Harry updates alone, but this, along with a shared love of Downton Abbey, cupcakes, and the beautiful pictures of your corner of Boston in winter have been especially fun.



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