I’ve never read Little Women; boys didn’t when I was growing up, and most still don’t. Thus, much of what fascinated me about Eve LaPlante’s Marmee & Louisa, a dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, Abigail, came as a shock.
I had always assumed that Louisa’s books were thinly disguised versions of her life. It turns out that they were more like inversions of her life–much of it a heartbreaking chronicle of poverty and desperation, due to the fecklessness of her father, Amos Bronson Alcott. He’s known today as an idealistic but ineffectual philosopher, whose ideas about the education of children were ahead of his time. But in LaPlante’s telling, based on previously unpublished family papers, he’s a more menacing creature. (A valuable companion to Marmee & Louisa is My Heart Is Boundless, a collection of letters and journal entries by Abigail May Alcott, edited by Eve LaPlante.)
Emerson wrote caustically of Alcott’s “majestic … egoism” (“His topic yesterday is Alcott on the 17th October; today, Alcott on the 18th October”) and on at least one occasion refused to lend him money. Alcott disdained employment, preferring to live off the charity of friends and the hard work of his wife and, eventually, his daughter, who became for a time the nation’s most popular author. And yet he saw these two heroic women as possessed by the devil, referring to them in his journal as “the mother fiend and her daughter.” It is a perfect irony that after a lifetime of failure as a lecturer, he finally succeeded by touring as Louisa May Alcott’s father, claiming credit for her achievements.
It is equally ironic that, as LaPlante puts it, “Louisa’s literary creation”–the warm and loving Marmee–“may obscure the flesh-and-blood Abigail,” an outspoken advocate of abolition, temperance, and other 19th-century crusades. It is her spirit, as much as Louisa’s, that animates the passionate Jo March of Little Women. The real Louisa, though enormously successful, comes across as a more pathetic figure. Unable to sell her early romances, she briefly contemplated suicide before writing the “lively simple book for girls” suggested by editor Thomas Niles in 1867. She churned it out in nine weeks the following spring; its first edition of 2,000 sold out in two.
Here’s the final irony. The author of classic novels for young readers–Little Women was followed by Little Men and others–never married and had no children of her own (although she cared for her sister May’s baby daughter after May’s death). Near the end of her amazing life, she wrote, “Freedom was always my longing, but I have never had it.”