Although I love biographies, I don't read them as often as I would like. I especially like a biographer who can bring the subject to life as Harriet Reisen does in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. Reading it is like reading a blueprint for Louisa May Alcott's very famous and much loved Little Women, so much did Louisa pull from real life to create her story. As a matter of fact many of her works are autobiographical or draw on her life and the lives of people she knew. It's obvious that Reisen is very fond of Louisa May Alcott and after reading about her it's not hard to see why. It seems as though Louisa was determined to lead the life she wanted despite the many obstacles that were in her way as a woman of that period. And it wasn't really an easy life she led either, but she was a smart, self-reliant woman who persevered no matter the situation.
In writing the biography Reisen has drawn heavily on the letters and journals of Louisa May Alcott and her family. Louisa and her sisters were urged by their parents to keep journals from the time they could write. Much of the book is told in Louisa's own words, which gives the reading experience a certain immediacy. Not only does Reisen portray the lives of Louisa and her family vividly but also that period in American history that was so tumultuous. The daughter of one of the founders of the Transcendentalist Movement she grew up surrounded by such famous personages as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Dorothea Dix, Emily Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne to name a few.
Despite being part of such an illustrious milieu, however, life for the Alcotts was not especially easy. Louisa's parents married later in life. Abigail May was a spinster of 29 before she met and married Bronson Alcott. She had eight children though only four survived and on more than one occasion the birth was not only difficult but dangerous. Although Bronson had many progressive ideas about education and how society should conduct itself, he wasn't an especially practical man and never really held a regular job. The burden of financial support for the family fell on Abby, who did odd jobs like sewing and teaching, and other family members who often gave gifts of money, but also Waldo Emerson (as he preferred to be known) and later on Louisa. Often debts would follow the family about, as they moved no fewer than thirty times until they finally settled in Concord when Louisa was in her mid-twenties. As an adult Louisa likened her philosopher father's relationship to the family as a man up in a balloon, "with his family and friends holding the ropes, trying to haul him down." Reisen hints at the possibility that Bronson suffered mental illness which would have precluded him from holding a normal job. In any case the family led an often precarious existence, all the more sad as they had many wealthy relatives.
Louisa was born on November 29, 1832, the second of four daughters, and shared a birthday with her father. She was a rambunctious and fearless child and often noted in her journal that she would try to be better. Her family led a very bohemian lifestyle, which may have been as limiting in some ways as freeing in others. They were vegetarians, though I think Abby would have preferred to eat meat and drew the line at not giving her children milk. After a long walk from Boston to Concord (Louisa was a great walker and managed it in five hours even attending a party in the evening on top of that), Louisa was said to have noted in her journal "well done for a vegetable production!". The family lived for a short while in a communal environment, called Fruitlands, though without much success. Louisa's happiest years, however, were spent in Hillside. No doubt it was the closest the family had come to living as a normal, average family. She had friends her age and attended a regular school at the time.
Although Louisa May Alcott is always associated with Concord, she spent much of her life in Boston, and it represented for her a life of independence. The two oldest sisters, Anna and Louisa were often juggled about going off to earn money outside the home teaching or acting as nursemaids or seamstresses. Lizzie, the third daughter, generally stayed at home to take care of their parents and younger sister May, though this job fell to Louisa after Lizzie became ill. But Boston is where Louisa could earn her own living and try her hand at the things that inspired her. She and Anna both tried their luck at acting. Louisa was quick to understand that teaching wasn't for her and wanted more than anything to earn her living as a writer.
"Shortly after her twenty-sixth birthday, she took stock of her mood and her prospects. 'This past year has brought us the first death and betrothal--two events that change my life. I can see these experiences have taken a deep hold, and changed or developed me.' Louisa judged herself stronger and more mature for her ordeals, and more confident of her powers. 'I feel as if I could write better now--more truly of things I have felt and therefore know. I hope I shall yet do my great book, for that seems to be my work, and I am growing up to it. I even think of trying the Atlantic. There's ambition for you...!'"
She did publish in the Atlantic, which was a literary magazine, but she published in a variety of other publications as well. "She had trained herself to succeed in genres of writing that had commercial markets--the children's tale, the short story, the longer serial fiction, and nonfiction." By the time she was thirty she was making a living in the trade unlike most other authors who couldn't support themselves solely by writing. Although most famous for Little Women and it's sequels, she also penned pulp fiction, the fact of which I find so fascinating (and will have to follow up this read with some of those novels).
"These psychologically complex tales of lust, betrayal, revenge, and violence satisfied Louisa's thirst for adventure as nothing else did in her life could. Her daring tales of scheming heroines and villainous suitors allowed her to explore incest, sadism, murder, suicide, swindling, transvestism, revolution, espionage, unwed motherhood, and above all power struggles between the sexes. Her own violent, passionate, even homicidal thoughts drew her to the darker side of human nature embodied in sinners who, despite her claims, often have no good in them at all."
I think it's amazing what she did considering the period in which she lived. She was an abolitionist and worked as a nurse during the Civil War, an experience which "replaced her book knowledge of behavior under duress with real-life experience." She traveled to Europe (as a governess/chaperon), which had been a dream of hers. All before she wrote her famed Little Women, which was a phenomenal success when published and we see today it's lasting effect on generation after generation of reader. While she began life living in near poverty, later in life she would have her own servants. There's so much more to Louisa's life, but it's impossible to write about it all in one post.
Reisen's account of Louisa May Alcott's life is thoroughly enjoyable to read. Even if you haven't read any of her fiction, Louisa May Alcott was a remarkable woman and a fascinating study. I'd be very curious to read her letters and wonder if her journals have ever been published. I have a copy of American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, which I plan on reading at some point. I also have a few of Louisa's sensationalist stories/novels: A Long Fatal Love Chase (which I read when it was reissued in the mid-1990s and must dig out) as well as Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott and A Marble Woman (yet more unknown thrillers by LMA). My curiosity about this period in American history has also been piqued so I see yet another reading tangent coming up. Now that I have the facts of her life in mind, I can't wait for the documentary!