Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was the accomplished author of several autobiographical fictions, the most enduring the story of her and her three sisters who were immortalized forever as Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in Little Women. This simple story of home life and family would become one of the most popular works of fiction in the country, catapulting Alcott into unexpected fame and wealth. In this post, read more about her journey as both an individual and an author. Discover the person behind the persona.
#1 She Never Actually Wanted to Write Little Women
Little Women was the book Louisa May Alcott did not want to write. In fact, the creation of this seminal work was largely due to the incessant urging from Louisa’s publisher, Thomas Niles, and encouragement from her father, Bronson Alcott. Louisa’s earliest work was set in melodrama via a pen name; full of daring, danger, murder, and romance. Later, her content turned more serious with descriptions from her work as a Civil War nurse. In Louisa’s mind Little Women was too simple a story to be truly interesting or entertaining. She did not realize when she finally sat down at her half-moon desk to write that this would be the story which catapulted her into fame and rooted her success.
#2 Louisa Was Like Jo… to an extent.
Like her fictionalized persona, Jo, Louisa was a tomboyish, rambunctious child. She could never be friends with peers of her youth unless the boys proved adventurous and the girls willing to climb trees. She was so rambunctious that before the birth of one of her younger siblings her mother sent her away to live with a stern relative until the baby was safely born, her mother unable to handle the final stages of pregnancy and Louisa at the same time. She was prone to little rendezvous and escapes of her own invention. After one particular escape she became lost and was brought home by the town crier where she was then tied to the couch with a long rope to keep from leaving. Her fictional persona, Jo, is indeed known for many of these same traits. However, in fiction Jo is celebrated for her gumption and grit when in reality Louisa was often chastised for it.
#3 She Was Raised Under Unique Circumstances
Of particular interest to many who study the lives of the Alcott family are the unique methods by which the patriarch, Bronson Alcott, chose to raise his children. Bronson himself was a fascinating man, equally admired and despised depending on who you ask, who has several biographies dedicated to his name. Bronson was prone to using the Alcott girls as the subjects of small moral experiments of his own design. He also raised a family that didn’t believe in privacy. For example, each of the Alcott girls were encouraged to keep detailed daily journals. However, these journals or diaries were not designed for individual meanderings or secret records. Instead, the girls’ journals were read in detail and studied by father and mother who were fascinated by moral constructs and how they pervaded in children. The Alcott’s were extremely progressive and often experimental idealists (as were many transcendentalists of the time). The had strict moral guidelines which must be obeyed even in the most dire of times. The family was raised vegetarian, their clothing made from flax, and products such as coffee, spices, and sugar given up if they were in any way produced by slave labor.
#4 Her Famous Friends
The Alcotts were extremely poor for the majority of their lives, but they were interestingly surrounded by successful and influential people of their time. They lived in Concord for many years, becoming friends with some of the greatest literary achievers and progressive thinkers of the mid-to-late 1800’s like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. These are the minds which influenced much of how Louisa thought and processed the world, sentiments which lay evident in each of her accomplished works.
#5 Louisa Served as a Nurse in the Civil War
During the Civil War Louisa traveled south to Washington DC to serve as a nurse in the Union Hospital, which had only recently been converted from a hotel. It is said that one ward was still labeled with a sign that read, “ballroom.” It was in the putrid rooms of this crowded hospital that Louisa found profound purpose and meaning for perhaps the first time in her life. She wrote detailed accounts of her experiences there in a book entitled Hospital Sketches. She was a faithful nurse to the men who needed her in their darkest hour; writing letters, reading them stories, performing Dickens novels, and reciting poetry. One can find a great deal of Louisa’s true nature from the weeks she spent here. However, not six weeks had passed before Louisa contracted pneumonia and then typhoid, finding herself at death’s door surrounded by hundreds of young men she had once tried to help avoid the same fate. Louisa was too stubborn to go home, believing that she would soon be well after the treatment of friendly doctors with calomel, a mercury-based medicine common at the time. It came to the point that Louisa had to be retrieved by her family. Her father carried her emaciated form out of a rat-infested room in a corner of the hospital. Her body was forever changed.
#6 Louisa May Alcott Suffered Lifelong Illness
It took many months for Louisa to begin to return to health after being nursed by her family back at home. The fevers so profound she was often in the throes of violent and terrifying fever dreams which produced visual horrors from which Louisa could not escape. One of the ghastly haunts which surrounded her during this time was the hallucination of a Spaniard man dressed in black velvet who would appear in spooky detail at the foot of her bed, in closets, and peering into her windows after night fell. The illusion was said to repeat one sentence to fever-addled Louisa, “Lie still, my dear.” Though eventually her illness retreated, Louisa’s body was forever changed. She would deal with debilitating headaches, stomach pains, joint aches, and painful rashes on her skin. Some say this was a result of the mercury poisoning incurred from her calomel treatment. Others suggest Louisa may have developed some sort of immune disorder, such as Lupus. Whatever the cause, Louisa would spend the rest of her life seeking treatments and struggling day to day with debilitating pains and often sleepless nights.
#7 She Was a Slave to Her Muse
By the time Louisa sat down to write Little Women she often complained of pain in her hands, stating that she wanted to write but could not gather the strength. However, Louisa was a natural born writer and found it almost a compulsion. She would avoid writing anything serious for months, yet when the mood struck her she entered a state of mind that she called, “the vortex,” in which she often forgot to eat or sleep, a victim to her own muse. In these hours her mother would bring near endless cups of tea to the bedroom where Louisa wrote and her father would deliver the occasional apple. It is said some of her greatest literary inspiration came from the works of Charles Dickens, she was particularly fond of the Pickwick Papers, and the Bronte sisters, she was impressed by Jane Eyre, whose works redefined what Louisa thought a woman could, or should, write.
#8 Surprised by Her Own Fame
On July 15 of 1868 Louisa sent 402 pages to her publisher, Thomas Niles. Neither were very excited by the story which they thought lacked a defining narrative. They prepared for publication anyhow. In August the first proofs arrived and Niles gave a copy to his young niece, Lillie. Lillie would turn out to be the book’s first fan, she devoured the work with equal parts laughter and tears. The book was an instant success, seeming to reach the hearts of many readers, young and old. But it was Book II that really secured Alcott’s success and fame. Sales were more than triple that of Book I. Suddenly Louisa was richer than she ever imagined. She was pleased to pay off numerous and longstanding family debts and for the first time feel the certain sort of comfort that comes with excess. Louisa became a celebrity, the paparazzi of today replaced with fervent fans and readers who would sometimes reach into Louisa’s coach as she rode by, call unexpectedly at her house, or even hold dinners in her honor. By all accounts, Louisa’s humble but independent personality was never much affected by the stark change in her social standing. She still held the same values and was a servant to not only her family but anyone who was in need.
#9 She Believed In Family First, Even At Her Own Detriment
Alcott was dedicated to her family, first and always. Louisa often had goals, opportunities, and future plans that would be pushed off-course due to one family need after another, needs that often fell to Louisa as the sole breadwinner of a large family. Tragedy touched the six of them perhaps more than most. Maybe it was the inherent nature of their often tumultuous lives that so held them together and in turn made Louisa so dedicated.
The death of her sister Lizzie, which was honored in fiction forever on the pages of Little Women, struck them all hard in younger days, but it would not be last loss they suffered. Louisa’s sister May, who was a celebrated artist in Europe and did some initial sketches to accompany Little Women’s publication, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl overseas. She was named in Louisa’s honor, but everyone called her Lulu. A few months after the birth May’s body seemed to rebel against her and she quickly passed away. Lulu, though she had a healthy father overseas, was willed to Louisa who would care for her dutifully until her later death. Louisa’s only remaining sister, Anna (represented by Meg in fiction) had a loving family of two boys with a husband named John, a man much respected and loved by all the family. John passed away and along with the incredible grief which accompanied his death three more family members became indebted to Louisa’s care. As the years went on the Alcott matriarch, Abba, would also pass on. And then, years later, so would Louisa’s father, Bronson.
#10 Her Relationship With Her Father Was Unusual To Say the Least
Louisa and her father had the sort of complex relationship that only exists between blood-bound family. At times, they hated one another. At others, they were their most sacred confidants. They were intrinsically linked in more ways than one, sometimes in ways that seem almost supernatural. Entire books could be written on their relationship, but for one small detail easily shared in this format, Louisa and her father shared the same birthday, November 29th. Yet perhaps most notable is the way in which they both died.
Bronson, on his death bed, was visited by Louisa. He looked up into his daughter’s face and said, “I am going up. Come with me.” Louisa answered, “Oh I wish I could.” And Bronson responded lastly saying, “Come soon.”
It wasn’t long after this encounter that Bronson passed away. When his last moments came Louisa was at home, tending to family needs and matters as she always did, and was not yet made aware of her father’s death. The morning after he passed away, Louisa wrote a note to her sister complaining of a headache and sent for the doctor. The doctor couldn’t say what was wrong and prescribed rest. So, Louisa settled in bed and closed her eyes. She soon fell into a coma. She would pass away just five days after her beloved father, in fact the same day his body was interred, never having known he too was gone. Father and daughter are buried beside one another.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into Louis May Alcott’s life. Whenever the occasional person asks which author I would most like to have tea with Louisa is at the top of the list. What fact about her life surprised you most?
Til next time,
Bex Skoog (formerly Bex Gorsuch) is a Book Blogger and Instagram Influencer who strives to connect readers with their next favorite book and encourages avid bibliophiles to make use of the inspiration found in fiction by implementing story into their day-to-day lives.
Books Used for Reference: Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever, The Annotated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott with Notes by John Matteson.
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