Saturday, September 7, 2013

What I Read Recently

What I Read Recently  . . .

Marmee and Louisa : The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante -- Biography

Many people are familiar with Marmee, the comforting, understanding mother in the novel Little Women. Not many people are as familiar with Abigail May Alcott, the mother of Louisa May Alcott. Abigail came from several prominent Boston families and was born to a generation that didn't encourage women to take a public role. She chafed against the restrictions placed on her and longed to be educated. After marriage and death took her sisters and eldest brother away, she became close to her surviving brother Samuel Joseph May. Samuel Joseph was an educated, enlightened Unitarian minister who championed anti-slavery and women's rights throughout his long life. He influenced his sister to learn to think and write down her thoughts. When the handsome young peddler turned philosopher A. Bronson Alcott came to visit Samuel Joseph, Abigail became smitten. She thought at last (at 30 years of age) she had found a man who would be her true partner in all things. Together they would teach school, influence young children and change the world. That turned out not to be the case as Bronson was too traditional to allow Abigail a role outside the home, too noble to work at a job that would support his family and too radical for New England in the mid-19th century. While Bronson struggled to teach his philosophy, Abba was left home to care for her children and make a comfortable home the best she could with no resources and failing health. Her second daughter Louisa was her favorite child. Out of the four surviving children Louisa looked and acted the most like her mother. Louisa, energetic, proud and ambitious followed her mother's example of keeping a diary and longed for the day when she would be able to support her family and allow her mother a rest. Louisa and Abba championed anti-slavery and women's rights. They believed women could be equal to men in all things. Success came eventually, but it took a toll on Louisa's physical and emotional health. Both of these amazing women died before they could fully see the results of their efforts to gain women equal rights.

This new biography, by a relative of Abigail May Alcott's pieces together a story largely from forgotten primary sources. After Abigail died, the family burned her diaries and many of her letters. Bronson edited and copied over other papers and so scholars believed there was nothing from Abigail herself. As a librarian and historian, I appreciated all the hard work Eve LaPlante did to locate personal papers of the Mays and Alcotts. She did an amazing job compiling information and adding to the body of knowledge that already exists. The book is easy to read and well-written. The story of Abigail's early years is fascinating. I knew a lot of the rest from reading books about Louisa and visits to Orchard House, but I still learned a lot from reading Abigail's own words. I have always admired Louisa and now I know how she came by passions for writing and social justice. Abigail must have been a saint and I admire her greatly now. The book made me hate Bronson. I think he must have been a narcissist. The story of Abigail and Bronson's marriage is heartbreaking. (Yet I'm glad because it gave Louisa the drive to succeed and gave us Little Women, etc.). There's an extensive bibliography in the back containing lists of primary and secondary sources. I've read many of the secondary sources in my own research and some are a bit outdated but important scholarly works. I highly recommend this book to Louisa May Alcott fans and scholars of nineteenth century women's history. 

My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Louisa May Alcott's Mother edited by Eve LaPlante 

This collection of journal entries, letters and recollections from previously undiscovered and unpublished collections reveals the true character of the real life Marmee. Abigail was a headstrong, intelligent, warmhearted woman who had lofty ideals and big dreams but suffered terribly through her husband's inability to support her family. She seems to be the prototype for Jo March. She was a loving mother and devoted sister and wife. Her letters are poignant and beautifully written. Abigail had radical ideas even for today. She was passionate and dedicated to her causes and her personal educational philosophies. Her devotion to Bronson was a bit irritating. She believed in him and his "genius" and was sympathetic to his unwillingness to work at a position that went against his philosophies. She realized too late that he wouldn't support their family and did all she could to work for money. Yet, she was torn between working outside the home and staying with her children, which is something I think many modern mothers can relate to. This collection is short but captures the essence of Abigail's life. I really appreciate the research that went into this collection. I wish there were facsimiles of the original letters though. This book is well worth a read for mothers, Louisa May Alcott fans, those interested in Transcendentalism and women's rights. I loved getting to know the woman who raised one of my favorite authors. It's easy to see how much Louisa loved and admired her mother and this collection will show you why. 

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