Friday, October 16, 2009

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Despite never having read Little Women, I managed to obtain, over the years, a general understanding of the book’s plot and characters by reading about its author and her most famous novel. The Alcott family, with its numerous connections to the literary elite and thinkers of its day, has long fascinated me but it is only in recent years that I have become curious about the work of Louisa May Alcott herself. My interest was particularly peaked, I think, by Geraldine Brooks’ March, a wonderful fictional account of what Mr. March was up to during the times he left the four little women and their mother home alone to fend for themselves. Now, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women has convinced me that it is finally time to sit down and read Little Women for myself.

Harriet Reisen reminds us that, in her day, Louisa May Alcott was as big, if not bigger, than Mark Twain. Her books sold in astonishing numbers, eventually making her a very wealthy woman who was able to support her entire extended family with the royalties they earned. She was perhaps the J.K. Rowling of her day - but life was not always so kind to Louisa May Alcott.

Born to a father who never quite figured out how to earn enough to support his family, life for Louisa and her sisters was difficult. The girls often ended the day hungry and there was seldom any money for dresses or housing comparable to those of their friends and relatives. The Alcott family, in fact, was dependent on those same friends and relatives for the loans and gifts without which they might not have survived as an intact family. And what a list of friends and relatives they had, among them, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and supporters of the Transcendentalist movement in which Bronson Alcott played such an important role.

Bronson Alcott may have been the genius his friends believed him to be, but he was also the kind of dreamer who could never turn his dreams into the reality he envisioned for them. Bronson, however, had great faith that his family would somehow be provided for despite how little effort he made to support them himself. He was always willing to accept whatever monetary help his generous friends offered but his second-born daughter Louisa was determined that the family would one day earn its own way and repay all the debts her father had ignored for so long.

From the beginning Louisa was motivated by the money she could earn from her writing, seeing her efforts as the best chance to bring her family to financial respectability Determined to make it happen, she wrote quickly in marathon stretches that would often leave her bedridden and unable to write again for several weeks or months. But despite her illnesses, which grew more serious after her experience as a Civil War hospital nurse, Louisa earned enough money to give both her immediate and extended families the luxurious lifestyle none of them could have ever expected to see.

The Woman Behind Little Women offers remarkable insights into the inner workings of the Alcott family and Louisa’s role as provider and near-matriarch of the family. Fans of Little Women will be naturally drawn to the biography and coming PBS Alcott documentary, but I suspect that others lucky enough to discover The Woman Behind Little Women will be just as intrigued by what they learn. There is so much here that even the biggest Alcott fan will come away with a new appreciation of what this great writer accomplished in her relatively short lifetime.

Rated at: 5.0

(Advance Reading Copy provided by Henry Holt and Company)
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