Today is the birthday (1832) of Louisa May Alcott, U.S. author and poet, known particularly for the loosely autobiographical/biographical novel, Little Women.
Alcott was born in Germantown, which is now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on her father’s 33rd birthday. She was the daughter of transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May, and the second of four daughters: Anna Bronson Alcott was the eldest; Elizabeth Sewall Alcott and Abigail May Alcott were the two youngest. The family moved to Boston in 1834, where Alcott’s father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Bronson Alcott’s opinions on education and tough views on child-rearing shaped the young Louisa’s mind, mostly in reaction to them. His attitudes towards Louisa’s independent behavior, and his inability to provide for his family, created conflict between Bronson Alcott and his wife and daughters.
In 1840, after several setbacks with the school, the Alcott family moved to a cottage on 2 acres (8,100 m2) of land, situated along the Sudbury River in Concord, Massachusetts. They described the three years they spent at the rented Hosmer Cottage as “idyllic.” By 1843, the Alcott family had moved, along with six other members of the Consociate Family, to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843–1844. After the collapse of Fruitlands, they moved to rented rooms and finally, with Abigail May Alcott’s inheritance and financial help from Emerson, they bought a homestead in Concord in April, 1845.
Alcott’s early education included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, but she received the bulk of her schooling from her father, who was strict and believed in “the sweetness of self-denial”. She also received some instruction from writers and educators such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom were family friends. She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled “Transcendental Wild Oats”. The sketch was reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the family’s experiment in “plain living and high thinking” at Fruitlands.
Poverty made it necessary for Alcott to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and writer. Her sisters also supported the family, working as seamstresses, while their mother took on social work among the Irish immigrants. Only the youngest, May, was able to attend public school. Due to all of these pressures, writing became a creative and emotional outlet for Alcott. Her first book was Flower Fables (1849), a selection of tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1847, she and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, when they housed a fugitive slave for one week. Alcott read and admired the “Declaration of Sentiments”, published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights, advocating for women’s suffrage and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election. The 1850s were hard times for the Alcotts. At one point in 1857, unable to find work and filled with such despair, Alcott contemplated suicide. During that year, she read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë and found many parallels to her own life. In 1858, her younger sister Elizabeth died, and her older sister Anna married. This felt, to Alcott, to be the breaking up of their sisterhood.
As an adult, Alcott was a staunch abolitionist and a feminist. In 1860 she began writing for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War broke out, she served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862–1863. She intended to serve three months as a nurse, but halfway through she contracted typhoid and became deathly ill, though she eventually recovered. Her letters home – revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869) – brought her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. She wrote about the mismanagement of hospitals and the indifference and callousness of some of the surgeons she encountered. Her main character, Tribulation Periwinkle, passed from innocence to maturity and is the main witness to events.
In the mid-1860s, Alcott wrote passionate, fiery novels and sensational stories under the nom de plume A. M. Barnard. Among these are A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. Her protagonists for these tales are willful and relentless in their pursuit of their own aims, which often include revenge on those who have humiliated or thwarted them. She also produced “wholesome” stories for children, and after their positive reception, preferred them to adult fiction. Adult-oriented exceptions include the anonymous novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1875), which attracted suspicion that it was written by Julian Hawthorne; and the semi-autobiographical tale Work (1873).
Alcott became even more successful with the first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868), a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts, published by the Roberts Brothers. Part Two, or Part Second, also known as Good Wives (1869), followed the surviving March sisters into adulthood and marriage. Little Men (1871) detailed Jo’s life at the Plumfield School that she founded with her husband Professor Bhaer at the conclusion of Part Two of Little Women. Jo’s Boys (1886) completed the “March Family Saga”.
In Little Women, Alcott based her heroine “Jo” on herself. But whereas Jo marries at the end of the story, Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her “spinsterhood” in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” However, Alcott’s romance while in Europe with the young Polish man Ladislas “Laddie” Wisniewski was detailed in her journals but then deleted by Alcott herself before her death. Alcott identified Laddie as the model for Laurie in Little Women, and there is strong evidence this was the significant emotional relationship of her life. Likewise, every character in Little Women seems to be paralleled to some extent, from Beth’s death mirroring Lizzie’s to Jo’s rivalry with the youngest, Amy, as Alcott felt a sort of rivalry for (Abigail) May, at times. Though Alcott never married, she did take in May’s daughter, Louisa, after May’s death in 1879 from “childbed fever,” caring for little “Lulu” until her death.
Along with Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, Anne Moncure Crane, and others, Alcott was part of a group of female authors during the Gilded Age, who addressed women’s issues in a modern and candid manner. Their works were, as one newspaper columnist of the period commented, “among the decided ‘signs of the times'”
Alcott suffered from chronic health problems in her later years, including vertigo. She and her earliest biographers attributed her illness (and death) to mercury poisoning. When she contracted typhoid during her American Civil War service she was treated with a compound containing mercury. Recent analysis of Alcott’s illness, however, suggests that her chronic health problems may have been associated with an autoimmune disease, and not acute mercury exposure. Moreover, a late portrait of Alcott shows a rash on her cheeks, which is a characteristic of lupus.
Alcott died at age 55 of a stroke in Boston, on March 6, 1888, two days after her father’s death. Her last words were “Is it not meningitis?” She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, on a hillside now known as “Authors’ Ridge”.
I admire Alcott’s general outlook on life very much, but I’m afraid I don’t care for her writing. I’m fully in favor of her abolitionism and feminism, of course, but it’s the particulars I can’t always relate to. I don’t resonate with the “Yankee spirit” I guess. It’s not part of my personal cultural universe. I treat her March sisters trilogy more as a curiosity, or a window on an alien world, than anything else. When you’ve been raised in Argentina, Australia, and England there’s not much to hold on to. Maybe it’s also that I am not terribly comfortable in New England.
Several times I have come across seed-cake in Alcott’s writing at poignant moments in the narrative – something that sticks in my mind for some reason. I remember the cake from my childhood, but have not had it in over 50 years. There’s something very Victorian about it. I can’t say I like or dislike it. I’m not sure who made it in my household, my mother or my elder sister. It would be fitting if it were my elder sister. It’s more of a cake for tea time than for dessert, and growing up we rarely had tea time as such – except on special occasions such as Christmas Day. The signature ingredient is caraway seed, which I use only rarely in cooking – usually curries. It’s certainly a rather “adult” taste for a cake.
Here’s Mrs Beeton’s recipe. It has no rising agent, I note, which would make it dense and heavy. I’m given to wonder if this is a mistake. The recipe here http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/02/nigel-slater-classic-recipe-seed-cake which is similar but cut down in size, uses self-raising flour. I’d be inclined to follow that route. Beeton’s recipe is more like northern gingerbread or parkin, I think.
A VERY GOOD SEED-CAKE.
- INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of butter, 6 eggs, 3/4 lb. of sifted sugar, pounded mace and grated nutmeg to taste, 1 lb. of flour, 3/4 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 wineglassful of brandy.
Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour; add the sugar, mace, nutmeg, and caraway seeds, and mix these ingredients well together. Whisk the eggs, stir to them the brandy, and beat the cake again for 10 minutes. Put it into a tin lined with buttered paper, and bake it from 1-1/2 to 2 hours. This cake would be equally nice made with currants, and omitting the caraway seeds.
Time.—1-1/2 to 2 hours. Average cost, 2s. 6d.