"Who is Louie?" my oldest daughter asked, holding up a small book with a worn, embossed cover. She and I were kneeling on the dusty floor of my mother's attic, rummaging through a huge metal trunk containing our ancestors' belongings. The trunk had arrived decades earlier following the death of an aunt, who likewise had inherited it from her aunt. Inside the trunk, beneath feathered ladies' hats and a nineteenth-century quilt, my daughter had found an 1849 edition of The Swiss Family Robinson, inscribed as a gift:
June 21st / 55.
George E. May
from his cousin
"That's Louisa May Alcott," I realized, remembering that relatives knew her as Louie or Cousin Louisa. In June 1855, our great-uncle George E. May was ten years old and his first cousin Louisa May Alcott, who hoped he would enjoy the tale of a shipwrecked family, was twenty-two. She was staying with other maternal cousins in Walpole, New Hampshire, spending her days gardening and hiking, forming a theater troupe, and inventing "little tales" that she hoped to sell. Her parents and younger sisters would soon join her in Walpole, a "lovely place, high among the hills," to live in an uncle's spare house. Deeply in debt, they could not afford to pay rent. Their only regular income in 1855 was her older sister's small salary as a teacher in Syracuse, New York, where she boarded with George's family. Louisa's father, Bronson, recently returned from an unprofitable lecture tour of the Midwest, was planning a solo trip to England—"not a wise idea," according to Louisa. Her mother, Abigail, had left jobs in Boston as a social worker and employment agent. The novel Little Women, which would give the Alcotts their first taste of financial security, was still thirteen years in the future. But Louisa had already published poems, short stories, and a book of original fairy tales, the start of her remarkable career.
In another trunk my daughter and I found the brittle, handwritten memoir of George's older sister, my great-great-grandmother Charlotte May, who had grown up with Louisa and whose wedding Louisa had recently attended. Charlotte and Louisa, born a few months apart in the winter of 1832–33, had played games, invented stories, and wandered the woods and hills surrounding their childhood homes. A packet of letters tied with a ribbon contained Charlotte's scribbled descriptions of her and Louisa's teenage escapades in Syracuse in the late 1840s. Louisa signed letters to Charlotte, who lacked sisters, "Your sister-in-love."
Charlotte and George May's father, the Reverend Samuel Joseph May, was likewise his nieces' "uncle father." Samuel Joseph had introduced his youngest sister, Abigail May, to Bronson Alcott in 1827 and spent decades providing their family with much-needed financial and emotional support. Samuel Joseph's published memoir, stuffed with letters in his elegant hand dated from the 1820s to the 1860s, was also in my mother's attic, along with a crumbling copy of his 1869 Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict and an 1823 Bible that belonged to his wife, Lucretia, who became Abigail May Alcott's closest friend.
At the time of these discoveries, I knew next to nothing about the Mays and the Alcotts, and little of Louisa except for her juvenile fiction, Little Women, Little Men, and the rest, which I had devoured as a child. But the treasures in the attic compelled me to explore the mysteries of the May-Alcott family. Their faded, cracking pages led me to read Louisa's novels and stories for adults, her letters and journals, and the writings of her parents, sisters, and other close relatives.
In the process, I encountered a paradox. While Marmee, Abigail May Alcott's alter ego in Little Women, is universally acknowledged as the central figure in her children's lives, the flesh-and-blood Abigail seemed in the standard rendition of the Alcott saga to be practically invisible and almost mute. Abigail's letters and journals, unlike those of her daughter and husband, remained unpublished and largely unexplored.
The more I learned about the Alcotts, though, the more I saw Louisa and Abigail as a pair, each one the person in the world to whom the other felt closest. It was clear that this mother and daughter shared a profound intimacy that had light and dark facets, in which a fierce commitment to female independence coexisted with a mutual dependency. Abigail, I realized, was a vibrant writer, brilliant teacher, and passionate reformer who spent decades working to abolish slavery, ameliorate urban poverty, and allow women to be educated, vote, and engage in public life. She nurtured and fostered Louisa's career as a writer and entrepreneur, encouraging her daughter, rejection after rejection, to persist. Louisa in turn dedicated all her early work, starting with her first novel at age sixteen, to her mother, who possessed a "nobility of character and talents," Madelon Bedell observed in her biography of the family. "Louisa was to take these sensibilities and talents and transform them into art and literature ... If her fame continues to endure and her mother's name is unknown, nonetheless the achievement is a dual one; behind the legendary figure of Louisa May Alcott stands the larger-than-life model of her mother, Abby May." Louisa created "a distinctly mother-centered ... fictional universe," according to another scholar, Monika Elbert, "in which children seek a nurturing home, husbands [seek] maternal warmth in their wives, and orphans [seek] a mother-surrogate." Over the years, in fact, Louisa functioned as partner, provider, nurse, and even mother to Abigail. "The great love of [Louisa May] Alcott's life ... was doubtless her mother, whom she idealized as Marmee in Little Women," Elizabeth Lennox Keyser wrote. In short, Abigail was Louisa's muse.
Yet Abigail's story seemed never to have been told. Basic facts, such as the place of her birth, remained undiscovered. Abigail was always portrayed as a housewife, while her husband was seen as Louisa's mentor. "Louisa May Alcott was so dominated by her father," the biographer Susan Cheever wrote, "that it is hard to unravel their lives from each other ... In every big decision [Louisa] made, her father hovers in the background. His hold on her was incalculable." Madelon Bedell referred to "Bronson Alcott's great-granddaughter" as if she were not also descended from Abigail. "Even though [Bronson is] hardly present in [Little Women], his was the powerful personality that lay at the heart of the legend" of Louisa May Alcott. Collections of American literature invariably described Louisa as the student of men: "Raised in Concord, Massachusetts, and educated by her father, Alcott came under the influence of the great men of his circle: Emerson, Hawthorne, the preacher Theodore Parker, and Thoreau." Even a feminist study of nineteenth-century women writers suggested that Abigail exerted no intellectual influence on Louisa, who "was taught by her father and also introduced to men of great influence, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau." No anthology or biography portrayed Louisa as "taught by her mother and also introduced to women of great influence, including Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Lydia Maria Child, and Margaret Fuller." Yet that statement, I discovered, is equally true.
Perhaps Abigail's absence shouldn't have surprised me. Invisibility is the lot of most women of the past. With few exceptions, women appear in historical records only when they were born, married, and died, if they are remembered at all. The eleven-page chronology of Louisa's life compiled by the editors of her published papers mentions her father repeatedly but her mother just four times:
Abigail May is born
Bronson Alcott and Abigail May are married in Boston
Mrs. Alcott's final illness begins
Mrs. Alcott dies
A woman who was pregnant at least eight times and bore five children was not credited in the chronology with even giving birth: "Louisa May Alcott is born." One might infer that Abigail was barely present in the Alcott home and had not a thought in her head.
How is it that the woman behind Marmee, the cornerstone of Louisa's most famous work, would have had nothing to say? One possible explanation is that Abigail is hiding in plain sight. As readers of Little Women, we feel we know Louisa's mother because we know the mother in Louisa's book. As a result, Louisa's literary creation may obscure the flesh-and-blood Abigail.
There is another explanation for our lack of knowledge of Abigail, or so we've been led to believe. Abigail's letters and journals were all destroyed, burned by her husband and daughter after she died. Louisa wrote in her journal in the spring of 1882, "[I] Read over & destroyed Mother's Diaries as she wished me to do." Apparently, she and her parents wished to eradicate these papers in order to maintain the family's privacy, to protect Bronson's reputation, and, ironically, to preserve Abigail's image as an avatar of docile, nineteenth-century womanhood. The biographer John Matteson concluded that "instead of weaving her mother's writings into a published work, [Louisa] chose to commit the great majority of them to the flames. Her decision has cost historians priceless insights into the mind of an extraordinary woman"—an extraordinary woman who cannot be known. According to conventional wisdom, Abigail's inner life was a mystery because she left no significant record of her thoughts.
The conventional wisdom turned out to be wrong. Louisa did weave her mother's writings into published works. Throughout the 1860s, as she composed short stories, adult novels, and Little Women, she pored over her mother's private journals, mining them for material. Her claims of burning the family papers are exaggerations. Louisa wrote to a friend in January 1883, "My journals were all burnt long ago in terror of gossip when I depart & on unwise use of my very frank records of people & events."
In fact, however, hundreds of pages of Louisa's journals are in the archives at Harvard University, which holds the largest collection of Alcott papers in the world. These archives also contain hundreds of pages of Abigail's diaries as well as thirty-six years of Abigail's personal correspondence with her brother Samuel Joseph. These letters have "a remarkable vivacity," in the words of Madelon Bedell. "In some ways, Abby was a better writer than her more famous daughter." Cornell University's collection of May Papers contains more unpublished family diaries and personal correspondence. Unknown papers of the Alcotts continue to be discovered. The historical society of a village in western Maine where Abigail worked in 1848 referred me to a local historian, who revealed to me that he had letters written by Abigail that year to his great-grandmother. In addition to visiting his farmhouse in the foothills of the Mahoosuc Mountains and reading those letters, I explored the sites of Abigail's and Louisa's lives in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New York, and throughout New England.
My research exploded a number of myths about the Alcotts that have arisen as a consequence of Little Women. Unlike the fictional March family, the Alcotts were homeless for decades. Abigail regularly begged for money from family and friends. Her marriage was deeply distressed. For years she functioned as a single parent, whose despair over her husband's inattention, absences, and inability to earn a living caused her at least once to pack and move out with her four children. For Louisa, who was ten years old, seeing her parents' marriage disintegrate motivated her to become her mother's provider and support. For much of Louisa's childhood her father, even when at home, often seemed absent. Her mother, in contrast, was always present, urging her on and serving as her intellectual mentor and literary forebear.
In addition to challenging the myths and misconceptions about the Alcotts and especially about Abigail, Marmee & Louisa offers answers to questions that readers continue to ask about Louisa. Why did she never leave home? Why did she not marry? Who was the real Mr. March? Where did Louisa May Alcott find the material to describe a happy childhood?
While writing this book, I came to see that many of the dilemmas that Abigail and Louisa faced in the nineteenth century were not unlike the dilemmas we face today: How to balance work and love? How to combine a public life with a private one? How to live out one's ideals without doing harm? How to hold one's children close while encouraging their independence? How to find a voice in a world that does not listen?
Marmee & Louisa is the story of two visionary women, perhaps the most famous mother-daughter pair in American literary history. Louisa and Abigail were born into a world that constrained and restricted them, but they dreamed of freedom. The story of their struggle to forge a new world begins with Abigail. Indeed, we cannot understand Louisa without knowing her mother. You may find, as I have, that aspects of Abigail's life are strangely familiar, as if we had encountered her before. In a way we have, through her daughter's writing. The imaginative child of an inspirational mother, Louisa studied Abigail's life and character, appropriated them, and embedded them in her fictional worlds.
From Marmee & Louisa by Eve LaPlante. Copyright 2012 by Eve LaPlante. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.