Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review: - Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

I know this is my blog and I shouldn't feel like I have to apologise if I've not managed to post anything for a couple of weeks, but I do and so here I am, apologising yet again. In the past two blog-free weeks I've read quite a lot, but just been generally too exhausted to function outside of work. Today is my first free day off in aaaaaages, and I just finished The Woman Behind Little Women - the first book I've read for my Year of Reading Louisa May Alcott.

Here's a quick synopsis of the biography from Goodreads:

A vivid, energetic account of the life of Louisa May Alcott, whose work has delighted millions of readers
Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott’s life: the effect of her father’s self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family’s chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale.
Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcott’s life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be. This revelatory portrait will present the popular author as she was and as she has never been seen before.

When my mum first read Little Women to us I remember telling her that I wanted to be Jo, and I remember her telling me that Louisa Alcott was the basis for the character of Jo, but I didn't realise quite how much that was true. As I was reading this book so many scenes and event in the lives of the Alcotts were just straight out of Little Women or one of its' sequels. The lives of the four March sisters are the idealised versions of Louisa's own life. The reality of Louisa's childhood was in reality often a lot closer to the experience of the Hummels, the German family the Marches feed and take care of in Little Women. Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott was one of the major founders of the Transcendentalist movement and originally a teacher along the kind of lines of Mr Bhaer, however his ideas about equal education, even allowing a black girl into his classroom alongside his white pupiles, were way ahead of their time and led to failure after failure and to the Alcott family fleeing their debts and moving time after time. Throughout her life, Louisa's father was much more of a man of ideas than of action. Early on he befriended such greats as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom provided Louisa with inspiration for numerous characters. Although Louisa has made a better version of her father in Mr March, his ideas of childraising are still clear throughout the books. Plumfeild is based on Fruitlands, meant to be a kind of transcendentalist commune but eventually a great failure and some of the hardest years of the Alcotts lives.

I was also happy to see the chapter where Beth dies in Good Wives described as "among the most affecting scenes in all fiction" (p272), as people always have to repress a snigger when I tell them that that scene is pretty much the only one in a book that is guaranteed to make me cry every single time. The character of Beth is an immortalisation of Louisa's sister Elizabeth (Lizzie), who also died young, although not as young as Beth March. The last time I read Jo's Boys I found a note I'd never read before about how the real life version of Amy had died prior to the book being written, which is why she doesn't feature so much in the last volume. Basically, the Little Women books are Louisa's life with the bad bits taken out. 

There were a lot of things I already vaguely knew in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, but to have the detail behind them made a huge difference. For example, the entire early part of Louisa Alcott's writing career was spent in her writing thrillers and the 'blood and thunder' tales that Jo March eventually becomes so ashamed of in Good Wives. I also solved my issues with the episode of Friends where they go on and on about how Beth dies in Little Women when I was always convinced she dies in Good Wives. Apparently that's a geographical thing, as in the States the two volumes are published as one, under the title Little Women, whereas in the UK they are more often published in the original two volumes under two seperate titles. This is good as it means I can finally forgive Friends and move on with my life... 

I'm glad that I read this before diving into any of Alcott's major works, as I now feel that I have a solid grounding of knowledge going in. It's also the kind of book I'm going to be pushing into the hands of everybody I know who has even a vague enjoyment of Little Women, and yes, I've come away from it with quite a reading list, not only of particular Alcott titles I want to read (particularly Transcendentalist Wild Oats, Louisa's account of the Fruitlands episode), but also a renewed desire to read Thoreau's Walden, which I picked up a gorgeous copy of in a charity shop back in January. This was always a book I was going to want to read, and I'm glad that it was so well written, well presented and engaging. Yay for Louisa Alcott, breadwinner of her family, crusader for justice, and creator of the Marches! :-)


  1. Welcome back!

    Regarding her similarities with Jo and the March's lives, I guess Louisa Alcott was herself following the advice the Professor gave Jo: write about what you know!

  2. No, you can't forgive Friends! That episode is responsible for every single person who hasn't read Little Women going on about how Beth dies! That might be okay in the US, but we live in England where it's published correctly! I shall be continuing with my irrational hatred, thank you very much.

    I love biographies of authors, but I've never read one of Louisa May Alcott. Onto the wishlist it goes! I liked the part about the real-life Amy dying. Well, not liked, obviously, but it's interesting.

  3. Hanna, I know what you mean, it was really interested to read about how it actually happened. And I'm glad to know it's not just me with the irrational hatred of that episode. I literally sit shouting at the TV 'she doesn't die in Little Women, she dies in Good Wives, you morons!' while everyone else in the house slowly edges away from me... I say I can forgiive them but I don't think it will actually be that easy!:-P

  4. Ha ha - that's funny about Friends. Most people here in America have never heard of Good Wives. Last year a lot of us were reading Little Women, and the folks in the UK started piping up after reading American reviews:

    "What? What do you mean Beth dies?"

    We had to untangle the confusion together. I for one had no idea before that that it was ever split into two books. :D