NOTE! This post includes SPOILERS. If you haven’t read Little Women and don’t want it ruined, stop reading now!
Hot tears welled in my eyes and then there was no stopping them. They splashed down on my ereader. I was rereading Little Women on the airplane home and I’d just reached the chapter where (Spoiler!) Beth tells her sister Jo she’s dying. Two days earlier I’d walked by the real Beth’s melodeon (an instrument like a piano) and her photo hung on the wall above it. She was no longer just a tragic character in a book. She’d been a living, breathing, 18 year-old with a sister who never recovered from her passing. That sister was Louisa May Alcott, reluctant author of Little Women. I sobbed for the sisters who had in the last two days leapt from the page in my mind to very real people.
Being halfway through rereading Little Women, I like many readers before me, was wondering why Jo wouldn’t marry Laurie when I entered Orchard House. I hoped touring Louisa’s house would not only show me where the real and the fictional family differed, but perhaps bring some understanding of the author’s choice to deny her readers the happy ending we all desire.
The truth seems to lie somewhere between very real events that became anecdotes in the story, and fictional characteristics that perhaps Louisa wished had been true. The first discrepancy between Little Women and real life was that the real inhabitants of Orchard House never included hired help like Hannah. In real life, the family couldn’t afford hired help. They could barely afford Orchard House! Their neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson put the down payment on the house for them. Sadly, Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott was never financially well off so the Alcott girls grew up very poor.
Bronson was not the wounded war veteran depicted in the book. He never even went to war. He was, however, the father that would philosophise all day with the men who visited the home. Bronson was a somewhat failed philosopher and educator. Before moving to Concord he had started a Transcendentalist Commune which consequently failed because society doesn’t work when men spend their time indulging themselves in the outdoors and theorizing all day rather than doing any work to help society. He then joined his fellow Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in Concord where his dreams of starting a school fizzled out with low attendance. His ideas were too radical for the time. He believed a curriculum should include art, music, and recess! And he believed he could learn from his students just as much as they could learn from him. He then took the position of superintendent of Concord schools, from which he made $100/year, the same amount their neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne would pay to rent his house down the street.
Despite not being well off, the parents educated their girls well. Their mother, Abigail (fondly called Marmee in real life and in the book), who considered herself “Harvard educated” because she’d had a Harvard student as a tutor, was able to tutor the girls. Bronson kept the girls on task with a chore chart, which can be seen on the wall in the parent’s bedroom. It starts with wake up at 8am, and take a cold shower! Bronson also made the girls keep journals from a young age. And their neighbors Emerson and Thoreau stopped by the house quite often. Thoreau even acted as a tutor for Louisa, and according to her diary, she was quite enamored of her tutor.
If circumstances had been different, there’s a real possibility Louisa would never have written Little Women. In fact, she first refused when her publisher asked her to write a book for girls. Unfortunately, the Alcott family was financially dependent upon Louisa’s publishing earnings, so using her own family as inspiration, she wrote the first part of Little Women.
Much of the character Josephine, or Jo as she liked to be called, is based on Louisa herself. She did write theatricals for her and her sisters to perform in the family’s sitting room, she published works out of necessity, and she even had a “mood pillow” similar to Jo’s “writing cap”. If the oblong pillow on the sitting room couch was vertical, she was in a good mood. If it was horizontal, she did not want to be disturbed. When in an antisocial mood, she also avoided her fans by answering the door dressed as a servant and telling the visitor that Louisa wasn’t home! In real life, it was Louisa who went to war instead of her father. She worked as a nurse in Washington D.C. until she contracted Typhoid. She returned home and eventually recovered, but never fully. A painting of her at age 30 hangs in the family dining room, and shows the toll the sickness took on her physically. Louisa was also the first woman in Concord to vote in 1880. It may have been this patriotic and progressive side of Louisa that translated into Jo’s strong and independent nature.
Luckily for her family, fans, and future readers, Little Women was a hit! The earnings from the book not only pulled the family out of debt, but much of the house’s decor was purchased thanks to the success of the book. Much of that decor can still be seen in the house today. 80% of the artifacts in the house are original. These include the two writing desks in Louisa’s room. There is the simple half moon desk between the windows on which can be seen facsimiles of both her left and right handed handwriting. She was ambidextrous so when one hand tired of writing she could switch hands and keep going! The second, nicer desk, she bought herself with the proceeds from her book.
Little Women was so popular that Louisa was asked to write part II. Part II starts with the marriage of the eldest March daughter, Meg, who is based on Louisa’s older sister Anna. Anna’s wedding dress can also be seen displayed on the bed in Louisa’s bedroom. Because of the difficulties of clothes washing, the dress is not white, but greyish. Anna’s wedding took place downstairs in the family sitting room and the feelings Louisa had towards this marriage are expressed in her novel by Jo. Neither the fictional Jo nor the real Louisa wanted a man to come and take her sister away.
Louisa never married and she did not want the character she identified with, Jo, to marry either. It was only because her fans and publisher insisted that Jo get her happy ending that Louisa consented… but on her terms. Instead of marrying childhood and best friend Laurie, she was given an older, foreign, partner who only arrived later in the novel.
She did however, in the end, let Laurie, who by the way was completely fictional, marry into the March family by way of the youngest sister Amy. Amy, or May in real life, really was an artist like her fictional counterpoint. The family being poor, she used walls and even cutting boards as canvases. Her art can be seen all over the house. In the kitchen is a cutting board with a drawing of Raphael burned into it. In Louisa’s room Amy painted owls, because Louisa liked the birds. In her own room are more sketches that show her admiration of Greek and Roman art. Interestingly, May would visit the house of their neighbor, Emerson, to copy the classic works of art which hung on his walls. Also, May eventually had her own art student, Daniel Chester French, who would go on to design the Lincoln Memorial, and he used May’s tools to carve it. While May may not have had a marriage partner like Laurie, she did make a happy marriage, but sadly died of childbed fever. She sent her daughter, named Lulu (short for Louisa) to live with her sister Louisa to raise as her own.
Finally, the only member of the family, who appears in Little Women with her real name was Louisa’s sister Elizabeth, or Beth. Elizabeth passed away in 1858 at age 18, ten years before the book was published, and before the family moved into Orchard House.
In the end I suppose Louisa was telling us life is messy, and a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, or the way you’ll imagine it to be. In reading Little Women we all become her charges, and it’s thanks to her life experiences that she prepares us all to come of age ready for whatever life brings.
As I messily sobbed into a napkin, my partner, who was sitting next to me, mouthed to our row-mate on the airplane, “She’s reading Little Women.” The woman nodded comprehension adding a sympathetic, “Ohhhh.”
Have you read Little Women? Did you want a different ending? Have you visited Orchard House? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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