Credit: Jana Remy/pilgrimgirl on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)–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 Abigail’s letters and journals, unlike those of her daughter, Louisa May Alcott, and husband, remained unpublished and largely unexplored.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 16, 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, Bronson, 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.”
‘Student of Men’
Collections of American literature invariably described Louisa as the student of men: “Raised in Concord, Mass., 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 19th-century female 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 11-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.
Excerpt from “Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother” by Eve LaPlante. Copyright 2012 by Eve LaPlante. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc, NY.
Eve LaPlante is a great-niece and a cousin of Abigail and Louisa May Alcott. Winner of the 2008 Massachusetts Book Award for Nonfiction, she is the author of “Seized” and two other acclaimed biographies, “American Jezebel” and “Salem Witch Judge.” She lives with her family in New England and can be contacted at www.EveLaPlante.com.
For more information:
Buy the book: “Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother”: http://www.powells.com/partner/34289/biblio/9781451620665?p_ti
Eve LaPlante discusses “Marmee and Louisa”: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Marmee-Louisa/Eve LaPlante/9781451620665
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