As most fans of "Little Women" know, author Louisa May Alcott based the story on the lives of herself and her three sisters, Anna (the sweet mothering one), Elizabeth (the musical one), and May (the artist). "Louisa May" is a wonderful way to discover how Louisa turned a sometimes very difficult childhood into something magical that has stood the test of time. Photographs of Louisa, her family and their many homes were especially interesting to see. I couldn't help looking at those without thinking, "Ah, so that's what Meg, Beth and Amy looked like."
Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832 to a freethinking teacher, Bronson Alcott, and a Boston blueblood, Abigail May Alcott. Although Abigail (known as Abba) came from a wealthy family, she received little inheritance, and her family soon grew tired of bailing out Bronson from his financial problems. For much of Louisa's early childhood, the family lived in abject poverty. Both parents worked in the abolition movement and in other attempts at social reform. Their friends included many famous transcendentalist thinkers of the day, such as Emerson and Thoreau. Johnston briefly describes transcendentalism, but not in enough detail that the reader will wind up with a lasting understanding of this nature-based philosophy.
Sections of this biography dealing with Bronson's unconventional teaching ideas and techniques and his struggles to maintain a teaching post were perhaps the most fascinating. The most recent film adaptation of "Little Women" alludes to some of these problems when one of Meg's society friends comments that her father's school had to close because he admitted a black girl as a student. "Louisa May" provides a few further details on this incident, which actually occurred, noting that the child may have been the daughter of free blacks who knew the Alcotts through the abolition work. Bronson also found himself out of a teaching job for focusing on philosophy rather than the three Rs, including sex education in his curriculum, and preaching his own religious beliefs to his students.
While Bronson's educational approach cost him jobs in America, a book published by his assistant made him famous in England. Following a visit to that country, he returned to Massachusetts with several like-minded hangers-on and decided to found a utopian farm. Charles Lane, his chief ally in this effort, encouraged Bronson to a life of abstinence. Lane's monk-like approach to life included rigid lessons for the Alcott girls, meals consisting mostly of bread, potatoes, and water eaten without plates (the Alcotts already were vegetarians), and ultimately an attempt to separate Bronson from his family.
Johnston's description of how Abba managed to turn things around for the family is inspiring and contradicts stereotypes that many have about 19th century women's submissiveness to their husbands. Reading "Louisa May" left me longing for more information about Bronson and Abba Alcott, and their unconventional lives.
Like Jo in "Little Women," Louisa sought to help support her family as she got older. She did sewing, cleaned houses, taught children and, despite discouraging publishers, sold short stories. When the Civil War broke out, Louisa volunteered as a nurse. Her nursing experience proved pivotal in her life in several ways: "Hospital Sketches," based on her letters home, established her as a writer. Her hard work as a nurse, however, destroyed her health. Although not clear from "Louisa May," Louisa worked only three weeks as a nurse before going home sick.
The sections about her writing her famous children's books are less fascinating than the chapters on her early life, perhaps because it's hard to read about Louisa's struggles with poor health. At this point, Johnston briefly describes the plots, mentions which publisher the book was written for, and a few other details about what was going on in Louisa's life during its writing. Johnston could have given better context to Louisa's financial success. Stating that she earned $1,000 a year seems like an improvement over the $30 a year the family struggled to survive on during her childhood, but for readers unfamiliar with mid-19th century wages, it would be hard to see this sum as representing financial security.
I was surprised at how quickly I read "Louisa May." It had sat on my shelf for years before I finally picked it up, and then I read it practically nonstop. My primary disappointment was its lack of footnotes and its lack of a broader bibliography. I wanted to know more and I wanted Johnston's help in pointing me in that direction. Then I noticed that the biography was written for "11 & Up" and understood. I certainly didn't get the impression from the writing style, that the book was geared to younger readers.
Overall, I enjoyed "Louisa May" very much, and have new respect for her as an independent woman who set out to accomplish goals and lead a life that would have been somewhat unusual for women in her day-and did everything she set out to do!