Marmee and Louisa

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

I have not dear reader as you may have supposed fallen off the face of the earth. Indeed I have been indulging in a few very Victorian past times namely sketching, paying calls and the cultivation of the domestic arts. I have also suffered from a nervous complaint, a common malady that tends to hit mothers during the school holidays.

Here is one proof of my occupation…


A very Victorian pastime but not such a Victorian subject, at least not for a lady.                                   But all the same isn’t it cute?

But I am back and ready at long last for commentary on Marmee and Louisa, which I finished July 2nd so almost making it during the Louisa May Alcott challenge.

What can I say but that the real Marmee, Abigail May Alcott, was more kind, more patient, compassionate, intelligent and inspiring than her fictional counterpart, Mrs. March.

She survived marriage to a most eccentric, erratic and insolvent husband, to raise her daughters more or less single-handed. And what women they grew to be.

Abigail went from being the much petted youngest daughter in a well off family, to a life of hardship and at times extreme poverty, yet she did not become mean, miserly or embittered. Not to say she never had bitter words, she was after all very human and many times deplored her husbands inability to support their family but that is not the same as being embittered.

She was among Americas first paid social workers, a position created for her by friends in Boston to save them from destitution. However the long hours and exposure to every kind of disease and squalor almost led to the death of the whole family. And yes her daughter Elizabeth (Beth) did contract scarlet fever from a family she was helping, some years after her time as a social worker.

She encouraged each of her girls in their specific talent from an early age, especially did she encourage Louisa in her writing and story telling.

On her turning ten Abigail wrote:

“Dear Daughter…I give you the pencil-case I promised, for I have observed that you are fond of writing and wish to encourage the habit. Go on trying, dear, and each day it will be easier to be and do good.”



When Louisa was 14 she wrote:

 “I am sure your life has many fine passages well worth recording,” she advised, “Do write a little each day, dear, if but a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Encouragement to be good, to be victorious in noble pursuits is very old fashioned, but for me it was such a relief to find the inspiration for Marmee was even more worthy of admiration than the fiction.  And as Abigail recommends I have long used my writing as a “safety valve” to deal with the ups and downs of life.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Louisa May Alcott but also to those interested in the history of abolition, woman’s suffrage, women in education and work in Victorian United States or the history of women in publishing.

I also recommend a study of Louisa May Alcott’s life for  aspiring authors today, there is more to learn about the writing life and practice than I can possibly include in a blog post.

But see here for my top 10 picks.

Oh, and the best part the author Eve LaPlante has a direct family link to the Alcotts through the May cousins.


Is Your True Self The Same thing as Be True to Yourself?

staiway in forest disappearing in strong fog

To know your true self is like a path that leads you in and out of the fog.

You cannot immerse yourself in the world of Louisa May Alcott without becoming a bit meditative and given to deep pondering. It is better to just give in and give yourself over to the potential for moral improvement.

I was already contemplating both Abigail Alcott’s and Mrs. March’s emphasis on knowing yourself when I came across this quote by Margret Fuller in reference to her book Woman in The Nineteenth Century “I had put a good deal of my true self in it, as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth.”

This is not the original Australian celebrity chef but the journalist, abolitionist, feminist, transcendentalist, friend of the Alcott’s and role model to Louisa. She was an all-round remarkable woman. But I digress. It was her use of the expression “my true self” that caught my attention.  The true self is a recurring theme throughout L. M. Alcott’s work, not only in her books for children but even in her sensational stories for adults.

It may be that this was the particular focus of transcendentalists but it was not unique to them. Is not Jane Eyre’s entire identity, her determination and strength wrapped up in her knowledge of her true self?  Is not Catherine’s downfall ultimately cause by her refusal to deny her true self? And is not Little Dorrit’s determination to be her true self in the face of ridicule and the ridiculous what endeared her to readers?

Please note that this is an opinion piece, a return to my soap box if you you will.

The True Self

This is ‘the secret person of the heart’, who you aspire to be, principles on which you found your life and decisions. It includes both your strengths and your weaknesses. It is fundamentally who you are.

A recurring theme in Victorian literature is the knowing or revealing of the true self either for good in the heroine or for evil in the antagonist. It also features prominently in the intellectual conversations of the age. Artist, writers, poets, musicians, moralists sought to pour into their work their true self.

Margret Fuller poured her true self into her life and work as did Louisa May Alcott

Margret Fuller poured her true self into her life and work as did Louisa May Alcott

Be True to yourself

This is the modern phrasing. It can be used when speaking about  the above heroine’s both fictional and real but I find it ultimately unsatisfactory. Here’s why.

‘Be true to yourself’ is usually used in reference to wants, desires, the acquisition of things and power. It goes along with ‘follow your dreams’ and ‘you deserve it’, ‘your worth it’. All of these without reference to morals, ethics or principles.

your true self   vs.   Be  true to yourself

Your true self is the core of your being, knowing who you are at heart, warts and all. It is based on knowledge of  your personal strengths and weakness. And a knowledge of where you stand in relation to morals, belief and ethics. Whereas ‘be true to yourself’ is based on emotion, what ‘feels right’ separate and apart from the faculty of reason.

Both have a bearing on self-expression. The person intent on knowing her true self is also interested in shaping that self so that her decisions, her art and her treatment of others is a reflection of that true self. Hence the true self shapes self-expression. To be true to yourself does refer to big decisions such as what career to choose but more often it is applied to how you cut your hair, what clothes you wear, the diet you choose.  Or maybe I just read too much advertising.

How many today base their opinions and their actions on what is momentarily popular, changing themselves according to the zeitgeist, like ships without rudders or anchors in the winds of change.

I do not mean for a moment that a person should anchor herself to something out of sheer stubbornness, nor set herself on an unalterable course.  Remember what happened when the Titanic refused to change course for the sake of an iceberg? Not good.

The way I read it, by comparing popular literature and commentary of our age with the Victorian age, if you know your true self, you know what you believe in, why you believe it and have the conviction to stand by it. The true self matures and evolves with knowledge and experience outside of ‘the self’. It is a steadying and helpful thing to know and gives meaning to our art.

To be true to yourself means to do what you want, when you want, how you want, with whom you want; see it’s about wanting while the Victorian outlook is about being and becoming.

Which one would you prefer?

Go on, become a bit meditative and ponderous!

An Evening With Punch

Gather the family around the fire. Light the lamp at your elbow and prepare to share Punch.

Gather the family around the fire. Light the lamp at your elbow and prepare to share Punch.


1880’s Girl was pleased as ‘punch’ to with this treasured find from last Sunday’s swap meet in Crawly, a history of Punch celebrating the first 50 years of Punch, published in 1900 complete with coupons for subscription. This”History of ‘Punch‘” was added on to 25 quadruple volumes collecting the first 50 Years of Punch together like a set of Encyclopedia.

This is my favorite sort of research, almost from the horses mouth, as it was published a mere nine years after the 50th Anniversary of the famed magazine. I have heard of Punch, read about Punch but never actually seen an original Punch magazine.

In the Preface to this history it gives me free license to mine Punch for historical research. M.H. Spielmann, the author of this history, writes:

“If one were to interleave a history of the Victorian Era with added illustrations, nearly every cartoon in Punch would be needed. If a treatise were now to be written describing the “manners, customs, and dress” of Victorian England, as Lacroix in his famous work described the peoples of Medieval Europe, Punch would be ransacked for “documents”.”

I also like this comment on historical fiction:

The historical novel, with all its falsity of perspective, has been of incalculable service, because it directed to the pas the attention of the general reader, and Punch’s informal accounts of Victorian events not only supply and amusing survey of our own time but are eminently fair and straightforward.”

So there you have it any writer of historical fiction set in the Victorian Era in England must have need to delve into the archives of Punch for fair and straightforward representation of the place and times.

I hope to share with you over the coming weeks amusing excerpts and fascinating insights gleaned from the pages of this 26th volume.

Hear are a few peeks at what is inside….

Punch Magazine, Victorian periodical, Unwin Brothers

Yes this is the same Unwin that in 1914 founded Allen & Unwin, Australia’s first publishing house.


This flier was inside. Anyone care for a subscription?

This flier was inside. Anyone care for a subscription?


Punch's Illustrations are famous for good reason.

Punch’s Illustrations are famous for good reason.

5 Practical Life Lessons from Marmee

Our group of "Little Women"

These are the “Little Women” of my childhood (what modern’s call adolescence)

Here are five life lessons from my favorite literary mother,  Mrs. March, more commonly refered to simply as Marmee. On re-read Little Women a couple of years ago from the perspective of a a parent I was newly impressed with her strength and wisdom. Here are Five Pearls of Wisdom that apply equally well to Millennials as to Victorians. 

#1 all play and no work makes for grumpy people

“I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.”

She is as right in 2016 as in 1868, all you have to do is look around at all the unhappy dissatisfied children and teenagers. They have more given to them than any other generation but so little is expected of them, they have so few responsibilities that they are never really happy.

#2 Let your husband help with the children

When Meg and John are having difficulties after the twins are born Marmee’s advice is.

“Don’t shut him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it, His place is there as well as yours, and the children need him; let him feel that he has his part to do and he will do it gladly and faithfully, and it will be better for you all.”

Not exactly the advice we today would expect from a Victorian mother.

#3 The benefits of creative discipline

Marmee allows her girls more freedom than we think of Victorian girls having. I love it when she allows the girls to try their ‘all play’ experiment without putting her two cents worth in. Then she gives Hannah the day off and quietly slips out for the day to drive the lesson home.

It takes a great deal of patience, trust and creative thinking to train your children that way.

Also modern parents will hale her far sighted wisdom when she said, “I don’t approve of corporal punishment, especially for girls.”

#4 Don’t limit yourself just because you’re a girl

Marmee showed what a strong, compassionate, intelligent woman is capable of being.

“Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it all affects you and yours.”

I know Marmee is an idealized fiction but I admire her all the same, especially her humility in admitting her own mistakes and faults. She isn’t the stereotyped trodden upon Victorian woman history books portray.

#5 controlling your temper doesn’t mean the absence of anger.

As a person labeled with a shocking temper from approximately the age of 2 I found Marmee’s talk to Jo about controlling  her temper to be insightful and helpful.  She says about herself:

“I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and I have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, jo; but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it.”

Marmee still got mad she just didn’t scream and shout, she controlled the anger rather than letting the anger control her. Isn’t that a novel idea!

I don’t mind Victorian moralizing or holding of ideals, in fact I find them refreshing, it just goes to show I really am an 1880’s girl.


10 Lessons on Writing from Jo March and Louisa May Alcott

If I could Write a letter to Jo March I would thank her for the lessons in writing she taught me.

If I could Write a letter to Jo March I would thank her for the lessons in writing she taught me.

I learned many useful lessons on the writing life from my dear friend and real Victorian girl Jo March and her creator Louisa May Alcott.  Here are a few of the lessons learned.

1–Writing is important, and should be done regularly, daily if possible. I met Jo in 5th grade. Her example, fictional though it was, made me realize that born writers need a writing routine. Jo had a time and a place that she wrote everyday.

“Jo was very busy up in the garret, for the October  days began to grow chilly, and the afternoons were short. For two or three hours the sun lay warmly in at the hight window, showing Jo seated on the old sofa writing busily, with her papers spread out upon a trunk before her.”

2–What sells isn’t always what you want to write or what you should write. Well I think Jo did enjoy writing her shocking thrillers and they did pay for Beth’s coat and her little luxuries but they were never going to make her famous. Louisa too made a steady income with “cheap” serialized thrillers but in the end as Professor Bhaer helps her see they left her empty. It wasn’t until she wrote  something completely different that she made a place for herself in history. Some moderns think Louisa’s famous novels are preachy and insincere. I never found them to be so. I prefer to think that she meant what she said and really believed each of us has the power to influence the world for good. 

3–Writing pays but not much, having a day job really helps. Jo worked both as Aunt March’s companion and later as a governess and ran a boarding school while continuing to write. Louisa taught, worked as a nurse and did a variety of odd jobs in addition to her writing until eventually she made enough to be the main support of her family. No one gets famous straight away and if you do get famous it doesn’t mean you are rich.

4–When you have the urge to write nothing else will substitute for it; not nursing, not child care or teaching, or acting or home duties will take away that desire so quit beating around the bush, sit down and write.

5–Writing needs to be edited. Jo went over and over her writing making changes, she labored over it. It did not come out fully formed ready to be published. A fact that still surprises non-writers.

6–Fans are likely to be disappointed when they meet you. I love it in Jo’s Boys when some eager fans come to call and she tries to get away with playing the housemaid. Alcott writes:

“The youngest aged twelve, could not conceal her disappointment and turned away feeling as so many of us have felt when we discover that our idols are very ordinary men and women.

“I thought she’d be about sixteen and have her hair braided in two tails down her back. I don’t care to see her now,” said the honest child walking off to the hall door.”

 Of course in the age of the internet our readers will be disillusioned early on.

7–Writers outwardly look perfectly ordinary, as the above quote attests to. (well maybe not all writers and not in Alcott’s day, her friend Henry David Thoreau always looked a little wild) That means wearing Oxfam clothes and whimsical scarves is not a prerequisite for looking authorly.

8–To get published you must submit your work. You submit your work by giving it to the editor of a publication. This is basic but vital information that is not covered in your school syllabus.

9–Editors may be harsh and make you want to give up ever writing ever again but that doesn’t mean you should.

10–Rejection and mixed reviews are all part of the writing process. This is a lesson repeated in Little Women (Good Wives) and Jo’s Boys. 

How about you, what did Jo March teach you?

PS. It doesn’t have to be about writing.

5 Ways to Use Novels for Research

Rich Sources of Information and Inspiration just waiting to be picked up.

Rich Sources of Information and Inspiration just waiting to be picked up.

So you’re ready to begin your work of historical fiction or perhaps you have been asked to head up that fundraiser for the school/park/historic landmark and want to run a history themed day/evening. Take your pick. Either way maybe you are like me and are not a natural born researcher, maybe not even an artificially trained researcher. You are just a curious person.

Back when I needed to find information on the 1830’s and discovered it to be the least interesting period in history I turned to sources of fiction for information. Because fiction is full of the common details of life that people of the time took for granted. They give us a window into the past.

Not modern historical fiction though sometimes they include great sources in their acknowledgements or links for those who want to learn more.  But the fiction I refer to is that written in your desired time frame.

I know I can hear some of you saying “Duh, 1880’s girl, isn’t that where you always get information for the Charles Dickens Festival?”

Well yes and no. You see I didn’t realize that several of my favorite books are actually set in the 1830’s; Cranford, Wives and Daughters, Jane Eyre, Shirley… you get the idea. Because I think of their creators as ‘Victorian Writers’ I hadn’t realized they are actually set in pre- or early Victorian.

So choose your time period. Choose your novel. Now read like a researcher. 

Here are 5 things to look out for.

#1 Manners and Ettiquette

I think most of us come to an era with very preconceived ideas of how and why people acted in a certain way. You may be surprised what will jump out at you when you read as a researcher.

For example: Gloves. In Wives and Daughters Squire Hamely is enquiring about what sort of girl Cynthia is. Is she the sort of girl whose gloves are always neatly mended? This is a little detail that jumped out at me because it tells us the importance of gloves, reminds us they were nearly always being worn and prone to wearing out. A girls gloves being neatly mended showed she was conscientious, skilled and neatly presented. In Little Women of course there is the whole crises around Jo’s gloves being stained, that she can’t possibly attend the dance without gloves and so on and so forth…

Useful details your can mull over and work into your own fiction to bring it to life.

#2 Food

Charles Dicken’s is especially good for descriptions of food, his books include  meals for people across different classes. How else are we supposed to learn the importance of oysters and warm punch to the young Victorian male?

In Pride and Prejudice there are the details about white soup being imperative to holding a ball, that a family dinner, for the genteel well managed household, will have at least three courses, that while Mrs. Bennett deemed kitchen work below her daughters dignity others of her class such as Charlotte Lucas might regularly make a pie or in some other way aid with meal preparations.  Mr. Darcy was thought to have at least two French cooks which gives clues to the extent of his kitchen and expected entertainments.

#3 Leisure Activities

It seems that as far as leisure is concerned for women in particular we always come back to needle work.

Mrs. Gibson (Wives and Daughters) to be sure had her special embroidery frame with particularly difficult or delicate work on show for the benefit of visitors, but if my memory is correct she doesn’t actually do that much work on it. Women would take a small piece of fancy work with them to work on when they payed calls.

But not all gentlewomen painted, sewed screens or played the piano forte as Elizabeth Bennett teaches us. We do not think of Regency women running for exercise but we are informed that Jane was unused to running while Lizzy was used to it. Jo March also ran though we learn that she is considered rather to old to be doing so.

Also in Little Women they play croquet, Authors and balderdash.

Jane Eyre describes details of a house party and an elaborate game of charades.

In Daniel Daronda we learn about archery, gambling, private concerts and how Victorians travel.

From these fictional accounts we see a breadth of everyday and out of the common amusements that your characters too may choose from.

#4 Modes of Transport

and their relative status markers. I love that Mr. Bennett has to call his horse in from the Farm in order for Jane to ride over to Netherfield.  You can learn about hansom cabs, omnibuses, who used wagons and carts and who drove a barouche box vs a landau.

#5 The Real Role of Women

I don’t think literature would be so full of strong minded women if no such thing existed. From Middle March to Little Women to Wives and Daughters we see a width and breadth of the role of women across the classes. Some who fulfill our stereotyped expectations and others who completely defy it. Showing the women of history were not so different from women today.

There are many more details to be gleaned from your favorite reads if you don’t get caught up and carried away by the story you can glean an astonishing amount of detail about the life and times of the Victorians or any other period of modern history.

Next time we will discuss Biographies as a resource.

7 Lessons I learned from the Bronte Sisters

Bronte Shelfie

  • You Don’t Need A Masters Degree to be a great Writer

    Charlotte, Anne and Emily were primarily educated by what we today would call independent studies. Through books and pure determination with a little help from their father they achieved a level of education above that of most women and indeed most men of their day. In fourth grade I formed the opinion that really smart people don’t need University that anything you want to know you can learn from books and from experience. The lives of these three great women confirmed my belief

  •  those Deemed as ordinary by others can turn out to be the most extraordinary

    As an ordinary girl from a blue collar family who happened to love reading, books and visual arts I find great comfort that three completely ordinary girls turned out to be quite extraordinary writers. I’m well past my girlhood but maybe, if I work very hard and show a particle of the Bronte’s grit and determination I may yet create a body of work that will touch hearts.

  • The importance of having a supportive but honest critique group

    The Bronte’s may have been socially isolated as a family but they did not work in individual isolation. They took their writing seriously. They would meet in the evenings to share their progress and evaluate each other’s work. By all accounts these were not sessions of pampering each other’s vanity, knowing that flattery would not move them towards publication. Today when seeking a beta reader or writing partner I strive to find someone equally supportive and honest who will say what needs to be said to take my manuscript to the next level.

  • Appearance, height, charisma or family connections are not necessary to literary success

    By all accounts the Bronte sisters, Charlotte in particular, were small in stature, unremarkable in appearance. They were quiet to the point of being reclusive. Their Father was a minister of no distinction. Their brother, who was deemed the most talented, the most promising among them, ended life a drug addict and alcoholic. And they suffered a variety of chronic health problems. No one would have picked them as wells of creative genius and yet they were.

    I too am a short woman of unremarkable appearance who has strong sympathy with recluses and lacks charisma. I battle chronic illness. I was never considered by her family to have more than usual talent.   And finally my family is utterly ordinary though thankfully all my brothers lead well moderated lives and are a source of pride rather than humiliation. The Bronte sisters’ example reminds me to take heart and keep trying.

  • Determination and persistence pay off

    The three sisters did not give up when their father was unenthusiastic. They did not give up because they were women. They did not give up due to sickness, or poverty or the demands of their brother. They did not give up in the face of rejection by publishers. They did not give up in the face of negative literary reviews. With every knock back and set back they picked themselves up, brushed off the dust and tried a different tactic. And in the end they were triumphant. How grateful all of us are for their determination and persistence.

  • Write, write, write

    Most importantly and above all else Charlotte, Anne and Emily teach us to write. When you have the drive to write then write. When you have a story to tell then write. Write every day whether you feel like writing or not. When the world and all who are in it seem to be against you, write. Write for yourself. Write to amuse those you love. Write to release the pain and anguish within you. Write to touch the lives of others. And last but not least, Write to support yourself. 

  • Writing for money does not cheapen your Art

The Bronte sisters did not seek publication with high moral aims. They sought publication because they were looking down the barrel of destitution. Economic woes are a great motivator to keep you submitting your work. Sometimes lack of money is the only factor great enough to overcome your fear of rejection put your work out there.

The more I write on the subject the more lessons I realize I can learn from Charlotte, Anne and Emily but I will stop at 7 a nice not round number.

From the first time I learnt about them as individuals I felt a kinship with these women and a desire to show myself as persistent in life as they were. Like thousands of others I am grateful they refused to fall in to obscurity.