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!

Gleanings of An Old-Fashioned Girl

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

My Alcott Reading Challenge Book of Choice

I am so enjoying this reading challenge. For those who haven’t heard or missed that post please see here. And I would say it is never too late in the month to indulge in a bit of Alcott.

I am almost half-way through An Old-Fashioned Girl  and enjoying it immensely.  I can clearly see why at 12 or 13 I related so well to Polly. I loved the idea of wearing simple clothes that made me look like a child not a miniature adult, a devotee of Peter Pan I was not ready to grow up. While there might be those who consider her a milquetoast it actually takes a great deal of determination follow your conscience and stand out from the crowd.

The Synopsis

The old-fashioned girl whose adventures we follow is Polly Milton, a simple country girl whose family, while very respectable is  on the poor, by the Shaw’s standards. Polly leaves her happy country home for a month of early winter city fun with her friend Fanny Shaw, who is two years her senior, very sophisticated and rich enough that her six year old sister has a French maid to dress her.

The Shaws consider themselves very fine indeed and try to make Polly conform to their ideals. Polly finds she doesn’t fit in at all with their fashionable ways but slowly and quietly finds her place among them, all the while trying very hard to follow her mother’s wise directions. By the end of 6 weeks they none of them want to see her go.

The Characters

  • Polly Milton-at 14 years old is the old-fashioned girl and herroine elect
  • Fanny Shaw– at 16 she considers herself a young woman, wears her hair up, promenades in the park and has daily meet ups with her ‘set’ of young ladies and gentleman of whom her father disapproves
  • Tom Shaw-also 14 and the red headed plague of the girls lives
  • Maud-spoilt tantrum throwing 6 year old who can’t pronounce her ‘r’s and cant decide which little boy should be her beau.
  • Mrs. Shaw-a semi-invalid who suffers from nerves, attacks are mainly brought on by her children
  • Mr. Shaw-a man of his time so engrossed in the business of making money he has very little time for his children
  • Grandma (Madame Shaw)-who lives quietly upstairs sadly looking on at the state of her sons family

Some people will consider the story “preachy” or a little “too good”, not me. I like stories about children who try to be good who sometimes fail and  other times succeed, but then I always was a little odd.

The difference between me and Polly was that all the grown-ups around me as well as my peers wanted me to get my ears pierced, wear lipstick and try to be that bit more fashionable and “feminine” or at least cut off that “dreadful mop of hair”. (Like Jo I rather fancied my hair was my one beauty and resented any suggestion that it should be chopped off, of course it wouldn’t have hurt to brush it a trifle more regularly)

I was dreadfully dull preferring old fashioned girlish things like patchwork and embroidery, both of which I tried to teach myself using as my guide such descriptions as could be glean from Laura Ingalls, Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, to varying degrees of success.

My chin was every bit as white and set as Polly’s and the more people tried to push me into the modern mold the more I fought to break it. Which I fancy I did rather well.

I spurned boy bands, teen magazine and make-up guides. Oh horror of horrors what to do with a girl who wasn’t pining after the New Kids On the Block!  Give me Newsies any day. 

Gems of Old-fashioned wisdom

Polly shut her door hard, and felt ready to cry with vexation, that her pleasure should be spoilt by such a silly idea; for, of all the silly freaks of this fast age, that of little people playing at love is about the silliest.

“Yes; i love to cut.” And Maud’s face brightened; for destructiveness is one of the earliest traits of childhood, and ripping was Maud’s delight.

Polly had a spice of girlish malice, and rather liked to see domineering Tom eat humble-pie, just enough to do him good, you know.

How about you? Are there any other Old-Fashioned girls out there who can relate to Polly Milton?

And don’t forget it’s never too late to join the challenge!

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.