Dear Miss Alcott . . .

These dressses are from the Beth and Amy dolls that my mother made for me, long ago. The hope chest was made by my aunt.

My mother made these dresses, intricately trimmed with pintucks and lace, along with two “Little Women” rag dolls. I am grateful that she steered me in the direction of Louisa May Alcott’s books, even before I could read.  The hope chest, made by my aunt, brings to mind the four chests described in Jo’s poem, “In the Garret”: “Four little names, one on each lid . . .”

Dear Miss Alcott,

After years of admiration, I am writing to tell you how much I have enjoyed your books–especially Little Women (like so many of your fans) and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  On first reading Little Women at the age of eight, I was delighted with the frills and trappings of the nineteenth century: I longed to live in the time of petticoats and gloves, calling cards and carriages. But I was even more pleased to make the acquaintance of the four March sisters, who were bickering (as sisters are wont to do) about how to celebrate Christmas when you introduced them to me.

As a child, I loved all things "Little Women"--paper dolls, dolls, movies. Here are Madame Alexander's doll versions of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

As a child, I loved all things “Little Women”–paper dolls, movies, and my precious Madame Alexander dolls.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–they were as different from one another as four sisters could be, in both appearance and personality. Many nuances were beyond my understanding on that first reading. For years, I did not realize that the book given by Marmee to each daughter at Christmas was Pilgrim’s Progress, and I failed to appreciate how cleverly you used Christian’s journey as a parallel for the lessons that each of the March girls was learning.  Later, I grasped that the war taking Mr. March away from his family was the Civil War that I had learned about in school. My ignorance notwithstanding, the ambitions of the four sisters nourished my own ambitions: was I going to be a great writer, a great pianist, or a great artist, I wondered, as I built my castle in the clouds along with the March girls.

In 2011, I paid a visit to Orchard House, which is a National Historic Site.

In 2011, my family and I visited Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Bronson and Abigail May Alcott moved to Orchard House with daughters Anna, Louisa, and May in 1858. Another daughter, Elizabeth, the model for “Beth,” died shortly before they moved to the home that would be the final residence for Bronson, Abigail, and Louisa.

Miss Alcott, as I read and re-read your books, the disappointments of the March girls became my disappointments. I watched with horror as Amy was punished for bringing limes to class and, later, burned Jo’s manuscript in a fit of pique; I sympathized with Meg’s longing for finery, Jo’s disappointment when Aunt March chose Amy for her European traveling companion, Beth’s fear of Mr. Laurence, and Amy’s realization that her talent was not genius. Their joys were also my joys, as Meg gave birth to twins, Amy and Laurie comforted one another after Beth’s death, and Jo finally found romance with the impoverished but lovable Professor Bhaer. Even after the three surviving sisters became women–strong, compassionate women, who coped with single parenthood, founded schools, and helped struggling artists–I loved to read about them. Again, layers of meaning escaped me, such as references to Goethe and Schiller or to Greek mythologybut it is a tribute to the richness of your books that I gleaned something new with every reading.P1010235

Like you, Miss Alcott, I am one of four sisters. Longing to be pretty and artistic, I initially identified with Amy, whose character was loosely based on your sister May. In time, I came to prefer Jo, your fictional counterpart, who poured herself into her writing, who put her interests aside to help her family, who could not perceive her own beauty, who struggled to rejoice when good things happened to her sisters.

Unlike you, I have never been called upon to sacrifice and toil for my family, as you did from your teen years. Indeed, without your tireless writing or the kindness of family friends such as Mr. Emerson, your family might have fared poorly.  When I read the book Marmee and Louisa,  a gift from my youngest sister, it seemed to me that your parents held you to a very high standard indeed and chided you for your failings less gently than they might have. But, rather than complaining, you used your talents to improve your family’s fortunes, and you endeavored to apply your parents’ criticisms.

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Orchard House is a museum today, open for guided tours. Louisa wrote most of her books here, often wearing a “scribbling suit” like Jo’s.

I feel, Miss Alcott, that your personal striving towards humility, selflessness, industry, and compassion communicates itself to your readers. I do not mean to imply that your primary purpose in writing Little Women was didactic: as I understand it, your publisher wanted you to write a book for girls because he thought it would sell well. (He was right.)  In writing about a way of life that you knew intimately and about the family that you loved, however, you created a world that has attracted and influenced generations of young girls. Even as your readers delight in the comic adventures and heartbreaking tragedies of the March girls, they are seeing examples of kindness, courage, and–dare I say it, in the age of the selfie?–modesty.

No matter how old I grow, Miss Alcott, I never tire of reading Little Women.  As recently as 2007, your best-selling classic inspired The Mother-Daughter Book Club, a novel for young adults set in modern-day Concord, Massachusetts.  An Old-Fashioned Girl–which contrasts the life of the hardworking poor girl with the frivolous rich girl–was also one of my childhood favorites, and I enjoyed your books about the orphan, Rose, and her cousins (Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom).

Although your own life, sadly, was filled with hardship, loss, poor health, and personal disappointment, it may be some small consolation to know that you have brought a great deal of joy to a little girl growing up in the late twentieth century.

With the deepest respect,

A Devoted Reader

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From 1845 to 1848, the Alcotts lived in this Concord home, Hillside, where Louisa had her own room and wrote her first book. Later, they purchased and renovated the home on adjoining property, which they christened Orchard House.  In 1849, Nathaniel Hawthorne purchased Hillside and renamed it The Wayside.

This plaque at the Wayside (originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott) tells about the house's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

This plaque at The Wayside (called Hillside by the Alcotts) tells about the house’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Two fugitive slaves stayed here in the winter of 1846-1847. Today, The Wayside is part of Minute Man National Historical Park.

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10 thoughts on “Dear Miss Alcott . . .

    • We did, although it was a few years ago. I didn’t take photos inside the house, and I can’t remember why that was: were photos not allowed, or was there not time? I do remember that Louisa’s sister, May, had painted on the walls in places. Writing this blog is going to make me more observant, I hope.

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  3. Men can and sometimes do have a tender side. Isn’t it nice to know that even a fictional death can cause one to pause and comment before going on?

    The older my husband gets, the more “sappy” he is about sad things or even just precious memories of past events.

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  4. Thanks, Suzanne! Yes, I think Alcott’s book is still relevant, although I don’t know how accessible it is to today’s readers. Compared to the fast-paced children’s and young adult fiction being written today, Little Women is very “prosy.” I thought about going into more detail about how hard her life was: she was a nurse during the Civil War, and her health was ruined afterwards; then, her sister May, who married in Europe, died soon after having a child. But that was going to require a lot of fact-checking, etc., so I stuck with what I knew for sure about her 🙂

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  5. Wow, that is awesome, Sandi! I love your letter, and I’m sure Louisa would have, too! Although I was never devoted to reading the novel, my girls and I have watched and rewatched the movie of Little Women (with Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, etc.) and have fallen in love with it many times. Every time, we all sob when Beth dies; even Tom can’t continue through the house without pausing, shaking his head, and moving on. As you say, there are many of us 20th-century girls who identify with the aspirations, hardships, and losses of the March women, and somehow hope our lives are as graced with love and redemption as theirs were. And there is something really sweet, as mothers, to be able to pass on the virtues of the March family to our girls through this beloved story. Thanks so much for writing this, Sandi.

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