When I was growing up, I think every girl was given a copy of Little Women, Louisa May Alcotts 1868 book about four sisters coming of age under their Mother or Marmee’s care and wisdom during the Civil War. It was a huge best seller in it’s own era and remains a classic beloved by people all over the world to this day.
Lousia herself came from a very interesting and influential family, and much has been made about the role of her father in shaping her life, but it’s clear from Little Women, and many supporting documents, that it was actually her mother who had a more influential role. The closeness of Marmee to Jo, and her other three daughters, mirrors the relationship between the author and her mother. I always really like Marmee as a character and really admired her calm and wisdom. So when I came across this book, I had to read it.
Eva LaPlante is uniquely positioned to write this double biography of mother and daughter, since she is related to Louisa herself. Her own attic had letters from the famour author. Her writing style is that perfect balance of academic attention to detail and research with a good narrative flow. After reading this, I did want to seek out some of her other books.
The hard thing about reading this book is that Lousia’s father is really awful. I had a suspicion that this was the case from little things I’d read here and there, but this book comfirms it. He refuses to earn any money to support his family, and they constantly have to go begging from friends for help. He compares himself to Jesus and talks to small children enrolled in his school about sex, which is not only a social taboo at the time, but also more than a bit worrying. He presents himself as a man before his time, misunderstood and ready to lead people to a new Utopia, but actually, his wife is made to work like a servant for him and his friends.
It’s a hard thing to read about because women couldn’t leave their husbands and had no rights, so Abby has little option in the whole matter. She encourages her daughter Louisa to write, but Lousia also decides to have a career and to not get married so that she can earn money to support her family. Her father then cashes in by doing tours talking about how great a father he is and making money off her fame, even though he was frequently absent in her growing up and constantly criticised her.
The book is a really interesting peice of history, both for showing the lives of Lousia and her mother Abby, as well as the social upheaval and moral climate that they both grew up in. I love the bond between the two women, as well as their relationships with their families and friends, who were all interesting people in their own right. It was really interesting to see where Louisa drew from her own life and that of her mother, who kept a diary from a young age, to create Little Women and it’s sequels. It’s a genuine moving story of two lives, a dual biography, and a must read for lovers of Alcott’s books and history buffs.
Read It If: well researched and beautifully written, this book is a must for Alcott fans.