I had not heard of Invincible Louisa, a Newberry medal-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott by Cornelia Meigs, until I saw Tarissa’s review of it last year. I found a Kindle version and saved it for this year’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge.Even though the book was written for children in 1933, I found it immensely readable.
Louisa was born the second of four daughters to Bronson and Abigail (called Abba here, Abby in other sources) Alcott. In some ways Bronson was ahead of his time. He was an abolitionist when such a stance was not popular, helped runaway slaves, and even enrolled a black girl in one of his schools, refusing to dismiss her despite protests which led to parents pulling their children out of the school, which led to the school’s closing. He had some forward-thinking practices in his schools, but also some controversial methods. On the other hand, he was more of an impractical thinker/dreamer/philosopher (“He once said that the sort of life which would satisfy him completely was to walk through the world all of his days, stopping to have conversations with people by the way”). He tried to start a Transcendental community with friends, but it failed. He very nearly joined a Shaker community which would have required him to leave his family. “In the first twenty-eight years of Louisa’s life, this household was to achieve the record of twenty-nine moves.” Though he worked hard, he could never manage to support his family very well. One family story tells of a friend giving the family a load of firewood. A poor man with a sick baby and no fuel came to Bronson, who gave the man all he needed and helped him take it home. Abba reminded him of his own baby and the need for fuel in the harsh, cold weather. Then another neighbor, unaware that someone else had helped the Alcotts with fire wood, brought them a load.
Abigail was industrious and practical. She was also more spirited. “Abba was a person of varying moods: excitable, quickly moved, always devoted to them all, but often too harrowingly uneasy concerning the family welfare to be entirely calm.”
The couple had four daughters in all, plus a son who did not live. Anna and Elizabeth were more like their father in temperament; Louisa and May took after their mother. But all the children learned industriousness, frugality, and generosity. “They were all of them generous to the utmost degree, so that it was by Abba Alcott’s consent, as well as by Bronson’s and the three girls’, that they habitually gave away everything that could, or could not, be spared.” “It was one of the Alcott beliefs that no matter how poor a person is he or she always had something which could be given away.”
Because the family’s financial situation was always so precarious, Louisa felt burdened to help as much as she could. She sewed, taught, worked as a governess, and did whatever came to hand. She wrote stories and sold them here and there. Family friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, so Louisa grew up under their influence and example. “To Louisa [Emerson] gave the freedom of his library and all that went with such a privilege.” “All their lives the members of this haphazard family were singularly lucky in friends, in people who appreciated and loved them and would do anything in the world for them.”
During the Civil War, Louisa went to Washington to help in a hospital. She sent home letters telling about the hospital itself and stories of the patients she encountered. Some of her letters were published, and people liked them so much that she wrote more and eventually put them into a book called Hospital Sketches, her first real literary success. “Louisa had told of the life with extraordinary effect; for she was not straining after romance now, but had given the truth simply, graphically, and with great spirit.” She caught typhoid fever, had to be taken home, faced a long and grueling recovery, and was never quite fully healthy again.
A publisher asked her for a book for girls. Louisa refused at first, saying she liked boys better and wouldn’t know what to write for girls. The publisher kept asking, however, so Louisa wrote some stories based on her own family. Louisa was Jo, Anna was Meg, Elizabeth was Beth, and May was Amy. The publisher was not terribly impressed, but he gave them to some young girls to read–and they loved them.
Several scenes paralleled the Alcott family. Elizabeth really did die of scarlet fever. Louisa did feel that Elizabeth’s death and Anna’s wedding were the beginning of breaking up the sisterhood. But there was no boy next door on whom Laurie was modeled: Louisa based him on a younger man she met while traveling abroad as a paid companion to an invalid girl. Some sources say there was a romance; this book says Louisa thought he would be better for May and hoped they would meet. Louisa herself never married, saying she would “rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
The success of Little Woman and Louisa’s subsequent books helped the family finally get on a solid financial footing. Although “Louisa never could quite put aside her taste for startling events and her love for writing tales which bordered on the fantastic,” “she had begun to see her work in its proper light; she understood also that [the more realistic] stories were needed for young readers instead of the sentimental and tragic tales with which their minds were usually fed.”
I had known a little bit about Louisa’s life, but I enjoyed learning more through this book.