Louisa May Alcott Challenge Wrap-up

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The Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge hosted by Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts this month has ended. I read two books for the challenge:

I watched the recent Masterpiece Theatre remake of Little Women and enjoyed it quite a bit – I think it aired last month. But I enjoyed watching several of the behind-the-scenes videos of the show. I didn’t know the Alcott home, Orchard House, was still preserved today with many of its originals furnishings, Louisa’s desk, and even May’s (Amy’s counterpart) sketchings on the walls. I learned, also, that one of May’s art students sculpted the sitting Lincoln Memorial.

I also listened to several of the podcasts Tarissa linked to for us.

It was fun to spend so much time reading and thinking about Alcott this month. I already have at least one book planned for next year’s challenge.

Thank you for hosting, Tarissa! It was fun!

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Book Review: Invincible Louisa

AlcottI 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.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Colletta’s Book Club, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: A Long Fatal Love Chase

Long Fatal Love ChaseLouisa May Alcott based her Little Women characters to a great degree on her own family. Just as Jo wrote both for a creative outlet and to support her family, so did Louisa. Louisa’s editor asked for a new novel to be published in installments in a magazine, and Louisa came up with A Long Fatal Love Chase. The novel was rejected, however, as being “too sensational.” Two years later Louisa published Little Women, and according to Wikipedia, stayed with children’s stories after that. A Long Fatal Love Chase was set aside and eventually discovered at a rare book dealer’s, bought, edited, and published by Kent Bicknell in 1995.

The story involves teenager Rosamond Vivian, who lives alone with an aloof grandfather. Tired of her boring, confined life and lack of love, she declares, Faust-like, “I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” Right on cue, in walks her father’s old friend Phillip Tempest, who bears a striking resemblance to a portrait of Mephistopheles (why Rosamond’s grandfather has a portrait of Mephistopheles is not explained.)

Eventually Rosamond and Phillip fall in love and marry. She knows he has a past and is not a saint, but he has been nothing but kind to her. She feels love will conquer all. After while, however, she becomes aware of some of Phillip’s shady dealings. Unsettled, she becomes more wary. When she discovers that her marriage is a sham and Phillip already has a wife and son, she flees.

Thus the chase in the title ensues. Louisa wrote this not long after she had toured Europe as a paid companion to an invalid, and her experiences  there inform her novel. Rosamond puts on various disguises, travels to different places, receives help from a variety of people, but somehow Phillip and his spy, Batiste, find her every time until the tragic end alluded to in the title.

I was a little afraid of just how “sensational” this book might be, but it contains nothing explicit or lurid. Phillip is evil, but other classic villains are as bad or worse. Someone quoted on the Wikipedia page suggested perhaps in those times, a woman finding herself in a false marriage would hide away in shame even though the situation was no fault of her own, and the fact that Rosamond did not do that might have shocked some people.

Readers can tell this was originally written for magazine serialization, because every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Alcott was quite good at writing that way and crafting enough sudden twists and turns to give one whiplash. A few lines border on silly (“She…looked at the vigorous figure before her with genuine womanly admiration for a manly man”[p. 13]. “Tempest…[enjoyed] her innocent companionship with the relish of a man eager for novelty and skillful in the art of playing on that delicate instrument, a woman’s heart” [p. 36].) But, overall, though this kind of novel isn’t my usual cup of tea, it was interesting to see this side of Alcott. The book was certainly exciting and suspenseful. And, though, it wasn’t written to have a moral, it has one nevertheless. Tempest’s love is destructive because it is obsessive and selfish, whereas that of someone Rosamond meets later is completely selfless, giving though he cannot receive her love in return. Though Rosamond is more independent than Little Women’s females, she is of the same character and fiber.

I was glad to win this book in a drawing for last year’s Mount TBR Challenge hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block and save it for Tarissa’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

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Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month. You can find details and prize information here.

I’d like to read at least two books for the challenge.

  • A biography,  Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs
  •  A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa. This was one of her “sensational novels” that she, like Jo in Little Women, wrote for quick money. It was recently rediscovered and printed. It will be interesting to see that side of Alcott.

I may also try to listen to Little Women again. I have read it several times and listened an audiobook of it at least once. I recently watched the new PBS remake, and I know they arranged some parts out of order, but for others I am not sure if I am remembering the book or the 1994 film. At any rate, I am hankering to go through the book again. I am making good time on my Back to the Classics challenge, so I think I have time for a detour. 🙂 But we’ll see.

The Christmas Stories of Louisa May Alcott

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I wanted to round out my year of audiobook listening with something warm and homey. I considered listening again to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, but then I came across a collection of her Christmas stories and thought that sounded perfect. The stories recorded here are:

“Gwen’s Adventure in the Snow”: A group of children of varying ages go on a sleighing expedition to their country house and end up getting caught in a snowstorm with their horses running off. The children take refuge in the house and have to try to come up with food and a way to get warm.

“Rosa’s Tale”: Children discussing the legend that animals can speak for an hour after midnight on Christmas hear their horse’s life story.

“What Polly Found in Her Stocking”: a poem about a girl’s stocking presents.

“A Hospital Christmas”: a warm and caring nurse makes Christmas brighter for patients in a military hospital during the Civil War era.

“A Country Christmas”: A girl staying with her aunt in the country invites two city friends to spend the holidays with them.

“Mrs. Podgers Teapot”: A woman who feels she is making her dead husband happy by not remarrying falls in love.

“Peace From Heaven”: Another poem.

“The Quiet Little Woman”: A girl in an orphanage is taken in to a home as a servant and longs for family love.

“A Christmas Dream and How It Came True”: A spoiled little girl has a sort-of Christmas Carol experience.

“A Song”: Another Christmas poem

“Kate’s Choice”: A teenage girl in England has lost her parents and is sent to live with each of her American uncles in order to choose which one to love with.

“Bertie’s Box”: A little boy overhears his mother and aunt talking about a needy family that they might try to do something for if they remember after getting their own plans done, and he decides to take matters into his own hands.

“What Love Can Do”: As two young girls lament the meager Christmas they are facing and share their wishes, a neighbor overhears and puts a little Christmas surprise in front of their door. Another neighbor sees this and adds his own, and so on.

Tessa’s Surprises: Tessa is the oldest daughter of a poor Italian family whose mother died. As she tries to come up with a way to provide a little something for her siblings for Christmas, she decides to go with an older boy who plays a harp to various places in the city to sing and see if she can earn a few pennies.

A Christmas Turkey: A father demoralized by work problems neglects his family.The children want to do various tasks to earn money at least for a nice Christmas dinner for the family and meet with various benefactors in the process.

Becky’s Christmas Dream: Becky is a 12 year old orphan from a poorhouse bound to work for a certain family until she is eighteen. She is sad at being left behind to tend the house while the family goes out to celebrate Christmas. As the clock strikes 12, either the animals and household items start talking or Becky starts dreaming, but either way they tell how they learned contentment in their assigned tasks.

A Merry Christmas: A section from Little Women where the girls give their Christmas breakfast to a poor family and put on a play in the evening.

A New Way to Spend Christmas: An assemblage of people visit an orphanage, touched by the plight of the children and heartened by the example of one ministering to them..

Tilly’s Christmas: A poor girl rescues a bird and is rewarded by an unseen benefactor with a special Christmas.

My favorites were Kate’s Choice and What Love Can Do.

quiet-little-womanI actually have “The Quiet Little Woman” in book form – it’s been on my shelf for years, and I thought I had read it, but as it started, it did not sound at all familiar to me. The book contains that story as well as Tilly’s Christmas and Rosa’s Tale.

All of the stories are in much the same spirit as Little Women: there are morals; encouragements to be brave and good and kind and to work hard and to remember and give to the poor; the simple and homey is revered above the showy and rich. In some places, like Aunt Plumey’s frank opinions in “A Country Christmas, the moral comes on a little strong by today’s standards, but was well received by the hearers in the story. Some of the stories seem more steeped in sentimentally than her books – maybe because the books have other events or maybe because Christmas stories seem to bring that out.

I didn’t look up the dates of all the stories, but the ones I did search out were written after Little Women, some of them published in magazines.

I’ve seen several collections of Alcott’s Christmas stories in print form that contain some combination of these, but I don’t think there is one that matches up exactly with the audiobook. The text of some of them can be found online by searching for the story title.

The narrator gave a valiant effort, even adding a little bit of a whinny to a horse’s voice, but I didn’t quite warm up to her.

But I am glad to have come across these and familiarized myself with some of Alcott’s stories that I hadn’t known before.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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