Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother
- Eve LaPlante
- The Free Press
- 368 pp.
- January 15, 2013
The stalwart woman who became famous through her daughter’s classic work of fiction was an interesting character in her own right.
Reviewed by Susan Ware
How do biographers find their subjects? Eve LaPlante mines her family history. She began her biography career with her trouble-making Puritan ancestor, Anne Hutchinson. Next she tackled Samuel Sewall, familiar to her from family stories as the judge who later recanted his role in the Salem witch trials. Now she ventures into the 19th century to tell the story of her May-Alcott ancestors, specifically Abigail May Alcott and her famous daughter Louisa, the author of Little Women. Generations of readers have cherished gentle Marmee, the steadfast fictional mother who holds her family of four girls together while the father is off at war. According to LaPlante, the real woman is much more interesting.
Biographies often need a hook to catch readers’ — and reviewers’ — attention, and Marmee & Louisa opens with LaPlante and her daughter rummaging through a trunk of old family papers in an attic. “Who is Louie?” her daughter asks. This cache of material about distant cousin Louisa May Alcott sets LaPlante off on a journey of discovery, not so much about the famous author, who has been the subject of numerous biographies, but about her mother, whose “untold story” (at least according to the subtitle) has been lost to history.
Without challenging the well known outlines of the Alcott family saga, LaPlante aims to shift the focus away from the relationship between Louisa and her father, Bronson, the subject of John Matteson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Eden’s Outcasts (2007), and instead foreground her mother’s previously underappreciated role as Louisa’s muse, mentor and emotional lodestar.
The book bills itself as a dual biography, but at heart the story really belongs to the mother. Born in 1800 into a distinguished New England family (her brother Samuel became a prominent abolitionist), Abigail May was an intellectually ambitious young woman who was thwarted by the gender expectations of her times. Her marriage to Bronson Alcott, a charismatic but totally impractical dreamer with whom she had four daughters (Louisa was the second), thrust her into a life of precarious middle-class poverty.
Locked in a challenging marriage to a man who disdained the idea of making money, Abigail often had to fend for her family by herself, including taking on paid employment on occasion. At other times the Alcott family was saved only by the kindness of relatives or friends sending along some welcome cash or offering a rent-free place to live. Growing up, Louisa determined that she would make enough money as a writer so that her family (especially her mother) could escape this penurious and humiliating situation. She succeeded beyond her wildest expectations, becoming one of the century’s most successful and well paid writers.
The word feminist was not used in the 19th century, but the concept behind it certainly applies both to Abigail May Alcott and her daughter. “Keep up. Be something in yourself,” Abigail exhorted Louisa. “Let the world know you are alive!” LaPlante definitely supplies a feminist interpretation of their intertwined lives, presenting them both as strong and independent women who challenged barriers and conventional expectations and served as worthy foremothers for the struggles of today’s modern women.
And yet, in many ways both mother and daughter were still limited, if not trapped, by traditional gender roles. Abigail was shackled to an irresponsible and often absent husband through the bonds of love and obedience expected of marriage; Louisa, who never married, was caught by what Jane Addams later referred to as “the family claim.”
This family claim, the responsibility of unmarried daughters to serve as helpmates and companions to their aging parents, both nourished and exhausted Louisa, especially after the typhoid fever she contracted during a brief stint as a Civil War nurse left her in poor health for the rest of her short life. Even after the extraordinary success of Little Women, which was published in 1868, Louisa still felt the need to crank out book after book to meet her family’s seemingly endless financial needs, such as writing a sequel to Little Women to support her widowed sister’s family and crafting short stories to purchase a furnace for her parents.
Through her caretaking efforts, both financial and emotional, her parents lived long, well-provided-for lives: Abigail died in 1877 at age 77 and Bronson lived until 1888. Their famous daughter was not so lucky, succumbing to ill health at the age of 55, just days after her father’s death.
Although LaPlante has turned up more material on Abigail May Alcott than most scholars thought possible (The Free Press has also issued a companion volume of Abigail’s writings, edited by LaPlante and titled My Heart Is Boundless), Marmee & Louisa sticks pretty close to the surface of the story, never approaching the level of thick description and intellectual engagement that Megan Marshall displayed about a similar, indeed overlapping, set of characters in The Peabody Sisters (2005). In the end, Marmee & Louisa is best seen as a recovery project — an attempt to write an unknown woman back into history — not all that different from many early works of feminist biography from the 1970s and 1980s.
Thanks to LaPlante, Abigail May Alcott can now take pride of place as her daughter’s most stalwart supporter and an interesting character in her own right. And Little Women’s fictional nod to the amazing and complex Alcott family will continue to enchant readers as it has for the past century and a half.
Susan Ware serves as the general editor of American National Biography (www.anb.org). Her most recent book is Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).