When I read The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, I noted that some of those included survive only in transcripts made by Ednah Dow Cheney. I assumed that her book, Louisa May Alcott, Life, Letters and Journals, consisted mainly of transcripts. It was only when I finally started reading the book (a long-term resident of the TBR shelves) that I discovered it was published in 1889, the year after Alcott's death; and that it is a biography as well as a compilation of Alcott's writings. It was clear from the text that Ednah Cheney knew Louisa May Alcott. When I looked for information about Cheney, I found that she is a fascinating figure in her own right, part of the Transcendentalist inner circle, an activist in the abolitionist and women's rights movements. Her biography is the first written on Alcott. She had access through Louisa's only surviving sister, Anna Alcott Pratt (Meg), to family papers. She did note that Louisa burned many of her papers before her death, and also sorted and burned her mother's. Anna Pratt may have done the same later for Louisa's. Among the extracts Cheney included were entries from a diary that Louisa kept as a child during the utopian "Fruitlands" experiment organized by her father Bronson Alcott. The original of the diary has since been lost (or destroyed), along with letters. (Alcott amended her journals later in life, adding notes and comments, which Cheney included in her transcriptions.)
I can't remember if I have read a full biography of Louisa May Alcott before. I found this an interesting outline of her life, and I enjoyed reading Alcott's own words. It is certainly not a rigorous scholarly biography. Cheney seems to have felt the need to defend Alcott, against accusations that her early writings were too sensational and immoral, or too full of slang; and also to assure her readers that Alcott was a true woman. Though she had no children of her own - and apparently didn't really care for children - still she had "the mother-nature strong in her heart..." At the same time, she allowed Alcott to speak for herself, and that keeps the book from turning into hagiography. I was surprised to read in a diary entry from the period when Alcott was writing Little Women, "Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters..." In 1877, as she was writing Under the Lilacs, she said in another entry that she was "tired of providing moral pap for the young." And she complained, a lot, about how hard she had to work, and how easy other people had it, particularly her youngest sister May (Amy). She noted at one point that "she [Anna] has her wish, and is happy. When shall I have mine?" On one birthday she wrote "I never seem to have many presents, though I give a good many." By then she had become the main financial support of her family, which led her to exhaust herself in writing. I was reminded of Margaret Oliphant, churning out books and articles for her family's support, and sometimes complaining about it all.
Cheney's biography made me want to read one of Alcott's novels, and I chose Jo's Boys, published in 1886. I read it many times growing up, but it's one I re-read less often these days. Learning that it was Alcott's last novel piqued my interest. It is the third story of the March family, opening ten years after Little Men. Plumfield has now become part of Laurence College, funded by the estate of old Mr. Laurence. He has gone to his reward, as has Marmee. In real life, Louisa had also lost her sister May, the original for Amy. A touching Preface states that "since the original of that character died, it has been impossible for me to write of her as when she was here to suggest, criticise, and laugh over her namesake. The same excuse applies to MARMEE." Professor Bhaer is the president of the college, Mr. March its chaplain and resident philosopher. Meg has a house on the campus and acts as a den mother for the women students. Laurie and Amy have also built a house there, which is a center for art and music.
Reading this novel right after Cheney's book made it clear how much Alcott took straight from her own life for this book. Jo has become a famous author after writing "a little story describing a few scenes and adventures in the lives of herself and her sisters - though boys were more in her line..." The success of this Little Women-ish book allowed Jo to fulfill her dream: "a room where Marmee could sit in peace and enjoy herself after her hard, heroic life." That was exactly Alcott's wish for her Marmee, achieved through her own writing. With the runaway success of Jo's novel and the books that follow, fans deluge her with letters and camp out at Plumfield to see her. One woman visitor who forces her way in tells her, "If ever you come to Oshkosh, your feet won't be allowed to touch the pavement" - almost the exact words a fan spoke to Alcott herself in 1875. Jo however considers herself "only a literary nursery-maid who provides moral pap for the young..." Like her creator, Jo prefers "little Charlotte Brontë" to George Eliot. "I admire, but I don't love, George Eliot," she tells one of the women students who aspires to be a writer.
I was also reminded, reading this, of how subversive Louisa May Alcott could be. Laurence College is integrated, accepting African American students, including freed people from the south. It is also co-ed, and the women students are there to learn. The point is made more than once that women can study just as hard and as well as men. Many of the women students are preparing for careers - some out of necessity, and others by choice. While Alcott gave less attention to the girls who first appeared in Little Men, we get one of my favorites, the harum-scarum Nan, now studying to be a doctor and determined to remain a spinster. Meg's daughter Daisy, the rather bland twin sister of Demi, is set for marriage and domesticity, but her younger sister Josie is determined on a career as an actress. Amy and Laurie's daughter Bess, who will never have to earn a living, wants to be a sculptor. In the last chapter, Alcott tells us that Nan, Josie and Bess all achieve their goals. Alcott was an active worker for women's suffrage, organizing the women of Concord to vote in local elections. Nan argues for women's suffrage, and Demi supports her, pointing out that Meg, Jo and Amy vote in every election. And we also get the wild and wicked Dan, who can't settle down to anything but finally decides to dedicate himself to working among Native Americans. There is a fair bit of "noble savage" stereotyping, but Alcott also has strong words for the way "those poor devils" have been treated by the government, "cheated out of everything, and waiting patiently, after being driven from their own land to places where nothing will grow." It reminded me of her daring to marry the Boston blue-blood Annabel in the Eight Cousins books to a Chinese merchant, in the face of rampant anti-Asian prejudice.
Speaking of Eight Cousins, Cheney's book includes a long letter from Alcott describing a Christmas spent helping Abby Gibbons distribute food and toys in New York City. It was written in December of 1875, a few months before she began working on A Rose in Bloom, which mentions Abby Gibbons's work. I do love tracing connections like this.
Two quick quotes, to end with. As a child, Alcott listed among her vices, "Love of cats." And in Jo's Boys, the chapter "Plays at Plumfield" begins, "As it is impossible for the humble historian of the March family to write a story without theatricals in it as for our dear Miss Yonge to get on with less than twelve or fourteen children in her interesting tales..." Having finally read Our Dear Miss Yonge, I appreciate the truth of that statement! (It does make me wonder too if Alcott ever read Anthony Trollope - she knew his dear platonic friend Kate Field.)