Review of Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother
“Even a feminist study of nineteenth-century women writers suggested that Abigail exerted no intellectual influence on Louisa, who ‘was taught by her father and also introduced to men of great influence, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.’ No anthology or biography portrayed Louisa as ‘taught by her mother and also introduced to women of great influence, including Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Lydia Maria Child, and Margaret Fuller.’ Yet that statement, I discovered, is equally true.” — Eve LaPlante, Marmee and Louisa
As others have noted and the quotation above makes entirely clear, the argument of this book is that Abigail May Alcott was an intellectual influence as well as emotional support for Louisa May Alcott. In a way, the claim would seem to be so obvious that it’s incredible it’s never been made before, given the major influence the character of Marmee has in Little Women, and the almost complete absence of Mr. March in that book. Yet at the same time, one could argue that Marmee teaches the girls to be good and self-sacrificing, not necessarily intellectual (though she does encourage Jo’s writing–an important clue that apparently is drawn from Louisa’s own experience). In any case, LaPlante points out, quite rightly, that women’s lives are often lost to history.
It turns out that, from evidence LaPlante uncovers from letters and journals, that Louisa was considered by many, including her father, to be very much like her mother, and that, after Louisa’s success with Little Women, even Bronson wrote that Abigail did not get enough credit for her influence over Louisa. Most of the book is a biography of Abigail, which turns out to be quite enjoyable, given Abigail’s involvement in both the abolition and women’s suffrage movements, as well as her incredible resourcefulness in raising four children on very little income. It’s an engaging portrait of life in nineteenth-century America. And the relationship between Louisa and Abigail is beautifully drawn; late in the book, the description of Abigail’s death in particular (and I’m not one for deathbed scenes) is deeply moving and haunting.
The writing is readable and fast-paced, though hampered by some frustrating traits, such as the author’s over-reliance on direct quotes (sometimes it almost reads like a zagat review!) and a bizarre tendency to end paragraphs with a sentence on an entirely new topic. I also would have enjoyed reading more about Abigail’s relationships with Margaret Fuller and Lydia Maria Child; it seems to have been seen as enough that she had them, but I would have liked more details (though perhaps details are few in existing documents). Still, this is an enjoyable read and has renewed my interest in reading more by Alcott and other nineteenth-century American writers.