Before writing 'Little Women,' Louisa May Alcott penned 'blood and thunder'

Alcott's beloved book about the March sisters debuted 1868. While the novel's success brought her wealth and freedom, Alcott's passion lay closer to her lesser-known Gothic pulp fiction.

Published 3 Dec 2021, 10:36 GMT
The question of marriage
Novelist Louisa May Alcott sits in a photograph taken in the 1880s.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

Following the publication of Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott was popularly known as the “children’s friend,” a moniker that became the title of the first biography written about her in 1888. The warmhearted stories she told in Little Women about the March sisters— Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—growing up in Civil War–era Massachusetts, made her one of America’s best-selling and best loved authors. Little Women spawned two sequels, stage plays, numerous films, more than 10 TV adaptations, a Broadway musical, and an opera. It has sold an estimated 10 million copies and been translated into as many as 50 languages.

Alcott went on to write fiction for the rest of her life. Literary historians now know that she had an earlier, hidden career, in which she had produced a significant number of books, both anonymously or under a pseudonym. These early novels often explore a darker, more turbulent vision of life than she presented in the Little Women series. In these works Alcott adopted a strikingly different voice than that of the “children’s friend.”

Intellectual riches

Born in 1832 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Alcott was the second of four daughters raised in an intellectual family that was plagued by constant financial struggle. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was an educational reformer and follower of transcendentalism, a philosophy that believed in individual self-improvement, universal brotherhood, and union with nature.

Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts, in an undated photograph, is where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868 and provided the story’s setting.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

Long on ideals and short on practicality, Bronson never earned enough to alleviate the family’s poverty. Alcott’s mother, Abigail, known as Abba, kept hearth and home together. She supported the abolition of slavery (the Alcotts likely harboured fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad) and women’s rights.

Despite being poor, Alcott’s childhood abounded in intellectual riches. When Louisa was about eight, the family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where she had extraordinary mentors in Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson – leading transcendentalists and friends of her father. She attended Thoreau’s school, where lessons might mean rambles in the woods with the great naturalist. Emerson lived next door and opened his library to her. Although Alcott was too much of a realist to adhere fully to the loftier aspects of transcendentalism, she was certainly influenced by its emphasis on self-reliance and individuality.

Personal freedom was high on Alcott’s list of priorities, and she resisted 19th-century expectations of female domesticity. At the same time, her family’s poverty engendered a lifelong commitment to their welfare. She once wrote to her father that her goal as a writer was to prove that “though an Alcott, I can support myself”—both a rebuke and personal mission statement. She went to work at a young age, though none of her jobs paid well. She worked as a lady’s companion, a seamstress, and a teacher. She joined a household as a servant but quit after mistreatment by her employer.

By her early 20s, Alcott was already writing, often anonymously or under a pseudonym. In 1862, at age 30, after volunteering as a Civil War nurse, she wrote Hospital Sketches, which was published the next year.

One of her publishers, Thomas Niles, thought so highly of the book that in 1867 he asked if she would write a novel for girls. At the same time, she was asked to edit a magazine, Merry’s Museum, for young people. She took on both projects, dropping what scholars now know to be her more adult themes.

Creative doubts

At first, Alcott felt unqualified to write what would become Little Women. A tomboy as a child, she had “never liked girls or knew many,” as she wrote in her journal, other than her three siblings: her older sister, Anna, and her younger sisters, Elizabeth and May. She also doubted the “plays and experiences” they shared would interest anyone.

The cover of the Roberts Brothers edition of Little Women was printed in 1869.
Photograph by Alamy/ACI

The shears are poised to cut Jo's hair in a 1912 engraving by artist Harold Copping.

Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

She began the novel, put it aside, then returned to it in May 1868. On reviewing the manuscript, she and Niles found the first dozen chapters dull. Later in August, after reading the proof, she wrote: “It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it.”

Set during the Civil War, the book describes a year in the life of four sisters—sensible Meg (based on sister Anna), rebellious Jo (Alcott’s alter ego), sweet Beth (Elizabeth), and frivolous Amy (May)—as they grow up, looking for adventure, love and their place in the world. Their mother, Marmee, is an endless fount of loving counsel, while the girls’ father is away from home, serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. As the story unfolds, Beth dies prematurely (as Alcott’s sister Elizabeth had, after contracting scarlet fever), and the other three girls take different paths: Meg dedicates herself to her family, Jo to writing and teaching, and Amy to art.

The first edition of Little Women was shorter than today's. After 2,000 copies sold out in two weeks, the publisher asked Alcott to write a second part, the two volumes forming the single book that readers encounter today. Alcott’s ideas about love and marriage brought her into conflict with her more traditional fan base. Alcott wanted to keep Jo unmarried, like herself, but her publisher and readers clamoured for a marriage with the rich Laurie Laurence. In the second part of Little Women, Alcott relented, but not with the ending many of her readers hoped for: Jo marries the older Professor Bhaer, while sister Amy marries Laurie.

Alcott’s negative view of married life may have been partly informed by the strain that economic hardships put on her parents’ marriage. Jo is saved from such a fate, both by her writing and by an inheritance from her aunt. She and her husband found Plumfield, a boys’ school (as Alcott’s father had in 1834). The fictional Jo will enjoy financial independence.

Pressured by a public clamouring to know more of what became of the March girls, Alcott duly provided two sequels: Little Men (1871)—which tells the story of the students at Plumfield—and Jo’s Boys (1886), the last in the trilogy, which follows the students in early adulthood.

Lost and found

Louise May Alcott’s literary success earned her enough money to support herself and her family, but the success of Little Women fixed her in a role she did not relish—the writer of what she called “moral pap for the young.” The genre had given her financial freedom, but it also felt confining to a woman who supported feminist ideas. In 1879 Alcott joined a group of Concord women who exercised limited voting rights for the first time and campaigned for the rest of her life for full female suffrage.

Restricted by the narrow themes allowed to respectable women writers, she never saw her work as “great,” says Daniel Shealy of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and editor of Little Women: An Annotated Edition. “She always longed to write her great novel and never believed that she had succeeded.”

In the 1940s New York rare book dealers Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg uncovered other writings by Alcott, either pseudonymous or anonymous. They found that between 1852 (when her first prose story was published, at age 20) and her death in 1888, Alcott wrote some 210 poems and sketches, stories, and serials that were published in roughly 40 different periodicals.

Writing as A.M. Barnard, Alcott also published about 30 Gothic thrillers in the decade prior to Little Women. These stories are filled with passion and revenge, “blood and thunder” novels, as she called them.“I think my natural ambition is for the lurid style,” she confided to a friend, calling such stories “gorgeous fancies.”

In 1866 Alcott wrote A Long Fatal Love Chase. A story of obsessive love, its heroine makes a Faustian pact in the opening pages: “I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

Rejected at the time, the novel was finally published in 1995, and became a best seller, part of a shift that is recognising Alcott as more than the author of Little Women. “Her work is now clearly established in the American literary canon,” concludes Shealy. “Her reputation as a writer is only increasing.”

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