LOUISA MAY ALCOTT's life and work tell us much about the American female experience, of little women created so strenuously, trying always to be good. Often heroic in their self-repression, they went beyond the dictates of culture, suppressing more and more of themselves in order to gain the approval and love of men. Martha Saxton's excellent biography, based on manuscript sources, is a portrait of an artist arrested in young womanhood whose work embodies her predicament.

Saxton begins her study with a thoughtful analysis of Little Women as the book of Louisa May's life, an index to her character, conflicts and values. In the first sections of Saxton's narrative one only glimpses little Louisa. That Alcott never fully emerged from the family narrative is the point of Saxton's book; its structure subtly matches her argument, showing why Louisa cannot tell her own story directly, why she will always remain a daughter. Alcott was well aware of her attachments; she wrote in her diary, "Shall never live my own life."

Louisa called hers the "pathetic family," a term of endearment that contained more disturbing emotions. Saxton depicts Alcott's mother Abba, the saintly marmee of Little Women, as a vivid example of self-sacrifice and martyrdom - a force of engulfing, terrifying love who represented to her daughter the real world where women suffered at the hands of men, helpless, hysterically dependent. Her father, Bronson, at best a benevolent despot is, according to Saxton, the major creater of little women "on their way to complete diminution." Transcendental philosopher and natural foods fanatic, he was not a breadwinner. Relatives and Concord neighbors like Emerson helped support the family until Louisa assumed the burden. Difficult and distant, Bronson symbolized all men to Louisa: untrustworthy, unfathornable, sometimes worthy of idealization, yet always the harbingers of disappointment and rejection, men were never merely the equals of women. Caught between her mother's love and her father's coldness, if not disapproval, Louisa took up the pen, seeking to stabilize her emotions in writing.

Louisa had been taught, Saxton writes, to "behave as if every day is someone else's birthday," and Alcott as author never forgot that lesson. Like many women writers she denied that writing was self-assertion, converting it to self-sacrifice - a feminine activity and a menial task she undertook to please her public in order to support her family - an act of charity. Thus her pen became another instrument of repression, her writing "another extension of her entrapment." The emotional complexity and conflict Louisa experienced almost disappeared when she poured them into the acceptable cultural molds of her "official" work. Only characters like Jo remained vital, still in the process of effacing themselves into little womanhood.

Happily, Louisa found another mode - "lurid" gothic fiction - in which she could express forbidden aspects of herself. Peopled with dark villains and sensual, aggressive women, these tales were published under a pseudonym and created in what Louisa called her "vortex," a psychological space of her own uninhabited by little women. Saxton portrays her writing from that interior with "manic abandon," enjoying these binges no matter how they tired her, actually pleasing herself, until she relinquished her private words to her public works and persons.

Between the worlds of gothic romance and the domestic novel of true womanhood lay an unexplored region of adult emotions and ideas, a dangerous territory for Alcott to enter. Putting aside the formulas and assumptions of Little Women, she made this journey in Moods, an interesting, difficult novel that remained her favorite although her public spurned it. Privately denouncing public taste, she bitterly conformed to it, giving her literary power to the people, insisting she had no choice - forsaking the voice and range of Moods.

Louisa May's life, so sadly constricted by self and society, was also plagued with illness. During her brief service as a Civil War nurse, Alcott was dosed with calomel, a poisonous mercury compound routinely prescribed in the period for myriad infections and diseases. Her health steadily deteriorated as the mercury moved mysteriously through her body, attacking almost without warning, dancing at last into her vital organs. The pain became unendurable as she watched her mother die, then her father. The reader knows at this point in Saxton's graceful and forcefully constructed life of Louisa May, relentless as tragedy, that she cannot survive her family. That is the moral of Little Women that Alcott told us in spite of herself.