Louisa May Alcott inscribed her first book, “Flower Fables,” published in 1854, to her mother with this acknowledgment: “Whatever beauty or poetry is to be found in my little book is owing to your interest and encouragement of all my efforts from the first to the last.”
No one familiar with Alcott’s work — the iconic “Little Women” as well as several other novels and hundreds of stories — would dispute that Abigail May Alcott was central to her second-born daughter’s destiny. How is it then, Eve LaPlante asks in her engrossing biography, “Marmee and Louisa,” that we know so little about her?
The short answer is that Louisa and her philosopher-educator father, Bronson Alcott, burned many of Abigail’s papers after her death, either to protect her privacy or to edit a voice that sometimes strayed from the script of docile Marmee, her fictional counterpart and the most beloved mother in American literature. But it is also true that few biographers have investigated Abigail’s life because, as the introduction notes, “invisibility is the lot of most women of the past.”
LaPlante, a descendant of the Alcotts, pursued this untold story after discovering forgotten journals and letters in an attic trunk. In her skilled hands these documents yield Abigail unabridged: a thinker, writer, activist, wife and mother who held fast to her convictions in the face of terrible suffering.
The Mays were pure Boston Brahmin, with ties to John Hancock, Abigail Adams, eminent judges, ministers and generations of Harvard men. Daughters of this fortunate lineage were expected to marry well, but Abigail was drawn to the intellectual sphere, not the domestic. At 17 she dodged an undesirable marriage by hiding out to translate the Gospel of John from the Latin Vulgate into English. She was an uncompromising abolitionist who “considered the nation itself corrupt because of its foundation in slavery” and spoke out for women’s education and suffrage.
Abigail stood firm that she would not marry, until in 1827 she met Bronson Alcott, a brilliant visionary who seemed genuinely interested in her ideas.
Soon after the wedding, though, Abigail was pregnant and realizing that while financial concerns were “irksome and embarrassing” to Bronson, she could not ignore her growing family’s need for food and shelter. Her husband was indifferent, absent or distracted — though rarely by something so trivial as earning a living — while Abigail fretted continuously about her children’s care. She took in sewing and later became a social worker and employment agent.
She also gave birth to four healthy daughters and one stillborn son, and suffered at least two miscarriages in the boardinghouse rooms the Alcotts knew all too well. In their first 30 years of marriage, living on handouts from relatives and friends, the family moved more than 30 times. Abigail seems to have suffered each new misery alone, as Bronson was often away for months at a time.
Though she idolized her husband and stayed loyal to him as each school he opened was forced to close, and as his communal-living experiment called Fruitlands ended in failure, Abigail came to prize practical concerns over philosophy. Turning a skeptical eye on the Shaker community, whose values of celibacy and simplicity intrigued Bronson for a time, she sensed that the idealists’ comfortable life depended on“servitude somewhere.” She knew by then that behind every placid philosopher was a weary woman toiling away.
But this is a biography of Louisa, too, and LaPlante makes a compelling case that it was Abigail, not Bronson, who encouraged Louisa not only to channel her considerable energy through writing, but also to pursue publication and to weather the censorship that female writers faced. While Bronson expounded publicly on his daughter’s talent, and was happy to live off her growing income, it was Abigail’s encouragement and attention to the practical that facilitated Louisa’s work. The devoted mother carved out time from Louisa’s endless housework for her writing. She bought her blank books, read and commented on her drafts, and set up a desk to which she delivered cups of tea to sustain Louisa through long writing sessions.
We know the rest of the story. “Little Women” became a sensation, and the wealth it generated set up the Alcotts for good.
In bringing to life the woman who made Louisa May Alcott’s work possible, LaPlante shows us that there’s even more to admire in the real Abigail than in the fictional Marmee.
MARMEE & LOUISA
The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother
By Eve LaPlante
Free Press. 368 pp. $26