So many years ago that this is almost a story that could start with "once upon a time", my family lived in a very big house, a legacy of the days of grand families and grand architects. The realtor called it a mansion. My family still calls it The Big House.
The first floor was indeed very grand. There was a parlor for company, and a library with built-in shelves. A dining room that overlooked a formal rose garden. A ballroom. The second floor had the good bedrooms, big as New York City studio apartments, with much nicer baths than I have ever had since.
My spirit's home, though, was up one more flight, in the small third floor servants' quarters. There, in a little monk's cell of a room with one window, I had a desk, a chair, a box of onion skin paper, my Sheaffer fountain pen, and a box of ink cartridges. And my companion, Jo March. I wanted to be just like Jo March, and to that end I scribbled page after page of – what? stories, probably, and perhaps some poems. I don't remember, and as my family moved a lot, nothing remains of all that ink except the memory of the texture of the paper, and the sound the pen nib made as I wrote line after line after blotted line. Oh, I wanted to be a writer.
Singing turned out to be easier, and my dear Lord is aware that I rather enjoy the spotlight. But this "words thing" never went away. I care about lyrics, I read aloud to people whenever I can, I do inspirational speaking, Shakespeare's King Lear leaves me sobbing on the floor, for Jo's spell has never worn off. And particularly at this time of year, the connection I feel to this fictitious character and to the extraordinary woman who created – or released – her is especially strong. It has long been my Christmas season practice to read Little Women again. Every year, somehow, it seems a better book.
My pretty little red leather-bound copy is currently in storage with the rest of my things, so I went to the local library. Their copy is for in-library use only – can you imagine? I'd have to wear shoes! But I found another treasure that I could take home: Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante (2012). As far as I know LaPlante is the first author to explore the relationship between Lou and her mother, Abigail. Ever since her death in 1888, conventional wisdom has held that Louisa was her daddy's girl through and through, educated by him, inheritor of his gifts, beneficiary of his attention. That never set quite right with me. If the Alcott family was the model for the March family, why was the father absent for most of the book? Well, as it turns out, Bronson Alcott was also much absent in real life, and he never made a living. His mind on higher things, he seems to have been content to let his wife and daughters do all the work for the lowlier purposes of rent and food. Unlike his wife, Alcott did not particularly believe in the equality of women, and he came late to the abolitionist's cause. It was Abigail (Marmee) who encouraged her daughters to live full, good lives and to work to utilize their gifts, Marmee who wrote volumes of journals. And it was Marmee who worked until her health was ruined, as did Louisa, whose writing supported the family until she died at 56 (her royalties did so thereafter). The relationship between mother and daughter was deep, and necessary for both women. LaPlante's is a beautiful and calmly fierce book, well-researched and well-written, sad in many ways, but ultimately inspiring. Abigail was left out of history; Eve has fixed that.
You can buy the book through LaPlante's website, to which I have inserted a link above. Amazon has it, of course, but if you possibly can, please get it from an independent bookseller.