In one of the most disturbing scenes in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the saintly Marmee says to her daughter Jo, “I have been angry nearly every day of my life.” Eve LaPlante’s new biography of the “real” Marmee—Louisa’s mother, Abigail May Alcott—provides ample reason for her fictional counterpart’s daily rage.
LaPlante, herself a descendant from the Alcott family tree, traces Abigail May Alcott’s life from early childhood through death. We hear about Abigail’s relationships with her siblings, including her older brother, who would become a famous progressive (it is because of him that women were admitted into Cornell, for example). We learn about Abigail’s love of writing, her chronic bad health and her love match with philosopher A. Bronson Alcott. The last of these was, in LaPlante’s view, the cause of much of the trouble in Abigail’s life.
The Alcotts were perpetually in debt and moved more than 30 times. LaPlante’s chapter titles, often pulled from Abigail’s writing, reveal her subject’s despair: “Sacrifices Must Be Made,” “A Dead Decaying Thing,” “Left to Dig or Die.” Into this disheartening scene came Louisa, a daughter LaPlante convincingly argues had much in common with her beleaguered mother. Louisa vowed early on to become rich, pay off her family’s debts and give her mother a comfortable room. The strain between Louisa’s parents very much shaped her passion to write for money, which was why she wrote Little Women in the first place.
The narrative about Marmee’s life will be of interest to anyone who enjoys mother/daughter stories, American history or literary studies. Readers of the last category, however, may find that in fact, this “untold story” is already familiar, and may take issue with some of the author’s interpretations, particularly her obvious distaste for her subject’s husband. Still, the long and vital quotations from primary documents (some of them newly uncovered) and LaPlante’s careful research more than compensate for the book’s limitations. Especially as we move into the winter season, when many of us will cue our DVD players to the opening scene of Little Women, Marmee & Louisa is well worth a read.