When I first read a battered local library copy of Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN --- somewhere during that nebulous in-between age from about 10 through 12 --- I remember it as an engaging story of a close-knit family in which I could take for granted the idea that girls and women were important and had meaningful voices in the world. It never dawned on my preteen mind that the book in my hands was an extraordinary achievement by an author who overcame numerous social, political, economic and institutional obstacles in order to have her voice heard --- and still heard --- more than a century-and-a-half later.
Today, much more is known about Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), and that knowledge has become vastly more complete and relevant with Eve LaPlante’s superbly crafted new dual biography, MARMEE & LOUISA: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother.
On learning that LaPlante herself is a great-niece of Louisa’s remarkable mother, Abigail May (1800-1877), and a cousin of her famous daughter, I felt an instant identification with her passion for enlarging the once-obscure details that made them unique and predictive of women many years beyond their generation. As a less direct, but still connected, descendant of the early 18th-century English poetess Anne Kingsmill Finch (1661-1720), I regret the loss and destruction of much archival material that is missing from her formative years --- the kind of material that the Alcott family kept, albeit well-hidden until recently.
Having discovered an abundant attic cache of writings, records, photos and numerous other mementoes of the kind that were assumed to have been destroyed years earlier by Louisa and her feckless father Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), LaPlante painstakingly filled in numerous gaps in the young years of the Alcott sisters and especially their mother.
"[T]his is far more than a meticulous historical or academic achievement. It is also a compelling and intensely moving story whose truth is all the more powerful for being fleshed out in such an engaging and heartfelt style. I’m not easily persuaded to give five stars to anything, but I can highly recommend Eve LaPlante’s book on all counts."
What emerges is not only an impeccably documented and verified biographical masterpiece, but also a genuine story of women who were heroines of their time, defying the social and political conventions of 19th-century America not only to assert their personal destinies, but literally to survive.
In fact, there is a third biography dogging the steps of “Marmee” (Abigail) and her daughters --- that of Bronson, the restless, impractical, indigent and relentlessly self-absorbed idealist who, for most of their lives, was husband and father in name only. Alternately tyrannical to the point of abuse and childishly dependent, the man who imprisoned his wife in a loveless and financially disastrous marriage mirrors the philosophical and cultural inconsistencies of a turbulent time in American history.
Because of his refusal to materially support his family, Abigail and her four daughters were forced from a young age to beg, borrow, create, invent and earn what little they could in an environment where working girls and women were denigrated as lower-class, and more often than not were exploited and grossly underpaid by their employers.
LaPlante’s chronicle of their strangely intertwined lives recounts dozens of residence moves, family separations, many short-lived jobs, numerous compassionate interventions by more stable relatives and friends, medical and health crises, acute stress and depression, some hopeful successes and seemingly endless failures.
Yet through it all, Abigail May was a constant source of inexhaustible and unconditional love. She encouraged her daughters to carve out for themselves the kind of education and public vocations she had never been allowed, shared her own incredibly profound and sophisticated writings (some even considered her the intellectual superior of her dismissive husband), and was in turn the recipient of shared journal reflections, especially from Louisa. It was to Abigail that the never-married Louisa offered her first “child” --- her debut published book.
Throughout MARMEE & LOUISA, myriad facts and details build an overwhelming case for the vital and constant influence of the under-appreciated Abigail May on her famous daughter. Once the silent mentor, “Marmee” (as her equivalent in LITTLE WOMEN was fondly called) is now a potent feminist voice in history.
That in itself is praiseworthy, but this is far more than a meticulous historical or academic achievement. It is also a compelling and intensely moving story whose truth is all the more powerful for being fleshed out in such an engaging and heartfelt style. I’m not easily persuaded to give five stars to anything, but I can highly recommend Eve LaPlante’s book on all counts.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on December 14, 2012