Bookish Birthdays: Louisa Alcott

29th Nov 2010

Louisa May Alcott is best known for children's classic Little Women, but from there's lots of other reasons we love her too. In celebration of her birthday, we're exploring her life and legacy...

At the time, I could not understand why Jo, my hero with whom I (and every other girl ever) identified so strongly, would refuse him.

Conversations online revealed many similar experiences to my own (though with slightly less bile), as well as a universal hatred for younger sister Amy. Everyone wants to be Jo; she is witty and kind and talented and generous.

When Joey from Friends reads Little Women, his horror at Rachel’s spoiler (“Beth dies”) was poignant to me because of its reminiscence of the hours of weeping this event produced on the books first reading years earlier.

Meg, the slightly boring older sister has perhaps the most telling story; when she is trussed up for the ball all our secret fears of being accepted or secretly despised were brought to the surface.

This is truly a series of books that tells every aspect of ‘coming of age’ for young women, from tragedy to laughter; the silly fears of having a wrong-shaped nose to the all too awful horrors of an absent father in constant danger, and mortality in the young.

Its author, Louisa May Alcott, born on this day in 1832, had a life as worthy of celebration as much as her characters. Born in Philadelphia, like Jo she was the second of four sisters. The family eventually moved to Conchord, Massachusetts, where Little Women is set.

This is truly a series of books that tells every aspect of ‘coming of age’ for young women, from tragedy to laughter; the silly fears of having a wrong-shaped nose to the all too awful horrors of an absent father in constant danger, and mortality in the young.Like the March family, the Alcotts were members of the Transcendental Club, an intellectual organisation frustrated with the state of American culture at the time.

Louisa Alcott was a strident feminist and abolitionist. Campaigning for women’s suffrage, she was the first woman to register to vote in her home town.

During the American Civil War, Alcott volunteered as a nurse, caring for the wounded soldiers returning from the battle fields. Her abolitionist beliefs gave her a cause to fight for the North, who promised freedom for the slaves, and her family had harboured runaway slaves when she was a child.

Her war work was previously though to have contributed to her death, as she contracted typhoid treated by mercury poisoning, though it is now believed that Alcott had various underlying health problems including lupus. She died of a stroke aged 55.

Louisa Alcott wrote throughout her life, mostly serialized in magazines. Other stories of hers have been translated onto the silver screen, including An Old Fashioned Girl, which was adapted into a musical starring the gorgeous Gloria Jean.

Before Little Women, she also wrote sensationalist thrillers under the name A M Barnard, in order to make money for her poverty-stricken family. One of these thrillers, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was published for the first time under her name in 1995 to critical acclaim, despite being written in a hurry without half the care and attention lavished on Little Women.

Love Chase is now revered as a feminist classic, the heroine having being duped into marrying a murderer, instead of dying of shame like Victorian ladies were supposed to do, steals his fortune and goes on the run, making her own life in the process.

Louisa Alcott never married, and rumours about her sexuality abound. In an interview she claimed her single status was “… because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”

Alcott wanted her heroine Jo to remain a single woman, writing and teaching and living her life the way she wanted. It was only the legions of fans writing to her demanding Jo find a suitable mate that led to the creation of Professor Bauer, her much older and intellectual husband supposedly based on Alcott’s father’s best friend.

Always addressing women’s problems carefully with thought and prudence, Louisa Alcott has been criticised for focusing too much on the home front in her most famous book.

It is my belief, however, that domesticity does not lose its importance in women’s lives just because the options for what to do outside the home have grown, and for the modern generation of not girls, but not yet women, Little Women remains as important and inspiring a classic as it has ever been.

My ten-year-old friend loves Jo just as much as I did fifteen years ago, and for this alone, Alcott’s legacy should be celebrated.


  • L1nds says:

    Oh, having Jo be an independent single woman would have been *so* much better. Well I’d still like her to marry Laurie really, but since she doesn’t being single would be better – I’ve never liked Professor Bauer!

  • Becca Allen says:

    Such a great article, thank you! I had no idea that she was the first woman registered to vote in her town, I love her even more now.

    I am dying to read the biography of Louisa May Alcott and her mother that has just come out – Marmee and Louisa by Eva LaPlante, a descendent of the Alcotts. I’d love to learn more about both women.