Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is one of those books that has become so entrenched in our cultural consciousness it’s almost ceased to be a discrete novel; Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy live in the minds of American readers as sisterly archetypes. But what about the women behind the Women, Alcott’s real-life sisters on whom she based her characters? This was what teacher and history buff Elise Hooper wondered when she began writing her first novel, The Other Alcott. When the life-long Alcott fan dug a little deeper into the story behind the famous March family, she discovered the truth about “Amy.” Louisa’s actual youngest sister May was an accomplished and ambitious artist in her own right, overshadowed by Louisa’s literary success.
Hooper set out to recreate what May was really like. And in the process, she found herself turning to JSTOR for help. We asked her all about it:
Amy Shearn: What made you want to write about May Alcott?
Elise Hooper: When I started researching the Alcott sisters, May proved to be a much more interesting woman in real life than her fictional Little Women doppelganger, Amy March. May was very ahead of her times and worked tenaciously to become a professional artist in the 1860s and ‘70s. During the course of my research, I discovered the heart of my story when I discovered how May had illustrated Louisa’s first edition of Little Women and her drawings were panned by critics while Louisa’s story was lauded. Imagine the tension and hurt feelings that must have resulted from that moment! It also impressed me that May did not back down and let go of her artistic aspirations in the face of such negative reviews, but instead, she pursued more rigorous training with more motivation than ever.
Were you always interested in the Alcotts, or did something in particular make you want to tell this story at this moment?
I grew up reading all of Louisa’s books and lived about fifteen minutes away from Orchard House, the Alcott family home-turned-museum. Each time I visited, the Alcott sisters captivated me. I knew that when Louisa wrote Little Women, she was basing the March girls on her own sisters, but I was a little wary of the neat depictions of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as dutiful daughter, tomboy, angel, and precocious spoiled brat. I suspected each woman was a little more complex than that. Once I started researching them, I was gratified to discover that my instincts were correct; the real women were far more complicated and interesting than their fictional counterparts.
How did you go about constructing your first draft? Did you research, then write? Write, then research? Do both simultaneously?
There is so much information about the Alcotts that it was overwhelming at first to find my story. I narrowed down my timeframe when I became interested in how the lives of the Alcotts changed after the runaway success of Little Women. An once I settled on May’s story, that also helped to tighten my scope. I ended up writing May’s story and researching simultaneously to fill in the details about life in the 1870s.
There are so many details about the everyday objects and customs of nineteenth-century life woven throughout the book. How did you research this aspect of the story, and make sure this historical world felt lived-in and fresh?
Some of the best sources for what life was like in the late nineteenth century can be found in Louisa’s own novels. It was in these books that I studied how people spoke, what they wore, what they did for fun, what they ate, and how they furnished their homes. I also steeped myself in transportation details, poring over train schedules, steamship menus, steamship blueprints, types of carriages, horses, and bicycles. Old photographs and painting also provided some wonderful visuals to inspire me. The idea for the sleigh ride with Joshua Bishop and May came from an 1875 photograph by Josiah Johnson Hawes at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Were you ever worried about getting it “right”? You write at times in the voice of May and her sister Louisa—how did you give yourself permission to go there?
Channeling Louisa’s voice intimidated me the most because she establishes it so effectively in all of her writing. With that said, I read enough of her letters and journals that I felt like I got the hang of her tone and could try impersonating her. In the case of May, she wrote far less than her sisters so there was more room for my imagination. Writing the letters ended up being my favorite part of producing this book.
May travels throughout Europe over the course of the book—how did you recreate all these cities?
I’d visited Paris and London enough to feel secure with imagining her life in those places. Rome represented more of a stretch for me, because I’ve never visited it, but Anne Whitney’s letters provided a treasure trove of information about life for American women artists in Italy during this period. The best source of all was May’s book, Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply (a truly Victorian title if there ever was one!), in which she provides detailed suggestions for where to live, find art instruction, and where to purchase everything from art supplies to flannel long underwear and furs. I also used Google Maps to walk all of May’s routes and see what she would have seen.
Why do you think May never became as well-known as her sister?
I think her premature death precluded her career from developing a body of work that would have constituted her legacy. Though she landed two paintings in the Paris Salon, a major accomplishment for the era, her paintings and sketches that survive all reside within private collection so there is not widespread awareness of her work.
What sources from JSTOR helped you research the book? How were they helpful?
I used JSTOR for many reference articles about specific people in my novel, such as “Elizabeth Jane Gardner and the American Colony in Paris.” I also relied upon the database for information about the communities of women artists in both America and Europe. “Women Artists in Boston, 1870-1900: The Pupils of William Morris Hunt” was an important resource to get a sense of Boston’s early sisterhood of artists. May Alcott also popped up in useful articles about specific studios in Paris, such as “Women at the Académie Julian in Paris” and “The Parisian Training of American Women Artists.”
What other sources did you use? The Alcotts’ letters and papers? Other writing from the time?
There is an enormous amount of scholarship on the Alcotts so I read many biographies on the different members of the family. Louisa’s letters and journals, Anne Whitney’s letters (accessed through the online collections at Wellesley College), and Mary Cassatt’s published letters proved to be invaluable. Two books, A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston, 1870-1940 (Hirshler) and Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Academie Julian (Becker and Weisberg) provided rich information about the emerging communities of women artists in both Boston and Paris.
Were there any findings in the course of your research that really blew your mind?
I have so many possible answers for this question! First of all, be careful about getting attached to people during the 1800s; everyone died unexpectedly and prematurely. Well, maybe not everyone, but people’s lives were shockingly precarious. Tuberculosis and pneumonia were frequent killers, but maternal death during childbirth devastated many families during this era. I also became fascinated by the prevalence of “Boston Marriages” occurring with many of May’s peers. It was not uncommon to find women who had the means to support themselves and ambitions to pursue their own interests pairing up with other women and living quietly as lifelong partners and avoiding the limitations of traditional marriages and dangers of childbirth. Readers tend to be surprised that these relationships weren’t considered scandalous, but I think it demonstrates just how little attention people paid to the lives of women once they reached their 30s and beyond.
Were there any amazing things that came up in your research that didn’t make their way into the book, but that you are storing in reserve for cocktail party banter/another book/this interview?
Whenever I visit book clubs, people always want to talk about Bronson Alcott. There are so many quirky stories to tell about him. I touch upon some of his unusual beliefs in the The Other Alcott, but everyone always wants to know more about his utopian self-sustaining community, Fruitlands. During this ill-fated project, he dragged the family out to a farmhouse in Harvard, MA and subjected them to all kinds of his unusual ideas, such as not using “enslaved” livestock to help with the agricultural work (instead, the women and children did the labor). When he came home from visiting a neighboring utopian community and proposed an “open marriage” to his wife, she responded with an emphatic “no” and that ended the Fruitlands experiment.
Novelists often note that background research can be a form of procrastination, or that researching leads them down rabbit holes. How did you avoid these common research pitfalls?
Ahh, the joys of a good rabbit hole! They can be tricky because sometimes they lead to unexpected gems…and sometimes they don’t. I try to set a timer when I feel myself heading down one and force myself to climb out when time is up. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of writing, I’ll highlight a part of manuscript that needs research, but keep writing to make progress in the story. Afterward, I’ll return to the highlights and fact check or conduct more research.
More novelist interviews:
Elizabeth Jane Gardner and the American Colony in Paris: “Making Hay while the Sun Shines” in the Business of Art
Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 2009), pp. 275-312
The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.
American Art Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), pp. 17-46
Kennedy Galleries, Inc.
The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 136, No. 1100 (Nov., 1994), pp. 752-757
Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.
Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 1981), pp. 41-44
Woman's Art Inc.