She’s best known as the intrepid author of Little Women, a Yankee woman who drew on her life experiences to create one of literature’s gutsiest and most lovable heroines, Jo March. But Louisa May Alcott was motivated by other life experiences, too, writes Carolyn R. Maibor—and at one point in a life beset by financial problems, she was a domestic servant.
Alcott’s experiences as a servant are not well known, but they deeply influenced her outlook on life. Though as a middle-class woman, Alcott was occasionally “blinded” to what service looked like for women of more lowly socioeconomic backgrounds, she did get a taste of what life was like for servants at age 18, when she opted to become a paid servant rather than teach or depend on relatives.
Years later, Alcott wrote a story about her experiences, which reveals her view of becoming a servant as something both adventurous and financially expedient. Alcott worked in the household of a wealthy lawyer as a lady’s companion. Although she was promised a comfortable position, the job ended up being anything but. Alcott was given heavy work and lowly tasks to perform, and when she complained she was told to black her employer’s boots. Her degradation was complete when her male employer followed her around and sexually harassed her. “I was to serve his needs, soothe his sufferings, and sympathize with his sorrows—be a galley slave, in fact,” she wrote.
She eventually quit the job and—in contrast with women who had no choice but keep working for abusive employers—sent back her pay.
Alcott’s experience in service was typical, writes Maibor. Dehumanizing practices were common: calling women “girls” instead of their own names, refusing to let them have breaks, assuming they were ignorant. But unlike Alcott, most servants were not engaging in service as an experiment, and couldn’t simply choose to quit.
Malbor tracks Alcott’s attitudes toward work later in life. A notorious workaholic, Alcott dealt with continual financial difficulties and wrote nearly constantly even when it was no longer necessary to her income. Later in life, Alcott characterized her experience as a servant as edifying and pleasurable, positing that work could balance out the vapid pressures society placed on women.
Service and labor are present in most of her books for children, and although she came from a place of privilege, she attempted to reduce the stigma many assigned to those who worked in other people’s homes. For example, Hannah, the March family’s servant in Little Women, “always took a share in the family’s joys and sorrows” and is portrayed as an essential, if not equal, part of the household. “Through characters like Hannah,” Malbor writes, “Alcott is able to present the possibility that domestic service can be useful and fulfilling work.” That reality didn’t play out in her own life, but it was important enough for Alcott to try to instill in her readers.