A century and a half after Little Women first reached the bookstore shelves, the story of four sisters and their mother still has ardent fans.
Louisa May Alcott attributed the book’s success to its simplicity and truth. And it was true, for she based the characters on her own family. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy were in real life Anna, Louy, Lizzy and May. Alcott modeled Marmee on her mother, Abigail May Alcott, and the absent Father on her own father, Bronson Alcott.
The Alcott family had less stability than the Marches, though. They moved 20 times in 30 years. And unlike the March family, they moved in the leading intellectual circles of the day. Growing up, Louisa knew Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Emerson, her mother’s fourth cousin, helped support them financially.
In many other ways, though, the book stayed true to the Alcott family story.
Louisa May Alcott had a reason, if only subconscious, for writing her father out of the story. Bronson Alcott was a dreamer, a reformer, a philosopher and a hopelessly improvident father. Born on a small farm in Wolcott, Conn., he came from a less distinguished family than his wife. He taught school, but his controversial methods cost him students, and he didn’t do much better when he tried his hand as a Yankee peddler.
Alcott believed in the ‘sweetness of self denial’ — a convenient philosophy for someone who couldn’t support his wife and four daughters.
When Louisa was 10, he moved the family to a utopian community called Fruitlands in Harvard, Mass. (where part of Little Women was filmed in 2019).
The Fruitlands communards didn’t believe in eating meat, owning property or using animal labor. They dressed only in linen, wore canvas shoes, drank nothing but cold water and bathed in it as well. The women did most of the work while Bronson Alcott traveled, looking for recruits. Finally Louisa’s mother took the four girls to a rented farm and her husband joined them only later.
Until Louisa’s success with Little Women when she was 36 years old, the Alcott family lived in poverty. They depended on the generosity of family and friends, their mother’s inheritance and the wages of the women in the family. Their most permanent home was Orchard House, now a museum in Concord, Mass.
Louisa no doubt described her father when asked her definition of philosophy. “My definition is of a man up in a balloon, with his family and friends pulling the ropes which confine him to earth and trying to haul him down.”
Bronson Alcott died March 4, 1888, two days before Louisa died.
Abigail May Alcott, or Abba, came from a prominent New England family. Her great-great grandfather was Salem witch trial judge Samuel Sewall. Dorothy Quincy, her great aunt, had married John Hancock. Her brother, Samuel May, was a well-known Unitarian minister active in promoting peace, temperance, education reform and an end to slavery.
Abba also had as ancestors three kings: France’s King Robert I, England’s Alfred the Great and Charlemagne. Her cousins, albeit distant, include 11 U.S. presidents: the Bushes, the Adams, the Roosevelts, Warren G. Harding, Gerald Ford, Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes and George Washington. Abigail Adams was her third cousin once removed, but she was also distantly related to Edith Carow Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan.
Like her daughters, she had to work to support the family. In 1848, when Louisa was 15, she took a job as a social worker in Boston, one of the first in Massachusetts. Abba believed in women’s suffrage and temperance and abolition. As a fervent abolitionist, she opened her home to fugitive slaves; the family knew Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
When she died in 1877. Louisa wrote, “She was so loyal, tender, and true, life was hard for her and no one knew all she had to bear but her children.”
Anna, the oldest Alcott sister, was closest to Louisa during their childhood. She was idealistic like her parents, and she had talent as an actress. She and Louisa often staged amateur theatricals. Though ambitious, Anna resigned herself to marriage and motherhood.
“I have a foolish wish to be something great and I shall probably spend my life in a kitchen and die in the poor-house,” she wrote in her diaries.
As a young woman she taught school for a while in Syracuse, N.Y., but returned to the family home in Concord, Mass., in her mid-20s. She and Louisa then formed a drama group, and Anna fell in love with her costar, John Bridge Pratt, during a play called The Loan of a Lover. Their wedding guests included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Franklin Sanborn. Louisa wrote John into Little Women as John Bridge.
Elizabeth Sewall Alcott, the third Alcott daughter, originally had “Peabody” as her middle name after Bronson Alcott’s friend and teaching assistant, Elizabeth Peabody. Three years later that changed to her grandmother’s maiden name after Bronson and Peabody had a falling out.
Like the character Beth, Elizabeth or Lizzy Alcott caught scarlet fever while helping her mother care for a poor German family. She recovered from the illness, but not fully, and grew progressively weaker over the next two years. She died in her sleep at the age of 22. Of her death, Louisa wrote,
Last week she put her work away, saying the needle was too heavy … Saturday she slept, and at midnight became unconscious, quietly breathing her life away till three; then, with one last look of her beautiful eyes, she was gone.
The real Amy in Little Women was Louise May Alcott’s youngest sister, Abigail May. Her sisters called her Abba or Abby until she reached her 20s, when she asked them to call her May. Louisa used an anagram – Amy for May – to name her fictional character.
May, like Amy, was a talented artist. She gave lessons to Daniel Chester French, who later designed the Lincoln Memorial. May struggled all her life to win success as an artist and to come out from under the shadow of her famous older sister.
She illustrated the first edition of Little Women, which critics panned for their anatomical inaccuracy. So she went to Europe because she could study the human body there – something prohibited for women in puritanical New England.
May stood on the cusp of fulfilling her dream as a successful artist when she died before turning 40. She had published a travel guide for American women to study art in Europe. And she had beaten out Mary Cassatt for a spot in the Paris Salon.
May married a Swiss tobacco merchant, not Amy’s boy next door. Ernest Nieriker at 22 was 16 years her junior. They lived in a Paris suburb until she died seven weeks after giving birth. Louisa raised her daughter Louisa, nicknamed Lulu.
Alcott modeled Jo on herself, an energetic, nature-loving tomboy given to occasional wild moods. Henry David Thoreau taught her for a while, and she had a crush on him, as well as on another of her neighbors, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As a young woman she struggled to support her family while trying to carve out a writing career. There weren’t many jobs available to women then, and none of her jobs paid well. She worked as a companion to invalids, as a maid, as a seamstress and as a teacher, which she hated. In her mid-twenties she got so discouraged she thought about throwing herself into the Charles River.
As she approached 30, Louisa May Alcott went to Washington, D.C., as a Civil War nurse. She caught typhus after three, and her father brought her home. Doctors tried to cure her by giving her mercury, which probably caused her poor health for the last 25 years of her life. Her hair fell out, she had rashes, headaches, rheumatism and vertigo. But she wrote a book about her experience, which earned critical acclaim and allowed her to make a living writing. She wrote pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard.
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in 10 weeks, unenthusiastic about it from the start. She only did it because her publisher, Thomas Niles, wanted a girls’ story, and he agreed to publish her father’s book on philosophy only if she did. “And I begin Little Women,” she wrote in her diary in May 1868. “So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”
“Proof of whole book came. It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it.”
The book, an instant hit, allowed the Alcott family to live in comfort. When a stroke killed Louisa at age 55, she left an estate of $200,000, about $5 million in today’s money.
Little Women has never been out of print, and an estimated thousand copies are sold every month. It’s been adapted for the theater as a play and a musical, turned into a Japanese anime series, an Indian television serial and a Canadian opera.
The third Little Women appeared on the silver screen in 1933, starring Katharine Hepburn. Then Hollywood remade it in 1949 starring Elizabeth Taylor, and in 1994 starring Winona Ryder. The most recent Little Women movie starring Saoirse Ronan was released in 2019.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Fruitlands By victorgrigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40800910. Orchard House By User:victorgrigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27754775. Scene from 1912 Broadway production By The Ridgway Company, New York; photograph by White Studio – Everybody's Magazine, page 112, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63332463.