It’s hard to imagine that anything new could be said about the life of Louisa May Alcott, one of America’s most beloved authors. Yet as a great-niece of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother, Eve LaPlante isn’t just any biographer.
Her new book, “Marmee & Louisa,” is a dual biography — an intimate portrait of mother and daughter, showing how their lives were profoundly intertwined in ways that some biographies have underplayed or ignored altogether. The inspiration for this book — which spans the 19th century from Abigail’s birth through the deaths of Louisa and Anna, the last of her children — came when LaPlante rummaged through her mother’s attic one day and found an old trunk of ancestral belongings. “Who is Louie?” her daughter asked.
More poking around turned up a handwritten memoir from a relative, an inscribed book from “Louie” (as Louisa was known), and other ephemera. These discoveries prompted LaPlante to realize that she knew little about the family. And, aside from having fallen in love with “Little Women” as a child, LaPlante did not know much about Louisa herself, either.
Intrigued, LaPlante began her research. She was startled to learn that the life of Abigail, the real-life “Marmee” of “Little Women,” had been virtually unexplored, and that she had been left “practically invisible and almost mute” by history. Abigail had been overshadowed by her domineering husband, Bronson, a controversial teacher and education reformer. Although he has traditionally been cast as Louisa’s most important teacher and mentor, he was more often a distant and critical figure. Meanwhile, Abigail was left to manage the household and bury many of her own yearnings.
Bronson’s ambitions often exceeded his achievements; he seemed incapable of providing his wife and four daughters with a sense of financial stability. Over the years, they were poor and frequently homeless. With her eventual literary success, young Louisa would make the Alcotts solvent again. She once stated that her life’s goal was “to pay all the debts, fix the house . . . and keep the old folks cosy.”
LaPlante chronicles the intense attachment between Abigail and Louisa. (Maternal love was the most powerful form of love Louisa would ever know.) Abigail was as ambitious as her daughter — “I am not willing to be found incapable of anything,” she once said — and she became a devoted teacher, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate. Yet she was shackled by an unhappy marriage: “I will not engage very much in anything apart from my children while they are so young,” she lamented in a letter. “But I can read and think and talk.”
Abigail found satisfaction as Louisa’s muse, confidante, and sustaining force. She was always there for her daughter. “People think I’m wild and queer,” Louisa once wrote, “but Mother understands and helps me.” There were no boundaries. As LaPlante writes, “Abigail habitually gave Louisa her own private journals and letters, and suggested she study them for ideas.” Mother and daughter existed in their own world.
“Marmee & Louisa” is a fascinating story of two visionary women, bound to serving the other’s needs. But LaPlante might have explored more fully the suffocating effects of this fierce love, the ways in which it constrained them both. The negative aspects of this dependency are not given much detail.
Louisa would die in Boston at the age of 55, lonely and alone, having fulfilled many of her own dreams and those of her mother’s, and still unhappy. There is no question that Louisa would not have achieved what she did without her mother’s ardent encouragement, and that this book shows Abigail to be an admirable figure. At times, though, her dedication seems to have been a kind of trap as well. Like most mother-daughter relationships, theirs was very complicated.
“Freedom was always my longing,” Louisa wrote near the end of her life, “but I have never had it.”Carmela Ciuraru, editor of several anthologies and author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.