For most of Donna Keeler’s life, the 74-year-old kept her family heirlooms safely tucked away. Among them, a brown taffeta wedding dress, pieces of an embroidered quilt, and her prized possession: what she thought was an original photo of the prolific 19th-century author Louisa May Alcott, best known for “Little Women.”
Turns out it was the wrong little woman. The photo isn’t of Louisa. It’s her sister, Anna Alcott Pratt, next to a photo of her husband, John Pratt.
So rather than a never-before-seen image of the author (and model for the fiercely independent Jo March of the novel), fans can see a glimpse of Anna, who inspired the character of Meg, the eldest of the March sisters in “Little Women.”
“I’m very happy this was clarified,” said Keeler, who lives in Georgetown. “I’ve been saying it was Louisa my whole life.”
Ray Angelo, a researcher in Ipswich, made the discovery while investigating Minot Pratt, an ancestor of Keeler’s. Angelo was interested in finding a picture of Pratt, a botanist, friend of Henry David Thoreau, and a founder of the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, which was an experimental Utopian commune in West Roxbury.
Minot’s son John Pratt married Anna Alcott, thus the family connection.
In “Little Women,” John Pratt was the basis for Meg’s husband in the novel, John Brooke.
“At first I thought it was possibly [Louisa],” Angelo said. “But then my wife and I were looking at it carefully and said well, this picture of the woman had a receding chin and Louisa May has sort of a chin that sticks out a little bit more. So then we began to wonder.”
He borrowed a small photo album from Keeler and showed the small black-and-white portraits to Susan Bailey, 61, a North Grafton resident, Alcott aficionado, and keeper of the blog “Louisa May Alcott is My Passion.” Bailey turned to Kristi Martin, a doctoral candidate at Boston University in the Department of American and New England Studies, and Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.
The previously unpublished photo gave all three women a thrill.
“The instant I saw it I knew it was Anna,” Turnquist said. “It’s like knowing your own family members. If you’re really steeped in this enough, you recognize instantly the slight nuance even if siblings look a lot alike.”
Anna Pratt’s hair is in a bun. John Pratt, shown in two photos, has a beard, with his hair long and combed back. Their facial expressions are serious, as is often expected in portraits from that era. The couples’ portraits are also facing each other, as was sometimes done to indicate a husband and wife.
“Anna was the most domestic of the four sisters,” Bailey said.
“Anna very much embraced her role as ‘Meg March.’ She was very accommodating to fans, which Louisa wasn’t always so much, and often referred to herself as ‘Meg March’ when she would write to fans.”
What Bailey and other fans of “Little Women” might appreciate most is that the photos spark their imaginations about Alcott’s characters.
Much work has been done on the Alcott family, and their history has been preserved directly from the family since the early 1900s, Martin said.
“It’s thrilling and a bit surprising to find something unknown, but it’s certainly not unheard of,” she said. “That these photographs come from a Pratt family descendant makes the provenance very strong.”
Keeler said she was grateful to learn so much about her family history. She plans to create a new photo album and pass these relics and photographs down to the next generation.
“These are things I’ve had and cherished, but I couldn't tell you there was any grand plan for anything until this occurred,” Keeler said. “It was just a part of my heritage I had with me.”
Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.