Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents! One of the most famous opening lines of any novel was penned by Louisa M Alcott at the start of the novel based upon her own childhood, Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832, in Pennsylvania. She was taught by her father, a philosopher, and by family friends such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker.
The family settled in Concord, supported by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a close family friend. Louisa also enjoyed nature walks with Henry David Thoreau. In 1843 her family took part in an experimental communal village known as the Fruitlands, which was designed to give residents a greater understanding of nature. Unfortunately the project failed and the family returned to Concord.
Louisa, like her best-loved character Jo March, was a tomboy, asserting that, “No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race and no girl if she refused to climb trees or leap fences”.
Despite their famous friends, the family was a poor one and, from an early age, Louisa worked, amongst other things, as a domestic servant and teacher to help support her family and, during the American Civil War, she worked as a nurse. While working as a nurse Louisa contracted typhoid fever and her experience of recovering in a Washington Hospital prompted her to write Hospital Sketches.
Under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield Louisa published poems, short stories and thrillers and as A.M. Barnard her melodramas were produced on the Boston stage. Eventually she began to publish stories under her real name and became editor of the girls’ magazine, Merry’s Museum.
Her best known novel, Little Women, written when she was 35, was an instant success and sold more than 2,000 copies immediately. Jo March, the star of Little Women, was the first American juvenile heroine to be created as a living, breathing, flawed person rather than the idealized stereotype that had previously populated children’s fiction. Little Women, therefore, changed the face of children’s literature.
The revenues from the sale of the book gave her the financial independence that allowed her to produce a steady stream of novels and short stories. These stories were written mostly for young people and, like Little Women, were often based upon experiences from her own family life. Her other books include Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Her adult novels, were never as popular as her writings for young people.
While her career as a writer blossomed, Louisa also became active in the women’s suffrage movement, writing for “The Woman’s Journal” and canvassing door to door trying to encourage women to register to vote. In 1879 she became the first woman in Concord, where she had settled, to register to vote in the village’s school committee election.
Louisa remained single throughout her life, though following the death of her sister, she cared for her young niece Lulu. Later in her life Louisa moved with her family to Boston. Writing was becoming more difficult, due to the mercury poisoning she had received as a result of medication administered when she was recovering from typhoid. In addition to her own health, her father’s health was failing. He died and just two days later, at the age of 56, Louisa also passed away.
Louisa is best remembered for her trilogy, Little Women (often now published together with Good Wives), Little Men and Jo’s Boys, but hers is a lasting legacy of creating realistic charachters for her audience to enjoy.
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