Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871

Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871

Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871

Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871

Synopsis

In 1870, Louisa May Alcott and her younger sister Abby May Alcott began a fourteen-month tour of Europe. Louisa had already made her mark as a writer; May was on the verge of a respected art career. Little Women Abroad gathers a generous selection of May's drawings along with all of the known letters written by the two Alcott sisters during their trip. More than thirty drawings are included, nearly all of them previously unpublished. Of the seventy-one letters collected here, more than three-quarters appear in their entirety for the first time. Daniel Shealy's supporting materials add detail and context to the people, places, and events referenced in the letters and illustrations. By the time of the Alcott sisters' sojourn, Louisa's Little Women was already an international success, and her most recent work, An Old-Fashioned Girl, was selling briskly. Louisa was now a grand literary lioness on tour. She would compose Little Men while in Europe, and her European letters would form the basis of her travel book Shawl Straps. If Louisa's letters reveal a writer's eye, then May's demonstrate an eye for color, detail, and composition. Although May had prior art training in Boston, she came into her own only during her studies with European masters. When at a loss for words, she took her drawing pen in hand.

These letters of two important American artists, one literary, the other visual, tell a vibrant story at the crossroads of European and American history and culture.

Excerpt

In the “Preface” to Shawl-Straps (1872), Louisa May Alcott’s account of her grand European tour with her sister May and their friend Alice Bartlett in 1870–71, Alcott complains that “there is nothing new to tell, and that nobody wants to read the worn-out story.… The only way in which this affliction may be lightened to a long-suffering public is to make the work as cheerful and as short as possible.” Therefore, she declares at the onset, she “has abstained from giving the dimensions of any church, the population of any city, or description of famous places… but confined herself to the personal haps and mishaps, adventures and experiences, of her wanderers” (v). True to her word, Louisa’s narrative focuses on the “adventures and experiences” of the three women. But she did not write primarily from memory. Instead, she turned to letters written to her family while abroad to recount “the personal haps and mishaps” of the travelers. For it was in these often lengthy and descriptive personal letters that Louisa and her sister May first told the events found in Shawl-Straps. Of course, using her own letters to form the basis of her literary work was not new to Louisa. In 1863, her letters home to family had formed the basis for her first successful book, Hospital Sketches.

The same year that Louisa published her travel narrative, her father, A. Bronson Alcott, wrote in his Concord Days (1872): “A lifelong correspondence were a biography of the correspondents. Preserve your letters till time define their value. Some secret charm forbids committing them to the flame.… Letters… better represent life than any form in literature” (123–24). Such a declaration directly contrasts with the thoughts of Alcott’s most famous daughter, Louisa May, who, late in her life, penned the following in her 1885 journal: “Sorted old letters & burned many. Not wise to keep for curious eyes to read, & gossip-lovers to print by & by ” (Journals . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.