Friday, November 13, 2015

Art and Life

Last week I interviewed Jeannine Atkins for New Books in Historical Fiction. This was a special pleasure for me—not only because Jeannine proved to be a great conversationalist but because she writes about the Alcott women, as in Louisa May. As a girl, I loved Little Women, which until I began preparing for this interview I hadn’t realized typically included Good Wives (my editions were separate, as they sometimes are). I remember sobbing hysterically at Beth’s fate, which I will not spoil for you on the off chance that you have never read the books. Not to mention falling in love with Laurie, who in retrospect may have been my first romantic hero.

That was a while ago, though, so before I indulged in Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, I thought I had better brush up a bit—not least because Atkins explicitly states that what drew her to her project was the gap between May, the youngest Alcott sister, and her fictional portrayal as Amy. May is on record as having said that she hated Little Women. Hate Little Women? How could she? I reread the series to find out.

At first, I had a hard time imagining what the fuss was about. Amy puts on airs and likes pretty things, but after all, she’s only twelve. And except when she burns her sister’s manuscript, she doesn’t do anything truly bad. But once I read May’s own story, I understood. Because in a way that was quite unusual for a young woman living in mid-nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts, May had a clear sense of who she was and what she wanted in life. Like Amy, she loved to paint, but unlike Amy, she refused to believe that a woman must either paint or marry, be an artist or a mother. May sought to combine love and career. She did not sacrifice her art; she did not spend her life alone—as her sister Louisa eventually did, despite intriguing hints of a romance with a Polish revolutionary.

As also happens today, May paid a price for her insistence on “having it all.” Family demands intervened, interfering with her art classes and slowing her mastery of her craft. Ambition took her away from home, and success brought her into conflict with her older sister Louisa, who resented May’s achievements even as she supported May financially. Balancing the competing interests was not easy, yet May persisted in creating the life she wanted, not the one society and her parents prescribed for her. That is a story worth telling, and Atkins tells it admirably. If you, too, were once an avid reader of Little Women, you definitely don’t want to miss this one. And if you weren’t, you may find reality more compelling than the dream.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Even people who have never read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and its two sequels (Little Men and Jo’s Boys) probably have at least a vague memory of hearing about the March girls—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—whose father is away serving as a chaplain in the US Civil War and who often struggle to put bread on the table. Meg, the oldest sister, follows a conventional life for the time by marrying young and bearing twins. Jo, the rebel, forges a career as a writer. Beth is the homebody, sweet and uncomplaining. And Amy, the youngest sister, has artistic ambitions but surrenders them to marry the son of a wealthy man.

For all their realistic feel, the events in Little Women turn out mostly to be the product of its author’s imagination. This is nowhere more true than in Alcott’s portrayal of Amy, a fictionalized version of her youngest sister, May. In Little Women in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott (She Writes Press, 2015), Jeannine Atkins reintroduces us to the story of May’s life, focusing on her persistence against the odds, her refusal to accept the need to choose between career and family or settle for a genteel life in poverty, and her careful balancing of her own yearning to paint against the onslaught of domestic demands. From this richly detailed exploration of rivalry and sisterhood, we gain a new appreciation for an extraordinary woman, celebrated in her day but since obscured by her more famous sibling. May was, in the language of our own time, determined to “have it all.” Read this book to discover whether she succeeded.

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