Walking Through the House Where Louisa May Alcott Wrote Little Women
On Orchard House and the Biographical Foundations of a
Classic American Novel
Most girls fancied one of the Little Women growing up. Which one is the reigning feminine litmus test, perhaps not for the kind of girl you are but for the kind of woman you’d like to become. Joan Acocella called Louisa May Alcott’s book “more like the Old Testament than it is like a novel,” though I suspect its ancient roots go deeper still, with the March girls a quartet of essential elements: Meg in her airy, eldest elegance; the flames of Jo’s temper; Beth’s Hestian guardianship of all that is earthbound; the sensitive rivulets of little Amy.
Jo is Alcott’s most rickety and human character, based closely on the writer herself. Meg, Beth, and Amy, predicated on Louisa’s three real sisters, are each idealized to an extent; Louisa saw her own flaws far more clearly than she did theirs, or at least chose not to immortalize theirs in what would become the womanly counterpart to Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn. Little Women was written at Orchard House, where Louisa lived with her family from 1858 to 1877. It’s also the home base of her fiction, with one wishful alteration: the real Elizabeth (“Beth”) never lived there, having died soon before the Alcotts moved in.
In mid-September, I visited Orchard House, a large brown two-story in Concord, Massachusetts that looks almost like a movie set, with crooked doors and windows, and trees all around; Louisa referred to the place as “apple slump,” for both its orchards and its lopsided nature.
Eighty percent of the home’s original furnishings remain, though intruding modern objects are unmarked; one gentleman on my tour inquired about the age of a deceptive chair, only to be told they’d put it out for visitors. Chairs are offered with some frequency, as guests aren’t supposed to lean on furniture, and my tour attracted something of an older crowd. No photos are allowed, so you’ll have to let the trip fade pleasantly away in your memory’s rearview.
Visitors are taken most everywhere except the attic; that attic was Jo’s writing haven, but while Louisa wrote in several attics herself, she never set up shop in this one. The Alcott family moved 20 times in 20 years before settling at Orchard House, a fixer-upper built in the mid-1600s. Here, Louisa wrote at a half-moon desk her father built into the wall of the front-facing room she shared with Anna (“Meg”). A prop apple now sits on the desk and its chair seems impossibly low to the ground—all ceilings and doorways in the home feel low, as cozy as you’d expect from a book about domestic joys and tediums.
Orchard House needed substantial restoration before tours became possible, and the historical association solicited donations and benefitted from the Save America’s Treasures initiative. As detailed by the PBS documentary Our Orchard House: Home of Little Women, in the year 2000, the house was sinking into the ground to the point where it had to be lifted onto steel beams so a new foundation could be built underneath. It now sees 100,000 visitors per year, according to executive director Jan Turnquist, and between 30,000 and 50,000 of those take the tour. Last year’s sesquicentennial anniversary brought an added surge in interest.
You enter Orchard House through a gift shop, where guests have been known to burst into tears before the tour even begins. There’s some magic imbued in a writer’s home, in the feeling of seeing where they sat to compose the literature that built you. Standing in the places where they dreamt and ate and had ideas that infected your own, it’s as much a homecoming as it is a pilgrimage. Two older British women trembled through the entire tour, accompanied by a pair of middle-aged women who might have been their daughters, and asked my friend to take a photograph of them all embracing in front of the house.
The gift shop does not succumb to kitsch. The room once served as a dirt-floor workshop with an enclosed outhouse. Now, it is filled with dozens of Little Women editions for purchase, framed poems of Louisa’s, and magnets with silly quotations from her (“housekeeping ain’t no joke”). There are quaint items like Wee Forest Folk for sale—rat figurines honoring Scrabble, a rodent friend of Jo’s who kept her company in the attic; stuffed toy owls, a favorite of Louisa’s for their metaphorical wisdom; and a delicious print illustration of Jo and Professor Bhaer beneath an umbrella (in the book, the scene wherein they confess their love). Before the tour begins, the aforementioned documentary plays in a room that was once May’s art studio (May, an anagram for “Amy”).
If any Alcott ghosts linger, they play docile host as you pass through the house, first to the kitchen where May carved Raphael’s face on the back of a cutting board with a hot poker, and then to the parlor with Elizabeth’s chickering piano, where the sisters kept their audience for dining room plays—hanging fabric in the doorway to act as a stage curtain, running to the stairs for costume changes—and where, later on, Anna would get married. It’s also home to the couch on which Louisa’s so-called mood pillow still sits, flipped on its side to alert the family of a bad temper or a writing “vortex,” as she called fits of inspiration when she wanted to be left alone. All these things happen in the book, and sometimes the tour’s distinction between the real girls and the fictional ones grows foggy.
The Alcott daughters were the happy result of supportive parents, if poor ones. Patriarch Amon Bronson kept company with fellow Transcendentalists and Concord residents Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts were progressive, both abolitionists and advocates for women’s rights. Bronson was the first teacher in Boston to admit a black student to his class, among the first to propose student participation in class, and the triumphant creator of “recess”; he was also the founder of Fruitlands, a failed utopian commune in Harvard, Massachusetts. Though full of intellectual vigor, Bronson was unable to make a decent living, and his daughters had to fend for their own finances, working as governesses and teachers—and writers, of course. His one-room schoolhouse sits behind the Alcott home and is presently closed for repair, though visitors are encouraged to peer in through the windows, and an upcoming movie adaptation of the book filmed inside it.
Both Bronson and his wife Abigail—who was one of the first social workers in Boston—made their daughters’ creative exploits a priority. Much of May’s artwork hangs in the house (copies of Joseph Turner seascapes in her parents’ bedroom, an owl painting in Louisa’s), but it’s also on the house: a panel of flowers blooming above Louisa’s desk, dainty pen sketches covering the wall trims in her bedroom and the fireboard in the parlor, Biblical and mythological figures preserved by nailed plexiglass coverings. There’s also a doll of Elizabeth’s whose tiny face May painted, an item Annie Leibovitz photographed when she visited Orchard House.
In writing Little Women, Louisa mined the grief of Elizabeth’s early passing. Most details of “Beth” are warmly accurate, except for the name of the German family she caught scarlet fever from. John Matteson, author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, suggests the novel served as Louisa’s confirmation that a family can find happiness even after the loss of a child. Always the quietest Alcott, Elizabeth’s brief time on earth was still admired by Louisa: “She recognized the beauty of her sister’s life—uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which ‘smell sweet, and blossom in the dust,'” Alcott wrote of Jo’s thoughts Beth-ward.
Anna got married and moved out of Orchard House soon after Elizabeth’s death (though she later returned, newly widowed, to raise her children; the parents added a nursery onto their bedroom for her), and while Meg’s married exploits are detailed in a chapter or two about making jelly and raising twins, Jo and Amy are the characters best realized in Little Women. They are the ones who travel; the enterprising artists; a yin and yang of sorts, one sulky and disdainful of polite society (Jo) and the other a girl who tries her best to move gracefully within it (Amy). They have each other’s number: “You can go through the world with your elbows out and your nose in the air, and call it independence, if you like. That’s not my way,” Amy scolds Jo when she wants to skip housecalls, Jo who “carried her love of liberty and hate of conventionalities to such an unlimited extent that she naturally found herself worsted in an argument.” There is grudging respect in the pairing too, and sometimes healthy competition, as when young Amy burns Jo’s prose in the fire or when Amy falls in love with Laurie, who loved Jo first.
Ah, Laurie—the book’s foremost fellow, as Bronson’s likeness was relegated to a few wise words in the background once the father returns from war, and saintly Bhaer is only seen in a couple chapters. Louisa claimed Laurie was a combination of boys she knew, though Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian—who lived next door to the Alcotts—thought the character was based on him. “Teddy” is a fan favorite and the subject of many sympathies over his failed romance with Jo. Yet I’d guess Louisa wrote Laurie not as an ideal mate for anyone, but rather as the boy she longed to be. Jo has no qualms about preferring to be a man who could run roughshod and go off to battle, while Louisa herself admitted in a 1883 interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body. . . .”
When asked by a publisher in 1868 to invent a girls’ story, Louisa wrote in her diary that she “never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters.” The name “Laurie” even sounds like the masculine “Louisa,” and this roguish imagined neighbor was “a universal favorite, thanks to money, manners, much talent,” a boy who “frolicked and flirted” to his heart’s content.
Louisa never married, though she gave in to pressure from readers and wed the formerly flirt-free Jo off to 40-year-old German professor Friedrich Bhaer in the book’s second act (Little Women was published in two installments); Jo at least opens a school for poor boys with Bhaer post-nuptials, and gets to participate in juvenile revelry as she couldn’t in her own youth. Jo and Amy both amend their artistic dreams in favor of work as housewives, albeit work we are half-heartedly convinced they enjoy. The book ends with a discussion of their former castles in the air: “your life is very different from the one you pictured so long ago,” Amy reminds her sister, to which Jo replies, “the life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now.” She still has plans to write, and Amy to make art, but Alcott’s audience craved homely bliss more than anything, and she gave it to them.
The real story has a less idyllic conclusion. Louisa became a writer and supported her family on her earnings, while May spent the latter part of her life in Europe studying art (a contemporary of Mary Cassatt), and eventually married and settled in Paris. In the book, it’s their father who goes off to war; in real life, it was Louisa who served briefly as a union army nurse until she caught typhoid pneumonia at the hospital, was treated with mercurous chloride, and became sick with mercury poisoning as a result. She died from a stroke in her mid-50s, just two days after her father’s death; the two also shared a birthday. They survived everyone in the family except Anna, who lived a few more years. May passed away soon after giving birth to a little girl and before she turned forty; “Lulu,” her daughter, was raised by Louisa.
If you’re in Concord, it makes sense to stop by Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Louisa and most of the Alcotts are buried, along with Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne. The cemetery is old and hallowed, even if the effect is somewhat marred by a corny proliferation of small American flags poked in the dirt of half the graves, including Louisa’s. On the large Alcott family headstone, I found a handwritten note reading “I want to live deliberately too,” held down by a pinecone. Thoreau’s gravestone is in the plot directly adjacent, so the note’s author was either confused or the paper migrated.
Walden Pond, too, is worth a visit. “Pond” often denotes a small body of water, but this is more of a lake with a walking path around it and a sandy slip of beach. In mid-September, there were swimmers doing laps in wetsuits and weirdly, on the shore, I saw four Double-crested Cormorants gathered in a row, gazing at the water and looking remarkably like the March sisters. Or the Alcotts.
Little Women is a small story. Not much happens in the way of adventure or intrigue, besides births and deaths and small revelations regarding both. There are European sojourns and a stint in New York City—the former is where Amy falls in love, the latter Jo—but most action takes place within the confines of the home, before fireplaces and outspread books. There are no particular mysteries to be solved by a visit to Orchard House, where so much of this was born—at least, none you can glean in 45 minutes. And yet, I suggest going anyway. The solvable mysteries might be in you.