A trip to Orchard House, the house where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, has been on my to-do list for years. After reading a post on the Ploughshares blog last week, the book was on my mind. Labor Day was coming up, and with it, a three-day weekend, so my friend Rachel and I got in my car on Monday morning and drove the half-hour from Jamaica Plain to Concord, MA.
In her post, Clare Beams wonders why, after so many years, do women continue to read, and love, Little Women, a book for young girls published in 1868-1869. Even Alcott herself wrote it under suggestion from her editor, saying that writing about young girls would be boring, but she’d do it for a paycheck. It’s a good question–one I’d never really thought about before. In an old Fashion Book post, I posited that people keep reading it because the characters are “vibrant” and we’ve all met an Amy or a Jo.
Maybe Little Women was the original “Which Sex and the City Character Are You?” personality quiz: Four women, four archetypal personality types. Meg was Carrie (lover of material goods and love, relatively stable and grounded); Jo was Miranda (short hair, no time for shenanigans); Beth was Charlotte (innocent and sweet); and Amy was Samantha (boy-crazed, selfish blonde). Of course, this is a completely reductionist reading of the book, but how many tv shows and movies have followed this trope of the woman who fits neatly into a box–the responsible one, the artsy one, the sexy one, the smart one, the shy one, the funny one, etc.
Beams argues that these neat personality archetypes are a large part of the appeal of the book. While we, real people, are messy and unknowable, the four sisters always acted the way they were supposed to. This reliability is comforting.
Orchard House is where the Alcott family lived for twenty years–the longest the family had been settled in any one place, due to patriarch Bronson Alcott’s inability to hold down a steady job. While many of the writer’s “homes” tourists visit today are just replicas of the originals, Orchard House is surprisingly well-preserved. No doubt, this is in large part due to the fact that the home has been a museum since 1911. All of the art hanging on the walls is original to the house, most of it painted by Louisa’s younger sister May–the inspiration for Amy. Bronson’s study is full of antique books on education, with a shelf devoted to Louisa’s books. Louisa’s writing helped support her family, something of which she was very proud. Of course, this was Jo’s aspiration as well, but in the book, Jo ends up with Professor Baehr, running a school for young boys and mothering her own children. In real life, though she did adopt her niece after her sister May died in Europe, Louisa never married, and suffered an early death due to mercury poisoning (very 19th century).
Even if you haven’t read Little Women (in which case, what are you even doing here at this blog? Are you lost?), I would recommend checking out Orchard House. It’s a super interesting look into 19th century living and into a fascinating family of immense talent and intellect. And when you’re done, you can go visit the other literary sights of Concord: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Walden Pond, and The Old Manse. There’s also some really fun shopping in town (but bring your wallet)!
Do you love Little Women? Why?