I realized this blog has been in existence for two years today almost by accident. If a date’s not written on my planner—and is not, say, my husband or child’s birthday—I tend to forget it. And a blog anniversary (I can’t really use the word “blogiversary” with a straight face, even when I’m typing) isn’t the kind of thing you really mark on your calendar. So, the first anniversary went entirely forgotten.
But, it is, in fact, two years to the day since this little experiment in blogging began, and to honor the occasion, I’d like—once again—to have a little celebration of Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, and Jo March. Only this time, I’ve got lovely pictures.
Harvard’s Houghton Library is a veritable treasure trove of intriguing literary stuff. In this case, it’s illustrations from the original two-volume publication of Little Women, illustrated by her sister May Alcott. I wondered what May must have been thinking as she illustrated these two volumes and found the fictionalized version of herself—the artist sister—therein. Was she hurt by Louisa’s portrayal of Amy? Offended that her sister made herself the heroine of the story? Grateful that in the end this same writer-sister fixed her up with Laurie (because who wouldn’t be, really)?
Or was she able to celebrate her sister’s literary achievement just as we still celebrate it today? In my spare time (ha!), I’m going to do some research and try to find out. But for now, enjoy the illustrations, and thanks for being a part of what’s now an ongoing blog experiment!
It is an undeniable fact: I am a list-maker. From what to buy at the supermarket, to what to pack for a trip, to what I need to do each and every day, there is a list. Indeed, I’ve had the same Franklin Planner since approximately 1997, for which I dutifully buy new, blank pages upon which to list-make at the start of every year.
For me, this is a sanity preservation device: I know my own tendency to become wildly stressed out if I don’t feel like I’m on top of things, so I try to keep on top of things. I am not a procrastinator—doing stuff at the last minute tends to eat away at my mental well-being. So, each day, I make a list of the things I need to accomplish. On paper, in pencil, with a system to mark off what I’ve done, what’s only partially done, and what’s going to have to wait a day or two. If this sounds like madness to you, fair enough. But it works for me and they’re not created for the benefit of anybody but me.
The long and the short of it is, I understand the urge to list things off and make sense of them.
What I guess I don’t understand is making lists of books based on things like Flavorwire’s “50 Novels Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person.” Okay, so there are some good books on there, and there are worse ways to spend your day than putting together a list of good books. And, okay, so there’s research out in the ether that says that reading novels is good for you—can even make you more empathetic. As a life-long reader, I didn’t really need any scientific research to tell me this, of course. I know it from experience. I also know from experience that one woman’s life-changing read is another terrible bore. Because what changes you is as individual and subjective as being you is. I often joke, but truly believe, that while some people turn to religious texts in their times of need, I turn to Middlemarch. For me, that’s what’s life affirming and life changing. So to create a list of books that will help someone else be a better person seems like an exercise in futility.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I like a good book list. I like Goodreads for that very reason—readers putting together lists of books that they’ve enjoyed, usually by some sort of categorization. But creating such a list—one that says, hey these were great books that I liked!—and saying hey, these books will make you a better person, are two very different things. By all means, share what you love with me. Maybe I’ll love it, too. But don’t presume to dictate what might do something as enormous as improve a person on a fundamental level. Because my George Elliot might be your Jonathan Franzen. Maybe Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books opened up a world of possibilities for you as a kid. Who knows?
On my desk at all times is a little bookmark that contains a snippet of text from Little Women in a glass tube. I keep this on whatever desk I use as an editor—and it’s traveled with me from one location to another for many years—as a physical reminder as I read submissions and edit stories that everyone has their own special, life-changing books. Little Women turned me into a serious reader. Any other book might do that for any other reader.
So, at the risk of sounding cranky—and oh, I fear that I do sound cranky!—telling people that this book or that one will make them better or change their lives (and why it will) is kind of hooey. Tell me what you love, but then let me sit back and discover what I can in a book—and let it change me or not as it will!
So it was a special treat to recently visit Orchard House, the Alcott family’s home for many years, and where Louisa wrote Little Women—with a group of fellow writers and dear friends.
Alas, the good folks at Orchard House won’t let you take pictures inside the house, or else I’d flood this blog with pictures of her writing desk or the drawings that her youngest sister May (who was the inspiration for Amy March in the book) created on the walls of her bedroom.
But I can tell you this: being in this house and stepping through the rooms where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote is, for me, treading on hallowed ground. I realize that for most people the idea of a pilgrimage involves a journey that’s religious in nature. For me, it’s always literary.
Whether it’s sitting in Edith Wharton’s garden, pretending to be Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, exploring my first moor (HEATHCLIFF!), or walking down the very street in Bath upon which Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth finally, irrevocably, pledged themselves to each other in Persuasion, my idea of sacred ground is almost always tied to the books I love.
And Orchard House is no exception. So, I want to share these pictures of this lovely place—and the ladies with whom I got to share the experience—with you. I hope you enjoy them…and maybe even share some memories of your own favorite literary pilgrimages!
Long before A Room of One’s Own was a twinkle in Virginia Woolf’s eye, Jo March was escaping upstairs, donning her writing garb, and “scribbling” in the garret. While she inexplicably welcomed the presence of a rat named Scabbers in her writing pursuits, in all other ways, Jo was my hero.
She has had, from the moment I made her acquaintance in Little Women in the fifth grade, a profound influence on me. While I could appreciate Meg’s yearning to make things beautiful, Beth’s tragically gentle ways, and Amy’s wish to be an artist and marry Laurie, it was Jo who captured my imagination and my heart.
She was strong, brash, smart, and absolutely dedicated to the people she loved. She sold her hair—her one beauty!—to help her parents. She doggedly pursued her dream of becoming a writer. She broke out on her own and tried to find her own path. She dreamed big. And she married an intellectual-type who supported her writing and called her “heart’s dearest” (yes, I even love old Fritz Bhaer).
Jo and her sisters transformed me from a normal fifth grade reader into something much more passionate—an intense lover of literature. Over the years, this love of reading has evolved into a career editing children’s books, and even eventually, to writing them myself.
Alas, I do not have a garret, or indeed any space of my own in my little yellow house in which to do my own scribbling. I write where and when I can. But I do have legions of family and friends to encourage me, a daughter who makes her own books at age six, an intellectual-type husband who supports my writing (though, sadly, he doesn’t ever call me heart’s dearest)—and a rather scruffy guinea pig (no rats in this house, thank you very much) to keep me company as I write.
So, here’s to you, Jo March. And while we’re at it, here’s to Louisa May Alcott, as well. I raise my cup of tea to character and creator—and then will put it down again and get back to revising the lost soul of a picture book manuscript on which I’ve been working.