Louisa May Alcott : The Woman behind Little Woman is a biography of the writer by Harriet Reisen. It is a study of the writer and her life and also what elements of it influenced her best known work, Little Woman. Actually, it is at its most fascinating when describing the writer’s childhood and her family circumstances but it is, on the whole, a very interesting read.
Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott was a philosopher, atheist and thinker who had revolutionary ideas about education. He lectured, started new schools, moved his family to places of communal living and wrote. What he did not do, at any point, was bring in enough money to feed and house his wife and four daughters and nor was he prepared to take a manual or less skilled job just to bring in money. Louisa’s childhood involved moving regularly, always being in debt, struggles to make ends meet, and depending on the kindness of strangers and family. Her mother was a great coper and had a lot to cope with.
From this childhood Louisa needed always to bring in money and to bring in enough to support her family which became her main aim in life. In the end she became the family’s breadwinner and the success of Little Women meant that at one point she was earning a modern equivalent of £1 million per year but she had a lot of family to support and a lot of debts to repay so she always felt that she had to earn more.
Louisa was a teacher, a lady’s companion and a nurse in the Civil War amongst other things (yes, she did sell her hair at one stage). She wrote for magazines and later earned a considerable sum by writing pulp fiction under assumed names. Her fame was ensured by the success that she had in writing Little Women which was very largely based on her family and friends, including the death of her younger sister and her fascination for the young man on whom she based the character of Laurie. But fame brought with it a celebrity that she was not used to and definitely resented as it endangered her privacy.
This is a well told biography which had lots of interesting details about what it meant to grow up in this kind of family. The author has certainly done her research but she uses it to enhance her narrative rather than to dump it on the reader. I was worried when I realised that Louisa’s childhood was covered in three quarters of the book but when you read it you will see why it is so very important. I recommend this book if you like a well told literary biography – you don’t have to have read the author’s work as her life and her family are a story in itself. Just one warning – I listened to the audio version of this and it is read by the author. It isn’t brilliant. The pace varies and there isn’t a lot of expression in the voice. It didn’t ruin the book for me but you may be better reading a print copy.