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The Other Alcott



May 26, 1878

Meudon, France



Here I sit in my studio, writing another letter to you that I will not mail. Instead it shall live in this journal. I know, I’m sure the vision of me scribbling away in a journal gives you a good chuckle, but it’s a gift from Ernest. He looked so pleased when I opened it, I couldn’t bring myself to confess how I despise such self-confessionals. The whole practice takes me back to those dreadful family meetings—all of us huddled around the dining room table with journals gripped in our hands, prepared to reflect on the day’s triumphs and trials and discuss paths to self-improvement—those dreary evenings left a mark on me.

Yet now you have figured it all out. Yes, I’ve seen you digging back into your dog-eared diaries and rewriting old accounts of our lives into rosier, more harmonious versions of the truth. Did you think your secret editing sessions escaped my notice? I daresay your revisions are quite ingenious, but it makes me wonder, how will you go back and rewrite the story of us?

Do you regret your treatment of me? Your disapproval of my actions pains me but I refuse to apologize. Though our estrangement weighs upon me, I cannot forgive your demands. Still, I long to turn back the clock and mend the rift between us, though now that I think on it, if I could go back in time, when would I go back to? When was our relationship ever simple?

I almost missed your gift, tucked as it was behind Anna’s recent letter. Is it intended as a taunt? A peace offering? An apology? I’ve hidden it until your intentions become clear.

Yours, May


Part 1

Part I: October 1868 - June 1869

Concord, Massachusetts


Chapter 1

May spent the morning in a high feather preparing for the party, dusting and scrubbing the parlor as though elbow grease alone could solve everything. The persistent ticking of the small clock on the china shelf reminded her there was no time for dawdling, so she darted to the kitchen to start a batch of molasses candy and stood over the black cast iron stove, stirring the boiling syrup around and around in foamy circles. Lost in the luxurious smell of melted butter, she startled when Louisa burst into the kitchen, slamming the door open into the already-crumbling plaster wall.

“They’re here. The reviews are here.” Her older sister clutched a thin, brown-papered package out in front of her.  Mother, their sister Anna, and her two young sons trailed behind Louisa like the tail on a kite.

May’s heart quickened, and she clapped her hands in anticipation. “Let’s all move into the parlor to hear the exciting news,” she said, thinking of her time spent sprucing up the front rooms. “Boys, please run and fetch your grandfather from the barn.”

But no one budged as Louisa ripped into the envelope.

                      “Heavens, you’re a savage,” Anna murmured.

Louisa’s hand trembled as she pulled out a light green piece of paper embossed with the bank’s seal and two hundred dollars written in a flowing script, an amount enough to render the group speechless. Her earlier novel, Moods, fetched a first check of a mere twenty-five dollars. The beginnings of a smile perked at the corners of Louisa’s mouth as she lay the payment down on the kitchen table. Paper crackled as she dug back into the package and withdrew a handful of newspaper clippings. May held her breath, scarcely containing her pride. She believed the illustrations she’d produced for her sister’s book to be her finest pictures yet.

Louisa read aloud from the article: “According to The Nation, ‘Little Women will undoubtedly be this season’s novel that every American girl will want to read.’ ” The nephews broke into cheers while Mother and Anna clapped. May joined in with the applause, but she watched her sister scan the rest of the newspaper column. Louisa frowned for a moment before tucking the clipping under the bank check. She sifted through more pages, quoting passages full of praise, as she slid a few more of the clippings out of sight. Had anyone else noticed Louisa’s sleight of hand?

“Auntie May, the candy…it’s burning!” Johnny said.

May whirled around to see black smoke puffing up off the molasses. She grabbed a dishtowel to cover her hand, yanked the pan off the stovetop, and tumbled through the kitchen door into the back yard. Once outside, she dropped the smoking mess on the gravel path and stared at the charred remains. A moment later, Louisa appeared in the doorway. “Are you burned?”

“No…I just forgot about the stove.” May smoothed down her disheveled blond hair with her hands. Nothing was going as planned. “What about the celebration? The parlor’s ready.”

Louisa took a step outside and handed May the newspaper columns from the folds of her skirt.

“You need to see these, but don’t take them too hard. After all, I’ve gotten so many rejections over the years, you’d think I’d have thrown myself off the roof long ago.”

May looked down at the papers and silently read a review from The Nation:May Alcott’s poorly executed illustrations in “Little Women” betray her lack of anatomical knowledge and indifference to the subtle beauty of the female figure.’ A shrill buzzing rang in her ears as she registered the meaning of the words.

She flipped to the next column from The Youth’s Companion and read: ‘May Alcott’s figures lack realistic proportions and look stiff.’ Another clipping from Publishers’ Circular claimed: ‘May Alcott’s illustrations detract from the agreeable little story of “Little Women”.’ Shame burned her face all the way to her hairline and black speckles edged her vision as if she viewed the hazy words reflected on an old, tarnished mirror.

She looked up to find Louisa studying her.

May swallowed past the thickness of her throat. “Did you think my drawings were as bad as they say?”

 “No, of course not. Now don’t get yourself into a pucker.” She smoothed the gray silk of her dress. “I know it must be a bit of a shock since everything always seems to go your way, but you’ll recover. Somehow I always do.”

“But you receive a letter in the mail from an editor saying no. Your work isn’t mocked in print for whole the world to see.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, the whole world isn’t reading these reviews. And don’t expect me to apologize for my success, I’ve received my fair share of negative reviews before.” Scowling, Louisa glanced away and reached out to flick some chipping bits of dark brown paint off the side of the house.

“Isn’t your new beau, Mr. Bishop, coming out from Boston for a visit today?”

What did he have to do with any of this, May thought, resisting the urge to snap at her sister. “No, tomorrow.”

“Well, then you’ll probably have forgotten all about this by tomorrow evening. You’re good about always finding enjoyments, while all I do is sit around and write. You’re lucky, you’re always full of good spirit, you don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Did a satisfied smile flicker across Louisa’s face? Of course May took her art seriously, but she refused to complain about the trials of hard work. Was it so wrong to have a little amusement here and there? Louisa often complained about her younger sister’s unending stream of luck, but did she not see how hard May had been working for the last twenty-eight years of her life to make good fortune happen? She glared at her older sister, but then Louisa’s limp dark hair, parted plainly in the middle, and her complexion, pale as a hard-boiled egg, came into focus; writing Little Women within the space of a mere two months had exacted an enormous toll upon her. Louisa, once bright-eyed and vivacious, appeared to have faded and shrunk, defeated into middle-age.

May straightened up and placed the clippings back into Louisa’s fingers. “I’m fine.”

“Let’s hold off on the party anyway.” Louisa folded the clippings into a neat stack in her hands. “The downstairs needs to air out from all the smoke. I’ll take the nephews into town for a treat.”

“Good idea, the little imps are in a lather over the prospect of candy.” May marveled that her voice could sound so steady, despite the sinking sensation in her belly.

Louisa took a final look at her sister and turned back into the kitchen. Alone, May pulled off her apron and bunched it up into a wad before dropping it on the ground. The pan still lay in her path so she gave it a small kick as she stalked away from the mess.

Upstairs, in the privacy of her own bedroom, May rifled through her loose papers and sketchbooks from over the years. With her artwork clenched in her arms, she tiptoed back downstairs, listening for any sounds of her family, but the house was silent. They had all gone into town. Good. She dropped the pile on the kitchen floor next to the stove, squatted down next to it, and yanked open the small doorway to stoke the fire. Once the flames began to grow higher within the stove, she started ripping up her notebooks one by one. Satisfaction verging on hysteria seized her as she tore her sketches into tiny pieces and stuffed them into the stove’s fire. Tears that had been threatening to fall after reading those scathing reviews evaporated from the growing heat of the fire. With trembling hands, she reached for a new sketch to shred but froze when she saw an old, yellowed self-portrait in her hands.

The young girl in the picture wore a crown of flowers, long golden plaits, a broad smile, and held a painter’s palette in one hand and her old calico cat, Flora, in the other. The poor round creature looked more like a pig than anything remotely feline (horses were still the only animal she could consistently draw well). The girl’s facial features were crooked and the lines unsteady, but May remembered the pride she had taken in the sketch.

Almost twenty years later, the self-portrait certainly resembled no masterpiece, but it marked a beginning. While she was no Rembrandt, her skills had certainly improved. With more prodding and discipline, progress could be possible. Dear Lord, yes, of course progress is possible. She traced a finger along the face on the paper, leaving sooty smudges on it, and contemplated her sketches in Little Women.

Louisa had confessed to basing her main characters—the March sisters—upon her own family, but added that she ironed out some of the irregularities of their lives: Anna’s gracious temperament leant itself to becoming the kind and nurturing Meg; Louisa smoothed herself into the feisty rebel Jo; Lizzie’s saintliness increased; and May turned into little precocious and selfish Amy. May’s shoulders clenched with the anger at the thought of Louisa’s characterization of May as frivolous Amy March. Yes, little Amy was a mere character in a book, but everyone knew she was meant to be May. Amy’s pretentious and incorrect usage of sophisticated words and the character’s insufferable vanity and preoccupation with material goods—Louisa’s portrayal of May galled her. An injustice, that’s what it was, but she couldn’t think about that now. She opened her eyes again to study her self-portrait and sighed.

When she sketched, it felt as though she had a fever, a good fever, a fever that warmed her insides and made the rest of the world melt away. Even if the results didn’t look like what she pictured in her mind’s eye, she persisted making more and more, telling herself that improvement would come with time and practice. If she stopped creating, what was left? A slow slide into spinsterhood? She’d be stuck in Concord forever. With her knuckles pressed to her lips, she gazed into the opening of the stove to see pieces of drawing paper curling into black charred ribbons. No, she couldn’t destroy any more work. She smoothed the edges of the self-portrait on her lap and placed it back on the pile next to her.

She needed her art—that was a certainty. But that certainty, that clench deep in her gut, it was all she had to push against everything else determined to keep her in place. She stood and picked up the remaining artwork. It would have to be enough.

The Other Alcott
by by Elise Hooper

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062645331
  • ISBN-13: 9780062645333