Louisa May Alcott.

Louisa May Alcott, her life, letters, and journals; online

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wins fame, success, and the young girl's heart; but his wayward fancy
turns rather to the magnificent Olivia. The demoniac Helwyze works
upon this feeling, and claims of Olivia her fair young friend Gladys
as a wife for Felix, who is forced to accept her at the hands of his
master. She is entirely responsive to the love which she fancies she
has won, and is grateful for her fortunate lot, and devotes herself to
the comfort and happiness of the poor invalid who delights in her
beauty and grace. For a time Felix enjoys a society success, to which
his charming wife, as well as his book, contribute. But at last this
excitement flags. He writes another book, which he threatens to burn
because he is dissatisfied with it. Gladys entreats him to spare it,
and Helwyze offers to read it to her. She is overcome and melted with
emotion at the passion and pathos of the story; and when Helwyze asks,
"Shall I burn it?" Felix answers, "No!" Again the book brings success
and admiration, but the tender wife sees that it does not insure
happiness, and that her husband is plunging into the excitement of
gambling.

The demon Helwyze has complete control over the poet, which he
exercises with such subtle tyranny that the young man is driven to the
dreadful thought of murder to escape from him; but he is saved from
the deed by the gentle influence of his wife, who has won his heart at
last, unconscious that it had not always been hers.

Helwyze finds his own punishment. One being resists his power, - Gladys
breathes his poisoned atmosphere unharmed. He sends for Olivia as his
ally to separate the wife from her husband's love. A passion of
curiosity possesses him to read her very heart; and at last he resorts
to a strange means to accomplish his purpose. He gives her an exciting
drug without her knowledge, and under its influence she speaks and
acts with a rare genius which calls forth the admiration of all the
group. Left alone with her, Helwyze exercises his magnetic power to
draw forth the secrets of her heart; but he reads there only a pure
and true love for her husband, and fear of the unhallowed passion
which he is cherishing. The secret of his power over the husband is at
last revealed. Canaris has published as his own the work of Helwyze,
and all the fame and glory he has received has been won by deceit, and
is a miserable mockery.

The tragic result is inevitable. Gladys dies under the pressure of a
burden too heavy for her, - the knowledge of deceit in him she had
loved and trusted; while the stricken Helwyze is paralyzed, and lives
henceforth only a death in life.

With all the elements of power and beauty in this singular book, it
fails to charm and win the heart of the reader. The circumstances are
in a romantic setting, but still they are prosaic; and tragedy is only
endurable when taken up into the region of the ideal, where the
thought of the universal rounds out all traits of the individual. In
Goethe's Faust, Margaret is the sweetest and simplest of maidens; but
in her is the life of all wronged and suffering womanhood.

The realism which is delightful in the pictures of little women and
merry boys is painful when connected with passions so morbid and lives
so far removed from joy and sanity. As in her early dramas and
sensational stories, we do not find Louisa Alcott's own broad,
generous, healthy life, or that which lay around her, in this book,
but the reminiscences of her reading, which she had striven to make
her own by invention and fancy.

This note refers to "A Modern Mephistopheles": -

[1877.]

DEAR MR. NILES, - I had to keep the proof longer than I meant
because a funeral came in the way.

The book as last sent is lovely, and much bigger than I expected.

Poor "Marmee," ill in bed, hugged it, and said, "It is perfect!
only I do wish your name could be on it." She is very proud of
it; and tender-hearted Anna weeps and broods over it, calling
Gladys the best and sweetest character I ever did. So much for
home opinion; now let's see what the public will say.

May clamors for it; but I don't want to send this till she has
had one or two of the others. Have you sent her "Is That All?" If
not, please do; then it won't look suspicious to send only "M.
M."

I am so glad the job is done, and hope it won't disgrace the
series. Is not another to come before this? I hope so; for many
people suspect what is up, and I could tell my fibs about No. 6
better if it was not mine.

Thanks for the trouble you have taken to keep the secret. Now the
fun will begin.

Yours truly,
L. M. A.

P. S. - Bean's expressman grins when he hands in the daily parcel.
He is a Concord man.

By Louisa's help the younger sister again went abroad in 1876; and her
bright affectionate letters cheered the little household, much
saddened by the mother's illness.


_Journal._

_January_, 1876. - Helped Mrs. Croly receive two hundred
gentlemen.

A letter from Baron Tauchnitz asking leave to put my book in his
foreign library, and sending 600 marks to pay for it. Said, "Yes,
thank you, Baron."

Went to Philadelphia to see Cousin J. May installed in Dr.
Furness's pulpit. Dull place is Philadelphia. Heard Beecher
preach; did not like him....

Went home on the 21st, finding I could not work here. Soon tire
of being a fine lady.

_February and March._ - Took a room in B., and fell to work on
short tales for F. T. N. wanted a centennial story; but my
frivolous New York life left me no ideas. Went to Centennial Ball
at Music Hall, and got an idea.

Wrote a tale of "'76," which with others will make a catchpenny
book. Mother poorly, so I go home to nurse her.

_April, May, and June._ - Mother better. Nan and boys go to P.
farm. May and I clean the old house. It seems as if the dust of
two centuries haunted the ancient mansion, and came out spring
and fall in a ghostly way for us to clear up.

Great freshets and trouble.

Exposition in Philadelphia; don't care to go. America ought to
pay her debts before she gives parties. "Silver Pitchers," etc.,
comes out, and goes well. Poor stuff; but the mill must keep on
grinding even chaff.

_June._ - Lovely month! Keep hotel and wait on Marmee.

Try to get up steam for a new serial, as Mrs. Dodge wants one,
and Scribner offers $3,000 for it. Roberts Brothers want a novel;
and the various newspapers and magazines clamor for tales. My
brain is squeezed dry, and I can only wait for help.

_July, August._ - Get an idea and start "Rose in Bloom," though I
hate sequels.

_September._ - On the 9th my dear girl sails in the "China" for a
year in London or Paris. God be with her! She has done her
distasteful duty faithfully, and deserved a reward. She cannot
find the help she needs here, and is happy and busy in her own
world over there.

[She never came home. - L. M. A.]

Finish "Rose."

* * * * *

_November._ - "Rose" comes out; sells well.

... Forty-four years old. My new task gets on slowly; but I keep
at it, and can be a prop, if not an angel, in the house, as Nan
is.

_December._ - Miss P. sends us a pretty oil sketch of May, - so
like the dear soul in her violet wrapper, with yellow curls piled
up, and the long hand at work. Mother delights in it.

She (M.) is doing finely, and says, "I am getting on, and I feel
as if it was not all a mistake; for I have some talent, and will
prove it." Modesty is a sign of genius, and I think our girl has
both. The money I invest in her pays the sort of interest I like.
I am proud to have her show what she can do, and have her depend
upon no one but me. Success to little Raphael! My dull winter is
much cheered by her happiness and success.

_January, February, 1877._ - The year begins well. Nan keeps
house; boys fine, tall lads, good and gay; Father busy with his
new book; Mother cosey with her sewing, letters, Johnson, and
success of her "girls."

Went for some weeks to the Bellevue, and wrote "A Modern
Mephistopheles" for the No Name Series. It has been simmering
ever since I read Faust last year. Enjoyed doing it, being tired
of providing moral pap for the young. Long to write a novel, but
cannot get time enough.

May's letters our delight. She is so in earnest she will not stop
for pleasure, rest, or society, but works away like a Trojan. Her
work admired by masters and mates for its vigor and character.

_March._ - Begin to think of buying the Thoreau place for Nan. The
$4,000 received from the Vt. and Eastern R. Rs. must be invested,
and she wants a home of her own, now the lads are growing up.

Mother can be with her in the winter for a change, and leave me
free to write in B. Concord has no inspiration for me.

_April._ - May, at the request of her teacher, M. Muller, sends a
study of still life to the Salon. The little picture is accepted,
well hung, and praised by the judges. No friend at court, and the
modest work stood on its own merits. She is very proud to see her
six months' hard work bear fruit. A happy girl, and all say she
deserves the honor.

"M. M." appears and causes much guessing. It is praised and
criticised, and I enjoy the fun, especially when friends say, "I
know _you_ didn't write it, for you can't hide your peculiar
style."

Help to buy the house for Nan, - $4,500. So she has _her_ wish,
and is happy. When shall I have mine? Ought to be contented with
knowing I help both sisters by my brains. But I'm selfish, and
want to go away and rest in Europe. Never shall.

_May, June._ - Quiet days keeping house and attending to Marmee,
who grows more and more feeble. Helped Nan get ready for her new
home.

Felt very well, and began to hope I had outlived the neuralgic
worries and nervous woes born of the hospital fever and the hard
years following.

May living alone in Paris, while her mates go jaunting, - a
solitary life; but she is so busy she is happy and safe. A good
angel watches over her. Take pleasant drives early in the A.M.
with Marmee. She takes her comfort in a basket wagon, and we
drive to the woods, picking flowers and stopping where we like.
It keeps her young, and rests her weary nerves.

_July._ - Got too tired, and was laid up for some weeks. A curious
time, lying quite happily at rest, wondering what was to come
next.

_August._ - As soon as able began "Under the Lilacs," but could
not do much.

Mrs. Alcott grew rapidly worse, and her devoted daughter recognized
that the final parting was near. As Louisa watched by the bedside she
wrote "My Girls," and finished "Under the Lilacs."

The journal tells the story of the last days of watching, and of the
peaceful close of the mother's self-sacrificing yet blessed life.
Louisa was very brave in the presence of death. She had no dark
thoughts connected with it; and in her mother's case, after her long,
hard life, she recognized how "growing age longed for its peaceful
sleep."

The tie between this mother and daughter was exceptionally strong and
tender. The mother saw all her own fine powers reproduced and
developed in her daughter; and if she also recognized the passionate
energy which had been the strength and the bane of her own life, it
gave her only a more constant watchfulness to save her child from the
struggles and regrets from which she had suffered herself.


_Journal._

_September_, 1877. - On the 7th Marmee had a very ill turn, and
the doctor told me it was the beginning of the end. [Water on the
chest.] She was so ill we sent for Father from Walcott; and I
forgot myself in taking care of poor Marmee, who suffered much
and longed to go.

As I watched with her I wrote "My Girls," to go with other tales
in a new "Scrap Bag," and finished "Under the Lilacs." I foresaw
a busy or a sick winter, and wanted to finish while I could, so
keeping my promise and earning my $3,000.

Brain very lively and pen flew. It always takes an exigency to
spur me up and wring out a book. Never have time to go slowly and
do my best.

_October._ - Fearing I might give out, got a nurse and rested a
little, so that when the last hard days come I might not fail
Marmee, who says, "Stay by, Louy, and help me if I suffer too
much." I promised, and watched her sit panting life away day
after day. We thought she would not outlive her seventy-seventh
birthday, but, thanks to Dr. W. and homoeopathy, she got
relief, and we had a sad little celebration, well knowing it
would be the last. Aunt B. and L. W. came up, and with fruit,
flowers, smiling faces, and full hearts, we sat round the brave
soul who faced death so calmly and was ready to go.

I overdid and was very ill, - in danger of my life for a
week, - and feared to go before Marmee. But pulled through, and
got up slowly to help her die. A strange month.

_November._ - Still feeble, and Mother failing fast. On the 14th
we were both moved to Anna's at Mother's earnest wish.

A week in the new home, and then she ceased to care for
anything. Kept her bed for three days, lying down after weeks in
a chair, and on the 25th, at dusk, that rainy Sunday, fell
quietly asleep in my arms.

She was very happy all day, thinking herself a girl again, with
parents and sisters round her. Said her Sunday hymn to me, whom
she called "Mother," and smiled at us, saying, "A smile is as
good as a prayer." Looked often at the little picture of May, and
waved her hand to it, "Good-by, little May, good-by!"

Her last words to Father were, "You are laying a very soft pillow
for me to go to sleep on."

We feared great suffering, but she was spared that, and slipped
peacefully away. I was so glad when the last weary breath was
drawn, and silence came, with its rest and peace.

On the 27th it was necessary to bury her, and we took her quietly
away to Sleepy Hollow. A hard day, but the last duty we could do
for her; and there we left her at sunset beside dear Lizzie's
dust, - alone so long.

On the 28th a memorial service, and all the friends at
Anna's, - Dr. Bartol and Mr. Foote of Stone Chapel. A simple,
cheerful service, as she would have liked it.

Quiet days afterward resting in her rest.

My duty is done, and now I shall be glad to follow her.

_December._ - Many kind letters from all who best knew and loved
the noble woman.

I never wish her back, but a great warmth seems gone out of life,
and there is no motive to go on now.

My only comfort is that I _could_ make her last years
comfortable, and lift off the burden she had carried so bravely
all these years. She was so loyal, tender, and true; life was
hard for her, and no one understood all she had to bear but we,
her children. I think I shall soon follow her, and am quite
ready to go now she no longer needs me.

_January_, 1878. - An idle month at Nan's, for I can only suffer.

Father goes about, being restless with his anchor gone. Dear Nan
is house-mother now, - so patient, so thoughtful and tender; I
need nothing but that cherishing which only mothers can give.

May busy in London. Very sad about Marmee; but it was best not to
send for her, and Marmee forbade it, and she has some very
_tender friends_ near her.

_February._ - ... Wrote some lines on Marmee.


_To Mrs. Dodge._

CONCORD, June 3 [1877].

DEAR MRS. DODGE, - The tale[14] goes slowly owing to
interruptions, for summer is a busy time, and I get few quiet
days. Twelve chapters are done, but are short ones, and so will
make about six or seven numbers in "St. Nicholas."

I will leave them divided in this way that you may put in as many
as you please each month; for trying to suit the magazine hurts
the story in its book form, though this way does no harm to the
monthly parts, I think.

I will send you the first few chapters during the week for Mrs.
Foote, and with them the schedule you suggest, so that my infants
may not be drawn with whiskers, and my big boys and girls in
pinafores, as in "Eight Cousins."

I hope the new baby won't be set aside too soon for my
illustrations; but I do feel a natural wish to have one story
prettily adorned with good pictures, as hitherto artists have
much afflicted me.

I am daily waiting with anxiety for an illumination of some sort,
as my plot is very vague so far; and though I don't approve of
"sensations" in children's books, one must have a certain thread
on which to string the small events which make up the true sort
of child-life.

I intend to go and simmer an afternoon at Van Amburg's great
show, that I may get hints for the further embellishment of Ben
and his dog. I have also put in a poem by F. B. S.'s small
son,[15] and that hit will give Mrs. Foote a good scene with the
six-year-old poet reciting his verses under the lilacs.

I shall expect the small tots to be unusually good, since the
artist has a live model to study from. Please present my
congratulations to the happy mamma and Mr. Foote, Jr.

Yours _warmly_,
L. M. A.

AUGUST 21, 1879.

DEAR MRS. DODGE, - I have not been able to do anything on the
serial.... But after a week at the seaside, to get braced up for
work, I intend to begin. The Revolutionary tale does not seem to
possess me. I have casually asked many of my young folks, when
they demand a new story, which they would like, one of that sort
or the old "Eight Cousin" style, and they all say the latter. It
would be much the easier to do, as I have a beginning and a plan
all ready, - a village, and the affairs of a party of children. We
have many little romances going on among the Concord boys and
girls, and all sorts of queer things, which will work into "Jack
and Jill" nicely. Mrs. Croly has been anxious for a story, and I
am trying to do a short one, as I told her you had the refusal
of my next serial. I hope you will not be very much disappointed
about the old-time tale. It would take study to do it well, and
leisure is just what I have not got, and I shall never have, I
fear, when writing is to be done. I will send you a few chapters
of "Jack and Jill" when in order, if you like, and you can decide
if they will suit. I shall try to have it unlike the others if
possible, but the dears _will_ cling to the "Little Women" style.

I have had a very busy summer, but have been pretty well, and
able to do my part in entertaining the four hundred philosophers.

Yours truly,
L. M. A.

SEPTEMBER 17 [1879].

DEAR MRS. DODGE, - Don't let me _prose_. If I seem to be declining
and falling into it, pull me up, and I'll try to prance as of
old. Years tame down one's spirit and fancy, though they only
deepen one's love for the little people, and strengthen the
desire to serve them wisely as well as cheerfully. Fathers and
mothers tell me they use my books as helps for themselves; so now
and then I like to slip in a page for them, fresh from the
experience of some other parent, for education seems to me to be
_the_ problem in our times.

Jack and Jill are right out of our own little circle, and the
boys and girls are in a twitter to know what is going in; so it
will be a "truly story" in the main.

Such a long note for a busy woman to read! but your cheery word
was my best "starter;" and I'm, more than ever,

Yours truly,
L. M. A.


MAY ALCOTT NIERIKER.

Born at Concord, July, 1840. Died in Paris, December, 1879.

This younger sister became so dear to Louisa, and through the legacy
which she left to her of an infant child, exercised so great an
influence over the last ten years of her life, that it will not be
uninteresting to trace out the course of her life and the development
of her character. May was born before the experiments at Fruitlands,
and her childhood passed during the period when the fortunes of the
family were at the lowest ebb; but she was too young to feel in all
their fulness the cares which weighed upon the older sisters. Her
oldest sister - the affectionate, practical Anna - almost adopted May as
her own baby, and gave her a great deal of the attention and care
which the mother had not time for amid her numerous avocations. The
child clung to Anna with trust and affection; but with her quick fancy
and lively spirit, she admired the brilliant qualities of Louisa.
Hasty in temperament, quick and impulsive in action, she quarrelled
with Louisa while she adored her, and was impatient with her rebukes,
which yet had great influence over her. She had a more facile nature
than the other sisters, and a natural, girlish love of attention, and
a romantic fondness for beauty in person and style in living. Graceful
in figure and manners, with a fine complexion, blue eyes, and a
profusion of light wavy hair, she was attractive in appearance; and a
childish frankness, and acceptance of sympathy or criticism, disarmed
those who were disposed to find fault with her.

May is very truly described in "Little Women," and her character is
painted with a discerning but loving hand: "A regular snow maiden,
with blue eyes, and yellow hair curling on her shoulders, pale and
slender, and always carrying herself like a young lady mindful of her
manners." Many little touches of description show the consciousness of
appearance and love of admiration which she innocently betrayed, and
illustrate the relation of the sisters: "'Don't stop to quirk your
little finger and prink over your plate, Amy,' cried Jo." Her mother
says of this daughter in her diary: "She does all things well; her
capabilities are much in her eyes and fingers. When a child, I
observed with what ease and grace she did little things."

According to Louisa, "If anybody had asked Amy what the greatest trial
of her life was, she would have answered at once, 'My nose.' No one
minded it but herself, and it was doing its best to grow; but Amy felt
deeply the want of a Grecian nose, and drew whole sheets of handsome
ones to console herself." "Little Raphael," as the sisters called her,
very early developed a love and talent for drawing which became the
delight of her life. She covered her books with sketches, but managed
to escape reprimand by being a model of deportment. Always having in
her mind an ideal of elegant life, the many little trials of their
times of poverty were of course severe mortifications to her; and the
necessity of wearing dresses which came to her from others, and which
were ugly in themselves or out of harmony with her own appearance,
caused her much affliction. She was always generous and easily
reconciled after a quarrel, and was a favorite with her companions,
and the heroine of those innocent little love episodes which, as
Tennyson says, -

"Are but embassies of love
To tamper with the feelings, ere he found
Empire for life."[16]

While May was too young to take the part in the support of the family
which fell to Anna and Louisa, she was yet a blessing and comfort by
her kind, bright nature. After the death of Elizabeth in 1858, her
mother speaks of "turning to the little May for comfort," and her
father's letters show how dear she was to him, although she never
entered into his intellectual life.

May shared in the blessing of Louisa's first success, for she went to
the School of Design in 1859 for the lessons in her art, for which she
longed so eagerly. In 1860 an old friend sent her thirty dollars for
lessons in drawing, and she had the best instruction she could then
receive in Boston.

In 1863, Louisa procured for her the great advantage of study with Dr.
Rimmer, who was then giving his precious lessons in art anatomy in
Boston. Under his instructions, May gave some attention to modelling,
and completed an ideal bust. Although she did not pursue this branch
of art, it was undoubtedly of great service in giving her more
thorough knowledge of the head, and a bolder and firmer style of
drawing than she would have gained in any other way.

As will be seen from Louisa's journal, May was frequently with her in
Boston, engaged in studying or teaching. By the kindness of a friend,


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Online LibraryLouisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott, her life, letters, and journals; → online text (page 20 of 27)