Although Louisa May Alcott is best known for her beloved novel, Little Women, Harriet Reisen’s biography “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women” reminds us how vast Alcott’s body of work is and offers a sometimes-surprising portrait of the author. Who knew that Alcott wrote semi-erotic stories to pay the bills or that she was at one time a successful stage actress?
Raised by Bronson, an intellectual father who ultimately failed to provide for his family and Abigail May, a woman who ignored her distinguished roots to marry for love, Louisa May Alcott grew to become the strong provider the family needed. In The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen reveals erratic Bohemian roots that seem an unlikely conduit to success for Louisa. At one point, the family lived in the schoolhouse where Bronson taught. On other occasions, they were housed at the generosity of good friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Abigail’s brother, Sam, who was in charge of the May family finances. The Alcotts also created and lived in a cooperative community they called Fruitlands for a time which Louisa later chronicled in her book, Transcendental Wild Oats. At Fruitlands, there was little structure other than a myriad of daily chores and personal care-giving undertaken by Abigail. She eventually became tired of this, as well as her husband’s close relationship with another leader of the community, Mr. Lane, and announced she was leaving – with the children. At that point, Bronson gave in and the family ended up in Concord.