On Authors’ Ridge at Sleepy Hollow


Louisa May AlcottOn Saturday we were back in Concord MA and made the pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow cemetery. We passed through the Authors’ Gate, climbed up to Authors’ Ridge and went looking for the Alcott graves. It was nearly 6pm and we had the place to ourselves so it felt all the more special to stand a while at the resting place of Louisa and her Little Women.

Other famous writers buried on the ridge are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau and Emerson, contemporaries and neighbours of the Alcotts.

Other Little Women posts:



Jo & Amy & Me

Confession: when I first read Little Women I didn’t identify with Jo March. I loved and admired her and wanted to be like her but I knew I wasn’t and never would be, Jo.


No. I was Amy.

The petted youngest child, the one who hates to exercise, who complains about chores, the hedonist, the artist. I could never admit this, of course. Jo and Amy have a fractious relationship; Jo is impatient, often contemptuous of her youngest sister. Of all the March sisters (as I read it) Amy is the least. Vain, vacuous, self-centred. Worst of all, she appears to give up her ambition to be an artist when she marries Laurie, relegating her painting to hobby status. How could I admit to identifying with Amy? At least I was dark, like Jo.

But when we visited the Alcott house recently, I saw that May Alcott, the sister on whom Amy is based, is everywhere. The walls are covered in her drawings and paintings, sometimes literally, as her parents encouraged her to work directly onto the walls when she ran out of paper. In her bedroom and throughout the house you can trace her development from exploring child artist to accomplished adult. Delicate figures from antiquity adorn the frames of her windows; a scene plays out on the bottom of a door.

May painted a charming owl on the fireplace in Louisa’s room as Louisa lay recuperating from typoid contracted while nursing injured Civil War soldiers. The painting was an attempt to cheer up her sister. Louisa (like Jo) was famously active, occasionally walk-running all the way from Concord to Boston (26 miles) so she must have found the enforced bedrest excruciating. May also painted a lovely lily frieze on the window frame beside Louisa’s writing desk.

Louisa and May seem to have had a complicated relationship but Louisa’s genuine affection for May is surely best shown by her using her writing earnings to send May on three trips to Europe so she could formally study painting and sculpture.

I was so thrilled and relieved to discover that May was a serious and talented artist (though I have to admit her illustrations for the first edition of Little Women suck). She worked hard, studied, and achieved. One of her still life paintings was accept by the Paris Salon and hung at eye level – prime positioning saved for the best paintings. The art critic Ruskin considered her to be one of the finest copyists of Turner. She taught painting and sculpture at the Orchard House. Our guide told us that one of her students was a local boy whose exasperated parents sent him to May because he kept carving up their turnip crop. The boy grew up to design the famous Washington Monument Lincoln.

May married at 37. Her husband was 22 (go, May!) and they settled in Paris. She was determined to prove that a woman could be married, a mother, and also an artist. Unfortunately she died shortly after giving birth to her first child, but, oh, how I love her for her ambition! I can now embrace my inner Amy March with pride.


And just as Louisa’s nurturing of her sister’s talent shows real love and respect, May returned that love. She named her daughter Louisa and as she lay dying she asked that the infant Lulu be sent across the Atlantic to be brought up by Louisa.

To see some of May’s (Abigail May Alcott Nieriker) paintings, click here

If you are near Concord MA on your travels, be sure to visit the Alcott House (times/days). All above information was provided by the excellent guide during our tour. They allow you plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere.

At Home with Jo March

DSCF4539The Alcott house in Concord is a few blocks from a friend’s home and we’ve driven past it at least once a year for eight years now but always got our timing wrong. It’s been closed for repairs or just about to shut for the day – I made it as far as the gift shop once. This visit we finally got inside. They don’t allow photography so I offer instead glimpses through windows.

The March family – Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – were based on the Alcotts – Marmee, Ann, Louisa, Lizzie and May. Apparently Louisa was already twenty-six when the family moved to Orchard House but she used it as the setting for Little Women. She figured it would be too confusing for readers if the March family moved about as the Alcott family had – they had lived in over twenty houses.

The interior of the house felt wonderfully familiar to me. Between the books and films it was impossible not to see the March/Alcott girls doing chores in the small kitchen and staging Jo/Louisa’s plays in the dining-room/parlour.

DSCF4530Beth/Lizzie’s pianoforte stands just below the back stairs, though Lizzie never lived in this house, having died after a bout of Scarlet Fever, as Beth does in Little Women.

Marmee’s china sits in the cabinet, Amy/May’s paintings adorn the walls. There is the window beside which Meg/Ann married John.


There is the mood cushion, a red rectangle, used as a signal to the family that Louisa was in good humour (cushion upright) or bad (cushion flat). Did Jo have a mood cushion? I certainly remember her quick temper and her struggles to control it. The paper membership badges of the Pickwick Club are in a case on the sideboard.

And upstairs, in Amy/May’s bedroom, there is the trunk of clothes the sisters used for their theatricals, and there is the bedroom where Louisa wrote Little Women/Good Wives, on the table her father fashioned for her. The room is full of drawings, paintings and statues of owls – Louisa’s favourite animal.


Listening to our guide as we walked around the house the Alcott parents come across as dramatically ahead of their time. Marmee was one of the first paid social workers in Massachusetts. One of Amos Bronson Alcott’s many schools closed down when he attempted to enrol an African American child and his other students were all withdrawn. The Alcotts were part of the Transcendentalist movement, along with their neighbours Thoreau, Emmerson and Hawthorne. They encouraged Louisa to write in a time when writing was viewed as man’s work/unsuitable for a woman; they encouraged May to draw, paint and sculpt. They tried to be self-sufficient and grow all their own food. Biggest little surprise of all? The family were vegetarians.

If you are near Concord MA on your travels, be sure to visit the Alcott House (times/days). All above information was provided by the excellent guide on our tour. They allow you plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere.