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.