If you're a woman, chances are very good that you revere (if not outright adore) Louisa May Alcott. Not only has Alcott's enduring Little Women been a haven for nearly every girl reader on the planet (indeed, the New York Public Library's holdings include Hebrew and Japanese translations) but the author herself is an inspiration. In the mid-19th century, still most of a decade away from women's suffrage, Alcott made the bold decision to remain single — a spinster — so that she could be free to pursue her writing career.
There's no evidence of a romantic interest in Alcott's life, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Says author Kelly O'Connor McNees, "We knew where she was in July of 1855, and we know where she was in November, but we don't have any record of what took place that summer."
In her novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott (recently released in paperback), McNees set about recreating those unaccounted-for months, the time leading up to when Alcott first lived independently and supported herself with her writing. "Maybe nothing happened, but it seemed like it was a very important summer in her life because from that point she was able to go on and achieve this thing she'd been dreaming about," says McNees.
So Summer is a romance, in a sense. It's set in Walpole, N.H., a tiny town where the Alcott family moveed to take advantage of a house let to them by a relative. The Alcotts were an unconventional family for their time. Patriarch Amos Bronson Alcott was known among his Transcendentalist peers as a progressive thinker. He valued art and charitable work, was an abolitionist and vegan and preferred the piety of pauperism over owning fashionable goods. But Bronson did little to earn money. As a result, his wife and four daughters suffered hard work, hunger and poverty.
Summer introduces the reader to the Alcotts when sisters Anna (Meg in Little Women) and Louisa (Jo) are 24 and 22, respectively. Anna has her heart set on finding a husband — an idea that appalls Louisa so much that, when she meets kind-hearted bachelor Joseph Singer, she can barely tolerate his presence.
So how did McNees make the jump from Alcott fan to speculating on the late author's couched love life?
"As I got older I saw Little Women in different ways and identified with different characters," she says. McNees knew Little Women was based on Louisa's family, but didn't know much about Louisa herself. When McNees picked up a biography of Louisa, she was surprised to learn about all the other things — sensational thrillers written under a pen name, serving as a nurse during the Civil War — that Louisa did beyond writing her children's and YA books. "I couldn't believe no one had written a novel about her."
Which is not to say there haven't been Louisa May Alcott-related books. There are countless adaptations of her popular work, novels in which she stars (a YA mystery series) and in which she plays a minor role (March: A Novel). But none speculating about Louisa’s real-but-undocumented life.
Though Summer is set in Walople, McNees didn't visit the town until her novel was well under way. "I had this picture in my mind of what it was like in 1855 and I was afraid if I went to the present-day Walpole before I finished the draft, it would be confusing," she says. Luckily, there's a wealth of information available, include Louisa's own writing. One of Bronson's eccentricities was insisting his daughters keep a journal each day, a practice which no doubt served Louisa’s career.
And, says McNees, "It's a charming thing about New England that these things don't change that much." Accounts from 1855 about the layout of the town proved much the same, and many historic buildings are preserved. (Louisa fans can visit her family home in Concord, Mass., where she lived after Walpole, and see her room and the tiny desk where she wrote Little Women.)
So, there's a lot about Summer that's fact, including the loneliness that stemmed from Louisa’s decision to remain unmarried. ("Yet there was nothing to be done about him," McNees writes in Summer. "Life was moving on and she approached each day the way she would cope with a rotting front tooth and no dentist nearby. One learned to smile with her lips closed.")
"It's a sad ending, but I don't think it was completely sad because her life was some way enriched by this relationship," McNees says of Louisa. And of course McNees couldn't — however much she may have wanted to — give her heroine a happily ever after. The novel "was constrained because I knew how it had to end so that her life would join back up with historical record.”
But some of the fact is derived from Louisa's own fiction. Joseph, in McNees' novel, takes his cues from Laurie, the ultimately thwarted love interest of Jo in Louisa's novel. McNees says she wanted "to explore, in fiction, the character of Laurie and what experience might have led [Louisa] to write Little Women and end it the way that she did, without Jo and Laurie ending up together. What could have explained that choice?"
Ultimately, Summer can’t completely unravel Alcott's decisions. What McNees can offer her readers is a journey back to a time both much simpler and much more complex, and an opportunity to pass a summer with one of America's best-loved writers. The language, the scenery and the pang of love and loss are so poignant that it's impossible not to be absorbed by the story, even though its ending is already known.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Kelly O’Connor McNees
what: Reading and book signing for paperback edition of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
where: Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe
when: Saturday, June 11 (7 p.m., free. malaprops.com.)