“Little Women” Author Louisa May Alcott on the Creative Rewards of Being Single
By Maria Popova
“Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate escape it?” wondered Julian Hawthorne about his childhood friend Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832–March 6, 1888).
When the first part of Little Women was published in 1868 to a wildly enthusiastic reception and the fate of her heroine became the subject of public opinion, Louisa railed against the pressure for conformity to convention:
Publishers won’t let authors finish up as they like but insist on having people married off in a wholesale manner which much afflicts me.
Defiantly, she vowed:
I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.
It was a refusal rooted in her own experience.
Having grown up as a tomboy, having picked up the pen as her instrument of self-possession while still a child, Louisa felt that she had been “born with a boy’s nature,” that she lived her life “with a boy’s spirit” and faced her challenges with “a boy’s wrath.” Perhaps we can take the ahistorical liberty and consider her trans — who knows: no one can speak for anyone else, nor can any present apply its hard-earned standards to an unrecognizably different past. Or perhaps, as was often the case for talented and driven women in those differently gendered times (including for Emily Dickinson), the invocation of maleness was an invocation of a cultural identity rather than a personal one, of the freedoms only available to men at a time when women could not vote, had no access to higher education, and the vast majority of published authors were male — an expression of Louisa’s free spirit and her absolute devotion to writing.
One thing is clear from Louisa May Alcott’s surviving letters: Her great love affair was literature. She wrote rigorously, passionately, often falling under spells of mania inherited from her father, refusing to eat or sleep for days on end while working on a story or a novel.
I am so full of my work I can’t stop to eat or sleep, or for anything but a daily run.
Despite her singleminded focus, Louisa was not without suitors, but they failed to compete with her calling. She dismissed one as “too blew” and “too prewdent” for her. “I should shock him constantly,” she augured. To another, she simply wrote:
I have decided it be best for me not to accept your proposal.
L. M. Alcott.
When her sister Anna got married to a young man named John, Louisa playfully lambasted the sweet delusions of love. In a letter penned in the summer of her twenty-eighth year and cited in the altogether wonderful illustrated biography Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott (public library), she writes:
Annie is making us a visit and is as blithe a bride as one need wish to see. The world is composed of John and John is composed of all the virtues ever known, which amiable delusion I admire and wonder at from the darkness of my benighted spinsterhood. Abby lives for her crayons and dancing, father for his garden, mother for the world in general and I for my pens and ink.
She weighs the rewards of married life against the rewards of the creative life she had chosen, concluding:
Very sweet and pretty; but I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.
Setting her characteristic facetiousness aside, she draws an uncompromising conclusion:
Liberty is a better husband than love.
Complement with Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, sex, and creativity and Keats on the creative fertility of singledom, then revisit Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage.
Published July 18, 2023