Marmee & Louisa

The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother

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About The Book

Louisa May Alcott was one of the most successful and bestselling authors of her day, earning more than any of her male contemporaries. Her classic Little Women has been a mainstay of American literature since its release nearly 150 years ago, as Jo March and her calm, beloved “Marmee” have shaped and inspired generations of young women. Biographers have consistently attributed Louisa’s uncommon success to her father, Bronson Alcott, assuming that this outspoken idealist was the source of his daughter’s progressive thinking and remarkable independence.

But in this riveting dual biography, award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante explodes these myths, drawing from a trove of surprising new documents to show that it was Louisa’s actual “Marmee,” Abigail May Alcott, who formed the intellectual and emotional center of her world. Abigail, whose difficult life both inspired and served as a warning to her devoted daughters, pushed Louisa to excel at writing and to chase her unconventional dreams in a male-dominated world.

In Marmee & Louisa, LaPlante, Abigail’s great-niece and Louisa’s cousin, re-creates their shared story from diaries, letters, and personal papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and many others that were thought to have been destroyed. Here at last Abigail is revealed in her full complexity—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure, she comes to life as a fascinating writer and thinker in her own right. A politically active feminist firebrand, she was a highly opinionated, passionate, ambitious woman who fought for universal civil rights, publicly advocating for abolition, women’s suffrage, and other defin-ing moral struggles of her era.

In this groundbreaking work, LaPlante paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of a woman decades ahead of her time, and the fiercely independent daughter whose life was deeply entwined with her mother’s dreams of freedom. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women is guaranteed to transform our view of one of America’s most beloved authors.

Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Hailed by NPR as one of the best books of the year, Marmee & Louisa paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, the real “Marmee.” In this dual biography award-winning author Eve LaPlante mines the Alcotts’ intimate diaries and other private papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and others thought to have been destroyed, to resuscitate this remarkable mother and daughter. Abigail May Alcott—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure—comes to life in Marmee & Louisa as a gifted writer and thinker. An activist feminist firebrand, she fought for universal civil rights, an end to slavery, and female suffrage. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women transforms our view and deepens our understanding of one of America’s most beloved authors.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Having read Marmee & Louisa, do you believe that the March family created by Louisa in Little Women was in fact autobiographical? If so, in what ways? Who was the model for Mr. March, a character unlike Louisa’s actual father? Is “Marmee,” the mother in the novel, an accurate portrayal of Abigail?
 
2. Why was the adult Louisa, despite her extraordinary success as an entrepreneur and writer, never really able to separate from her first family?
 
3. The real-life Marmee, unlike the homely retiring housewife we tend to envision, was a strong and complex person with dreams familiar to women today. From girlhood Abigail desired things she could not have: an education, public power, and a voice in the world. How did she succeed realizing her goals, both in her own life and also vicariously, through her daughters?
 
4. Abigail was Louisa’s mentor, muse, and inspiration. Not only did she encourage Louisa to write from an early age, but also she provided material for Louisa’s fiction. She encouraged her daughter to read her private journals, which contained detailed descriptions of Abigail’s marital troubles, dreams, and frustrations. Discuss the ways in which aspects of Abigail’s inner life reappear in Louisa’s adult novel, sensational stories, and juvenile fiction.
 
5. The Alcott family biographer Madelon Bedell claimed that Abigail was “in some ways… a better writer than her more famous daughter.” Do you agree?
 
6. Considering both Marmee & Louisa and its companion volume, My Heart Is Boundless: Writing of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, compare the writing styles of Abigail and Louisa.
 
7. Based on their writings, what sort of women were Abigail and Louisa? Consider their differences and similarities.
 
8. It seems incredible that Abigail has so long been ignored. Her husband’s and daughter’s journals and letters have been in print for generations, but Abigail’s papers are only now being published and discussed, even though hundreds of pages of them existed in university archives. How do you explain this long neglect of Abigail?
 
9. How do the stories of these nineteenth-century women, Abigail and Louisa, resonate for you as a modern reader? In what ways can you identify with one or both of them? In what ways do you face the same challenges the Alcott women faced?
About The Author
Photograph by David M. Dorfman

Eve LaPlante is a great niece and a first cousin of Abigail and Louisa May Alcott. She is the author of Seized, American Jezebel, and Salem Witch Judge, which won the 2008 Massachusetts Book Award for Nonfiction. She is also the editor of My Heart Is Boundless the first collection of Abigail May Alcott’s private papers. She lives with her family in New England.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Free Press (November 2012)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451620689

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Raves and Reviews

“[An] involving mother-daughter portrait…and a fresh perspective on Louisa….Louisa’s unconventional father, Bronson, has received far more attention than his long-suffering, feminist wife...Her own dreams cruelly thwarted, Abigail brilliantly nurtured Louisa’s literary genius. Although bitter ironies mark each woman’s story, vividly set within the social upheavals of the Civil War era, their profound love, intellect, and courage shine.”

– Booklist, starred review

“In this meticulously researched look at Louisa May Alcott and her mother, LaPlante shatters myths about the supposed passive Marmee, replacing them with a portrait of a woman who fought for a woman's right to education, professional and maternal satisfaction, and power.”

– People Magazine

A November 2012 Indie Next Great Read (American Booksellers Association)

“Engrossing... LaPlante, a descendant of the Alcotts, pursued this untold story after discovering forgotten journals and letters in an attic trunk. In her skilled hands these documents yield Abigail unabridged: a thinker, writer, activist, wife and mother who held fast to her convictions in the face of terrible suffering...[T]his is a biography of Louisa, too, and LaPlante makes a compelling case that it was Abigail, not Bronson, who encouraged Louisa not only to channel her considerable energy through writing, but also to pursue publication and to weather the censorship that female writers faced...In bringing to life the woman who made Louisa May Alcott’s work possible, LaPlante shows us that there’s even more to admire in the real Abigail than in the fictional Marmee."

– The Washington Post

“This revealing biography... will forever change how we view the characters and their relationships in Louisa’s novels... Through LaPlante’s book we see how Louisa drew heavily from Abigail's life experiences in her own writings.... Alcott fans who revel in LaPlante’s biography can read to the very last page and then turn to a bonus... companion volume, MY HEART IS BOUNDLESS, writings of Abigail May Alcott.”

– USA Today

“A revelatory dual biography... LaPlante makes a convincing case that Abigail’s doggedly pragmatic responses to the intertwined and ongoing catastrophes of Bronson’s inconsistent emotional involvement and the family finances left an indelible impression on Louisa, who vowed from an early age to take care of her mother... [D]emonstrates that Abigail’s daughters were her dreams made manifest.”

– The Seattle Times

“A romance... The eye-opener of Eve LaPlante’s marvelous new dual biography...is that Abigail was every inch the social philosopher that Bronson was when it came to issues of abolition and women's rights.... Marmee & Louisa charts Abigail’s relatively unacknowledged influence as a progressive thinker on her famous daughter Louisa.... When Louisa began to write Little Women... she drew material from her mother's approximately 20 volumes of diaries. Until Abigail's death...she was her daughter's closest confidant and biggest booster.”

– Maureen Corrigan, NPR "Fresh Air"

“Until recently, most scholarship has glossed over Abigail’s influence on Louisa’s writing, focusing instead on the role of Louisa’s father, who was often absent. Drawing on newly discovered letters and diary entries, this fascinating dual biography corrects the record by revealing the enormously close bond that was shared by mother and daughter,...showing that Abigail was Louisa’s most important intellectual mentor.”

– BUST (five stars)

“Convincingly argue[d]... Of interest to anyone who enjoys mother/daughter stories, American history, or literary studies… In the winter season, when many of us will cue our DVD players to the opening scene of LITTLE WOMEN, Marmee & Louisa is well worth a read.”

– Bookpage

“[Marmee & Louisa] shows just how much iconic children’s author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) “was her mother’s daughter”… previously undiscovered family papers and untapped pages from Abigail’s dairies … provide new evidence exposing her undeniable influence on her daughter … Fresh material gives flesh to the formerly invisible Abigail, revealing how she and her famous daughter mirrored one another … Thoroughly researched and moving.”

– Kirkus

“LaPlante sheds light on Abigail May Alcott… [who] is shown to have been a remarkable intellect and a progressive who played a primary role in Louisa’s life. LaPlante pays meticulous attention to primary sources, delving into the surviving diaries of mother and daughter. This heavily researched double biography serves as a kind of twin to John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts. Nineteenth-century New England literature buffs and Alcott aficionados will appreciate this well-wrought study.”

– Library Journal

“‘Let the world know you are alive!’ Abigail Alcott counseled her daughter, who amply did, having inherited her mother’s spirit and frustrations, diaries and work ethic. Along the way Louisa May Alcott immortalized the woman in whose debt she understood herself to be and who ultimately died in her arms; Eve LaPlante beautifully resurrects her here. A most original love story, taut and tender.”

– Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author of Cleopatra: A Life

“Eve LaPlante’s Marmee & Louisa is a heartwarming and thoroughly researched story of family interdependence very much in the style of Louisa’s own unforgettable Little Women. No other biographer has examined so thoughtfully and with such compassion the mother-daughter relationship that supported both women through decades of adversity and brought a great American novel into being.”

– Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism andMargaret Fuller: A New American Life

“This is an important book about an important relationship. Writing engagingly and with precision, Eve LaPlante sheds new light on the Alcott story, a story that is in some ways the story of America.”

– Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

“‘Reason and religion are emancipating woman from that intellectual thralldom that has so long held her captive.’ That was the dearest hope of Louisa May Alcott's mother Abigail, who was a writer herself and juggled work and family in ways that will be strikingly familiar to many contemporary readers. Marmee & Louisa is the engrossing story of a vibrant, talented woman whose life and influence on her famous daughter has, until now, been erased.”

– Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

“It’s hard to imagine that anything new could be said about the life of Louisa May Alcott, one of America’s most beloved authors. Yet as a great-niece of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother, Eve LaPlante isn’t just any biographer. Her new book, MARMEE & LOUISA, is…an intimate portrait of mother and daughter, showing how their lives were profoundly intertwined in ways that some biographers have underplayed or ignored altogether... LaPlante chronicles the intense attachment between Abigail and Louisa…. [A] fascinating story of two visionary women…”

– The Boston Globe

“Compelling... LaPlante admirably seeks to paint a fuller picture of Abigail and her role in Louisa's life....[and] allows her protagonists to speak for themselves.”

– Publishers Weekly

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