Edited by award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante, a collection of the letters and diaries of Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Abigail—a forward-thinking feminist whose advice and example profoundly shaped her famous daughter
Little Women’s “Marmee” is one of the most recognizable mothers in American literature. But the real woman behind the fiction—Louisa May Alcott’s own mother, Abigail—has for more than a century remained shrouded in mystery. Scholars believed that her papers were burned by her daughter and husband, as they claimed, and that little additional information survived.
Until now. When Abigail’s biographer and great-niece Eve LaPlante found a collection of letters and diaries in an attic trunk and began exploring the Alcott family archives, a window opened onto the life of this woman who has for too long been hiding in plain sight. These discoveries, and others, inform LaPlante’s groundbreaking new dual biography, Marmee & Louisa, a companion volume to My Heart Is Boundless. No self-effacing housewife, Abigail was a passionate writer and thinker, a feminist far ahead of her time. She taught her daughters the importance of supporting themselves and dreamed of a day when a woman, like a man, could enjoy both a family and a career.
Here at last, in her own words, is this extraordinary woman’s story, brought to the public for the first time. Full of wit, charm, and astonishing wisdom, Abigail’s private writings offer a moving, intimate portrait of a mother, a wife, a sister, and a fierce intellect that demands to be heard.
This reading group guide forMy Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Motherincludes 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.
Until now, everyone believed that Abigail May Alcott, the model for “Marmee” in Little Women, left behind no written records because her family burned all her private papers after she died. In fact, hundreds of pages of Abigail’s letters and journals survived, not only in relatives’ attics and friends’ farmhouses but also in university archives, where for more than a century they have been hiding in plain sight. These papers, collected and edited by her great niece Eve LaPlante, reveal the inner life of “a witty…captivating writer” (Publishers Weekly ) whose “moral conviction and strong character kept her engaged in social issues” (Kirkus Reviews). Abigail May Alcott, one of America’s earliest abolitionists, suffragists, and social workers, was truly a woman for our time.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Abigail May Alcott had dreams familiar to many women today. She desired an education, power and independence, and a voice in the world. In what ways did she succeed in realizing these goals, in her own life and vicariously through her daughters?
2. Describing her three-year-old daughter Louisa May Alcott in an 1836 letter, Abigail wrote that “Louisa’s father was eating a piece of gingerbread. She wanted a piece of his (having finished her own). He told her she could not have any more until afternoon, she must wait patiently. Do you know what patience is? said he. Yes, said Louisa, it means wait for gingerbread. I could not do better than that myself!” How does this reveal the characters of this mother and daughter?
3. In 1854, twenty-two-year-old Louisa May Alcott called Abigail “My earliest patron, gentlest critic, [and] dearest reader.” Why did she describe her mother this way, and how does it illuminate their relationship?
4. In her private writings, Abigail expressed strong opinions about motherhood and domestic life. Discuss such comments as: “I feel like a noble horse harnessed in a yoke, and made to drag and pull instead of trot and canter” “I am so weary that I take my baby and turn my back to the window and annihilate for the time being everything but my husband, children, cooking stove, workbasket, and the Dial. I have got into such a mill trot that if anybody should ask me the way to Boston I should say it was in the oven, or if I had read the last Liberator I should reply it wanted darning” “What a volume could be written on the Heroines of private life!” and “The claims of my children keep me from despair.”
5. There is a curious quote in Abigail’s October 1849 “Report as Visitor to the Poor” of Boston: “I hope a sewing-machine will never be invented.” Why did she feel this way? 6. Abigail had a biting wit, as displayed, for instance, in these quotes: “In this world of folly and fashion, a man’s hat is the most essential part of his head” and “I wish women displayed more brains and less jewelry.” What does her humor tell us about her, and how is it reflected in her daughter Louisa’s life and work?
7. Until the publication of My Heart Is Boundless, Abigail was ignored as a writer and thinker, while her husband’s and daughter’s journals and letters were published and widely discussed. Why was she so long neglected?
8. Abigail reported to her brother, “I say to all the dear girls, keep up, be something in yourself. Let the world feel at some stage of its diurnal revolution that you are on its surface, alive!” Why was it so important to her to encourage girls in this way?
9. Do you agree with Alcott biographer Madelon Bedell that Abigail was “in some ways…a better writer than her more famous daughter”?
10. How does the story of this nineteenth-century woman resonate for you as a modern reader? In what ways can you identify with Abigail May Alcott? Do you face any of the challenges she faced?
“[A] revealing collection… Abigail’s diaries and letters disclose an intelligent, self-sacrificing, tender woman whose moral conviction and strong character kept her engaged in social issues… A compelling documentary portrait of the real Marmee, whose life provided the impetus for Little Women and who emerges here as a noteworthy woman in her own right.”
“Fascinating... This thoroughly engaging collection of Abigail May Alcott’s warm and lively writings... shows her to be a witty, eloquent, thoughtful, and captivating writer... Her desire to provide work and just wages for the poor... ring[s] a startlingly contemporary bell. Though one could certainly read this volume on its own, LaPlante’s companion biography, Marmee & Louisa, will undoubtedly help to fill in gaps... One hopes that further volumes of [Abigail’s] extant work might one day be released to shed even further light on this remarkable woman.”
– Publishers Weekly
“Eye-opening and vibrant. . . .Abigail is resilient, loyal, ‘theatrical, poignant, passionate, and often satirical,’ devoted to liberty and Louisa’s literary efforts. Sleuth and scholar LaPlante has immeasurably enriched American letters by reclaiming ‘an American writer and thinker who has for too long been ignored.”
“Vibrant... Many of [Abigail’s] reflections and worries and prayers ring as sonorously today as when Abigail wrote them nearly two centuries ago: how to find one’s voice, how to live true to one’s ideals, how to engage with life’s problems... and how to raise the next generation.”
– The Seattle Times
“Abigail was a tart observer, especially of gender inequalities... Throughout her journals, Abigail is charmingly blunt, confessing, among other things, her ‘disrelish of cooking’ and her ‘enjoyment’ of her separations from her husband.”