Writer’s Diaries Part VI: Louisa May Alcott’s Secret Desires

 

  

Like the March girls in Little Women, Louisa Alcott seems to have so internalised her father’s demand for self-scrutiny, that by the time she began a regular journal at the age of eleven, listing her sins was an everyday event:

 September 24th [1845] I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart.  If only I kept all I make I should be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so I am very bad. 

 October 8th [1845]

I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day. (Journals 45-6)

In some sense, the wishes Alcott listed on this day are the same ones she repeats in her journal for the rest of her life: to be rich, to be good, and for her family to be happy (often in that order). A year later, she lists the virtues she most needs (Patience, Obedience, Industry […] Silence, Perseverance, Self-denial) and the vices of which she must rid herself (Idleness, Impatience, Selfishness, Wilfulness  […] Love of cats).  Despite her desire for greater patience, Alcott’s impatience and anger are clearly expressed in an entry recorded soon after: ‘More people coming to live with us.  I wish we could be together and no one else.  I don’t see who is to feed and clothe us all when we are so poor now.’  

By the time Louisa was thirteen the family were in better surroundings and she noted:

I have at last got the little room I have wanted so long, and am very happy about it.  It does me good to be alone […] I can run off into the woods when I like. […] I am going to be good. I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins and it doesn’t seem to do any good! (59).

 Throughout her journals Alcott negotiates her private desires and public duties in this way. At eighteen, for example, when she was working as a teacher, Alcott noted that she longed for the solitude she had enjoyed so briefly atHillside.

 School is hard work, and I feel as though I should like to run away from it. […]I think a little solitude everyday is good for me. In the quiet, I see my own faults, and try to mend them.

 In this same entry, Alcott hints at another thing she enjoys: ‘Reading Miss Bremer and Hawthorne.  The Scarlet Letter is my favourite. […]I fancy ‘lurid’ things, if strong and true also’ (63). Louisa’s ‘fancy’ for such things soon found voice in sensation stories in which women use their wiles and acting talents to outwit the surveillance of a patriarchal society. By creating passionate and powerful women in the thriller tales she published under her pseudonym,  such as Sybill Varna in ‘Taming a Tartar’ and Jean Muir in ‘Behind the Mask: or, A Woman’s Power,’ Alcott did more than escape her father’s watchful eye. In such stories Alcott satirized idealised images of still and silent women by portraying such docility as a subterfuge disguising moral corruption.         

Such secretly written stories give evidence of Alcott’s need to critique and escape from her father’s surveillance, and the value Alcott placed on her solitude throughout her life is noted on page after page of the journal.  She was happiest  ‘in the garret with my papers round me, and a pile of apples to eat while I write in my journal, plan stories, and enjoy the patter of rain on the roof in peace and quiet.’ ‘I love luxury, but freedom and independence better,’ she wrote. So important to Alcott was her privacy that she shunned not only her numerous fans—but love affairs of any kind.  As she reflected in her journal ‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe’ a sentence with which many a later feminist would sympathise!

 

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