The Real Story Of Little Women, The Four Alcott Sisters

Little Women is a classic tale of four sisters in the midst of the Civil War. But lesser-known is that the story is a partial autobiography of its author Louisa May Alcott. The Alcott family was even more fascinating than the book conveys. Their parents were way ahead of their time. Their father was a first-wave feminist and their mother was the breadwinner of the family. They also ran in the same circle as big names like Henry David Thoreau. But perhaps most surprising is that the story we all know and love, Louisa never even wanted to write. Read on to find out why she wrote it anyways.

Their Father Was A Dreamer

Amos Bronson Alcott wears a heavy overcoat and a tophat while posting for a portrait in 1882.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In order to understand the women whom Little Women was based on, it is important to understand who these ladies were raised by. Their father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was born on November 29, 1799, in Connecticut. He attained little formal education but was a self-taught romantic. As a teenager, he left his home to be a traveling salesman, specifically a Yankee peddler.

When life as a salesman didn’t work out, he turned to teaching. While Alcott remained a poor money-handler for the remainder of his life, he was passionate and idealistic. He was an abolitionist, a vegan, and an advocate for women’s rights.

Their Mother Was One of the First Paid Social Workers

Middled-aged Abba Alcott fixes her eyes off center in an oval sketch done of her chestup.
Patrick Murfin/ Blogspot
Patrick Murfin/ Blogspot

It is not hard to see why the sisters’ mother, Abigail Alcott, was attracted to a reformer with a tame approach at the turn of the 19th century. Though Abigail was born into wealth and prestige, while Bronson could hardly hold on to his coin purse, his high-level ideals increased his worth.

The daughter of a prominent New England family, Abigail, known as Abba, was equally passionate about activism and social justice. In fact, she became one of the first paid social workers in Massachusetts. While she did not attend much formal schooling, she was tutored in history, science, and language.

Together, Their Parents Could Transcend The World

Amos is sketched lecturing in front of a large body of students and professors at Concord School of Philosophy
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Amos and Abba married in 1830, and the two became one of the oldest power couples to have resided on American soil. Abba’s background made her the more practical of the two, while Amos’s passion assured that they never let their beliefs in social justice subside.

Like his career as a salesman, Amos’s schools failed. Not only did Amos admit an African-American student to his school in Boston, but he also had a conversational, student-focused way of teaching that was too forward-thinking for his time. Nevertheless, the two remained a solid couple, immersing themselves together in the world of Transcendentalism.

His Big Idea Went Bust

Still standing and preserved, the fruitlands farmhouse is a historical landmark.
mlayton/Blogspot
mlayton/Blogspot

One of the ways in which the ideal-minded Amos decided to put his ideals to the test was by moving his wife and four daughters to Harvard, Massachusetts. There, he created a utopian commune called Fruitlands. As the name implies, the space delivered a vegetarian diet, and on top of that Amos refused to use animals to work the land.

All products were derived from slave labor, and the difficult farming land caused the family to nearly starve. Bronson had no experience as a farmer, and the commune lasted only eight months before being a complete failure.

This Is The House The Story Takes Place In

The Alcott family's wooden Orchard House is pictured in balck and white, surrounded by trees and a fence.
Getty Images
Getty Images

The family moved back to Concord, Massachusetts and resided in the Orchard House, the setting of Little Women. Though Amos remained devoted to his causes towards abolitionism and Transcendentalism, his work as an advocate did not pay the bills.

In order to pick up the slack, Abba became a professional social worker. Additionally, their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and Abigail May, were domestic servants, teachers, and governesses to financially support the household. Louisa was particularly critical of her father’s inability to support them and wrote a satire of their failed history with Fruitlands.

The Oldest Little Woman Wanted To Be A Star

An old Alcott family photobook is held open to reveal a portrait of John Bridge Pratt facing a separate portrait of Anna Alcott Pratt.
Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Meg March of Little Women is identifiable by being the oldest of the four sisters, and the most domestic-minded. The character is based on author Louise’s only big sister, Anna Alcott. Anna and Louisa created and performed theatrical shows for their friends, and Anna was known to be a talented actor.

Like a true thespian, Anna went on to marry her costar, John Bridge Pratt, while in the play “The Loan of a Lover.” She wrote in her diary about the qualms of choosing married life over her career saying, “I have a foolish wish to be something great and I shall probably spend my life in a kitchen and die in a poor-house.”

The Pain Of Losing A Sister Is Real

A painting of young Beth portrays her hundled in the coat closet, missing her mother.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Louise used the second half of her younger sister’s name, Elizabeth, to create the sweet character of Beth in Little Women. In actuality, Elizabeth was referred to by her family as Lizzie. Unfortunately, due to her untimely death at the age of twenty-two, little is known about Elizabeth’s personal life.

It is clear in Louisa’s personal journal entry that, as is suggested in the novel, Lizzie was adored by her older sister. Louisa writes that her younger sister, “breath[ed] her life away till three; then, with one last look of her beautiful eyes, she was gone.” She used the term “patient pain” to describe scarlet fever that took her tranquil sister’s life.

The Youngest Was The Most Fortunate

All four Alcott sisters are painted together, with little May leaning her head in her hand in the background.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

The youngest of the Alcott sisters, Abigail May, was more commonly referred to as May. Louisa used the anagram, Amy, to create the youngest of the Little Women. Like her older sister, Louisa, May went on to be renowned for her works. By the time Louisa had found success as a writer, she was able to help her younger sister get the education she needed to pursue her craft.

Like the character Amy, May was happiest when she was creating illustrations. In 1859 she went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She also studied at the Academie Julian in Paris in 1870.

Amy’s Character Helped Real-Life Version May

A black and white sketch done by May shows her sister Beth leaned into the lap of Louisa on the beach.
Getty Images
Getty Images

The success of Louisa’s book Little Women is what afforded May to study in Europe, not only in Paris but also in London and Rome, throughout the 1870s. While Louisa had a deep bond with her younger sister, a bit of resentment may have fueled her rather self-centered depiction of Amy in the novel.

However, May used her power of art for good, fighting the notion that females were inferior artists and securing her spot as a “New Woman” in 19th century art. In 1877 one of her paintings was displayed in the Paris Salon, gaining her the notoriety she needed to help other female artists.

Life Was Harder Than She Wrote It To Be

Louisa offers a small grin in this portrait from 1870.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Though Louisa was one of the most talented and successful members in her family, as is apparent in her self-inspired character Jo, it came with far more adversity than the story conveys. On top of working to no end to support her family, Louisa suffered from poor health conditions.

In 1862, while she was a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, she became a nurse in Union Hospital at Georgetown to aid the Civil War. After only six weeks she contracted typhoid. Additionally, photographs that reveal a rash on her face suggest she may have had an autoimmune disorder.

The Author Was Trained By These Greats

Louisa wears a thick, ruffled gown while reading at a desk.
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Getty Images

Louisa Alcott grew up amongst many famous intellectuals, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both from whom she received instruction. Henry David Thoreau provided some of her early education, and their experiences together inspired her story Thoreau’s Flute.

She published a collection of short stories, Flower Fables, that had been initially written for Ellen Emerson, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. During the Underground Railroad, the Alcott family also had discussions with Frederick Douglas, who fueled Louisa’s interest in civil rights and eventually women’s rights. She became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

She Had Little Interest In Little Women

A color portrait of Louisa depicts the young lady looking directly at the artist.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Louisa desired to write serious, adult novels. In the mid-1860s, she began to use the pseudonym A. M. Bernard to publish stories like A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. Unfortunately, these passionate stories did not supply the sort of income that Louisa desperately needed.

In 1868, Louisa’s publisher convinced her to write a story that would inspire young girls. This shift in her career was met with personal dismay. Louisa wrote in her journal, “I plod away although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

Her Success Was Bittersweet

A color drawing shows Louisa seated and reading Little Women to a sea of children who surround her.
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Getty Images

Despite her protests, Louisa produced her semi-autobiography Little Women in 1868, and the story was a hit. The novel follows the lives of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as they navigate through childhood circa the Civil War era. The public loved it so much that Louisa went on to write its sequel, Good Wives, the very next year, which followed the beloved characters into adulthood.

Her success with novels for girls created a public image of an author of children’s stories. Though she was admired, by attaching Louisa to children’s literature, the public further disabled her adult stories from becoming successful.

Little Women Supports Women

A colored sketch shows Louisa with grey hair and a straight-face
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Ironically, Little Women was well-received by critics as a novel suitable for all ages. Despite the book’s acclaim, Louisa remained deterred by her health. By the time she finally achieved the prestige she’d always sought, she could not enjoy it. While she attributed her illness to mercury poisoning from her treatment for typhoid fever, modern analysts believe she was plagued by an autoimmune disease.

Louisa, among Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, and other female authors, was a part of the Gilded Age writers who addressed women’s issues frankly. She also helped found the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston in 1877.

The Alcott Family Moved Here After Their Famous Orchard Home

A large, yellow wood house is photographed, showing the house where the Alcott family lived at the end of their lives.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Towards the end of his life, Amos Alcott moved in with his daughter Louisa, who was his caretaker in his final years. Louisa had purchased a house for her sister Anna, known as the Thoreau-Alcott House, and moved in with their father. The same year that Little Women was published, Amos published his first novel, Tablets, and his writing continued into his final days.

The sisters’ mother, Abigail (Abba) Alcott died prior to her husband, on November 25, 1877. Her death depressed Amos so much that he could not enter the Orchard House again. Fortunately, he and Louisa were incredibly close until the end.

Louisa Was The Closest To Their Father

An illustration for Little Women shows and older man holding the hand of a younger girl, while looking at her with concern.
Getty Images
Getty Images

While bedridden, Amos told his daughter Louisa, “I am going up. Come with me.” She replied, “I wish I could.” Three days after his prediction, Amos Alcott died on March 4, 1888. Louisa died two days later. Her last words were, “Is it not meningitis?”

Even in her final days, Louisa was an advocate for breaking social norms. She was a runner up until her death and encouraged her female readers to run, too. In 1996 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The Youngest Didn’t Outlive Her Big Sisters

A still-phrame reveals Elizabeth Taylor in her portrayal of Amy in the 1949 rendition of Little Women
Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Abigail May, known as Amy in Little Women, died before both of her oldest sisters. After her long and successful career as a painter, she gave birth to a daughter in Paris in 1879. She named her daughter after her sister, the Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, in honor of all of the help Louisa provided for May over the years.

Sadly, May passed only seven weeks after the birth of her daughter, Louisa “Lulu” May. Louisa May Alcott cared for the barer of her namesake until Lulu was eight and Louisa died. Lulu’s father assumed responsibility for the remainder of her upbringing.

The Oldest Was The Last To Be Reunited With Her Family

A still-phrame reveals Frances Dee portraying Meg in the 1933 film version of Little Women
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anna Alcott, the inspiration behind eldest sister Meg, moved into the Thoreau-Pratt House in 1877, seven years after the unexpected death of her husband, John Bridge Pratt in 1870. After her years of domesticity, Anna remained a vital part of the Alcott family.

She helped care for their father, Amos, alongside Louisa. When their sister, Abigail May, died in 1879, she helped Louisa care for their niece alongside her own two sons. Once Louisa passed in 1888, their niece, nicknamed Lulu, was cared for by her father, leaving Anna with only her boys. The last of the Alcott sister’s to live, she was buried next to her family in 1893.

Lulu Saw The Longest Life

A painting shows the family in Little Women, gathered and holding on to the father.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Lulu lived with Louisa in accordance with Abigail May’s last request, that Lulu is cared for by the woman she knew would love her as much as May had wanted to. Once Ernest returned to America to reclaim his daughter, he took her to Switzerland where she would be raised.

In 1903, Lulu married Emil Rasim, who died only 15 years later. Lulu lived a long and quiet life in Germany. She died at the age of 96, having lived far more years than any of her Alcott realtives had.

The Alcott Home Lives On

A photograph shows the dark Orchard House with a sign in front calling it the
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Today, the Orchard House that the Alcott sisters grew up in, and the setting that Little Women is based upon, is still standing. The two-story clapboard farmhouse sits on a 12-acre apple orchard, hence the name.

The house is open for daily tours at an admission fee. While care has been taken to preserve the home, much of the exterior remains the same aesthetically as it was when the Alcott’s lived there. Visitors can enjoy viewing family portraits, china, and paintings by May that decorate the house. Many of the furniture and hand made quilts are authentic parts of the Alcott’s lives, as well.