The Fascinating Life Of Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a classic book in children’s literature. The book centers on the four March sisters and their transition from childhood to womanhood. The novel is loosely based on Louisa May Alcott’s life and growing up with three siblings.

The book was (and remains) so popular that it has been made into several TV shows and films. But how much do you know about the author behind the manuscript? Louisa May Alcott did not have an easy life, and she didn’t want to write the book in the first place. Read on to learn more about one of America’s most beloved authors…

She Wrote Little Women In Record Time

louisa may alcott
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Louisa wrote the first half of Little Women in less than six weeks and completed the entire manuscript in less than three months. (Compare that to an author such as George RR Martin, who sometimes takes several years to write a book in his Game of Thrones collection.)

Since Little Women was hugely successful, Louisa followed up with the second volume just three months later on New Year’s Day 1869. The book is consistently ranked as one of the country’s best-loved novels for children.

She Was Close To Famous Writers & Other Prominent People

ralph waldo emerson
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Louisa grew up in Massachusetts with her politically-minded parents, who at one point lived in a Transcendentalist community. Her father in particular was friends with many writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson (pictured above), and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Emerson allowed Louisa to read books from his library, while she learned about botany at Walden Pond (she even wrote the poem “Thoreau’s Flute” about him). In addition, Louisa knew abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

Her Family Was Poor & She Worked Many Jobs To Support Them

drawing of louisa
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Culture Club/Getty Images

Louisa’s family didn’t have a lot of money, so the aspiring writer was forced to work at a young age in order to bring in some income. She was a teacher, seamstress, governess, maid, and writer. Her sisters and mother also worked to contribute to the family’s bottom line.

Louisa has been quoted as saying “I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day.” Louisa used writing as a way to express herself and to take her mind off her impoverished life. She also strove to get out of poverty.

She Wrote Her First Book For Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Daughter

photo of louisa with a book
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Louisa was just 19 years old when she became a published writer after one of her poems was printed in a women’s magazine. At the time, she used the pen name Flora Fairfield, although it’s unclear why. In 1854, she published her first book, Flower Fables. This time she used her given name.

Louisa was just 22 years old when she wrote the book. It was a collection of fairly tales that she had written for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen, a few years earlier.

Her Family Helped Runaway Slaves

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Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Alcotts provided a safe house for slaves on the Underground Railroad. They took care of a fugitive slave for one week at their home the Wayside (pictured here), and at one point Louisa met with Frederick Douglass. Even though Massachusetts banned slavery in 1783, the Fugitive Slave Act required that escapees be returned to their owners. In addition, people who helped them were punished.

Louisa lived with her parents and her three sisters at the Wayside in Concord, Massachusetts, during her early teenage years, from April 1845 to November 1848. The Alcotts knew the risks of helping runaway slaves but did so anyway.

She Was The First Women To Register To Vote In Concord, Massachusetts

louisa may alcott black and white
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Louisa was an early feminist who believed that women deserved the same rights as men. She talked about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller, whose book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, is considered the first major work about feminism. Louisa was also a fan of the “Declaration of Sentiments” published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights.

Louisa got involved with the women’s suffrage movement and was the first female to register to vote in Concord, in a school board election.

She Contemplated Taking Her Own Life

sketch of louisa may alcott
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1857, Louisa was poor, had trouble finding a job, and worried because she couldn’t support her family. She walked to the Mill Dam in the Back Bay of Boston and thought about jumping into the Charles River. But she changed her mind and wrote in a letter to her family:

“…seemed so mean to turn & run away before the battle was over that I went home, set my teeth & vowed I’d make things work in spite of the world, the flesh & the devil.”

She Wrote Salacious Tales Prior To Little Women

profile of louisa
Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images
Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images

As we mentioned earlier, Louisa had a penchant for using pen names. She used the nom de plume A.M. Barndard before writing Little Women. She wrote lurid books and plays such as Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to earn quick cash.

These tales included cross dressers and spies and revolved around revenge and drugs. These stories are a stark contrast to the wholesome Little Women, so she didn’t talk about them when her novel grew in popularity.

She Was A Nurse In The Civil War

nurse during the war
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TCORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

When the Civil War started in 1861, Louisa pitched in by sewing uniforms for the Union Army in Concord. The following year she decided to enlist as a nurse. She relocated to Washington, D.C., where she stayed in a hotel that was turned into a hospital so she could help doctors with amputation and comfort dying servicemen.

She detailed her experiences in letters to her family. She also published Hospital Sketches, which was loosely based on her letters in 1863. The fictional account was very popular and included her experiences as a wartime nurse.

She Suffered From Mercury Poisoning

she suffered from mercury poisoning
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Less than two months after she started working as a nurse, Louisa contracted typhoid fever and pneumonia. Doctors treated her with the cure of the day: a compound called calomel, which was commonly used in that era. However, calomel was a toxic chemical that caused mercury poisoning.

As a result, Louisa’s immune system was weakened. She was also plagued by vertigo and hallucinations. Mercury poisoning is known to cause brain and liver damage as well as skin rashes, anxiety, memory issues and trouble speaking, hearing, or seeing.

She Became Addicted To Opium

opium den
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Other symptoms of mercury poisoning include mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, muscle twitching, and decreased cognitive functions. In addition, Louisa may have had an autoimmune disorder such as lupus that may have been caused by the calomel.

To combat the pain caused by various symptoms, Louisa took opium, and eventually, she became addicted to the substance. This wasn’t that uncommon during her time. According to Smithsonian.com, “By 1895, morphine and opium powders, like OxyContin and other prescription opioids today, had led to an addiction epidemic that affected roughly 1 in 200 Americans.”

You Can Visit Her Famous Home In Concord, Massachusetts

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Paul Marotta/Getty Images

From 1858 to 1877 the Alcott family lived at 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts. Tourists are allowed to visit the site, which is known as the Orchard House. The home is a designated National Historic Landmark.

Orchard House (circa 1650) is most famous for being the place where Louisa wrote and set Little Women in 1868. Visitors can take a guided tour and look at the novelist’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and other possessions.

She Never Wed But Was Attracted To A Couple Of Men, Including Thoreau

henry david thoreau
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When she was a young girl, Louisa had a bit of a romantic crush on Thoreau, who as we mentioned previously taught her botany and was a bit of a mentor to the aspiring writer. When she traveled to Paris, Louisa fell for a young Polish man, and he was the inspiration behind the character Laurie in Little Women.

But overall, Louisa was very independent and chose not to wed. Instead she focused her time on her writing and her work, including her stint as an Army nurse.

She Wrote Little Women To Boost Her Father’s Writing Career

Little women book
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Culture Club/Getty Images

Louisa was a bit of a tomboy, so she initially shrugged off a suggestion by editor Thomas Niles to write a novel for girls in 1867. The following year, Louisa’s father tried to persuade Niles to publish one of his books about philosophy. They made a deal: if Louisa wrote a book for girls, Niles would publish her father’s philosophy manuscript.

Louisa caved in order to make her father happy and further his career. Her book about three sisters was published in September 1868 and became the first of three books. She followed it up with Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

She Didn’t Enjoy Writing Little Women

sisters in a bedroom
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Culture Club/Getty Images

After Niles asked her to write a book about young women, Louisa was worried she wouldn’t be able to do it properly. She wrote in her diary, “I plod away although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.” Both she and Niles weren’t thrilled with her first few chapters, but Nile’s niece really liked them.

When Louisa finished the manuscript, several girls read it and agreed that it was “splendid”. Alcott wrote, “they are the best critics, so I should definitely be satisfied.” The book was an immediate success, which shocked both Louisa and Niles.

Her Famous Novel’s Title Has A Double Meaning

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Culture Club/Getty Images

Some literary critics believe “little women” refers to the time in a woman’s life when childhood and adulthood overlap. Each of the March sisters experience something that takes away their childhood innocence, and they wind up having to deal with problems that are more adult in nature.

Another theory is that the title spotlights the way women were treated during that time. In the 19th century women were not as important as men when it came to social status.

She Based Little Women On Her Own Experiences

ill woman in bed
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Culture Club/Getty Images

Lousia based many of the stories in Little Women on her own childhood experiences. Meg was based on her oldest sister Anna. Beth was based on her sister Lizzie, who contracted scarlet fever from a family she was helping and died two years later. She was just 22 years old.

Her sister May was an artist just like Amy. Louisa also modeled the character Jo on herself. Both were tomboys, writers, and independent women. One difference in the book is the father served in the Civil War, not Jo.

She Adopted Her Orphaned Niece

louisa in her later years
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Louisa’s youngest sister, May, gave birth to a daughter and died just one month later. May named the baby Louisa in honor of her sister, and on her deathbed she told her husband to send the little one to Louisa to take care of her.

The baby was nicknamed Lulu, and she spent her youngest years with her Aunt Louisa. Louisa wrote Lulu stories and got along very well with the spirited child. However, Louisa died when Lulu was just eight years old, so the little girl moved to Switzerland to live with her father.

She Pretended To Be A Servant When Fans Visited Her Home

orchard house sign
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Little Women was a massive success, and it spurred fans to visit her home in Concord to see where the author grew up. In one month alone, hundreds of tourists knocked on the door of the Orchard House just to get a glimpse of Louisa. She did not appreciate the attention very much.

As a result, it wasn’t uncommon for Louisa to answer the door and pretend she was a servant so that the unsuspecting fans would go away.

She Died Two Days After Her Father & Is Buried On ‘Author’s Ridge’ In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

sleepy hollow cemetery
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John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

While Louisa was raising Lulu as a single mother, she struggled with several health problems. When she was in her 50s, her health deteriorated quite a bit. She lived with Lulu and her father at 20 Pinckney St. on Beacon Hill. She and her father died just two days apart in the same house.

Louisa died of a stroke in 1888 at the age of 55. Her reported last known words were, “Is it not meningitis?” She was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near her mentors and writing associates Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, on a hillside known as “Authors’ Ridge.”