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At Home With Dickens And Louisa May Alcott

Famous writers and their families: that's the subject of two recent biographical studies that read like novels — one a Gothic nightmare; the other, a romance.

Great Expectations is the tongue-in-cheek title of Robert Gottlieb's marvelous little book about Charles Dickens and the lives of his 10 children. Despite Dickens' single-handed invention of the Victorian Christmas, I would not recommend giving Gottlieb's Great Expectations as a holiday gift to any impressionable loved one. That's because, as his children matured, Dickens turned out to be an emotional Scrooge. Dickens sourly complained that he had "brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves." His seven sons, most of whom appear to have been affably normal, came in for particular scorn: "I never sing their praises," Dickens said, "because they have so often disappointed me."

A modern reader would assume that Dickens was supporting his sponging kin well into adulthood, but one of the minor revelations of Gottlieb's book is that college was not then the default option for sons of the affluent; only the brainiest Dickens boy, Henry, was sent to Cambridge. Most of the other sons were exported to the far-flung reaches of the empire to fend for themselves: Walter was enrolled as a cadet in the East India Company and sent to India; Frank, whom Dickens deemed a "good sturdy fellow but not at all brilliant" lived out his days as a Canadian Mountie; and, saddest of all, sensitive homebody Edward, nicknamed "Plorn," was exiled at age 16 to the Australian outback. Daughters Kate and Mamie, who stayed at home, were socially ostracized after their middle-aged Papa publicly deserted their mother and quietly took up with the 18-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. Quite the nuclear family implosion. Gottlieb, who served as editor-in-chief of The New Yorker and of Knopf publishers, enlivens his book with sharp editorial pronouncements on Dickens' bad behavior and the limp life trajectory of so many of the Dickens offspring.

Louisa May Alcott's feckless philosopher father, Bronson, is a character Dickens might have conjured up: He was forever vanishing on his wife and four daughters to travel or rent rooms alone where he could read Dante and Kant and, in general, avoid earning "filthy lucre." Practicalities were left to Bronson's wife, Abigail, who was immortalized in her daughter's novel Little Women as the beloved "Marmee." The eye-opener of Eve LaPlante's marvelous new dual biography, called Marmee & Louisa, is that Abigail was every inch the social philosopher that Bronson was when it came to issues of abolition and women's rights. As Abigail dreamed her dreams of social reform, however, she was also supporting her family through jobs as a social worker and sanitarium matron, in addition to the daily domestic round of caring for her own children, mending clothes and cooking up her vegan husband's porridge.

Marmee & Louisa charts Abigail's relatively unacknowledged influence as a progressive thinker on her famous daughter Louisa. LaPlante starts out with a home team advantage: She's a descendant of the Alcotts, and her book opens with a scene every biographer dreams of, describing how she came upon old trunks in her own mother's attic filled with Alcott family personal papers. Some of Abigail's writings, thought to have been destroyed, are collected in a paperback companion volume edited by LaPlante, called My Heart is Boundless. Judging by the excerpts in both books, Abigail was a tart observer, especially of gender inequalities: Writing about a visit to a Shaker Utopian community in 1843, Abigail notes that the Shaker men have "a fat, sleek, comfortable look ... [but among] the women there is a still, awkward reserve that belongs to neither sublime resignation or divine hope." Throughout her journals, Abigail is charmingly blunt, confessing, among other things, her "disrelish of cooking" and her "enjoyment" of her separations from her husband.

Abigail gave Louisa the practical and symbolic gift of a fountain pen for her 14th birthday; when Louisa began to write Little Women in 1865, she drew material from her mother's approximately 20 volumes of diaries. Until Abigail's death at 70, she was her daughter's closest confidant and biggest booster. Of course, it wasn't a perfect relationship, but as LaPlante chronicles, "Marmee" and Louisa enjoyed the kind of bond that Dickens' children could only imagine through reading their father's fiction.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.