Review: 'Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother' by Eve LaPlante


Louisa May Alcott inscribed her first book, Flower Fables, published in 1854, to her mother: "Whatever beauty or poetry is to be found in my little book is owing to your interest and encouragement of all my efforts from the first to the last."

No one familiar with Alcott's work — the iconic Little Women as well as several other novels and hundreds of stories — would dispute that Abigail May Alcott was central to her second-born daughter's destiny. How is it then, Eve LaPlante asks in her engrossing biography, Marmee and Louisa, that we know so little about her?

The short answer is that Louisa and her father, Bronson Alcott, burned many of Abigail's papers after her death, either to protect her privacy or to edit a voice that sometimes strayed from the script of docile Marmee. LaPlante, a great-niece of Abigail's, pursued this story after discovering journals and letters in an attic trunk. In her hands these documents yield Abigail unabridged: a thinker, writer, activist, wife and mother who held fast to her convictions in the face of terrible suffering.

The Mays were pure Boston Brahmin, with ties to John Hancock, Abigail Adams, eminent judges, ministers and generations of Harvard men. Abigail was drawn to the intellectual sphere, not the domestic. She was an uncompromising abolitionist and spoke out for women's education and suffrage. Abigail stood firm that she would not marry, until in 1827 she met Bronson Alcott, a brilliant visionary who seemed genuinely interested in her ideas.

Soon after the wedding, though, Abigail was pregnant and realizing that while financial concerns were "irksome and embarrassing" to Bronson, she could not ignore her family's need for food and shelter. Abigail gave birth to four healthy daughters, took in sewing and later became a social worker and employment agent.

But this is a biography of Louisa, too, and LaPlante makes a case that it was Abigail, not Bronson, who encouraged Louisa not only to channel her considerable energy through writing, but also to pursue publication and to weather the censorship that female writers faced. While Bronson expounded on his daughter's talent and was happy to live off her growing income, it was Abigail who facilitated Louisa's work.