Reading has always brought me pleasure, but I came to enjoy writing only after many years. It fascinates me how writers came to their calling.
On Amazon Prime the other night, I watched the American Masters biographical documentary of Louisa May Alcott. She was much different and more complex than my imaginings. Her history was so alien to what I expected that today, I had to go to wikipedia to refresh my memory of the broad strokes of her biography.
Her family was very poor during her formative years. The role of her father’s extreme Transcendentalism and her mother’s attention to fundamental family needs on her were well developed, explaining much of the dynamic tension that drove her to create stories.
Her family depended on alms and what the women could earn from any tasks they could find. She adored her mother, who worked excessively hard. An early poem told that she would create a place of rest where she and her mother could live in ease. She started writing stories in her head while she sewed, served as a domestic, and other tasks that required physical efforts while leaving her mind free to roam.
Alcott volunteered for nursing duty during the Civil War, tending fresh-from-the-field wounded soldiers in a Washington hospital. After a month, she contracted typhoid fever. During several weeks of delirium, she was treated with calomel (a compound containing mercury), which she blamed later for physical ailments. When she recovered, she wrote Hospital Sketches in which she showed with compassion, yet frankness, the horrors and difficulties of the aftermath of battle. This book gained her a wider, more appreciative audience that her earlier sentimental, somewhat gothic novels.
Little Women was not her first book, but it was the first to bring her wealth and fame. She’s famously said that she wrote for the young because it pays so well. She wrote under a pseudonym on topics unsuitable for a children’s author.
She continued to write, but she also took a European tour, where she had the one romance of her life. Laddie Wisniewski was a Polish émigré in Paris. They had a rapturous couple of weeks, but he was ten years younger than she at thirty-eight. When they parted, she had decided not to see him again. Louisa never married, but as her time in Paris showed, it was a conscious choice, not a lack of opportunity. She insisted that a woman had to give up too much autonomy to her husband, which she was not willing to do. That argument struck me as likely also the answer to why Jane Austin never married.
At times, she sought relief from pain with morphine and hashish—certainly well beyond my imaginings for the author of children’s books.
The Louisa May Alcott biography repaid me with insight into her writings and pleasure at the variety of her experience that lead her to her calling.