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Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother Hardcover – November 6, 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 94 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* It’s not unusual for a biography to include a family tree, but it’s rare for the biographer to appear on it. LaPlante (Salem Witch Judge, 2007) is great-niece and cousin of the subjects of this involving mother-daughter portrait of Abigail May and Louisa May Alcott. Louisa’s unconventional father, Bronson, has received far more attention than his long-suffering, feminist wife, even though Abigail is the model for Marmee, the beloved mother in Little Women. This imbalance was due, in part, to Bronson’s burning of Abigail’s personal papers. But LaPlante discovered that all was not lost while examining the contents of her mother’s attic. Her subsequent quest for more overlooked materials resulted in this first full biography of Abigail; a collection of her writings (My Heart Is Boundless); and a fresh perspective on Louisa. Spirited Abigail believed women had the right to an education and “a voice in running the world,” but she fell for a charismatic yet incompetent man and found herself trapped in poverty, caring alone for their four daughters. Her own dreams cruelly thwarted, Abigail brilliantly nurtured Louisa’s literary genius. Although bitter ironies mark each woman’s story, vividly set within the social upheavals of the Civil War era, their profound love, intellect, and courage shine. --Donna Seaman

Review

A November 2012 Indie Next Great Read (American Booksellers Association)

“One of the top ten books of 2012.”
--National Public Radio on Marmee & Louisa

“Abigail May Alcott… [or] ‘Marmee,’ as her daughters called her, was a fine writer, an indefatigable reformer, a devoted teacher — and, above all, Louisa’s literary lodestar ... [After] the wildly popular Little Women … [Bronson Alcott] was, he crowed, ‘the Father of Miss Alcott.’ At last, people came to hear him lecture. To his credit, though, and after his fashion, he mentioned in passing that Louisa’s mother hadn’t yet received ‘her full share.’ To her credit, LaPlante evens the score.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“The single most memorable character from a 2012 book… [is] Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Abigail, who is one of the subjects of Eve LaPlante’s MARMEE & LOUISA – someone I knew nothing about and whose activist life and tart, intelligent writing just blew me away.”
--Salon on Marmee & Louisa

“Superbly crafted… LaPlante painstakingly filled in numerous gaps in the young years of the Alcott sisters and especially their mother. What emerges is not only an impeccably documented and verified biographical masterpiece, but also a genuine story of women who were heroines of their time, defying the social and political conventions of 19th-century America… Once the silent mentor, ‘Marmee’… is now a potent feminist voice in history… [This is] a compelling and intensely moving story whose truth is all the more powerful for being fleshed out in such an engaging and heartfelt style.” (Bookreporter)

“[An] involving mother-daughter portrait ... Although bitter ironies mark each woman’s story, vividly set within the social upheavals of the Civil War era, their profound love, intellect, and courage shine.”
--Booklist, starred review on Marmee & Louisa

“An important book about an important relationship. Writing engagingly and with precision, Eve LaPlante sheds new light on the Alcott story, a story that is in some ways the story of America.” (Jon Meacham Pulitzer Prize winner, bestselling author of Thomas Jefferson)

“Engrossing... LaPlante, a descendant of the Alcotts, pursued this untold story after discovering forgotten journals and letters in an attic trunk. In her skilled 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...[T]his is a biography of Louisa, too, and LaPlante makes a compelling 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...In bringing to life the woman who made Louisa May Alcott’s work possible, LaPlante shows us that there’s even more to admire in the real Abigail than in the fictional Marmee."
--The Washington Post on Marmee & Louisa

“This revealing biography... will forever change how we view the characters and their relationships in Louisa’s novels... Through LaPlante’s book we see how Louisa drew heavily from Abigail's life experiences in her own writings.... Alcott fans who revel in LaPlante’s biography can read to the very last page and then turn to a bonus... companion volume, MY HEART IS BOUNDLESS, writings of Abigail May Alcott.” (USA Today)

“A revelatory dual biography... LaPlante makes a convincing case that Abigail’s doggedly pragmatic responses to the intertwined and ongoing catastrophes of Bronson’s inconsistent emotional involvement and the family finances left an indelible impression on Louisa, who vowed from an early age to take care of her mother... [D]emonstrates that Abigail’s daughters were her dreams made manifest.”
--The Seattle Times on Marmee & Louisa

“A romance... The eye-opener of Eve LaPlante’s marvelous new dual biography...is that Abigail was every inch the social philosopher that Bronson was when it came to issues of abolition and women's rights.... Marmee & Louisa charts Abigail’s relatively unacknowledged influence as a progressive thinker on her famous daughter Louisa.... When Louisa began to write Little Women... she drew material from her mother's approximately 20 volumes of diaries. Until Abigail's death...she was her daughter's closest confidant and biggest booster.” (Maureen Corrigan NPR "Fresh Air")

“Until recently, most scholarship has glossed over Abigail’s influence on Louisa’s writing, focusing instead on the role of Louisa’s father, who was often absent. Drawing on newly discovered letters and diary entries, this fascinating dual biography corrects the record by revealing the enormously close bond that was shared by mother and daughter,...showing that Abigail was Louisa’s most important intellectual mentor.”
--BUST (five stars) on Marmee & Louisa

“Convincingly argue[d]... Of interest to anyone who enjoys mother/daughter stories, American history, or literary studies… In the winter season, when many of us will cue our DVD players to the opening scene of LITTLE WOMEN, Marmee & Louisa is well worth a read.” (Bookpage)

“[Marmee & Louisa] shows just how much iconic children’s author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) “was her mother’s daughter”… previously undiscovered family papers and untapped pages from Abigail’s dairies … provide new evidence exposing her undeniable influence on her daughter … Fresh material gives flesh to the formerly invisible Abigail, revealing how she and her famous daughter mirrored one another … Thoroughly researched and moving.”
--Kirkus on Marmee & Louisa

“LaPlante sheds light on Abigail May Alcott… [who] is shown to have been a remarkable intellect and a progressive who played a primary role in Louisa’s life. LaPlante pays meticulous attention to primary sources, delving into the surviving diaries of mother and daughter. This heavily researched double biography serves as a kind of twin to John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts. Nineteenth-century New England literature buffs and Alcott aficionados will appreciate this well-wrought study.” (Library Journal)

“‘Let the world know you are alive!’ Abigail Alcott counseled her daughter, who amply did, having inherited her mother’s spirit and frustrations, diaries and work ethic. Along the way Louisa May Alcott immortalized the woman in whose debt she understood herself to be and who ultimately died in her arms; Eve LaPlante beautifully resurrects her here. A most original love story, taut and tender.”
Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author of Cleopatra: A Life

“Eve LaPlante’s Marmee & Louisa is a heartwarming and thoroughly researched story of family interdependence very much in the style of Louisa’s own unforgettable Little Women. No other biographer has examined so thoughtfully and with such compassion the mother-daughter relationship that supported both women through decades of adversity and brought a great American novel into being.” (Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism andMargaret Fuller: A New American Life)

“‘Reason and religion are emancipating woman from that intellectual thralldom that has so long held her captive.’ That was the dearest hope of Louisa May Alcott's mother Abigail, who was a writer herself and juggled work and family in ways that will be strikingly familiar to many contemporary readers. Marmee & Louisa is the engrossing story of a vibrant, talented woman whose life and influence on her famous daughter has, until now, been erased.” (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University)

“[An] involving mother-daughter portrait…and a fresh perspective on Louisa….Louisa’s unconventional father, Bronson, has received far more attention than his long-suffering, feminist wife...Her own dreams cruelly thwarted, Abigail brilliantly nurtured Louisa’s literary genius. Although bitter ironies mark each woman’s story, vividly set within the social upheavals of the Civil War era, their profound love, intellect, and courage shine.” (Booklist, starred review)

“In this meticulously researched look at Louisa May Alcott and her mother, LaPlante shatters myths about the supposedly passive “Marmee,” replacing them with a portrait of a woman who fought for a woman’s right to education, professional and maternal satisfaction and power.…The book illuminates 19-century women’s frustrations—many of which, disturbingly, still resonate.” (People Magazine)

“It’s hard to imagine that anything new could be said about the life of Louisa May Alcott, one of America’s most beloved authors. Yet as a great-niece of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother, Eve LaPlante isn’t just any biographer. Her new book, MARMEE & LOUISA, is…an intimate portrait of mother and daughter, showing how their lives were profoundly intertwined in ways that some biographers have underplayed or ignored altogether... LaPlante chronicles the intense attachment between Abigail and Louisa…. [A] fascinating story of two visionary women…” (The Boston Globe)

“Compelling... LaPlante admirably seeks to paint a fuller picture of Abigail and her role in Louisa's life....[and] allows her protagonists to speak for themselves.” (Publishers Weekly)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (November 6, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451620667
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451620665
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (94 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #906,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Louisa May Alcott's life is well known, and many historians have stated that it was her father, Bronson, that helped mold his daughter into the amazing woman she became. That theory never set well with me. I often wondered if historians were shutting out an important chapter in Louisa's life. Did Louisa's mother play a larger part in her daughter's life? Were historians not giving Abigail her due because, after all, she was just a Victorian woman subjected to the domestic sphere of life.

Abigail has never been known to most people because her journals and letters were supposedly burned by her husband and famous daughter. The public image of Marmee, the tranquil, loving angel of the household had to be kept up no matter what. The family did not what future biographers writing about Abigail's headstrong ways and Bronson didn't like some of the things his wife wrote about him. Her image had to be upheld no matter what. And for the most part that was true. There is one biography about her life entitled Marmee: The Mother Of Little Women, but that gives very little insight into her thoughts.

Ms. LaPlante stumbled onto Abigail's letters and journals. These papers allows us to peel away the layers of the iconic Marmee and see who she really was.

The book is filled with many firsts and that makes it a treasure. It begins with the history of the Mays and explores Abigail's life as a girl and young woman. The reader is introduced to a headstrong woman who has a mind of her own, wants to explore education, embraces many radical ideas of the time(anti slavery and giving women the right to vote). She may become a spinster, and is comfortable with her role. However, she meets Bronson and is overtaken by love.
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Format: Hardcover
As the author of the only blog devoted to Louisa May Alcott (Louisa May Alcott is my Passion at [...], I was delighted to read "Marmee & Louisa"; it is long overdue. Anyone who has read "Little Women," who sees the strong presence of Marmee and the lack of presence of Mr. March (who is barely referred to as "father") has to know that since Louisa May Alcott drew so much of her material from her family, that her mother was most important to her. I'm not really sure sometimes why Bronson Alcott was listed in the past as the greatest influence as Louisa never understood nor adopted his philosophy (although Transcendentalism certainly permeates her work) and he disapproved of her for much of her life. It was only when she nearly lost her life as a Civil War nurse that he came around to appreciating his self-sacrificing daughter. There is no doubt he was an influence, but her mother was the muse, as LaPlante puts it.

That being said, LaPlante reveals new sources from her own mother's attic trunk along with papers that have been available for years at the Houghton Library at Harvard which were overlooked. It's especially appropriate that a blood relative should reveal the real Abigail Alcott for the first time and tell so compellingly how she influenced Louisa.

One of Louisa's biographers dared to say that Abigail was a better writer than Louisa and "Marmee & Louisa" demonstrates this. She is lucid, electric, clear and passionate in her writing, revealing great insight. Abigail was gifted with a sharp intellect and love of learning, traits that Louisa inherited and were nurtured (she also had a share of her father's intellect but with a big dose of her mother's pragmatism).
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First of all, this is a phenomenal new book, a rich and rewarding read.

The previous review is quite good but fails to properly emphasize that Bronson's outrageous irresponsibility is what made this Victorian marriage so very bad. This is the true strength of this book... first you have the laws that granted few rights to women and then you have the behavior of a husband who really deserved to be jailed for non-support- together you have a story that burns with meaning.

Another strength of the book are relatives like Samual Joseph May, Abigail's brother who was an important abolitionist and exponent of women's rights.

As far as Louisa, it's important to mention that she was probably too sick to even consider marriage during the second half of her life due to what was almost certainly Lupus... she may have followed Margaret Fuller's example of marrying late and have a child or perhaps two. Children and family are likely to have meant too much for her to forgo this and with her connections, she is likely to have met someone she could accept, perhaps in Europe like Margaret and her sister May.
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Anyone who read Little Women and other children's fiction by Louisa May Alcott and marveled at the family's forbearance in the face of genteel poverty should read this book. The fictional gentle minister father off to see the troops on the Civil War battlefield was really a long-winded narcissist, and Marmee struggled all her adult life with her rage at his willful failure to support his family. The real Jo (Louisa) may not have been as ruthless as Scarlett O'Hara, but she was determined never to be hungry again.

Author Eve LaPlante, a descendant of the May family herself, recasts this saga through feminist eyes with Abigail May Alcott (Marmee) and not her husband, Bronson, as Louisa's guiding light. It was Marmee who gave Louisa the materials she needed to write (pencils, a pen, journals) and encouraged her from girlhood. Again and again as Bronson moved from trying and failing to establish progressive schools then wandered off to give public "conversations," the family struggled with debt, moved from place to place, and often lacked adequate food. Although smart and curious as her Harvard-educated minister brother, Abigail was privately tutored but never studied for a degree and was discouraged by her sex from entering the public sphere. Once married (she proposed to Bronson rather than accede to her father's wishes to marry a first cousin), Abigail lost her property rights and would have stood to lose her children had she divorced. She earned a little money from sewing and boarding students that her husband abandoned. managing a spa and working among the poor, but mostly she relied on funds from her brother, Samuel Joseph May, and the kindness of friends and other relatives.
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