Women Demanding a Ballot–Susan B. Anthony, Louisa May Alcott and My Grandmother

The idea of women’s right to vote grew slowly during the years after the American constitution was adopted. The idea that ordinary men—farmers, merchants, and other non-royal citizens should vote was radical enough for the founding fathers. When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” as he and others wrote the document, he laughed and ignored her request.

Years went by and American men expanded voting rights to other men, but they apparently never thought of giving women the same rights. Some women realized they would never be given voting rights unless they took dramatic action. Sending petitions and making speeches was not enough.

The presidential election in 1872 marked a turning point. In Rochester, New York, fourteen women, including the suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, decided they would vote in the presidential election. When Anthony cast her vote, she was arrested, but not jailed. It was not until two months later that her trial began. While she waited, Anthony went on a speaking tour around the area to tell people what she had done and why it was important for women to be allowed to vote.

The judge, however, did not want to hear her arguments. Nor did he give her an opportunity to voice her concerns. He wrote his decision in the case before the trial even started and he directed the jury to find Anthony guilty. They obediently did as they were told. Anthony was fined $100, which she refused to pay. She hoped to make public the reasons for her refusal, but the judge made that impossible. He released her despite her failure to pay and because she was not jailed, she was unable to speak in court and unable to appeal the case to a higher court as she had planned.

Even though she was not able to appeal the court’s decision, Anthony did manage to call attention to the cause of women suffrage. She won many supporters who worked with her during the years it took for women to finally win voting rights. Unfortunately, Anthony died in 1906, long before the 19th amendment gave American women the right to vote, so she was never had a chance to legally cast a ballot in an election.

Susan B. Anthony was not the only American woman who attempted to vote. In 1880, Louisa May Alcott, author of the Little Women and other classic stories, seized the chance to vote. Her opportunity came in Concord, Massachusetts when the town decided women would be allowed to vote in school committee elections.

Alcott led a group of twenty women to the town hall to cast their ballots. They were able to do that, but after their votes were cast, the polls closed so they could not have a voice in any other decision. For several years afterward, Alcott led efforts to have women vote in school committee contests, but she found it difficult to keep them interested. With such a limited voice allowed in city affairs, most women did not think voting was worth their time.

For the rest of her life, Alcott continued to support women’s suffrage, but just like Susan B. Anthony, she was never able to vote in a national election. She died in 1888, more than thirty years before the Women’s Suffrage amendment was passed.

America was not the only country in which politics were tumultuous as the world moved into the twentieth century. Liberal ideas such as women’s suffrage gained support during the late 1800s and during the early 1900s, more and more people believed that radical changes were needed to improve the lives of ordinary people. As usual, the upper classes tried to preserve their privileges and prevent change.

In Southampton, England, a large port city on the southern coast of England, shipping companies found an ingenious way to keep the men who manned the ships from casting their votes and having a voice in elections. Whenever an election was called, the owners made sure that all the ships would leave port before election day. This effectively kept the seamen from voting and allowed the prosperous owners to be sure that only Conservative candidates would be sent to the House of Commons. 

During one bitter election season, however, at least one woman, Ellen Mongan, took a stand. On election day, after the ships had left port and the children were in school, she marched down to the polling place and demanded to be allowed to vote.

“I know how my husband wanted to vote, and I can cast his ballot,” she insisted.

Her demand caused consternation among the voting officials, while some of the bystanders began to cheer her on. Other women had not demanded such a privilege, but the idea made sense to some observers. Such rebellion might cause dramatic changes in the city’s voting pattern.

Eventually the forces of tradition won. Ellen was not allowed to vote. A few years later, in 1910, she and her husband moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn. Women could not vote there at the time, of course, but at least her husband, Patrick Mongan, could vote as soon as he became a citizen.

In 1920, women at last got the vote in the United States. From that year on, Ellen voted in every election until her death in 1943. Unlike Susan B. Anthony and Louisa May Alcott, she had the satisfaction of being an active, engaged citizen. And in the years since her death, her children and grandchildren, including me, have understood the importance of voting and the value of a ballot.  

None of the women I’ve mentioned had success in their first efforts to vote, but at least they had the satisfaction of knowing they had  taken a stand. And over the years, their courage has made a difference. During this month’s midterm elections, many analysts have acknowledged that the votes of women have been a major force in preserving the values enshrined in Roe v. Wade and ensuring that American women will continue to have the right to control their bodies and their medical decisions.

Words, whether in speeches or writing, may give people new ideas, but it is ballots that give them the power to turn those ideas to action. As Herbert Hoover wrote, A whole people with the ballot in their hands possess the most conclusive and unlimited power ever entrusted to humanity.

Happy Birthday Louisa May Alcott!

November 29 is  the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, one of the most popular authors America has ever produced. And unlike many best sellers of the 19th century, Alcott’s books are still familiar to most Americans.

Louisa May Alcott

Success did not come easily to Alcott, but once it arrived, it lingered for more than her lifetime. Her most famous book, Little Women, lives on not only in print, but in a long parade of film versions. Looking at the last several versions shows an interesting perspective on the storylines and actresses favored over the years. The leading character in each of these adaptations is Jo, the tomboy who grows up to be a writer. The actresses who have played  Jo mirror some of the changes in the way we have viewed women over the years.

During the difficult years of the 1930s when Americans were struggling with lost jobs and few opportunities, many of them turned to the movies for encouragement. The 1933 version of Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn, who brought to the film the sharp-tongued, cleverness of an actress who exemplified the never-say-die attitude that helped us survive the difficult 1930s.

By the time 1949 had rolled around, America had recovered from the Great Depression and World War II was over.  The sweet-faced June Allyson was a perfect example of a spunky American girl who no longer needed the sharpness of Hepburn. She made her way through life with a sunny smile and obstacles melted in her path.

When Greta Gerwig remade the story for a new film in 2019, Jo had changed into a very 21st century woman who knows her own mind and finds her own independent path. Played by Saoirse Ronan, she no longer needs the sharp tongue of Hepburn or the sweet smiles of Allison. Striding into the future that she is determined to build no mere man would dare to question her right to her ambition or to her success.

I can’t help wondering what Louisa Alcott would have thought of these versions. Growing up in a family plagued by poverty even though her father was part of a vibrant group of New England intellectuals,  she wrote her most famous book under the pressure of need. She resented having to write a book for children, but her family needed money and she felt she had no choice. Success came quickly as Little Women became a best seller and gave the family security, but Louisa was never quite content. During a long life of writing bestsellers and supporting her family, she was never able to fulfill her deepest ambition to write meaningful adult novels.

Bronson Alcott

The story of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott has been well told in John Matterson’s 2008 book Eden’s Outcasts; The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matterson’s biography is an adult version of what life was like for the Alcott girls as they grew into womanhood. It offers a poignant recasting of how one American family grew during the turbulent 19th century. If you read Little Women when you were a child,  perhaps it is time to read Eden’s Outcasts. It will broaden your understanding of how real life interacts with the fictions that grow out of it.

In the meantime, let’s all raise a toast to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday this weekend.

An Ambitious Aspiring Artist–May Alcott

My interest in women who were notable in their time but did not earn the recognition of an obituary in a major newspaper led me to learn more about several fascinating

Alcott_portrait_edit2

Americans. May Alcott Nieriker, sister of Louisa May Alcott, was a devoted artist, but was never became famous. At least her life was more exciting than her fictional counterpart, Amy, in Little Women.

May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the Utopian community, Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for young children.  When her mother tried to milk the cow for ailing two-year-old May, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”

“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.

As May grew up she was independent and ambitious.  She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands support the family. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.

May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women.  Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities

Louisa_Alcott23
Louisa May Alcott

 

of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals.

Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.

The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.

This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.

Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:

Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.

Alcott_Paris salon

 

When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.

Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.

In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminster Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”

One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played.  He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.

By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.

May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:

Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.   

And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May died a few weeks after the birth of her healthy daughter.

Despite her early death, which meant that she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals her life serves as a model for many women who came later. She faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. Surely she deserves to be remembered.

 

 

 

 

Bronson Alcott–a Sixties Radical One Hundred Years Early

This week we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision outlawing racially segregated school in the United States. That ruling followed a long history of white Americans choosing to keep African Americans out of the schools attended by white children. It’s a shameful history and not one we want to remember, but fortunately at least we can be proud of the people who over the years took chances and tried to build an integrated education system.

One of these risk takers was Bronson Alcott, eccentric friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, believer in communal living, non-stop talker at public meetings, extreme vegetarian (vegan long before that word was invented) and inspired educator. More than 175

picture of Bronson Alcott
Bronson Alcott
years ago, Alcott opened the Temple School in Boston. From the beginning the school caused scandal. Not only were the children encouraged to express their opinions without being punished, but Alcott answered their questions no matter how frank. Alcott’s assistants kept a record of the lessons and these reports were published so parents learned what was going on in the school. Many were shocked to discover that children were encouraged to talk about the Bible as though it were just a collection of stories. They even asked embarrassing questions about the birth of Jesus. Most parents and teachers expected children to accept Biblical stories with respect and without question. Alcott always questioned.

Despite the unconventionality of the Temple School, some parents in Boston continued to send their children to it until Alcott 1837_TempleSchool_Boston1went a step too far—he admitted a young African American girl, the daughter of freed slaves, into the school. That was so unconventional that soon Alcott was teaching only that girl and his own children. He was forced to close the school. It would be more than a century before the country was ready to admit that integrated schools should be the norm rather than an exception.

Alcott lived at a time when people were questioning many of the accepted practices of American life. The 1840s were to the nineteenth century what the 1960s were to the twentieth century. The country was just emerging from the great depression of 1837, and many people wanted to try new ways of living and working. Forming communes where people could share their living and working skills? That was a popular notion and Alcott was friendly with George and Sophia Ripley, who started Brook Farm in Massachusetts. The idea was that everyone would share the work of the farm and the household so that each person would have time to pursue intellectual interests. Brook Farmers dreamed of milking cows in the morning, plowing fields and preparing meals in the afternoon, and then having time to write poetry and argue about philosophy in the evening.

Brook Farm wasn’t quite radical enough for Bronson Alcott. He and his wife, along with his friend William Lane, took their daughters (including Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women) and founded a commune called Fruitlands. There the family and the few members who joined them struggled to keep the farm without imposing on farm animals to labor at pulling plows—the men pulled the plows themselves. The group was strictly vegetarian and Abigail Alcott, Bronson’s wife, was forbidden to give their daughters milk from their only cow. Abigail resented that restriction, but she put up with it at least for a while. But farming without farm animals was extremely difficult and Bronson and Charles Lane spent much of their time traveling and giving lectures to raise money. The commune soon collapsed and Bronson and Abigail took their girls to Concord where they lived near Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Bronson Alcott spent most of the rest of his life as a writer and lecturer, although he never was able to earn much money from these activities. His friend Emerson helped him financially and after his daughter Louisa May Alcott became a successful writer, she was the major support of the whole family. It is easy to laugh now at his eccentricities. Many of his ideas have been discarded, but his principles of education are now widely accepted. As Emerson and others realized, he was an influential figure whose conversations and friendships left a lasting mark on American life.

Bronson Alcott is one of several historical figures who make a

A Death in Utopia
A Death in Utopia
cameo appearance in my mystery story A Death in Utopia, which gives a fictional account of events that might have happened during the turbulent 1840s in Massachusetts.

May Alcott: Woman of the Week

Reading about other people’s lives is one of my favorite activities. Who needs fictional accounts of fantastic worlds when the real world offers so many fascinating stories? Often it’s not the lives of people who had brilliant successes that affect me most; it’s the people who didn’t quite make it. May Alcott was one of these. She was the “sister of the more famous Louisa” as family historians might say.

There were five Alcott daughters. Louisa grew up to be a famous author. Her book Little Women gives readers a glimpse of the lives of the Alcott sisters. In the book they are called the March sisters and the youngest, called Amy in the book, was modeled on May Alcott. Amy loved art, just as May did, but her life was more exciting than the one Louisa put into the book.

May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the community Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for two-year-old May. When her mother tried to milk the cow, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”

“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.

As May grew up she was independent and ambitious. Most of her friends thought only about getting married, but May had different ideas. She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands earn money. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.

May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women.  Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had never even seen photographs of them. Instead, she had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals. Louisa had been in Europe once before, when she had traveled as a paid companion to an ill elderly woman, but they had done little sightseeing. She wanted to return to Europe and spend leisurely time introducing May to the places she had seen briefly before.

Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.

The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.

This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.

Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:

Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.

When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.

Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.

In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminister Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”

One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played.  He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.

By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.

May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:

Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.   

And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May did not survive the childbirth, although her daughter did. May’s life was cut short and she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals. To me she is still a heroine because she faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. That’s why she is my Woman of the Week.

 

 

 

 

Happy Books and a Sad Life—Lucy Maud Montgomery

Perhaps it is the gray skies of November that remind me of the dark lives that several of our most popular authors of cheerful books have led. Last year in November I wrote about Louisa May Alcott, born on November 29, 1832, whose Little Women books are still selling briskly, but whose own life was shadowed by family cares and disappointed dreams.

This year I want to remember the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born on November 30, 1874, whose book Anne of Green Gables has recently been revealed as the most frequently translated book in Canadian literature. Anne of Green Gables is the first of a series of books by Montgomery many of which are still in print and sell briskly around the globe. But the woman who wrote these cheerful stories led a life marred by deep depression, addiction to painkillers, and who died, quite possibly a suicide, at the age of 67.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Besides being a popular author, Lucy Maud Montgomery can also be credited with being a driving force behind making Prince Edward Island, on the Eastern edge of Canada, a popular tourist spot. When Montgomery was born on the island, it was a quiet rural backwater populated mostly by descendants of Scottish immigrants. Montgomery’s parents both came from families that had lived on the island for generations and she had cousins and other relatives living close-by. Nonetheless, her childhood was a rather solitary one because her mother died when Maud was less than two years old and her father moved to Alberta and remarried when she was seven. Maud was raised mostly by her stern, elderly grandparents.

As soon as Maud started school, she was recognized as a bright and interested student. She loved reading began at a young age to tell stories and then to write them down. Her first story was published when she was a teenager. Despite her obvious intelligence and her success in school. Maud’s grandfather did not believe in educating women, so he would not pay for her to go to college. Despite, the lack of encouragement, Maud managed with the help of her grandmother,  to go to Prince of Wales College and then to Dalhousie University to get a teaching degree. She taught in several small, rural schools in Prince Edward’s Island, but she never lost her ambition to become a writer.

During the 1890s, when Maud was growing up, marriage was considered the only respectable career for a woman. Montgomery was attracted to several men and was engaged to at least one of them, but her ambition to be a writer never wavered. In 1908, she published her first book, Anne of Green Gables, which became an instant bestseller.

Maud’s troubles were not over, however, despite the popularity of her book. She had chosen to publish it with L.C. Page, an American publisher who took advantage of the young author by insisting on having her sign over rights to future books. These troubles continued for many years and Maud had to endure several lawsuits before she was finally able to win her cases against Page in 1928.

Meanwhile Maud struggled with her private life. She married a Presbyterian minister, Ewen MacDonald, and had three sons, one of whom died in infancy. MacDonald, like Maud herself was subject to periods of depression. During these times, his old-fashioned religious belief in predestination meant that he believed the entire family was doomed to go to hell. Both Maud and her sons must have found it difficult to live with such emotional pressures and as the boys grew up, they encountered both academic and personal problems in their careers and life plans.

For many years, Maud managed to conceal many of her problems. In public, she was able to function as a good speaker and appealing woman at social events. It was not until after her death that research by her biographer, Mary Rubio, revealed that both Maud and her husband suffered from drug addiction because of medications they took to control their depression. In 2020, Maclean’s Magazine published an article revealing the extent of their problems.  

During the 1920s and 1930s, Montgomery’s continued her successful career, but, like most women writers who attract a large audience, she was never accepted by the Canadian literary community as an important figure in the literary hierarchy.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life ended abruptly in 1942 when she died of an overdose of barbiturates. A note found by her bedside read: I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.

We cannot say for sure that  Maud Montgomery committed suicide, but her family believed that she had and Mary Rubio, the scholar who is the primary authority on her life, agrees with them. Perhaps we should honor Montgomery by reading not only  Anne of Green Gables, but also Mary Rubio’s biography Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Both books tell us a great deal about Canadian history and about a writer’s difficult life.

Canadian Provinces

All kinds of books

Few art forms have quite as split a personality as book publishing does. In the spring, the season of literary awards and prizes, we can read the lists searching for books that have
book prizesbeen read by most readers and find almost nothing. The prize-winners often languish in libraries and are assigned in classrooms, but remain unread by the majority of American readers. Instead it is genre fiction that reaches the mass of readers and enriches the authors who are lucky enough to reach huge popularity.

Today’s New York Times published an article about the phenomenon of  a fantasy writer, Cassandra Clare, whose book tours, as the article points out, are more like those of a rock star than of a writer. She writes books that touch the lives of far more people than those of the authors whose books are reviewed in the newspapers book review section.

This is nothing new. The phenomenon of the author who has wild success with a so-called sensational book while a literary figure languishes in obscurity has been going on for centuries. Here are the opening lines of a book by a well-known 19th century American writer that I doubt you will recognize:

To and fro, like a wild creature in its cage, paced that handsome woman, with bent head, locked hands, and restless steps. Some mental storm, swift and sudden as a tempest of the tropics, had swept over her and left its marks behind. As if in anger at the beauty now proved powerless, all ornaments had been flung away, yet still it shone undimmed, and filled her with a passionate regret.

Louisa_Alcott23
Louisa May Alcott

 

Does that sound like the staid author, Louisa May Alcott, whose books have been read by so many young readers over the years? Alcott did not stick to the sensational mystery stories she started out with but switched to writing family stories aimed at young girls. She found great success with these and was able to support her whole family for many years, but there is some evidence that she would have liked to write a different kind of book for adults. Unfortunately she was never free enough from economic and social pressures to do that.

Many women, over the years, have turned to genre fiction rather than aiming for high literary quality.  Today’s romance fiction is dominated by women writers, and women readers too. It is one of the most successful areas of publishing yet it is almost never seriously discussed as literature.

Mystery stories are another highly successful form of fiction. Did you know that Agatha Agatha Christie, surrounded by some of her 80-plus crime novels.Christie, according to UNESCO,  is the world’s most translated author? It is interesting to consider that while many prize-winning books remain unknown outside of the English-speaking world,  Christie’s books have presented a version of English life to audiences around the globe.

Although the mystery genre is not as closely associated with women as the romance genre is, according to the organization Sisters in Crime, almost 70 percent of mystery readers are female. And if you look at the lists of mystery books published, you will find that about half of all mystery story writers are women. Of course with all the sub-genres of mystery story from hard-boiled detective to the cozy kitchen mysteries, some are associated far more with women than others are.

What does all this mean? Just perhaps that those of us who think of ourselves as avid readers ought perhaps to try different genres once in a while. We might find that the ones we have avoided all our lives may be just what we are ready for now.

the_female_detectiveAnd I’d like to offer a cheer for the British Library which has begun publishing a series of historical mystery stories that add to our knowledge about the history and background of mystery stories. Perhaps eventually they will do the same for other genre fiction.

Creating the New Woman–Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller
Brook Farm, the first secular Utopian community to be established in New England, attracted the attention of most of the intellectuals in the area when it opened in 1840. Margaret Fuller, already a well-known writer and lecturer was one of them. As a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and others who supported the establishment of the community, she participated in discussions about whether a communal lifestyle would encourage people to write great books, paint beautiful pictures and develop an American culture. Many Americans wanted to develop a culture quite different from the European model. They did not believe that all art and culture should be created by aristocrats who did not need to work or earn money. The early 19th century was a time when many people were trying to discover how society could be structured to allow everyone to have a chance to become educated and creative even though they had to make a living.

Margaret Fuller toyed with the idea of joining Brook Farm as a member. Living in a community like that would free her from the necessity of supervising a household for herself and her mother. The reaction of Brook Farmers to Miss Fuller was mixed. Many of the young women considered her a model for what a brilliant woman could make of her life, but others (especially, perhaps, the young men) thought she was arrogant and talked too much. Some of them even called the most obstreperous cow in their barn the Margaret Fuller heifer.

In the end, Fuller decided she needed solitude to pursue her own work, but continued to visit often. She was determined to make her mark in the world, and she succeeded. She became one of the most influential literary figures in New England. Then she moved to New York to write for the New York Tribune. Later she traveled to Europe as a reporter and became a friend of men who were plotting revolutions in several countries.

Fuller’s book Women in the Nineteenth Century was considered revolutionary. She urged women to find their voices and express their own ideas. The book influenced women around the country and even though Margaret Fuller herself died at the age of 40, her work bore fruit in the early feminist movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were among the women who read her works and tried to follow her path.

Memorial plaque for Margaret Fuller
Memorial plaque for Margaret Fuller

There are several good biographies of Margaret Fuller. The short, general biography that I wrote called Margaret Fuller: an Uncommon Woman is available at amazon.com.

Sisters on the Go

When we think of the great travelers and explorers of the past, we usually think of men—Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Stanley and Livingstone—but there are many women who feel the lure of travel too. Even in fairy tales when it was usually the prince who went wandering through the world seeking his fortune and/or a beautiful princess, there were also girls who went on journeys.

Do you remember the story of Snow White and Rose Red, who lived deep in the forest with their mother and

Snow White and Rose Red by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911
Snow White and Rose Red by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911
were kind to a bear that came asking for shelter one snowy night? These two sisters roamed through the woods and kept meeting an unpleasant little dwarf who got into terrible scrapes by having his beard seized by a fish in the river, or caught in a log the dwarf was trying to split. Each time they met, the girls saved the dwarf from harm, but he only screamed and harassed them for their trouble. Finally one day they came upon the dwarf looking over his collection of precious jewels in a quiet glade in the forest. The dwarf was angry that they had found him and started screaming at them but just then the bear came out of the woods and killed the wicked dwarf. Sure enough, as usually happens in fairy tales, the bear turned into a handsome prince ready to marry Snow White and his equally handsome brother married Rose Red. The moral being, I suppose, that sisters who travel together may come upon great treasure and happiness to share.

Real life sisters, of course, were rarely so lucky. Still, travel sometimes brought new adventure, professional growth, and even a loving husband. Louisa May Alcott and her sister May, traveled to Europe together after Louisa had found success with the publication of Little Women. Her sister May wanted to be an artist, but facilities for studying art were limited in the Boston of the 1860s, so the two set off for Europe. They traveled through England, France and Italy and for the first time had a chance to study the great European art they had only read about. When Louisa went back to America to help their ailing mother, May lingered in Europe to continue painting.

May Alcott
May Alcott
There she met a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker who encouraged her art. The two fell in love and married, although their happiness was brief. May died in childbirth and never had time to become the great artist she dreamed of being. Perhaps she never would have reached that goal, but at least she had a chance at it, and she found love and happiness through the generosity and companionship of her sister Louisa who made her travel possible.

Traveling to Europe became much easier for American women as the years went by. When I graduated from college, my sister and I went on a summer-long student tour of Europe. Today I posted on my website the journal I kept during that trip in 1951. If you go to the top of this page and click on the link to “Europe Summer 1951” you will find that journal, including the black-and-white photos of a postwar Europe much less crowded and much less prosperous than it is today.