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
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
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.
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.
The recent mini-battle in Arizona about whether same-sex couples should receive the same kind of services that other couples get, has called attention to recent the dramatic changes in the way a majority of Americans view gays and lesbians. While celebrating the change in attitudes that have resulted in more respect being given to different groups, it is sad to look back on some of the tragedies caused in the past by harsh anti-homosexual laws.
Constance Lloyd Wilde was a woman whose life was shattered by the trial and imprisonment of her husband, Oscar Wilde, on charges of gross indecency. Born in London in 1859, Constance Lloyd grew up in the Victorian era when marriage was considered sacred, but adultery wascommon. Among many middle-and-upper class British couples, men were routinely pardoned for engaging in extra-marital sex, and while the rules were stricter for women, many of them could have affairs as long as they were discreet. Constance grew up under the supervision of parents who would be considered neglectful today, but were following the usual pattern of paying little attention to their children and bestowing little affection on them.
Despite this unpromising start, Constance received a good education and grew up to be a spirited, intelligent and very attractive woman. She was determined to make something of her life so she did not rush into marriage, but mingled with the artistic set which included painters, designers and writers. She became interested in Aestheticism and began to design her own dresses using the new Liberty fabrics, which reflected the tastes of modern young people. Oscar Wilde a young Irish poet and critic who had left Oxford and moved to London was a leading member of this group and it was not long until the two met.
Oscar Wilde soon became a prominent figure in London society. He earned his living by writing and lecturing on cultural life. In 1878 he traveled to America on a lecture tour during which he was both lionized and made fun of by the press and public. Whatever he did his fame continued to grow. After he returned to London, he continued to see Constance Lloyd and in 1884 they were married. Oscar was 30 years old at the time and Constance was 25; they were both well-educated intellectuals, but in terms of understanding their own desires and sexuality they probably knew less than the average college student today.
The early years of their marriage were happy. They had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, and became a much-noticed couple in the London social scene. Their house was a showplace of Aesthetic interior design and Constance’s avant-garde clothes were noticed and discussed by many friends, acquaintances and even the press. Constance brought an income of 250 pound a year to the marriage, which would have been adequate for most middle-class families, but the Wildes had expensive tastes and expensive habits.
As the years went by Oscar Wilde’s life became more chaotic. His plays were hugely successful, but his lifestyle was difficult to maintain. He enjoyed the company of young men and began spending more and more of his time away from home. Whether Constance realized that these ardent friendships were replacing her in Oscar’s affections is difficult to know. Looking back from the 21st century, it is easy to think that she must have known he was homosexual, but so many of the realities of sexual life were hidden from women in those days that we cannot be sure about how much of her husband’s life she understood. She carried on her life, taking care of her boys, maintaining a social presence, and even writing a well-received children’s book called There Was Once. She and Oscar remained close, but their way of life was becoming too fragile to maintain.
Almost everyone has heard the story of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. He developed a long-lasting crush on a young man, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), whose father was the Marquis of Queensberry. When the Marquis began hounding Wilde with the threat of bringing charges against him, Wilde foolishly sued the Marquis for libel. He lost the suit and was charged, convicted, and eventually imprisoned for gross indecency. England was the only country in Europe at that time that had a law against homosexuality, but Wilde unfortunately refused to leave the country to escape the charges.
Almost overnight not only Oscar’s life, but the life of his whole family changed dramatically. Many old friends stopped speaking to Constance and the English schools to which she hoped to send the boys refused to accept them. She moved to the continent, changed both her name and her sons’ names to Holland, and enrolled the boys in German schools. Through it all she was not completely estranged from Oscar but continued to hope for reconciliation. Time ran out on that hope because Constance died in Genoa in 1898 at the age of 37 without ever seeing Oscar again. Oscar died two years later without having seen his sons again.
You can follow the whole story in Franny Moyle’s recent biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.
The tragedy of the lives of the Wilde family is that so much of the suffering was unnecessary. Certainly their marriage was under a great deal of strain as Oscar came to terms with his nature, but if they had been living in 2014 instead of the 1895, they might have been able to work out the issues privately. The public outcry and the exile of Constance and the boys were pointless. The disruption of the lives of these innocent people helped no one. It has taken a hundred years for society to understand this and to accept the right of gays and lesbians to live their lives in peace and security for themselves and their families. Things aren’t perfect today, but at least this is one area in which real progress has been made.