Writer’s Diaries Part VI: Louisa May Alcott’s Secret Desires



Like the March girls in Little Women, Louisa Alcott seems to have so internalised her father’s demand for self-scrutiny, that by the time she began a regular journal at the age of eleven, listing her sins was an everyday event:

 September 24th [1845] I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart.  If only I kept all I make I should be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so I am very bad. 

 October 8th [1845]

I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day. (Journals 45-6)

In some sense, the wishes Alcott listed on this day are the same ones she repeats in her journal for the rest of her life: to be rich, to be good, and for her family to be happy (often in that order). A year later, she lists the virtues she most needs (Patience, Obedience, Industry […] Silence, Perseverance, Self-denial) and the vices of which she must rid herself (Idleness, Impatience, Selfishness, Wilfulness  […] Love of cats).  Despite her desire for greater patience, Alcott’s impatience and anger are clearly expressed in an entry recorded soon after: ‘More people coming to live with us.  I wish we could be together and no one else.  I don’t see who is to feed and clothe us all when we are so poor now.’  

By the time Louisa was thirteen the family were in better surroundings and she noted:

I have at last got the little room I have wanted so long, and am very happy about it.  It does me good to be alone […] I can run off into the woods when I like. […] I am going to be good. I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins and it doesn’t seem to do any good! (59).

 Throughout her journals Alcott negotiates her private desires and public duties in this way. At eighteen, for example, when she was working as a teacher, Alcott noted that she longed for the solitude she had enjoyed so briefly atHillside.

 School is hard work, and I feel as though I should like to run away from it. […]I think a little solitude everyday is good for me. In the quiet, I see my own faults, and try to mend them.

 In this same entry, Alcott hints at another thing she enjoys: ‘Reading Miss Bremer and Hawthorne.  The Scarlet Letter is my favourite. […]I fancy ‘lurid’ things, if strong and true also’ (63). Louisa’s ‘fancy’ for such things soon found voice in sensation stories in which women use their wiles and acting talents to outwit the surveillance of a patriarchal society. By creating passionate and powerful women in the thriller tales she published under her pseudonym,  such as Sybill Varna in ‘Taming a Tartar’ and Jean Muir in ‘Behind the Mask: or, A Woman’s Power,’ Alcott did more than escape her father’s watchful eye. In such stories Alcott satirized idealised images of still and silent women by portraying such docility as a subterfuge disguising moral corruption.         

Such secretly written stories give evidence of Alcott’s need to critique and escape from her father’s surveillance, and the value Alcott placed on her solitude throughout her life is noted on page after page of the journal.  She was happiest  ‘in the garret with my papers round me, and a pile of apples to eat while I write in my journal, plan stories, and enjoy the patter of rain on the roof in peace and quiet.’ ‘I love luxury, but freedom and independence better,’ she wrote. So important to Alcott was her privacy that she shunned not only her numerous fans—but love affairs of any kind.  As she reflected in her journal ‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe’ a sentence with which many a later feminist would sympathise!


Writer’s Diaries Part V: Louisa May Alcott: Dutiful/Devil



Now that I have submitted the first 10,000 words of my new novel to my agent I am back to my work on Writer’s Diaries by way of further brain stimulation. Like Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, Louisa May Alcott kept a diary throughout her life, and on its pages navigated her own split place in literary and familial history— as both the creator of dutiful daughters in The Little Women series and the pseudonymous author of sensational, subversive ‘thrillers.’ One major influence on Alcott’s writing life was her father, Bronson Alcott.  Bronson was, among other things, an educational reformer, and as Karen Haltunen argues in ‘The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott’ ‘the impression that Bronson expected children to convey with their bodies was the perfect repose of their minds […] he required his young students to sit perfectly still, without fidgeting or whispering.’   From infancy, however, Louisa, ‘presented a major challenge to her father’s educational theories […] Louisa was demanding, noisy and even violent’ . Just as Mr March in Little Women sees anger as the sin that will halt Jo’s pilgrim’s progress, Bronson constantly instructed Louisa in calmness, stillness and patience.  And while the fictional Jo March’s boisterousness bristled beneath her calm exterior, so too did Louisa’s own stifled energies need to find expression. 

Alcott found this release by secretly writing and publishing numerous sensation stories either anonymously or under the pseudonym AM Barnard. In tales with titles such as ‘Pauline’s Passion and Punishment’, ‘Doctor Dorn’s Revenge’ and ‘The Mysterious Mademoiselle,’ Alcott escaped from the morality tales for which she had become famous (and through which she single-handedly supported her family) by writing tales of passion, incest, revenge, drug addiction and murder.    

Alcott once wrote that she’d rather be a ‘good daughter’ than a ‘great writer’ and the Little Women series compounds this image of Louisa as conforming like Jo March to the desires of her father.   In her pseudonymous thrillers, however, she avoided Bronson’s  policing gaze by writing not of feminine stillness, silence and governing one’s temper, but of powerful women with uncontrolled desires. Alcott’s journals offer enticing clues towards understanding this split-voiced fiction, as they witness the divide between her private desire and her public duty that was woven into fictions that seem otherwise irreconcilable: the passion, decadence and addictions of the characters in her thrillers are merely the dark reverse of the controlled and dutiful characters of her morality tales.

From the age of eleven to Alcott’s premature death at fifty, images of enclosure and intrusion (physical and moral) in the journals run alongside an anxious recital of financial wins and losses—in which none of her astounding successes ever silence her fear of not having enough to share. In an undated sketch of her childhood cited by Alcott’s first biographer, Ednah Cheney, Alcott noted that ‘[r]unning away was one of the delights of my early days; and I still enjoy sudden flights out of the nest. ’Louisa’s need for escape hints at the dynamics of their family structure and her relation to the moral surveillance of her father.

Writer’s Diaries Part II: Katherine Mansfield’s Windows


Katherine Mansfield’s fiction drew heavily upon images of both windows and mirrors, images that appear almost obsessively in her notebooks as well. In her childhood writing,  rain beating against the windows is a frequent metaphor for the interior struggles of her protagonists while later in her career the view changes radically: the world outside is portrayed as altogether fresher, more beautiful and more vital than the life being lived behind the curtains.

In 1914 for example, Mansfield wrote a story about Elena, a famed singer, and her dying child, Peter.  As in her earlier notebook entries, this story draws upon themes of illness, death and waiting, framed by the image of the window.  Set inGermany, the tale begins in ‘brilliant sunny weather,’ but Elena, trapped in her hotel room caring for her child, has no chance to enjoy it:


The frau tapped […] ‘Shall I draw the curtains, gnadige frau?’ she whispered.  […]  ‘No,’ said Elena, ‘I will draw them later. The light is so lovely.’ […] The lovely light shone in the window.  She loved to think of the world outside under the mingled snow & moonlight. (Notebooks 1: 302)


Elena gets up to check on Peter and sing him a lullaby, but he begs her not to. Despite his plea, Elena crosses to the window and sings softly. Later, when the Doctor announces that Peter is dead, this window becomes the frame through which Elena recalls the rail journey that brought them to this place.  Then, too, Elena was unable to refrain from performing:


She could not bear that even so small an audience—half a dozen people in a railway carriage—should go away indifferent or unsatisfied.  She felt bound to play exquisitely for them.  […]  Sometimes in front of the mirror she played most exquisitely of all.  She  would have acknowledged the fact frankly. […] I find it frightfully difficult to keep my private & my public life apart (1:303).


This contrast between the falsified public ‘mirror’ self and the vulnerable private self that looks out the window returns again and again in Mansfield’s fiction. Indeed, her greatest work of fiction, Prelude, begins with the frightened child protagonist Kezia in front of a window and ends with her refusing to look at herself in the mirror. Similarly, Mansfield’s last, incomplete, story ‘The New Baby’ contrasts a group of women on a yacht cruise who powder their noses in the ‘flat cabin mirrors’ with the freshness of ‘the sun flowing through the saloon porthole’ (Notebooks 2: 323). As this negotiation between public and private is arguably the central theme in Mansfield’s fiction, it is intriguing to see it ‘mirrored’ and ‘framed’ symbolically throughout her journals. As Mansfield reflected in 1921: ‘I don’t mean that any eye but mine should read this.  This is—really private’ (2:280).  For Mansfield, then, the writer’s diary was a borderland that enabled her to reflect and then restate the really private self into a public, publishable form, to turn repeatedly from the window to the mirror and back again, writing, recording and reimagining those negotiations into new forms of prose fiction.

Too Many Mothers





I don’t often get to the theatre, which is ridiculous as I live in London’s West End where every show is on my doorstep – but lack of time and money seem to collude to keep me away from the dramatic arts.  But last night I saw a great show – a new play called Reunion by playwright John Caine with really extraordinary performances by Peter Guinness and Roberta Taylor.  http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

Here with a little blurb on each of them:
Peter Guinness is a hugely respected stage and screen actor. His recent theatre credits include; The Pianist (Manchester International Festival, Royal Exchange Theatre and Hong Kong Festival) and Reading Hebron (Orange Tree Theatre). He has recently been seen on television in: Hidden, Zen, New Tricks, Ashes to Ashes, Silent Witness, Kipling: A Remembrance Tale, The Bill and Bleak House whilst his film work includes roles in Secret Passage, Greenfingers, Conclave, Sleepy Hollow, Christopher Columbus: the Discovery and Aliens 3.

Roberta Taylor has a rich and varied career in theatre and television and is probably best known for her work on Eastenders as Irene Hills and her portrayal of Gina Gold in The Bill. Her stage roles have included seasons at The RSC and Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as parts at The Royal Exchange and in the West End.

I have been friends with Pete and Rob for several years now, and my few outings to the theatre usually involve seeing them individually in various notable productions, but I have never seen them work together and they were mesmerising playing a husband and wife facing the ethical and judicial dilemma of assisted suicide after the husband has been diagnosed with and incurable degenerative disease. 

But I first got to know Roberta through her writing.  When I first met her about five or six years ago, I had been a fan of her acting for a decade, following her from Eastenders on, but when we sat next to each other at a mutual friend’s party, we talked about writing autobiography, and her then recently published memoir Too Many Mothers (2005). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Too-Many-Mothers-Roberta-Taylor/dp/1843543001

This wonderful book is miles away from the celebrity tell-all that you might expect from the rather un-literary cover image.  In fact, I won’t be giving anything away to say that it ends well before the young Roberta has any inkling of her future career, and not much hope of any kind of success at all. Too Many Mothers tells a true story set in south London in the 1950s, at once more intriguing and more shocking that any soap opera, of a family at war with itself and the outside world. From petty crime to pet monkeys, tender romance to emotional blackmail, illegitimacy, adoption and even murder.  For Roberta, travelling from her real South London childhood to the ersatz one she inhabited as Irene Raymond in Eastenders must have been a strange journey.  Unlike narcissistic and mainly ghost-written celebrity memoirs that tend to portray their subjects as “chosen” or “Special” or triumphing over adversity, and unlike much contemporary misery memoir, that feeds on the willingness of readers to side with victimised authors in their uncorroborated portraits of the past, Too Many Mothers,  written entirely by Roberta, and with style, offers enormous amounts of wry humour and a great deal of love for the family she writes about, admiration for their strengths and deeply felt compassion for their weaknesses. A gem of a book, and no assisted suicide in it at all.