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.

Women, Windows, Mirrors, Diaries

Bank Holiday Monday, and I had the first opportunity in some time to have a good long look in the mirror.  And what did I see?  What does the writer ever see – the disconnect between mind and body, between that other in the reflection and the me whose words long to scream out across the paper. So I sit down to write.

The figure of a woman standing in front of a mirror is a recurrent one in Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and critic Emily Dalgarno has argued that such images are related to a childhood trauma that Woolf recounted in her 1939 memoir “A Sketch of the Past.” In “Sketch,” Woolf recalls the “small looking-glass in the hall at Talland House” and the “looking glass-shame” she continued to feel, and links this shame to being molested as a “very small” child by her much older step-brother in front of that hallway mirror.2  Dalgarno argues that that this event constitutes the primal source for Woolf’s fiction in which:

“the moment of becoming a female subject often occurs before the looking-glass.  Although many of her characters use the mirror to check their social identity, others glimpse the split between visual subject and object that brings subjectivity into play.  … the mirror scene in Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’ figures the process by means of which her fiction challenges and accommodates the ideology of patriarchy” . 

Dalgarno concludes that for Woolf, such mirror images reflect “not a face, but a structure in which the face is visualised in the context of its resemblance to its lineage” , and thus confront the split between subject and subjectivity – the felt divide between one’s public and the private self that is the central dilemma in virtually all Western women’s writing. 

For many women writers, diaries worked like mirrors, reflecting this split between self as subject and self as object – but they were also windows – framing and offering escape from, the split-voiced selves of the writers that composed them.  Moreover, in the major fictions of writers like Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Louisa May Alcott, we encounter not only mirrors but also numerous images of windows, open and closed.  If Woolf’s mirrors symbolise her characters’ resemblance to, and divergence from social and familial expectations, and Mansfield and Alcott were likewise concerned with the divide between their public and private selves, between family duty and artistic desire.   These concerns, I would argue, were first reflected on in their diaries and then reimagined, or reframed, into new forms in their fiction: into symbols of mirrors confronted and avoided, windows open and closed.   While the stories that Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott published are very different, their shared need to construct a written borderland between self-reflection and public revelation is striking. Their diaries functioned as transformative locations in which personal concerns became textual artefacts. As Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott turned from journal to storytelling and back again, their diaries enabled them to define their writerly efforts against the past, and transform the split they felt between their public and private selves into figurative discourse.

Towards the end of her life, there is a perceptible difference in Woolf’s tone in the journal, as its focus turns decidedly inward. In one of her final entries she considers this change:

I intend no introspection.  I mark Henry James’s sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency.  By that means it becomes serviceable.  Or so I hope. […] I will go down with my colours flying.  This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in (DVW 5:357).

By such observance of both her public and private selves, and her negotiations of the division she felt between them, Woolf’s diary offers more than biographical fact or insights into the sources of her fiction: it was a mirror in which she could reflect upon her ancestry and her private desires, a frame in which she could contextualise her duties as a Victorian daughter and a public figure, and an open window that allowed her to transform these struggles into a symbolic language of subjectivity. For this reason her diaries stand alongside her novels as her flying colours, her statues against the sky.