Louisa May Alcott (with Alice Rutkowski)

Today we’re talking about beloved American author Louisa May Alcott, best known as the author of Little Women. Joining me to discuss Alcott’s life and career is Dr. Alice Rutkowski, Chair and Associate Professor of English at SUNY Geneseo.

Our discussion today will look at Alcott’s life through a queer, trans lens, which Alice has written about in academic articles.

Learn more about Alice and her work at geneseo.edu/english/rutkowski

This is Peyton Thomas’s NYT article on this topic, as mentioned by Alice in the podcast: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/24/opinion/did-the-mother-of-young-adult-literature-identify-as-a-man.html

Listen to the queer Little Women podcast Jo’s Boys here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2uY5Gp38XQYColfh5VHrOw

And buy a copy of my friend Amanda Sellet’s retelling Belittled Women at this link: https://bookshop.org/a/1419/9780358567356

Get Vulgar History merch at vulgarhistory.com/store (best for US shipping) and vulgarhistory.redbubble.com (better for international shipping)

Support Vulgar History on Patreon 

Vulgar History is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, which means that a small percentage of any books you click through and purchase will come back to Vulgar History as a commission. Use this link to shop there and support Vulgar History.

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices






Total Score:



Vulgar History Podcast

Louisa May Alcott with Alice Rutkowski

October 11, 2023

Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster and today I’m joined by Alice Rutkowski. Alice is the Chair and Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York Geneseo. I think it’s called SUNY Geneseo, but I wanted to explain what I was saying. I connected with her actually through, friend of the podcast, Kit Heyam who was on just a few weeks ago talking about the trans, Roman emperor, Elagabalus. So, okay… I’ll backtrack.

One of the members of the Patreon, whose name is Allie – thank you so much for the suggestion, Allie – said that she had come across some writing or just some blogs about Louisa May Alcott, a trans-affirming reading of Louisa May Alcott’s life and work and I thought that was so interesting. So, I contacted Kit, friend of the podcast, to ask if they had come across any readings that they would recommend on this topic and Kit forwarded me this article by Alice Rutkowski and suggested that I get in touch with her, so I did and then here we all are! I was so excited Alice joined me for this podcast because she teaches and studies American literature and also, various other things.

So, we’re talking about Louisa May Alcott who is famously the writer of Little Women but also, she lived during the Civil War era of America, which is not a time period I know super a lot about. So, Alice was really able to help put everything in context about Louisa’s life and experiences both in this kind of queer reading of her life and also just the American history of it all. So, I was so grateful Alice joined me for this conversation. I found it so fascinating and so interesting so please enjoy this conversation with Alice Rutkowski about Louisa May Alcott.


Ann: I’m joined today by Alice Rutkowski. Welcome, Alice!

Alice: Thank you! Thank you so much for having me.

Ann: Could you please explain to everybody what your historical specialties are?

Alice: So, I’m a faculty member at SUNY Geneseo. For listeners who are not in the state of New York, I teach at a campus of the New York State public college system. I’m an Associate Professor of English and the Chair of the department and I specialize in 19th century American women writers, Civil War reconstruction, and recently, because we may get to this in the podcast, also in the last ten years, I’ve been working on trans identity and trans politics, both in the 19th and 20th century.

Ann: And that really explains the paper that I found that you had written that made me want to invite you on the show, which is about Louisa May Alcott, American writer, who was involved as a nurse in the Civil War and a trans reading of her life, I guess. Can you explain how you came to that topic?

Alice: Absolutely. It is the case that I’m the first person to publish an academic article about this but a number of folks, kind of, in popular culture in the last five years have been starting to move toward this interpretation of hers. So, it’s not an unusual take.

I do quickly want to shout out another podcast that I hope, if people are interested in this episode they’ll listen to, there’s this wonderful podcast also by a Canadian writer and journalist, Peyton Thomas called Jo’s Boys and he’s reading with guests, he’s going through Little Women chapter by chapter and talking about queer and trans readings of every chapter. So, I’m not the only person to think that.

Alcott has a lot of themes in her work, both what we might call her children’s literature and she wrote a lot of what she called blood and thunder tales for adults, sensation stories. She has a lot of themes across all of her writing that have masquerade and acting and disguise that previous scholars often read as feminist or as performance of gender. But with the new understandings in the last, say, 15 to 20 years, the vocabulary we have to talk about trans identities, different more expansive views of gender.

So, I had those earlier readings when I was younger as well, a second-wave reading of Alcott as a feminist who’s angry about not having male privilege but the closer you read Alcott with these newer ideas and terms, newer to us, that we have, the clearer it is to me that we’re talking at least about, in my article, I call it “trans feeling.” I’m a cis lady, I’m not comfortable saying that Alcott was trans, she did not have access to that vocabulary. So, for example, on the very first page of Little Women, which is probably her best-known work that people are familiar with, Jo literally says, “I cannot get over my disappointment in not being a boy.” That’s pretty different than saying, “I wish I had the freedom of being a boy.”

Ann: And I do just want to clarify for the listeners, the same way you do in your paper, we’re using she/her pronouns for Louisa May Alcott. Other people can make other decisions but that’s what we’re doing.

Alice: I’m so glad you mentioned that. Yes, in the paper I also say I’ve chosen to continue to use she/her pronouns, there’s no indication that Alcott used other ones. The idea of changing pronouns, I know you’ve had an episode or two that talked about other folks in the past who were trans. It didn’t seem to occur to Alcott that she could change her pronouns although in her life, she went by Lou, in the way that Josephine in Little Women goes by Jo. She did go by Lou, which is a kind of masculinized version of her name, but I use she/her pronouns for her.

Ann: Exactly. And I think it’s really just being led by how Louisa referred to herself in that way. So, what we’re going to talk about today is kind of Louisa May Alcott’s life in general, and I’m glad you’re here as an American person with a specialty in all these things. I know some stuff about American history but not a lot, so you’ll be able to contextualize a lot of things.

But first, I just want to talk a little bit about Little Women. That’s what I certainly know her most from. There was recently the new movie about it, I grew up watching the Winona Ryder movie about it, obviously the book. So, just things that are in the book, Jo herself, the character starts off saying, “I wish I was a boy,” and things. I’m more familiar, I’ve read the book but I’m more familiar with the more recent movie because that’s what’s in my head. And you know, they have Saoirse Ronan as wearing a man’s jacket and a man’s hat, there’s a lot of tomboy-ish, is how that can be described. Can you talk a bit about Jo’s character in Little Women and just, kind of, gender?

Alice: Greta Gerwig’s movie is definitely plugged into these more, these newer kinds of readings of both Jo and Laurie. In the novel, her best friend ostensibly is a boy. A lot of people are starting to see him as trans-feminine in various different ways. The history of the reception of Jo is really interesting, it’s kind of the history of feminist literary criticism of this period. By which I mean, early second-wave feminism in the ‘70s… Oh, I should back up and say that Alcott is really interesting in that for 19th-century American women writers, a lot of scholars have to do something called recovery work meaning they have to find novels that no one has talked about in 150 years and then make a case for this person being important and needing to be read, and also being good, right? There are ways in which women’s writing from the 19th century is often dismissed entirely. For Alcott, that’s not true, she’s never been out of print and Little Women is the thing that kept her there. Up until, really the 1960s and ‘70s, she was still seen as a children’s writer, both by fans of her work as well as academics studying her.

Second-wave feminism comes along, and Jo is often read as a proto-feminist tomboy but tomboy… There are all sorts of reasons that a girl might express herself in a tomboyish way and some of those may have to do about discomfort in her own gender. A lot of them have to do with wanting access to male privilege, but it’s almost always framed as a phase, right? Something that girls are allowed to do when they’re girls, but they have to grow out of it when they become women. And so, initially, she’ll be read as a proto-feminist.

These early feminist critics also have a good deal of discomfort around the fact that Jo may not be straight, and Jo may not be a girl. A later set of feminist readings are going to start to point out the way Alcott’s whole novel, not just for Jo but for the other three March sisters as well in the novel, who are modelled on Louisa May Alcott’s own sisters and herself, that they’re very much about the strictures of femininity. So, even if the sisters aren’t able to break out of this binary gender, it’s showing all the ways in which they are being disciplined into this gender. And then, in the 1990s on, we get queer theory and now trans theory that’s wanting to look even more expansively at that character.

The last thing I’ll say, because I want to make sure you get in more questions, is that Little Women is such a personal book for so many people; you can list dozens of important women writers who say that this novel was their formative… Elena Ferrante has her two characters read this book together in the first novel in that series. So, when you suggest other readings of Jo to people, it can be very upsetting. If you’re a cis woman who found feminism through Jo, it can be very unnerving to hear about these new interpretations. That previous podcast I referred to, Peyton Thomas wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this past January that again, just made this very simple suggestion, “Maybe Alcott was trans,” and he got a lot of blowback.

Ann: That’s the thing… Two things I’ll say about that. So firstly, I think it’s beautiful that there’s so much interpretation in this book and it could be, part of it is people who love this book and grew up loving this book aren’t used to literary criticism, so they feel like, “How dare you?” Where it’s like, no, this is what scholars do about every book. It’s not saying that anyone’s interpretation is not valid, it’s just saying, “Well, what if it’s this?” And I think it’s really lovely that so many people… Because the character of Jo is very much like, “I want to do something amazing. I don’t feel the same as other people,” and that can be very validating to lots of different types of people; to a cis straight girl who is just like “Yeah, I also want more than what girls are allowed to,” but also to a lesbian, and also to a trans person, a nonbinary person. It’s all valid, it’s not saying that other people’s experiences are not true, we’re just saying, what if this other thing?

The other thing I wanted to mention about what you just said about what happened with that article is my friend, the writer Amanda Sellet, who wrote a young adult novel recently that’s called Belittled Women. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it but it’s almost a parody of Little Women, in a way. It’s about four sisters whose job is working as Little Women reenactors, and they’re named after the characters from Little Women and their lives. They kind of make fun of Little Women a little bit but their lives actually end up paralleling what happens in Little Women. And she got blowback from people being like, “How dare you make fun of Little Women? How dare you have a character named Jo who makes out with somebody?” People are really, really attached to this book and they don’t want it to be treated in any way other than crystalized in amber the way that they read it.

Alice: Absolutely. You’re exactly right, yeah. I’m in no way interested in taking peoples’ interpretations or the pleasure or joy they have from the novel away from them. All of those interpretations continue to have them. The only tricky thing with Alcott is that me and some other people are also making the argument that it might also be Alcott. This is the tricky thing about Little Women, so much of it is autobiographical, but not all of it. So, peoples’ attachments to Jo can kind of bleed into their attachment to Alcott since Jo is kind of the Alcott figure, the Louisa figure in the novel. So, it’s not just literary interpretation, it’s both.

Ann: That’s true, yeah. And I think that’s also where, especially the two movie versions, really make that parallel very clear because both of the movies end with the character of Jo writing a book that is called Little Women. When I was thinking about and talking to some of my friends who are American about Little Women and its importance to so many people, I think the fact that it’s so close to in some ways, to Louisa May Alcott’s real life, that’s where people feel like this is the story of Louisa, Jo is Louisa. So, to challenge anything, any queer interpretation of the character becomes an interpretation of the writer and then…

Alice: Exactly. Yeah, absolutely. We might get into it if you want to talk a bit more about Little Women. It was written in two volumes. So, the first volume is going to come out in 1868 and it’s going to get such an extraordinary reception that she’s prevailed on to write the second volume. But the second volume is also where things start to depart… Again, not everything in the first volume is exactly her life either but the second volume is going to start to depart more from Lou’s life. In particular, the funny marriage that she makes for Jo in the second volume, Lou never got married, certainly not to a man, but did not get married. There are lots of arguments about what that move in the second volume made. There are passages in her journal where she talks about not necessarily– There might have been pressure from her publisher, there’s not documentary evidence for that, but she definitely talks about pressure from fan mail, from girls wanting to know who Jo was going to marry. So, it’s possible she responded to that.

It’s sort of interesting to think about the form of the novel too. For women writing novels about women, what other kinds of endings were possible for women in the 19th century? Is it narrative pressures? There was a great article from some second-wave feminists, I think it was written in the 1980s, that suggested that Alcott is secretly murdering Jo and replacing her with someone else, that the marriage simply doesn’t make sense to who she is. Gerwig’s film handles that in a really, kind of, clever, meta way. But that’s something that people really love to argue about because it’s not, it doesn’t seem like something Alcott would have chosen if she had complete control about what to do in volume two.

Ann: And that’s I mean, we are in a minute going to get into her biography and her character and personality and stuff. But I think my interpretation, just after having read a bit about Louisa May Alcott and her writings and what she was like, she was kind of like, “My readers are dumbasses. [Alice laughs] Fuck you. You want Jo to get married. Fuck you, here’s who she’s going to marry.” There’s a vibe of that.

Alice: Yes. Her readers kept writing her fan letters saying, “She has to marry Laurie.” And that says something, that says a lot about Alcott where she’s like, “Absolutely not! That is not what that relationship is about.” And then she goes and marries Laurie to Amy. But I totally agree with that interpretation. I think she was like, “Okay, I’m going to marry her, but I’ll make it really weird.”

Ann: “You want Jo to be married? Well, here’s what’s going to happen.” I have a friend who is a big fan of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and that classic sort of novel. She’s always been very disappointed that Laurie and Jo didn’t get married, which is fine, which is valid. Lots of people feel that way. Except there was a book that came out, I think just this year or last year, it’s a published book but it’s effectively a what-if fan fiction sort of thing that’s like what if Jo and Laurie did end up together? So, it’s kind of that ending for people who want that. Again, I think it’s lovely that people have such strong feelings about the characters and what they should do. But I also think it’s interesting that Louisa May Alcott was not just like, “This is what the fans want so I’ll make it happen.” She said, “This is what the fans want… Fuck you, fans!” It’s great.

Alice: Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree.

Ann: The fact that not just Jo doesn’t marry Laurie, but the fact that Amy does! It’s just like, what is happening?

Alice: Yeah, absolutely.

Ann: Okay, so we’re going to go through Louisa May Alcott’s life but especially… We’re going to talk about it, we’re going to talk about Louisa’s life but also the queer aspect of it, of her. A lot happened to her before Little Women was written and I want to talk about that. First, can you talk just about… Some of her diaries still can be read, right? Not all of them but some of them?

Alice: Yeah. There’s a great… I’m forgetting, it’s over on my bookshelf, there are some that have been published and there’s a great edition of her, kind of, edited diaries. There are more available in the Harvard Library, they have more, so not all of them have been published. And I guess we’ll get into this if you want to talk about her dad, Bronson, but from the earliest age, she and her sisters were all encouraged to keep journals to sort of talk about… Her dad was kind of messed up in various different ways, but he was an education reformer and there are some good things about him. He believed in self-reflection. He also read their journals and would write on them in ways that were very intrusive. But it’s a habit that she was encouraged to do as a child as part of her education and it’s something she kept up with almost her whole life.

Ann: Yeah, so a lot of the information we have about her and what she thought about things were coming from her, from her journals. You don’t have to guess.

Alice: Yeah, and there are some collected letters too; there’s a decent number of letters available.

Ann: Yeah. So, the main source for this biography that I’m going to be reading is from The Women in World History Volume 1, an article by Krista Martin and what’s interesting is this is a huge reference multi-volume set that they have at my local public library that I like to go to sometimes. I’m always looking at obscure women from random places and I’m excited if there’s a page. For her, there were 11 pages!

Alice: Yeah. [laughs]

Ann: There’s a lot known about her, which is for me, for this show, rare. What a treat. Okay, so she was born the second child of Bronson and Abigail May Alcott, her mother was known as Abba. In Little Women, the mother is called Marmee so, you know, mothers with unusual names. You just mentioned Bronson, so what’s his deal?

Alice: [laughs] Well, the first thing I’ll mention is that if we’re talking about the differences between Little Women the set of novels and her life, in the first volume of Little Women her dad is supposedly off at the Civil War being a chaplain. Her dad absolutely never went to the Civil War, she just needed basically to find a way to get rid of him because he was so difficult.

He was a really interesting guy. He’s like, best friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson who is an important American writer, philosopher, and poet, and Henry David Thoreau, who readers might know best as the author of Walden, where he decides that he’s going to live entirely by himself in the woods, by Walden Pond, this little lake in Concord, Massachusetts, build his own house, only eat what he’s grown himself. The book in a lot of ways has been an inspiration for the modern environmentalist movement, people will still absolutely quote Thoreau before things about sustainability. And then the family is also friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is the famous American novelist who wrote Scarlet Letter amongst other things.

So, Bronson is, sort of, part of this group of men who were thinking these big thoughts and wanting to think broadly about what it means to be American and what it would mean to be, kind of, an American philosopher. He’s the least financially successful of all of these people. By all accounts, he was a really difficult person to get along with. He did have some really radical, useful ideas that are still with us; he was among a group of people who had really radical ideas around the education of children which now we think of as very normal. So, the idea, he believed children were born good and basically the best educational environment is just to put them in a supportive environment, which now we think of as education. But that is absolutely not the way children were educated in the United States in the 19th century. They were kind of thought of as mini-adults, everything was rote memorization. So, he did have some pretty radical, romantic ideas about the education of children that have sort of stayed with us.

But he had trouble holding down a job. For him, it was almost about principles, the gap between theory and praxis was really bad for the people that depended on him economically. Abba, who is Marmee in the books, was almost always having to figure something out in terms of making money, and keeping her girls fed and clothed. So, for him, principles were often more important than his family eating, which is difficult to read now. There are more generous readings of him that suggest he might have suffered from various kinds of mental illness that now might be able to be treated. But he was a difficult person, and he was not a great father.

Ann: Yeah, this is sort of like, if you’re going to be a guy who builds a house and lives in the woods and writes a book about it, great. But if you’re a guy with four children and a wife to support, it’s like, maybe get a job and let people eat protein.

Alice: Right. [laughs] Yeah.

Ann: Because they had this sort of like… There was somebody else who did this. I think it was Percy Shelley or Lord Byron, one of them, who were just like, we’re going to be really good people, we’re going to only eat bread. It was something about being vegetarians, but to them it was, we’re just not going to eat anything with vitamins or sustenance to it. Anyway, do you know anything about… I came across this fact that he was like, “We’re just going to eat a spiritual diet.” Oh, here we go. Let me see. “They subsisted on bread and vegetables because he believed a diet not dependant on the sacrifice of animals purified them spiritually.”

Alice: Yeah. So, some of this sounds really heady although there are important political aspects to it. So, for example, the group of folks with this belief also refused to wear cotton but that was because it was raised by enslaved people in the South, right? So, it maybe seems ridiculous but then there are some political principles in here.

So, Bronson and a couple of English dudes that he met, made an attempt at a utopian commune, which a number of people did in the 19th century. It’s interesting, Thoreau actually didn’t want to be on a commune, he just wanted to be by himself. But they made this attempt which was Bronson and these English thinkers and philosophers who were also men and they brought along Abba and the girls. The men spent most of their time sitting under trees and talking about big ideas and Abba ended up doing all of the work. If people are interested in a hilarious satire of this, Louisa May Alcott wrote a short story called “Transcendental Wild Oats,” that I would recommend to anyone. You can probably even find it by googling it. It’s hilarious in the way that it skewers these male big thinkers and leaving the work for girls and women instead of doing their part. They wanted a self-sustaining farm, but they weren’t willing to farm. [chuckles]

Ann: Yeah! Wasn’t there something about Thoreau where his mother was doing his laundry and cooking for him or something when he was claiming to be self-sufficient?

Alice: Yeah, historians have definitely found that he was getting “more help.” It’s the kind of thing where, you know, he was very, very close with Emerson so he’d go to Emerson’s house and be like, “Hey, can I borrow an ax?” Or people would invite him over to dinner or Emerson would bring by food. It’s not entirely… I mean, it’s tricky. I think it’s not a binary where he’s either a slacker or a perfect person. I mean, his experiments in a lot of ways were still really interesting. My students always get– He also wrote, what’s the name of the essay where basically he goes to jail for his beliefs, he’s against the war in Mexico. And he writes this essay from jail and my students are always like, “Oh, but Emerson bailed him out. He was only there for one night.” And I like to say, “Well, but have you ever been to jail for your beliefs?” It can be both and. He can have privilege but also have done a kind of scary, radical thing. Both are true at the same time.

Ann: Yeah, yeah. My lens of these guys sitting under the tree while Abba has to do everything is just like, get it together you guys. [Alice laughs] Eventually, they wind up in Concord, Massachusetts. Why did they move there? Do you know?

Alice: So, that’s where all the famous folks live. I think they move in and out of Concord but at various points, Emerson is helping them out or they move into Hawthorne’s old house. The historical Alcott house, Orchard House is still there if people want to go and visit the historic site. So basically, some of their famous friends were able to help them out.

Ann: So, while she was living there, Louisa or Lou as a child was described as rambunctious, and full of energy. Bronson thought that this was unfeminine and improper, but she liked to be able to run around, she liked being in nature, and this is where she met Henry David Thoreau, who this essay claims was “her lifelong, unvoiced love.”

Alice: Yeah, so I mean you can’t prove the absence of things. That strikes me as completely untrue. [Ann giggles] She’s open that she prefers… Again, so it’s not openly, she doesn’t talk about romances with women, but she talks openly about preferring girls over boys, in terms of desiring them. Also, recent scholars of Thoreau think that he might have been gay or at least sort of gay and Ace, and it makes perfect sense that she would have found him so appealing because that’s the kind of boy or man she wanted to be. Thoreau is sort of a model of independence and self-sufficiency. So, they absolutely had a relationship where they’d go pick berries together and stuff but this idea that she always longed for him romantically strikes me as wrong.

Ann: Yeah. What you just said was very interesting. The fact that this essay was like, “We’re pretty sure she was secretly in love with him and never wrote about it, but we think this was in her heart.” It’s like, what? Okay. Clearly, they had this relationship, she was inspired by him. And she also liked being alone, she liked being in nature. We see that. It’s unavoidable, like Jo, as a character was like, “You’re not feminine enough.” People were seeing that in her as well.

Alice: I was just going to jump in and say, that description from the encyclopedia about her being, I’m forgetting, rambunctious or disobedient. Again, some of this seems to suggest some evidence, again, I don’t want to say what Lou Alcott was but again, this idea that she’s chafing against these expectations, not only of femininity, which most of us women now who are firmly identified as cis women would have chafed against as well in the 19th century, right, it was awful. I think it goes further for her. It’s not just, “Oh, I don’t want to be this kind of woman,” but she’s being put in this box that’s so restrictive, even more restrictive than her sisters who seemed comfortable as women but didn’t like the limitations that patriarchy put on them.

Ann: And we’re going to talk about her story with the Italian siblings [Alice laughs] but that’s coming later, because that makes me think about that. But anyway, so in her writing, these are some quotes from her journal. Her father especially and presumably her mother and society were like, “Don’t act this way, try and be a better person.” And she tried. She says,

People think I’m wild and queer, but Mother understands and helps me. Now I’m going to work really for I feel a true desire to improve and be a help and comfort, not a care and sorrow to my dear Mother.

So, she wanted to “improve herself.” She wanted to be the sort of daughter that they wanted her to be but that’s just not who she was. And that’s a struggle that people relate to! That queer people relate to, that trans people relate to, cis people relate to. It’s just like, yeah, if who you are is at odds with who your parents want then that’s hard, that’s rough. Then this says, “For the next several years as she bent to the task of remoulding herself, her journals were blank.” [laughs softly] So…

Alice: Yeah. And again, I like your reading of that a lot, that it doesn’t… A lot of that does end up in the way that Jo thinks about herself in the novel, often in the first volume, it’s all of the girls… In some ways, Little Women is fairly conventional, it’s got some really, kind of, subversive stuff, some of it is hidden and some of it is not but all the girls are working to be better people, to become little women, and that’s the thing that for contemporary readers, sometimes it seems like she’s compromising or can’t say what she thinks or something. But for Jo, the thing she’s often working to get better about is her temper. And certainly, the idea that women and girls aren’t supposed to be angry, you need to treat people well. I’m not saying you should [laughs] randomly shout at people but the idea that anger or annoyance is not an emotion that women should have because it’s unladylike, that struggle in the novel speaks to what you’re talking about, these feelings about being trapped and it comes out as anger and annoyance.

Ann: That reminds me too about another character from this era of fiction that a lot of people grow up really feeling a kinship to, which is Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, who is also a little girl with a temper. Little girls see these characters who have so much feeling, and it just spills over, and you relate to that. Little boys, little anybody can see these characters and be like, “I’m like that too.” There’s something so relatable about that.

Alice: To state the obvious, those assumptions about the way gender should work in terms of emotions are still with us. The “Boys will be boys” stuff, where a child is misbehaving and treating another child poorly, which is what… children don’t know the rules yet. But the idea is you step in and explain what the right thing is to do and still, for boys, they’re often not parented in ways that remind them that they need to be thinking about others. And we probably go too far the other way with girls. Where girls, even now, have to constantly be thinking about others, how are people looking at you? How are you affecting them? How can you take responsibility for other people’s feelings? All of this really dangerous stuff.

Ann: And then that also lends to – and you get to this in your essay as well – Jo voices that she wishes she was a boy and that could mean so many things but one of the things it could mean is just, “I want to be able to be mad sometimes.”

Alice: Yes, right.

Ann: It doesn’t necessarily mean, “I’m uncomfortable in my physiology,” it could just mean, “I want to get to be like what the boys are like.” Which… It could be both. It could be both. “I’m not comfortable with my physiology and I want to be able to express anger sometimes.” It doesn’t necessarily mean dysphoria.

Alice: Absolutely. And that actually brings me back, because you asked an earlier question about tomboyism because this is often the biggest descriptor that both popularly and scholarly write Jo as a tomboy. But I guess the reminder for me is that tomboy is a description of an expression of gender, it’s not necessarily a gender itself. So, as you said, girls or women might seek out that expression of gender for all kinds of reasons. It might be that they think “Oh actually, I’m a boy.” And it might be, “I’m not going to settle into conventional femininity because that’s right for me,” Or it might mean they’ll end up as a kind of masculine woman. But this idea that that says something fundamental about the person, again, there are too many interpretations. What matters is the intention of the person expressing their gender in that way.

Ann: Well, we see in Louisa, in the sense of this time period where she was trying to improve herself, this was something she herself struggled with. She wanted to try to be a different kind of person, a more socially acceptable woman than what her personality was. I wanted to mention this because I found this interesting, you mentioned the forward-thinkingness… Bronson, I feel like, deadbeat dad, piece of shit. [Alice laughs] But there are good things in this family and there are good things in his philosophy. There’s a part where Abba… So, Louisa has a sister named Anna who is kind of the Meg character. The two of them “Helped Abba teach a group of Black children to read because the city provided no schools for Blacks” is how this phrased this, sorry, I don’t mean to use the word ‘Blacks’, this is an old essay. They were involved in the abolition movement, right? The family was very, very progressive for a white family in America in this time period.

Alice: Yeah. And there’s a later, I think, again, I don’t have the whole sequence of all of Bronson’s various failed schools but there’s a later school, I think in the Massachusetts area, maybe in Concord or Boston that he opens that’s meant to be progressive and it’s serving mostly, well-off white families with progressive politics. They decided to admit one Black student through that school, a free Black person, and the school was shut down. Again, this is tricky. It goes back to Bronson’s kind of theory on practice thing, that is the right thing to do but it also means he can’t support his family anymore. So, to suggest there’s some easy answer… But again, they helped Black fugitives who had escaped from enslavement. Again, I think often now, at least in American history, it seems really easy to be like, “Of course that was the right thing to do!” This was still a pretty radical and dangerous position to take.

Ann: Like, they were part of the Underground Railroad, right?

Alice: Yeah, yeah. It’s weird to say something like, “They were a stop on the Underground Railroad,” but they were ready to help fugitives. It was sort of this loose network of people who were ready to help when they could and this was a pretty dangerous thing to do in the 1850s after the… In 1850 this law was passed in the United States called The Fugitive Slave Law. Before this law, white people in the North could be against slavery but they didn’t really have to think about it all that much, it didn’t affect them if they didn’t want it to affect them. The law in 1850 requires, basically law enforcement and judges in the North to help catch escaped people, fugitive people, and any person found helping them ends up with big fines and jail time.

So, this is one of the things that gets us heading toward the Civil War. Whereas again, white people, if they didn’t want to think about it before, they could be anti-slavery but like, I don’t know, like someone posting something on their Facebook page but not actually doing anything. People then sort of had to make a decision. It basically nationalizes slavery even in places where slavery is not legal. So, slavery was not legal in Massachusetts, but everyone was forced to help catch fugitive enslaved people and send them back to slavery.

Ann: So, that’s really, I don’t want to discount how major that was and how… I keep using the word progressive, but this family was doing things in this era, in the 1850s, that people now in 2023 would be like, “Eugh, I’d rather just post a black square on my Instagram.”

Alice: Exactly.

Ann: They were stepping up in a real way and so I respect that. But that’s also what’s interesting. To be progressive– And I’m saying the family, Bronson is the head of the family, very much the family was following his direction, Abba also had strong principles, clearly. But that they were so progressive in those ways but at the same time were like, “Oh, but Louisa, could you have a more traditional feminine expression?” It’s an interesting dichotomy that they’re cool in one way, but in the other way, they’re just like, “Could you stop having a temper? Thank you.” It’s interesting.

Alice: Yeah, that’s a great point and it’s a reminder that these kinds of intersections don’t move in tandem in the way that we would want them. There were various anti-slavery societies in the United States that had separate organizations for men and women. These are people committed to radical politics, to freeing people from enslavement, but the idea that they might let women be in leadership roles was a huge issue. And then the reminder that being anti-slavery doesn’t mean you’re anti-racist; there are plenty of people who didn’t think Black people should be enslaved but also didn’t think they should be equal.

Ann: So, I like this turn of events. Louisa was always writing in her journal, I think she and her sisters were all writing plays that they would act out, which we also see in Little Women where they have that scene, I presume it’s in the book because it’s in both of the movies – again, I have read the book but the movies just imprinted more strongly on me – where they all dress up as men and are like, “Here, here! Here’s my new play,” and they all have fake pipes and beards and hats. So, gender is like, you know, there’s some gender stuff in that story.

Anyway, so she was always writing and then, 1851, she had her first poem published, under the name Flora Fairfield. Three years later, another piece, a story by Flora Fairfield comes out, she’s paid $10 and then her first novel, Flower Fables was published. I appreciate this about Louisa May Alcott, she’s 22 years old and she’s just like, “Wait, if I write stuff, I can make money and then we don’t have to worry about my deadbeat dad anymore and I can be the family breadwinner.” And the family was like, “Yeah actually, great.” So, she didn’t have to teach as much, and she just started writing. She clearly liked writing, I don’t want to say she didn’t like writing, but she saw it as a career and so she saw it as, “If I write this sort of thing, it will be published therefore, I will write this sort of thing.” And that’s how her career progressed. She was very, not mercenary… practical, she was very practical.

Alice: And savvy too, I think. Because I read in advance the little bio you were going to use and it’s interesting, I do think there’s this little, in some ways I think this is its own kind of sexism, this idea that writing for money can’t produce great art, which is absolutely not the case. There are a lot of famous man writers from the 19th century who had family money in various ways so maybe they didn’t have to… I mean Hawthorne is someone who is a little bit like that. But the fact that she was really savvy and could write in a lot of different genres and saw what her market wanted, to me, makes it seem that she’s really versatile and savvy rather than, like, “Augh, she has to write for money.”

Ann: Yeah, or “She’s a sell-out,” or whatever. Yeah, you think about someone like… I don’t know a lot about this, but I believe I’ve read that Charles Dickens was paid per word or something so he’s like, “Oh, I’m going to write the longest novels you’re ever going to see,” and no one’s like “Charles Dickens, he was writing for money!” You’re right, I think it’s a gender thing.

Alice: That’s a great comparison and she was a huge Dickens fan. There is tons of stuff in Little Women where she’s borrowed character names and stuff like that so that’s a great comparison.

Ann: Yeah, so she realizes she can make money from writing, and you know what? Good for her. She has this skill and she’s able to do it and she sees, “When I write like this, I get paid and then we don’t have to worry about my deadbeat dad.” She grew more confident in her twenties. This essay says, “Her rising status as the family breadwinner gave Louisa immeasurable pleasure.” So, it’s not just like, she’s doing this for money. She’s doing this for money because her family needs money because they’ve been eating potatoes for ten years…

Alice: [laughs] Right, yeah.

Ann: It’s like when you hear about actors who work their way up and they get some breakout role, they’re like, “I was able to buy my mother a house.” So often, that’s what people do.

Alice: Exactly. Exactly. And I mean, the part about her getting pleasure I agree with. She was someone who, you can see in her journals, she doesn’t love all her literary output equally but sometimes she’ll even say, “I don’t think that story is that great, but I got to practice X, Y, and Z.” She’s someone who is seeing, I got better at plot, or I got better at characterization or something. She’s a working writer, which in any decade is admirable. Most writers don’t make enough to live.

Ann: No, this is like goals to a lot of people, what she’s able to do. And she was supporting her family. How this phrases it is, “She outgrew her position in the family as the troublesome one and her earnings from the writings made her the glue that kept the Alcotts together.” She really revitalized and saved her family. She used to be the black sheep of the family but now she’s the one like, “Thank god for Louisa,” which is an interesting and delightful turn after the way that she felt for so long, that there was something wrong with her and now she’s the one who saves the day. I do want to note because we’ve been talking in recent episodes… I’ve been doing these Mary, Queen of Scots episodes and I’ve been talking about the importance of sewing and embroidery. She took up sewing to supplement her writing income. Good for her. Again, here’s a skill that you have that people pay you for; cash in on it.

Okay. So, when the story gets similar to Little Women, I’m like, “Oh, I see where she got that from.” So, her youngest sisters fell ill with scarlet fever which they caught from a charitable visit to a nearby family, which is what happens to Beth in Little Women.

Alice: Yes. In Little Women the first volume, she has Beth get better and then kills her off in volume two. So, the timeline is a little bit different than in her life, but Beth’s fate is ultimately the same.

Ann: Yeah, which is interesting actually, I do want to mention, this was a conversation I had years ago, I wrote an article about it. Little Women was published in two parts, and it’s never been out of print so there are some editions of Little Women that are just the first part. It ends Beth is sick and she gets better. So, there are people out there who are like, “I love Little Women, I read it.” But in the version they read, Beth doesn’t die.

Alice: That happened to me in high school because I had an edition that I read over and over and over and when I got to high school, someone mentioned Beth’s death and I was like, just beside myself. [laughs]

Ann: Yeah. She gets better! She gets better! So, it’s interesting the way that it was published.

Alice: Just a little bit off, do you know that episode of Friends?

Ann: Yeah!

Ann: There’s this episode of Friends where Joey and Rachel decide to read each other’s favourite books and so she reads The Shining, and she reads Little Women and it’s actually really sweet for all the sort of retrograde things that Friends doesn’t hold up. But Joey is like, “Is she going to get better? Is she going to get better?” And Rachel is like, “No…” [chuckles]

Ann: And Louisa May Alcott, I mentioned she has the older sister Anna, one of her younger sisters is called May, which is just Amy with the letters moved, and she literally has a sister called Beth.

Alice: She’s the only sister whose name she doesn’t change, yeah.

Ann: And Beth, real Beth dies of scarlet fever. So, Louisa had nursed her diligently, slept at her bedside, she was very, very, very, very, very close to her sisters in a way that the sisters are very close in Little Women as well. So, her older sister Anna who is the Meg character announces that she’s going to marry somebody and then, like in Little Women, Louisa gets upset that her family… It’s like, we were the sisters, then Beth dies, and the oldest sister is leaving to get married. She’s like, “No. I like this life that we had.” This is where I think she’s like, “I wish I could…” – Is this in the book or is this in real life?

Alice: It’s in the book. She says, “I wish I could marry Meg myself and keep her safe in the family.”

Ann: Yeah. So, I feel like that’s similar to how Louisa May Alcott was feeling, she just wanted them to all be together.

And then, in the fall of 1859, she had her greatest publishing success to date when one of her stories was accepted by the Atlantic Monthly, which earned her $50 which I’m sure conversion rate is spectacular. Anyway, so she’s killing it, she’s killing it, she’s writing these stories, they’re being put in these very prestigious publications. And then her younger sister May/Amy also leaves the home to go to study and teach painting, much like Amy in Little Women. So, the Civil War. What year does the Civil War start?

Alice: 1861.

Ann: Yeah. So, this is like, 1860, she’s killing the game, writing these stories. And then the Civil War starts and so she’s like, “I want to be a soldier/a man,” is what she says… Basically?

Alice: Yeah. She wishes that she could enlist as a soldier. There are some memoirs… This has happened in every war ever where women disguise themselves as men to fight in the war. Alcott was not one of those, there are a number of memoirs from American women who did do that. But what she does do is she signs up to be a nurse in Washington DC, which is, if you think about the geography of America, it’s actually sort of strange that Washington DC was and is the capital of our nation. Richmond, which is not that far in Virginia, not that far from Washington DC, was the capital of the Confederacy. So, Washington DC sits right on top of Virginia and so Washington DC is basically on the front lines in a lot of ways. So, there are a lot of hospitals there; when they can evacuate the boys and men who had been wounded, they often would bring them there.

Women as nurses was not entirely a thing yet in terms of being a profession. Women and girls, of course, did all of the work in the home of nursing people. But it was considered improper, especially for unmarried women to be nurses to men they didn’t know, because they’d have to see them naked and wash them and stuff like that. That was very, very scandalous. The Civil War is basically going to invent the profession of nursing for women in the United States in various different ways. This is this opportunity that Lou suddenly has to join the war effort in some sort of way.

Ann: What it says here is that “They wanted middle-aged women to serve as nurses,” and she was just like, “Mmm, I’m just going to go anyway.” Because she was like, I don’t know, 25.

Alice: Yeah. although 25 is already a spinster. [laughs]

Ann: True, true.

Alice: In the 19th century but you’re absolutely right. They really only wanted middle-aged, married women, but they were starting to make exceptions because, like every war, both sides are like, “Oh, this is going to last a couple of weeks and then it’ll be over, and that’s not what happened.”

So, she does get this placement in this Washington hospital, she comes down with typhoid and has to leave after six weeks, which made her ill for the rest of her life in various different ways. But it also then led to her, she wrote an account of that called Hospital Sketches that started as letters home and then she compiled them, published them in a magazine, and it became a book. And that was her first really big literary success. And that’s something else that I would, it’s pretty short, that I would recommend to people if you’re a newbie to Louisa May Alcott, the authorly voice is so hilarious and modern. I always tell my students, I guess not Twitter now, but Twitter a couple of years ago… I feel like Alcott would have killed it on Twitter; she’s hilarious and has this really snarky authorial voice that I really enjoy.

Ann: So, you mentioned that she got typhoid. Again, this is an older-ish essay that I’m looking at but it was saying that she was treated with mercury and it was the mercury poisoning that is part of what led to her lifelong illness from then.

Alice: Yeah, it caused health problems for the rest of her life in various kinds of, I guess it’s early arthritis, but it would cause pain throughout her body. She actually taught herself later in life to write with her left hand so that when her right hand became exhausted and strained, partially in response to this chronic health condition she has, she could write with her left hand.

Ann: Which is like, killing it. She’s just like, “Let’s go. I’m going to write; this is what I do.” Around this point in time, she found that her more literary writing didn’t make as much money as the passionate and racy stories. She wrote something called “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” for which she earned her largest payment, $100. Knowing that these sorts of stories were racy or whatever, she published these, maybe you can tell me why, but she published these stories under the name A.M. Bernard.

Alice: Yeah, I mean, the only thing I’ll say is she actually was writing all of these genres simultaneously. She’ll sort of have a journal entry where she’s like, “I just got something accepted at the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s,” which are these high-brow literary magazines. And in the same breath, she’ll be like, “I just submitted this story to Frank Leslie’s,” which is this, kind of, trashier… She’s actually kind of writing everything all at the same time. I mean, eventually, she’ll make so much money with Little Women that she seems to have given up the sensational stories, but she was sort of writing everything all at the same time.

So, she wins, I think it was Frank Leslie’s, she wins a contest where she submits a story and gets accepted and makes a bunch of money, so she starts writing a bunch of those as well. So, some of them were published anonymously, some were published under this pseudonym, A.M. Bernard. The thought is that she doesn’t want her name or her family’s name associated with these other kinds of genres. And that did also make it harder for scholars to find later on. Though she talks very openly in her journal, she’ll be like, “I got paid for this and then I got paid for this.” It’s not super hard to follow the dots.

Ann: Yeah, because the sensational stories, those were, it was like, in the 20th century, the mid-late 20th century is when scholars found them and put them together.

Alice: Yes.

Ann: Yeah. So, she’s, again, killing it, she’s writing all this stuff and then she goes to Europe with her sister, and she didn’t like it there, I believe. Right?

Alice: Yeah. So, she goes as, like, it’s a rich family who has an invalid daughter who is also named Anna and she goes as a companion for that person. There were some things she liked about it but it’s not the kind of job, she’s not travelling on her own dime so it’s not the kind of thing where she can say, “I’m going to go off to that museum or I’m going to go off to that restaurant.” So, some of that trip she enjoyed, and some was really challenging.

Ann: And there’s something about– This is not in the essay I’m reading but I just remembered that there’s a historical fiction novel that imagines her time in Europe because she fell in love with a man, maybe, [Alice chuckles] and then she burned all of her diary entries from that time, or something like that?

Alice: And this is one of those, [hesitant tone] maybe she fell in love with him? So, when she was younger, saying that she was friends with boys was not strange, people were friends with people of the same age. She had a long correspondence with someone more her age where she got to talk about guy stuff, the letters to that person are very much about, like, their shared, boyish interests. And so, she does meet this young Polish guy. So, the only thing that is… At this point he’s significantly younger than her, I’m forgetting the age difference. I don’t know, you know, no one knows for sure whether it was romantic. Again, in terms of the way she felt about boys, it often seemed more about identification than desire and her own longing to have that kind of freedom and gender presentation. So, that’s the reading I’m convinced of but you’re right that no one knows for sure.

Ann: So, she went to Europe, things happened, those diaries don’t tell us exactly what happened. And then, [laughs] this is the most terrible sentence. Again, I appreciate this long encyclopedia. I’ll just read you what it says, “For Alcott, the next 20 years were predictable, lifeless, and sad.”

Alice: Yeah, I saw that entry too. It’s true that there were a lot of things that were difficult. She spent the rest of her life caring for aging parents and I do think that that can take its toll. But also, she got pretty wealthy from Little Women, she had, like, tons of fans, she was able to provide for her family, and even for the things she wanted much more easily. I mean, you probably saw, her dad finally dies, and she dies a couple of days later. So, it is the case that I don’t think she was fulfilled in the way that we would want her to be, reading how amazing she is. But I think that’s a little bit of an overstatement. She had lots of friends, she adopted her sister’s kid; May dies after childbirth and she adopts her baby. But she also adopts Anna’s boys when they’re adults, just to make sure they get her money.

Ann: And they changed their last name to Alcott.

Alice: And they changed their last name to Alcott, yeah. This is one of the things I like to say is that, you know, this idea, she’s thinking about privilege and patrilineality. The people that change their names are women when they get married, and so her insistence on that change was interesting to me too. She said, “I want to be a father to Anna’s boys.”

Ann: Yeah! A father! The gender stuff is just, it’s really like, what’s the word? … Fluid. It’s very fluid, her use of gendered words. So, we’re getting up to the point where she writes Little Women but before she writes Little Women, I believe she wrote the story that you wrote your whole essay about, “Enigmas.” Can you talk about “Enigmas”? First of all, yeah, just talk about what name she published it under, why it’s not discussed very much, and what it’s about.

Alice: Okay, this was one of the stories that she wrote for Frank Leslie’s. When I say that it’s kind of a trashier newspaper, I don’t know that we have an equivalent to this right now, but it would have a variety of things; It would have news, there would be reports from the front of the Civil War, it might have poems, it would have advertisements, it might have some fiction. It’s definitely more of a mass appeal than something like the Atlantic or Harper’s, which were sort of highbrow publications.

Ann: What I’m going to say, it’s like your short story, it’s not in The New Yorker, it’s like it’s in Playboy.

Alice: Yeah. I was trying to think of an equivalent, exactly. So, in some ways the story is like lots of her other stories, there are spies and escapes and secrets and disguises so it’s not totally unusual. The thing that makes it a little bit different, it is published under her own name, although it says L. M. Alcott.

The other thing is it gets, the second-wave feminists, actually, there’s a book dealer who discovers almost all the supposedly hidden synonymous stories in the ‘70s. It has almost entirely escaped both critical edition and then getting into almost any of the anthologies of her sensation stories. I have my own theory about why that’s the case, I think the fact that it wasn’t hidden made it less interesting for the people who were doing the sleuthing. But then to my mind, it’s also kind of the most openly trans-themed of her stories which has made a lot of people uncomfortable.

Really briefly, the story has a first-person male narrator who is employed to go spy on this country house; it’s set in Europe, seemingly in England. He looks at the strange inhabitants of this house. One of them is this patriarch or lord of the manor or something, whose name is Bernard Noel, which already echoes Alcott’s pen name, who appears to be a man in all these various different ways and at the end supposedly, it’s “revealed” that all along this was a girl who had been disguised as a man and Clyde thinks they’re in love with them. But a closer reading of the story really suggests that this character seems to be a trans man instead of someone in disguise. There are all these clues about the way that his identity is really felt within themselves and not just a ploy to trick people who are trying to find him out.

Ann: And not having read the story itself but having read the description of the story in your essay, I like the fact that… So, there’s Bernard who is this trans figure and then Bernard’s sister, Clarice. So, you talk in your essay about how, they’re both in “disguise” for various reasons but Clarice is so bad at being in disguise, she can’t be anything other than who she is. It’s like, she can’t pull it off, she just can’t be a person in disguise. And that’s what reminded me when we were talking earlier about Louisa May Alcott trying to be a good girl, it’s just like, “I can’t not be me. This is me. I can’t pull this off.”

Alice: That journey, this disguise, in the story supposedly Bernard, who was born Monica, describes, “Oh, when I was a little boy, I had to be in this disguise as a boy to be safe, but I discovered I really loved it.” The kind of narrative of coming to understand himself feels very contemporary to me. This isn’t the case for all trans people but in the way that for some trans people, dressing up in a way that’s temporary, like Halloween or for a play or something like that, helps them realize, “Oh, this was a safe way to try something out and now I realize, this is not just clothes, I feel much more comfortable this way.” But I think this story feels really modern in the description of the psychology of coming to understand who you are.

Ann: Which is so interesting because Louisa May Alcott also wrote plays, wanted to be an actor for a while so there is that level of exactly what you were just saying. If you’re somebody who is wearing costumes and disguises for a while, that’s a way to try on different identities and you can be like, “You know what? This one kind of fits me, I kind of like this one.”

Alice: Yeah, and then as you pointed out like with the sister, for some people they’re like, “That was fun.” She’s not technically in a play but she doesn’t want to go around the whole story dressed as this older blind French lady, she’s not into it because that’s not who she is. And so, for some actors, they’re like, “That was fun, but I want to go back to being me.” But acting in costumes as a way to be like, “Oh, this expression fits me a lot better and it’s a safe way to do it.”

Ann: So, this story, “Enigmas,” came out pre–Little Women I think, right?

Alice: Yes.

Ann: It’s interesting. It’s interesting because you’re obviously very familiar with the oeuvre of Louisa May Alcott but these themes of gender and performance, it seems like that’s a real throughline in her work to the point that it’s like, well that’s clearly something that she’s thinking about herself, presumably.

Alice: Absolutely, Ann. I mean, I would encourage folks who’ve read Little Women and are interested in these kinds of readings, if you just open your mind to trans possibilities and you re-read Little Women, it’s not even subtext, it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. This idea that it’s, again, I’m thinking about the reactionary, “It’s not there, it’s not in the text.”

Ann: Doesn’t Jo, like, almost every other page say, “I wish I was a boy.”

Alice: Yeah. And this is where again, everyone can still continue to have the things they love about the text but that’s one of the things I argue in my article, we need to listen. This is sort of like when, I don’t know, maybe a friend of yours comes out to you as trans now, we need to listen to people when they say, “This is who I am.” Jo repeatedly, again not subtext, says over and over again in the novel, and looking also at Laurie’s longing for femininity is sort of another interesting thing to do when you’re rereading the novel.

Ann: It’s interesting too, I just remembered this from one of the interviews when the recent movie came out. Greta Gerwig was talking about the fact that both Jo and Laurie, they’re both names that are not of their gender that they’re presenting as, the characters themselves. She was saying how in that movie the two of them trade clothes pieces back and forth. She saw Jo and Laurie as kind of being, like, gender… not technically gender fluid, but there’s something there. There’s something going on with the gender there.

Alice: Yeah, and also the fact that they find each other, this idea of chosen family. Jo adores her sisters and her mother, Lou adored her sisters and her mother, this isn’t to say that she’s not getting love and support from them for who she is. But the fact that she and Laurie in the novel find each other… And Laurie’s interesting, there’s not just one analog for Laurie in the way that the sisters map directly onto Lou’s sisters, Laurie is more of maybe a composite of other people. But I also feel like it’s a little bit wish fulfillment for Lou that you could find this other person that has similar feelings though they go the opposite way, someone born a boy who seems to long for femininity. And their relationship is one of the best things about the novel. And again, I don’t think it’s romantic. I think it’s absolutely full of love in the way that people find friends whom they love and are as important to them as blood family.

Ann: This is also interesting. She wrote Little Women because she was approached about, “Hey, can you write a children’s story?” She’s like, “I’m on it, I can write any genre. I will do this.” But it was something like this guy said he would publish her dad’s book if she would also write a children’s book. So, she was like, “Okay, I’ll do this so that my father can publish…” was part of it?

Alice: I know. And that’s such a perfect encapsulation of their tricky relationship, right? He’s the dad, supposedly the philosopher, the provider, and she’s cutting this deal to get his book published.

Ann: So, like you were saying before, there’s nothing wrong or bad about writing or doing anything, any sort of work for money. But also, her diaries are like, I’m sure every writer at some point when writing is like, “Goddammit, why am I doing this? I hate this book, it’s a terrible book.” She wrote in her diary, something like, “I plod away though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that she disavows the book it just means she was just like, “Okay, I guess I’ll write this.” And then people loved it. It became so successful as you said that there was a demand to write a sequel and so, as the savvy business person she was, she wrote the sequel. And this kind of made her career financially. This book just took off in this wild way that she was like, “Okay great, I don’t need to write a short story every month anymore.”

Alice: Yeah. And when her parents are older and she’s taking care of them, it’s the kind of thing where fangirls will show up at the door and knock on the door. The novel was huge, it never stopped being huge, and it’s been a bestseller ever since it was published.

Ann: Yeah. She wrote some other “children’s” books, which is interesting. Can I just say, so Little Women is a book about… Most of it, it’s about adult people so to consider it a children’s book is interesting, to put this on the shelf next to a book that’s about, “I just lost my first tooth” or whatever. This is not how we see children’s books now but then, it was. Anyway, so she was this children’s writer. She wrote other kinds of books. It’s like Eight Cousins and Jo’s Boys and like…

Alice: Yeah. So, there are two that are kind of sequels to Little Women; Little Men and Jo’s Boys that kind of let her write about boys more. She has a lot of the same characters continue. When you think about all of your best friends, it’s just like, fantasy wish fulfillment where she starts a school and Laurie lives next door. I think there were things she enjoyed about that fiction. I do think toward the end of her life she felt kind of trapped as a “children’s” writer, but I think she found ways to do some of the things she wanted to do like write about boys more. [laughs]

Ann: Which is interesting. I was asking some of my American friends, like, people are into Little Women, and I think that book is so popular and my impression is people are like, “I love this book so much, I’m going to read the next one.” And they’re like, “Eugh, I don’t think I do.” Do you want to read about Jo being an adult woman and running a boys’ school? Not necessarily. You want to read about her as a young person, those characters are what people like.

Alice: Exactly. Exactly, yes. I agree.

Ann: Even the Anne of Green Gables books, I know so many people, I’m in Canada, who are fans of those books and they read all of them but by the end, it’s like Anne’s daughter… Less people read as the books go on because it’s like, “I don’t really want to read about Anne Shirley being a stay-at-home mom.”

Alice: Yeah, it’s like TV shows that go on for three too many seasons. It’s tricky. Everyone is making so much money that it’s hard to say no.

Ann: But these characters are aging, it’s not like the Babysitters Club or something where they’re always 12.

Anyway, so throughout all of this, Louisa is tending to her parents and stuff and she’s also living with these chronic health issues and then who… Anna’s husband dies, right?

Alice: Yes.

Ann: Yes. So, Louisa May Alcott is like, “Oh my gosh, now I need to support my sister’s family,” because there’s not a man in that family. So, that’s when she wrote Little Men. She’s like, “Yeah, let’s do a sequel.” She wrote that so that “John’s death may not leave Anna and the dear little boys in want,” which is sweet. She’s like, okay I’ll write that sequel for that reason.

This is getting into a lot of, she went here, she went here, she wrote some stuff. But here it says, “Fame was not what she had imagined as a child. Most upsetting was the disruption of her privacy. People sought her autograph and company, regularly stopping by Orchard House.” Which, I mean, to people now, celebrities, it’s relatable to be like, “I wrote these books and I’m glad you love it but please don’t take pictures of my children with long lens cameras while we’re…”

Alice: Yeah, absolutely.

Ann: So, that’s not pleasant. Again, I’m not saying, “And then the next 20 years were sad.”

Alice: Yeah, no but I’m reminded of where we were at the beginning of the conversation where she’s someone that liked to be alone; she likes to be with her family, she likes to write. So, I don’t think the celebrity part… She did continue in political activism, so she worked for women’s suffrage and was kind of hilariously impatient with people who were not on board. So, she was doing lots of other things, but I think the idea of fans showing up at her door was not something she was looking for.

Ann: No. Especially her, she liked being alone. But who wants that? No one wants that! That’s quite distressing to anyone.

Alice: Yeah, you have to be a complete narcissist if that’s what you’re looking for every day.

Ann: Yeah, if you want people coming to your door. Anyway, she’s like tending to her parents and then her mother passed away and so this is leaving let’s see, they buried Abba next to Beth in the cemetery and then obviously this is tragic to them, her dad is still there. I think the mother, like I said earlier, Louisa’s writing was the glue that kept the family together, but I think Abba was… No person could be removed from a family unit without it falling apart but I think Abba was a real glue in this family, giving them direction and support and love. So, she grew closer to her father because the sisters are gone, it’s kind of just the two of them. And then her sister May, who was like Amy, she married a Swiss businessman.

Alice: Yeah, because Amy was a painter over in Europe at that time. I don’t know how interested people are going to be in this but at the time a very respected genre of painting was actually copying paintings. You know, now we would see that as unoriginal and not real art. She was living over in Europe and met this guy and had a baby. But then, probably from complications from childbirth, died a couple of weeks after the baby was born.

Ann: So, is this Lulu?

Alice: Yes.

Ann: Yeah, who was named for Louisa, called Lulu. And Louisa May Alcott sort of adopted or very much was involved in the raising of this child.

Alice: Yeah, so the baby is born in Europe, they somehow bring Lulu over on a boat and Louisa becomes her parent.

Ann: As Louisa would probably say, her father. Anyway, so Louisa was going through it, going through it. When a lot of people of that age, I’m assuming she’s like, in her fifties-ish by now? Forties, fifties? She’s caring for her aging parents, there’s babies coming into the thing and she’s like, “Thank god, Little Women, the money is still helping support the family.” But I think also, so she’s not writing as much at this point, she doesn’t need to, right?

Alice: Right, yes.

Ann: Which is good because she has this horrible arthritis and things. Let’s see… Yeah, so Lulu arrived. Here it says, “At year’s end, 1879, Louisa only had one publication, but finances were no longer pivotal, she had invested well.” Love it.

Alice: Yeah. Again, savvy, savvy businessperson. Absolutely.

Ann: Yeah, so she was not only making money, but she was handling it very well, which is great. So, “Alcott finally seemed happy to have a reason for living that did not center on making money.” I don’t know but, like, raising Lulu.

Alice: Which is fair I think, yeah. Again, it doesn’t have to be either or. It does seem like maybe she was writing stuff that was less interesting to her at the end of her career, but she’d been working so hard for so long that you know, it’s hard to indict her for not writing different kinds of novels at the end of her life.

Ann: Yeah, she deserves to not… Yeah, I don’t know. This is a whole other conversation but the still-present societal expectation that everyone should be working all the time or else you’re wasting your… No. If you don’t need to work and you don’t want to work, you shouldn’t have to.

Alice: Absolutely.

Ann: So then, Lulu is there with her. It says here, “Lulu was a happy and strong-willed child,” which I appreciate, maybe there was a little bit of Lou in Lulu. Her father had a stroke, he was paralyzed, he couldn’t speak and so Louisa May Alcott returned home to care for him and then began work on Jo’s Boys, the last of what became a trilogy about the March family. She also set to work editing her letters and journals, so to publish some of her other writing. And that’s, like a lot of writers do at this point in their career, I think just to be like, “My collected writing.” She’s famous enough as a person, people are coming to her door. It’s like, “Okay here, I’ll just publish my diaries.” And then “Knowing her father’s end was near, she travelled to Boston to visit him. The following day she wrote her final diary entry, ‘Better in mind but food a little uneasy’” is part of what it says. And then her father passed away on March 4th and Louisa passed away on March 6th, aged 55.

Alice: Yeah, actually, not that old. You figure her dad, I forget how old Bronson was when he died, but a lot older than her.

Ann: Yeah. But I mean, she had this illness for so long as well. She left her family well-endowed.

Anna and the boys received the bulk of the estate with a provision for Lulu who was sent back to Europe to live with her father. Orchard House became a museum and a memorial for Louisa May Alcott. Anna oversaw it until her death and then the responsibility went to her sons. 

I think at the point where Louisa May Alcott became famous, already there was sort of this public relations happening to not let people know that she was secretly this kind of cranky asshole, [Alice laughs] I say with all love, I appreciate that about her. And I think Anna and the trustees of the estate were like, “Orchard House, it’s where Little Women…” They knew that this was what people wanted, they wanted it to be this nice lady who is kind of like Mother Goose who wrote this nice story, not this kind of cranky, opinionated person. So, this sort of authorly persona persisted.

Alice: I like your phrase of public relations too because this idea, again, that the woman writing the most famous American book about girls maybe didn’t want to be a girl; that’s maybe a little bit off public relations. And this is not unusual to happen to American writers who send off queer vibes in some way. So, she’s going to get made over into what’s called The Children’s Friend but someone like Walt Whitman, probably the most famous American poet who was absolutely gay, his biography is going to get sanitized as well by historians and critics who are just like, “No, that can’t be true, he was secretly in love with a woman,” this that and the other thing, and he’s turned into The Good Gray Poet.

I think you’re right about making the estate seem more coherent, her intellectual property but also, the other thing that’s interesting about Alcott and Whitman is they were writing all these revolutionary things right before the birth of modern psychology and what they call sexology where they invent these binary categories of straight/gay. They’re writing in these ways that are later going to get pathologized. So, when people are poking into their papers in the early 20th century it’s like, “Oh no, they can’t be that. That would ruin them.”

Ann: I’m just thinking about like okay, for instance, just the position like you said, she’s a woman, she’s 55 when she dies but a woman of that age, she was a spinster when she was 25. She was a woman who’d never married and that, to society at the time, was like, “Mm, that’s weird.” So, to retrofit that and to be like, “She was just this nice lady,” you don’t want to be like, “It’s because she was queer,” or whatever, it’s just, “She’s a nice lady who never married.”

I’ve been recently watching Miss Marple, the TV movies about the Agatha Christie character, and what was really interesting to me, these are versions from the early 2000s and Miss Marple, who is this canonically old lady who never married and in these TV series they’re like, “Oh, but she did have a love in World War I and then they had to part.” And I’m like, why are you putting this in here? Why do you have to be like, “She’s not gay! Don’t worry about Miss Marple. She was in love once.”

Alice: Exactly. And in 1860, you might not have had to say that. That isn’t to say that people didn’t desire people of the same sex in 1860 but we didn’t have those categories in the same way. By 1900 you’re absolutely going to be like, “Not gay. Not gay, not gay, not gay.”

Ann: Yeah, so just to have Louisa May Alcott as, I don’t know… It’s also interesting, I interviewed a woman a bit ago about her novel about Lucy Maud Montgomery, who is also the beloved author of a beloved property, and she did marry, and she had children, but she was very unhappy, and it was kind of a really challenging marriage. So, I don’t know, just the real life of the authors of these books that are children’s books! So, of course, children’s books aren’t going to reflect the mental health status of the author because they’re meant to be nice stories. But the fact that people then conflate to assume that the authors were just like, “Doo-doo-doo, everything is great. I’m the author of children’s books, I’ve never had a struggle.” It’s interesting.

Alice: Absolutely.

Ann: So, I just remembered that I haven’t given you a heads-up about this, but we need to score Louisa May Alcott on the scale with which I end every episode of my podcast. I’m interested to see what you say about this because she’s a different sort of person from who we have often talked about. So, there are four categories and it’s all on a scale of 0 to 10. As the expert, I will let you take the lead.

So, the first category is Scandaliciousness; how scandalous was this person seen by people at the time? As an example, somebody with high Scandaliciousness would be Cleopatra or somebody like that who was just like, “Oh my gosh, look at what she’s doing.” So, Louisa May Alcott, not married, doing with her family, abolition… There was some stuff that people would be like, “What’s this person doing?” So, on a scale of 0 to 10, where would you put her?

Alice: That sounds maybe like mid, like, I think the politics stuff would maybe get her to a 4 or a 5 but her personal life was… The way she lived her life was maybe less radical than some of the characters she wrote, if that makes sense. She dressed in women’s clothing most of the time, went by her feminine name, worked on women’s causes, probably because other options were not available to her. But I know you’re interested in class on this podcast too and part of this is like, other options that sometimes are taken by other scandalous women is they have the option to be scandalous because they’ve got resources. So, maybe not super scandalous, I don’t know what you would say.

Ann: I think a 5 is where I would put her. But something you just said, you said “She dressed in women’s clothes most of the time.” What did she do the rest of the time and what were those times?

Alice: These are the situations where there’s more leeway so if you’re going to go for a big, long walk through the woods, or she’s performing in amateur theatricals. She still was taking opportunities to wear men’s clothing in places where it was possible.

Ann: No, but you’re right, the class thing is such a part of it. And that’s why I have different categories, so people can score highly in different places. I don’t know specifically if it’s at the same time but in the 19th century in Paris, there’s like, George Sand, and authors who are living this very outré, pants-wearing life but that’s a different place.

Alice: Yeah, and you need money to do that.

Ann: And you don’t have to be the single breadwinner for an extended family and aging parents. Louisa did what she could.

The next category, and I will define it for you, is Schemieness which doesn’t necessarily mean like, “Ha-ha! An evil scheme,” but just a person with a plan who knows what they’re doing and does it on purpose. So, it can also be sort of… Yeah, someone who has a plan for their life and executes it and it does well. I think she did that actually with her writing and the savviness.

Alice: Yeah! I’d rate her pretty high for that. How many of us have a dream as a pre-teen to be a famous author and then they become one? That’s pretty schemey.

Ann: And the fact that she was like, “Okay, I got this story published. But if I wrote it like this then I could maybe get $20 instead of $10. If I wrote a children’s book…” She did it in a very deliberate way, which I respect.

Alice: Yeah, and I’m going to go back to her as a savvy author who was good at many genres. One of the things critics like to argue about is which of her writing counts as her real feelings; the scandalous stuff is just for money, but Little Women is real; Little Women is just for money, but the scandal stuff is real. What if it’s all real? What if she’s just a really good writer and can write in lots of different genres? Give her some credit.

Ann: Yeah, so what would you say on a scale from 0 to 10? In terms of being a person with a plan.

Alice: Maybe an 8 or a 9.

Ann: I’m going to go with a 9, I think. You know what that reminds me of? What you were just saying about, which is the real her? It’s like sometimes people say that about singers where they’re like, “Britney Spears’s real voice.” And it’s like, no, she’s a singer and she sings in this style sometimes and she sings in this style sometimes. They’re like, “The record labels made her change her voice.” It’s like, no. When she’s singing a gospel song, she sounds like this and when she’s singing a pop song, she sounds like this. Both can be true.

Alice: Right, and most art, even things like novels, most art is a collaboration amongst a bunch of different people and factors. Movies are the ones with the most voices because you’ve got thousands of people involved. But even books that are published, you’ve got market pressures, you’ve got how much time and money does the person have to write it? Do they have an editor? What does the publisher want? And that’s true for almost all art. It’s rare that someone just makes something that becomes famous with no kind of interaction with the culture around them.

Ann: No, exactly. And when people do, we see, recently, rarely some weird examples of that, where something becomes… Like a fan fiction suddenly hits the mainstream or something and you see, that’s purely this person’s voice, I guess. But at the same time, it’s also derived from an original intellectual property. So, anyway. You’re right, I think that’s a really important distinction to make, just because somebody writes in different ways and is successful, doesn’t mean that they’re evil or that the art isn’t pure or whatever. Everybody is influenced by something.

Alice: Yeah, you used the word sell-out earlier. Again, the reminder is she’s writing in a whole bunch of genres together all along. It’s not as if she keeps switching it up or something.

Ann: Yeah, exactly. The next category is, here’s an interesting one, Significance. So, how is the person remembered today? What is the effect… I think this is going to be a very high number just because the book has never been out of print, the house is a museum, how many books like my friend Amanda’s book – Belittled Women, which everyone should read – but every year there’s a new adaptation of Little Women, a new movie or a new book. It has permeated the cultural consciousness.

Alice: Everywhere. It’s like an industry now, absolutely. I would say 10 for that.

Ann: I think 10 for Significance as well. Definitely. And then this is an interesting one, the final category is what I call the Sexism Bonus. This is here for what I’m talking about, not specifically Louisa May Alcott-type person but if there’s somebody who could have achieved more if not for the patriarchy of their time. Somebody who was like, I don’t know, some princess and then she tried to run away with her lover and then they trapped her in a castle for 25 years. It’s like, how much more could Louisa May Alcott have achieved without living in a sexist society? I don’t know because I think she found a way to thrive within one.

Alice: Yeah, that’s fascinating. That’s a really interesting question. I almost think… Ideas of success might come in here, how do you define success? I feel like as a person, had she existed in our own time, I think her life would be really different. If me and other people are right about her longing, not just for masculinity but for maleness, you know, she might be able to be a man. But in terms of literary success, she sort of made a career out of skewering sexism, right? So, [laughs] that’s a tricky one.

Ann: It’s tricky because yeah… Okay, so an example of someone who would get a very high score in this would be somebody who wanted to be a writer but could never be published because they were a woman. But she’s gotten away, even under her own name too, so I don’t know. I feel like the patriarchy always holds everyone back a bit so I would say if we’re not sure, we’ll just say a 5 because I’m sure…

Alice: Yeah, because I feel like she might be in the category of someone like Virginia Woolf too who was a genius but kept talking about wanting a room of her own with a lock on the door. I do wonder what Alcott would have written if she’d had a room of her own and a lock on the door.

Ann: And also, if she hadn’t… And this isn’t specifically sexism, but it is a bit– Mm… If she hadn’t been the sole breadwinner for her entire family, which she wouldn’t have had to have been if women could have had more jobs, if Abba didn’t have to stay home and watch the children.

Alice: Yeah, or if she’d been able to go to college, right? None of them went to college, it was almost impossible for women to go to college.

Ann: That’s true. And you said her stories, she wrote about them saying, “It’s not my favourite but I did get better at dialogue.” She was doing her own MFA through writing stories that were published on her own.

Alice: [laughs] Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Ann: Let me see, I just need to do some quick math. That gets her a score of 29, which in terms of this podcast is more than respectable. [Alice laughs] I’m just seeing who else… Oh, you know who else is a 29? Mary Shelley so…

Alice: That’s a great comparison, that’s a great comparison. I think she was a bigger fan of the Brontës, but she definitely had read Shelley too.

Ann: I haven’t done the Brontës… yet. But yeah, I think both of them, it’s interesting, in terms of Significance, the literary significance of both of their works… You are a professor of English literature, so you know a lot more things but in terms of the everyday person, everyone knows Frankenstein, everyone knows Little Women. And then I don’t know, maybe A Christmas Carol or something is a book by a man, or Huckleberry Finn, I don’t know. But I don’t know how many other books from the 19th century are as famous and as read today and as enjoyed as Frankenstein and Little Women, really.

Alice: I agree. I was going to say Moby Dick until you said, “Read and enjoyed.” [both laugh] So, everyone knows the story of Moby Dick but very few people read it and not as many people as should, enjoy it.

Ann: Yeah. So, I don’t know, the Significance, I love that she and Mary Shelley are both there in the same neighbourhood.

So, before we go, if people are interested in you and your writing and what you’re up to, do you have a website or anything so that people can keep up with what you’re doing?

Alice: I’m not really on social media for this kind of stuff. You certainly can look at where I teach and my research interests at the website for SUNY Geneseo, which is www.Geneseo.edu. If someone wants to find me that way, a lot of my articles are behind stupid journal paywalls but if someone finds something of mine that they want to read, you’re welcome to email me and I’ll send you a PDF.

Ann: Yeah, I do want to say that I had to use secret means to acquire access to the article that I read of yours.

Alice: That’s totally fine with me! Because as you may or may not know, academic writers don’t get paid at all for their work so I would encourage people to find them in other ways.

Ann: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for talking to me. I was so looking forward to this conversation and it was even more fun than I thought it was going to be.

Alice: This was really delightful. Thank you so much for the invitation.


So, Alice was here just sharing her expertise, she just didn’t have a book specifically for me to mention. But I will mention, again, a novel that came up when we were talking which is Belittled Women which is a young adult novel by my friend Amanda Sellet. If you’re interested in alternate readings of Little Women, that’s a fun read. Anyway, Belittled Women by Amanda Sellet is my recommendation of the day.

If you want to keep up with Vulgar History and with me, we have a website which is VulgarHistory.com and if you go there, the recent episodes have got transcripts, done by Aveline Malek of The Wordary, thank you so much Aveline for doing those for us. Also on that website, VulgarHistory.com, there’s a contact form. So, if you have suggestions like Allie did about looking at Louisa May Alcott through a trans-affirming lens, send me a message there or you can also email me at VulgarHistoryPod@gmail.com. I’m also on social media, I’m most active, you can find me putting silly memes and polls and questions on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod. Also, I’m on TikTok @VulgarHistory.

I have merch, goofy-ass merch. Most recently, you’re listening to this and it’s October, so there’s a Halloween-adjacent thing. My frequent collaborator Jan Jupiter knocked it out of the park with this one. It’s a picture of the ghost of John Knox saying, “Whooores!” which, if you listened to the Mary, Queen of Scots episodes I did, you’ll know why he’s doing that. Anyway, you can get John Knox Whooores merch, T-shirts, stickers, et cetera and also other merch based on other people we’ve talked about. So, that’s all at VulgarHistory.com/Store, which takes you to the TeePublic store which is best for US shipping. If you’re living not in the US, then VulgarHistory.Redbubble.com has better shipping for you with all the same products as well.

I also have a Patreon which is Patreon.com/AnnFosterWriter, where if you pledge at least one dollar or more a month you get early ad-free access to all episodes and if you pledge $5 or more a month, you get early ad-free access as well as access to the Vulgar History Discord which is a group chat for the tits out brigade. Also at that $5 or more a month level, you get bonus episodes of Vulgarpiece Theatre where we review costume dramas in, like, 3.5-hour long minutiae-level discussions, as well as episodes of So This Asshole and So These Messy Bitches, just talking about, you know, dirtbags of history, not to steal a word copyrighted by Allison Epstein.

Anyway, thank you all for listening to this podcast and until next time my friends, like Louisa May Alcott, keep your pants on…

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com


Learn more about Alice and her work at geneseo.edu/english/rutkowski

This is Peyton Thomas’s NYT article on this topic, as mentioned by Alice in the podcast: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/24/opinion/did-the-mother-of-young-adult-literature-identify-as-a-man.html

Listen to the queer Little Women podcast Jo’s Boys here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2uY5Gp38XQYColfh5VHrOw

And buy a copy of my friend Amanda Sellet’s retelling Belittled Women at this link: https://bookshop.org/a/1419/9780358567356

Get Vulgar History merch at vulgarhistory.com/store (best for US shipping) and vulgarhistory.redbubble.com (better for international shipping)

Support Vulgar History on Patreon

Vulgar History is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, which means that a small percentage of any books you click through and purchase will come back to Vulgar History as a commission. Use this link to shop there and support Vulgar History.