A chapter a day, 1868
A writer's life
Lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need…
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott remains as successful today as it was when it first appeared in 1868 – aside from ongoing book sales, there was a new TV version in 2017 and films in both 2018 and 2019, for example. As it happens, we have the author’s own thoughts about its genesis and publication, which are refreshingly practical.
Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) was born in Philadelphia, although of course is particularly associated with Concord, Massachusetts, where her parents Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail May had moved in 1840; they were notable social reformers, supporters of women’s rights and part of the ‘transcendentalist’ set of Emerson and Thoreau. Louisa had a variety of jobs, from seamstress to station mistress, governess to nurse, but in the 1860s her career as a writer of magazine articles and anonymous gothic thrillers (the latter were only identified in the 1970s) started to take off. Little Women was certainly her breakout success, and was later followed by sequels including Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Louisa kept a journal from 1843 until her death, and in it we have some interesting insights into the publication of Little Women, which I give you below.1 She also revised and annotated the journals in later years, so we also have the occasional interpolation from hindsight. It was certainly her writing work which rescued the family from poverty – as early as January 1864, she was able to write: “On looking over my accounts, I find I have earned by my writing alone nearly six hundred dollars since last January…”2
Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls book. I said I’d try.
F. asked me to be the Editor of “Merry’s Museum.” Said I’d try. [Merry’s Museum was an illustrated children’s magazine published from 1841 to 1872. Louisa was editor until 1870; the publishers were Horace B. Fuller (‘F.’) and Thomas Niles. Roberts Brothers were successful Boston publishers, later bought out by Little, Brown.]
Began at once on both new jobs, but didn’t like either.
Agreed with F. to be editor for $500 a year. Read MSS. write 1 story each month & an editorial. On the strength of this engagement went to Boston, took a room — No. 6 Hayward Place — furnished it, and set up house keeping for myself. Cannot keep well in C[oncord] so must try Boston, & not work too hard.
Father saw Mr. Niles about a fairy book. Mr. N. wants a girls’ story, and I begin “Little Women.” Marmee, Anna, and May [her mother and sisters] all approve my plan. So l plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though doubt it.
[Louisa later added this comment: “Good joke.”]
Sent twelve chapters of “L. W.” to Mr. N. He thought it dull; so do I. But work away and mean to try the experiment; for lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.
Have finished “Little Women,” and sent it off,—402 pages. May is designing some pictures for it. Hope it will go, for I shall probably get nothing for “Morning Glories.” [A collection of stories and poems for children.]
Very tired, head full of pain from overwork, and heart heavy about Marmee, who is growing feeble.
Roberts Bros. made an offer for the story, but at the same time advised me to keep the copyright; so I shall.
[In 1885, Louisa noted: “An honest publisher and a lucky author, for the copyright made her fortune, and the ‘dull book’ was the first golden egg of the ugly duckling”. A 1931 edition of Publishers’ Weekly noted that this was “one of the wisest literary decisions ever made”.]
Proof of the whole book came. It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it. Mr. N. likes it better now, and says some girls who have read the manuscripts say it is “splendid!” As it is for them, they are the best critics, so should be satisfied.
Saw Mr. N. of Roberts Brothers, and he gave me good news of the book. An order from London for an edition came in. First edition gone and more called for. Expects to sell three or four thousand before the New Year.
Mr. N. wants a second volume for spring. Pleasant notices and letters arrive, and much interest in my little women, who seem to find friends by their truth to life, as I hoped.
Began the second part of “Little Women.” I can do a chapter a day, and in a month I mean to be done. A little success is so inspiring that I now find my “Marches” sober, nice people, and as I can launch into the future, my fancy has more play. Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman's life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.
Finished my thirteenth chapter. I am so full of my work, I can’t stop to eat or sleep, or for anything but a daily run. [Louisa was a regular walker and runner.]
My birthday; thirty-six. Spent alone, writing hard. No presents but Father’s “Tablets.” [His latest book.]
Left our lofty room at Bellevue and went to Chauncey Street. Sent the sequel of “L. W.” to Roberts on New Year’s Day. Hope it will do as well as the first, which is selling finely, and receives good notices. F. and F. both want me to continue working for them, and I shall do so if I am able; but my headaches, cough, and weariness keep me from working as I once could, fourteen hours a day.