Marmee: the Boundless Heart of Abigail May Alcott

Abba Alcott | Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
Abigail May Alcott (l) Amos Bronson Alcott (r)

This review article of the 2019 film was written in early 2020 for a local Unitarian Universalist publication that was about to launch but was sidelined indefinitely by the pandemic. I share it with the information that my original research interest in the Alcotts was because Thomas Moore Johnson, Alexander Wilder, and Sarah Stanley Grimke were all acquaintances of Bronson who were influenced by his ideas and character.

The newest film adaptation of Little Women, the fourth I have seen to date, delves much more deeply into the life of the book’s author than any previous versions.  Abigail May Alcott, Marmee in the novel as she was called in real life by her children, is the emotional center of the family in her daughter’s novel and the latest film adaptation. Long-suffering, patient, altruistic, loving– but also angry at injustice and skeptical of many of her husband’s crazy enthusiasms, Abigail/Marmee is earning the appreciation of a new generation of readers and viewers. In 2012 she emerged from obscurity as an author, thanks to Eve LaPlante, a descendant of her favorite brother to whom she wrote often, discovering a hitherto unknown cache of Abigail’s letters and diary entries in an attic trunk. These were published as My Heart is Boundless simultaneously with a joint biography of mother and daughter called Marmee and Louisa. While preparing for her role as Marmee, actress Laura Dern studied LaPlante’s works. The acting, the characters, the cinematography, surpass any of the previous versions in my estimation. The Oscar nominations for Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Florence Pugh (Amy) in the leading and supporting actress categories are well deserved. (Dern is also a nominee this year but for a different film.) Orchard House in Concord, the real Alcott home where the book was written, is used as a location adding great beauty and authenticity to the scenes.  The way the director slides back and forth between past and present, the Marches and the Alcotts, is intriguing to me as a Unitarian history enthusiast but I think might be hopelessly confusing to anyone who was unfamiliar with the Alcott family.

Abigail, called Abba by her family, met Bronson Alcott in 1827 in Brooklyn, Connecticut where her brother Samuel Joseph May was a Unitarian minister. They married after a long courtship, and several years later Abba was living in Germantown, Pennsylvania where Bronson managed a school. Louisa was born here in 1832. Writing to her brother, Abba confided that she had to be discreet about her faith because “the Unitarians here are held in such horror as being worse than infidels. My good house keeper told me that a lady had the wickedness to say that we were Unitarians. Said she, `Mrs. Alcott, I have disliked that woman ever since; I told her that you were as good Christians as ever lived.’ We pass I believe for kinder Episcopalians although we usually attend Friends’ meetings, preferring the silent communion with our own souls.” Samuel Joseph became an abolitionist leader and in 1834 Abba followed his example and joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society. An 1846 letter expresses her misgivings about the onset of war, imploring Sam “Oh Sam, dedicate yourself to Peace, keep your pulpit if it is only to secure a place from which to declare and testify this truth. It is the cornerstone of the true church. Our nation in its principles is becoming corrupt, abusive, warlike, and degraded. It will cut off its own head with its own weaknesses.”

Little Women is based on the Alcott daughters’ childhood and adolescence in the 1840s and 50s but set during the Civil War. Mother and daughters were apart from their father on Christmas day 1848, not because Bronson was away at war but because they were away at work. Bronson was an impractical dreamer who repeatedly failed to provide for his family’s needs, and finally Abba went to work in Boston as a pioneer of social work, funded by philanthropists as missionary to the poor, writing at the time “My heart has always been pledged to the cause of the destitute and oppressed; now my time shall be sacredly devoted to their relief.” The scenes of Marmee and the girls bringing food to a destitute family in the novel and film are in Concord during the Civil War, but such philanthropies really occurred in Boston during the Mexican War. Despite the changes in Louisa’s fictional accounting, the emotional bond between mother and daughters is absolutely true to history. In a diary entry written that lonely, poor Christmas, Abigail gives glimpses of the traits that will later be seen as those of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March. “Christmas Day. Pass the day, which was wet, dark and dreary, with my family.  Hopeful Anna cheering doubting mother. Loving Louisa trying by many quiet acts of comfort to make life more tolerable. Dear Lizzy by her repose and self reliance groping through this mist of things and adverse circumstance.  And little Abba a `cricket on the hearth’ chirping, free from care or anxiety.”

Abigail died a few weeks after her 77th birthday in 1877. When Louisa and Bronson died two days apart in 1888, their funerals were conducted by Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist author Cyrus Bartol at Old West Church in Boston, just half a mile away from where Bronson had married Abigail at King’s Chapel six decades before.  For contemporary Unitarian Universalists, Little Women provides vivid impressions of the lives and values of their spiritual ancestors in 19th century New England.  Abigail May Alcott, with her Unitarian upbringing and lifelong commitment to progressive reform causes, including feminism and social welfare as well as abolitionism, became a role model as the fictional Marmee. It is gratifying now to see the actress playing Marmee openly discussing the character’s historical prototype and her exemplary life, and to know that only the accidental discovery of 150-year-old family letters enabled us to understand her in all her complexity.