I have begun work at last on a biography of Elisabeth* Sewall Alcott; she is best known as the real life prototype of Beth March of Little Women, written by her older sister, Louisa May Alcott. After spending nearly 8 years researching her life, I am ready to write about it.
Diary of a biography
Writing such a book can take years to complete and the enormity of the task is overwhelming at times. This plus the fact that I am learning so many interesting aspects of writing biography inspired me to create this diary so that you can share in the experience. As I work through the steep learning curve of writing this book, I am hoping these posts will offer information that aspiring biographers will find helpful. It is also a way to hold myself accountable to you – to work in a disciplined manner and to keep you updated on the progress of the book.
Writing biography has its unique challenges. I am keenly aware of being responsible to the reader for everything I put down on paper about my subject. I need to strike a balance between telling a compelling story and presenting logical arguments when facts are scare and speculation is all that remains. I am discovering that biography is one enormous jigsaw puzzle that must be pieced together carefully; the glue that holds the puzzle together and makes it whole are the original thoughts and conclusions that I use to bind them together.
I have to wonder if a biographer doesn’t become just as obsessed with their person as fiction writers do with their characters. Lizzie lives in my head constantly. If I am not immersed in reviewing primary source material and the many biographes written on the Alcotts, then it is the multiple readings of Little Women and the equally numerous viewings of the movies that fill my time and my head. I never fail to cry copious tears whenever Beth receives the piano or becomes ill with the scarlet fever; the feelings well up from deep within with a sense that I might not be able to stop crying. I truly love my subject.
Feelings and perspective
I understand that in writing biography, I must not allow my personal feelings to cloud my perspective; it is necessary to detach a bit, to take several steps back to see the whole picture. While I wish for my feelings to add a certain “heart” to the story, the point is to present a cogent and factual account of Elisabeth’s life; to give her a voice for the first time.
Celebration of a classic
As I write this, the year 2018 is coming to an end and it has been a momentous one for fans of Little Women. During this sesquicentennial (150 years) celebration of the publication of of the book we have been treated to a modern day interpretation (the movie Little Women starring Lea Thompson), and a three-part series on Masterpiece. There was also a wonderful book written on the making of Little Women and its continued relevance by Anne Boyd Rioux called Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy. This in turn, generated numerous articles in magazines about the classic. At the end of 2019, we can look forward to vewing the much talked about Greta Gerwig adaptation of the book.
Taking notice of Beth
I noticed something as a result of all this attention on Little Women: people are taking a more serious look at Beth. She is no longer being dismissed as a two-dimensional Victorian trope character, a saint to which no one can relate. Learned people are looking beneath the veneer, in search of the human Beth.
One of these days, that attention will turn to her real life counterpart. And this is when I hope I will have a book to share on the details of her life.
Elisabeth Alcott is so buried in the legend of Beth March that she is rarely referred to by her true names (“Lizzie” and “Betty”); She is always “Beth.” There has not been much written about her except that she was the younger sister of Louisa, that she died young, and that she inspired Beth March. Even family members did not mention her but little in their writings until she became terminally ill.
I was told by a literary agent that there is no compelling story; I disagree. After spending eight years buried in family letters and journals, and in the numerous biographies of Louisa, Bronson (the father) and Abba (the mother), I can tell you with full confidence that there is in fact, a story. A poignant story about a mysterious sister who preferred to be behind the scenes. Although she had great difficulty in speaking up for herself, her life and actions inspired her older sister to immortalize her in a book that has never gone out of print in 150 years.
I invite you to journey with me as I seek to bring Elisabeth Alcott out of the shadows and into the spotlight for the first time.
*You will note that I have chosen to spell Elisabeth’s name as her father spelt it. I have a reason for doing this which I will reveal in a future post.