Beginning the book on Elisabeth Sewall Alcott, and taking you on the journey

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.

The challenges

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.

An obsession

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.

Always “Beth”

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.

No story?

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.

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22 thoughts on “Beginning the book on Elisabeth Sewall Alcott, and taking you on the journey

  1. I’m so glad you’re doing this! I do have one thought; you refer to Elisabeth as the ‘Littlest Woman’ – why is that? ( I know it isn’t a reference to her birth order.) Or will that become apparent in future blogs?
    Again, so happy to see this!

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  2. Really looking forward to the book, Sue! And much appreciation for all the digging you have done on Lizzie’s behalf. 🙂 I think she’d be overwhelmed if she knew that she was the subject of much interest even in this day and age instead of being allowed to fade into the wallpaper. Over the holidays, I took the time to read through the intro of my Annotated Little Women (Masterson edition…it arrived on Christmas Eve day….made my day…I put it under my tree and didn’t allow myself to look at it until Christmas Day!) and what popped out at me is that the family would openly read their journals to each other with the exception of Lizzie and, as he noted, “she liked it that way”. She kept her innermost thoughts private. Wouldn’t it be very interesting to see what she had written in her journal? Thanks again for your hard work on turning over stones! 🙂

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    1. Thanks! And oh my, aren’t you disciplined! We do actually know what she wrote in her diary kept at Hillside – it’s available at the Houghton Library. Even though she wouldn’t read hers aloud to the family, Bronson already knew what was in it because the routine was for the girls to write what they wanted to put in their journals on their slates and Bronson would approve or disapprove of it. Then it would be copied into the book. May did this while in Boston as well as Lizzie at Hillside.

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  3. I’m so excited…both for the book and to hear about your process, Susan. I’m currently working on a family history memoir so I’m eager to peer in at your writing and research process. As a history major, I’ve only ever written non-fiction, so I agree wholeheartedly that one can love a subject as much as a novelist can love a character!
    ~ Jill

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    1. A family history memoir — sounds fascinating. The first book I wrote was part memoir and it’s just part of me as a writer to do memoir. Also, when I learn cool stuff, I love to share it, it’s fun. One of the things I intend to share in a future post are tips on how to get scans from the Houghton Library. Even though I am 90 minutes away from it, I much prefer ordering scans. Sometimes you have to pay for them depending on the number of pages, but then the pages get posted online so others can read them too. One thing I have certainly learned along the way is that librarians love to answer questions and to help! 🙂

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      1. Right; a nice cheerful girl and not like something was “wrong” with her mentally or a special needs type. Only she didn’t look like Lizzie with all those golden brown curls.

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  4. Wonderful luck to you, my friend! You’re taking on a worthy project, & I love that you’ll be sharing your process. I also have a day job & am trying to work out how to possibly make time for my own writing. Someone suggested an hour in the morning after I wake? Which would have me up at 4am! Only the best survive, eh? 😛

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    1. Thank you, that means a lot! Yeah, I will definitely get into that aspect of it. My problem is not so much digging up time, though that is a problem, but rather managing my frustration at not being able to work when I feel like it. During my musician phase, while being a wife and a mother, I got to be an expert at learning how to take advantage of opportunities whenever they came and using technology to help. The invention of the tablet with a keyboard is a huge plus!

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