MARCH 31, 2020
AMY MARCH IS THE ONE most modern readers love to hate — the primmest, most self-centered, most overindulged girl in the set of sisters whose exploits are chronicled in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women (1868). Some readers may even sympathize with Carmen Maria Machado, who recently wrote that she thinks Jo should have let Amy drown. But the tide may be changing for the youngest March sister. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Little Women, fueled by an Oscar-nominated performance by Florence Pugh, reimagined Amy and, in the words of Kate Erbland, “turned the brat into the film’s breakout heroine.”
In the months since the movie’s release, reviewers have both supported and rejected Erbland’s contention. But there does seem to be a “moment” for Amy March unfolding, one that encourages fans to reconsider this youngest sister, as Gerwig herself did when preparing to write the script. “One of my experiences of reading the book was actually re-experiencing Amy as a profound character and equal to Jo, and someone that is a worthy opponent in some ways of Jo,” Gerwig has said. “To me it seems so obvious that she hadn’t been given her due in our collective consciousness.” And Gerwig is not the only one who has been rereading Little Women. Novelist Jane Smiley, in a new collection entitled The March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women, argues that Amy is the most beguiling character in the book: “Amy is the modern woman, the thoughtful feminist […] and is more like what we aim to be today.”
Gerwig’s and Smiley’s reading is, in fact, supported by the historical record. The real Amy March — May Alcott Nieriker, Louisa’s youngest sister — was far from aloof and demanding. In fact, she was a real feminist force, fostering transatlantic networks for independent women travelers. This forgotten legacy of May Alcott Nieriker lends credence to our new cultural take on Amy, especially our newly awakened sense of her ability to get things done in the face of concerted cultural resistance.
For both Gerwig and Smiley, certain comments by Amy began to stand out when they reread the novel. For Gerwig, it was “I will be great, or I will be nothing.” For Smiley, it was a less obvious line: “I think anxiety is very interesting.” In this remark, Smiley writes, Amy reveals that she is fundamentally an “introspective” character, prone to analyze her own feelings and find ways to learn from them. I would suggest that Gerwig and Smiley probably didn’t fully realize how right their hunches about this character are. Furthermore, Amy is not the first character in Little Women to be reenvisioned by sensitive readers.
In the most famous instance of readers getting it right, Carroll Atwood Wilson, a rare books distributor who specialized in the Alcotts, told Leona Rostenberg, friend and business partner of Madeleine Stern — author of a 1950 biography of Alcott — that he was convinced “Louisa used a pseudonym to write sensational stories” and that she needed to “discover the pseudonym!” Stern tells the story in her introduction to the 1996 reissue of her biography: it appears Rostenberg
found the answer in the manuscript room of Harvard’s Houghton Library, where silence reigned supreme as the two of us plowed through the masses of Alcott manuscripts, letters, family papers, and memorabilia. Suddenly the silence was shattered by a warwhoop. Leona Rostenberg had found a clutch of five letters from a Boston publisher to “Dear Miss Alcott” — letters that would change forever the image of the Children’s Friend.
Rostenberg had found evidence that, yes, Louisa May Alcott had a series of contracts under the name A. M. Barnard, a fact that is faithfully represented in Gerwig’s Little Women.
In the same Houghton archive over 70 years later, I had the chance to look through the papers myself. In a box that was labeled as the papers of Louisa, I found a small red diary belonging to her sister May. As many know, May became a painter in Europe, her work displayed at the Paris Salon in the late 1870s. She lived in London, Rome, and Paris, perfecting her craft and visiting museums, buying cheap dresses in the off-season, and crying alone in a chapel when her beloved mother died. Eventually, in her late 30s, she married and bore a daughter, whom she named Louisa after her older sister. Following May’s death, the young Louisa (called Lulu) came across the sea to be raised by her namesake aunt until Alcott’s death in 1888.
This, however, is less well known: during the final years of her short life, May emerged as a staunch advocate for women studying abroad. She threw her public influence behind the cause, first in articles for The Boston Transcript (the most widely circulated daily paper in Boston at the time) and later in a book written for and marketed to young women of limited means who wanted an artistic adventure. There may be reasons this history has been forgotten. The only biography of May, a “memoir” authored by Caroline Ticknor, published in 1928, devotes less than 10 of its 300 pages to her public writings, which Ticknor suggested weren’t important to the practicing artist. In fact, Ticknor doesn’t even bother to include the title of what she calls “May’s little book.” But the diary I found in Houghton Library tells a different story.
Carefully pasted inside the 1879 diary are several newspaper clippings of “Artist’s Letters” sent to the Boston Transcript, as well as five printed reviews of May’s book, Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply, which was published by the same house, Roberts Brothers, that had published Little Women. The book offered practical tips for traveling in Italy, France, and England — including the names and rates of reputable hoteliers, recommendations for where to buy discounted dresses, and the names of contacts for art studios. May referred to the book’s audience as her “artistic sisters” who “wanted to study abroad, but were uncertain about how to do it.” She cheerfully encouraged her readers — they could indeed go abroad, they could do it cheaply, and they needn’t have an official chaperone to protect their feminine honor.
Offering her own life as a model, May positioned herself as a secret-sharer who could provide a professional network to young female artists. She was, I would argue, just as skilled at crafting an argument as painting a picture. And many of the qualities we are now admiring in Amy — her ambition, her clear-eyed assessment of the injustices facing women, her rhetorical power in maneuvering through life and getting what she wanted — are also applicable to Amy’s real-life counterpart.
Armed with her parents’ confidence and financially supported by her sister, May was in an unusually secure position to pursue her artistic dreams. Before she left Concord, she and Louisa had collaborated on a tourism book Concord Sketches (1869), which featured the homes of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and her own family. She also illustrated the first edition of Little Women. This work shows that May was an established and successful local artist, and the inclusion of her family among Concord’s elite reveals the literary and cultural connections she enjoyed as an Alcott. She had studied in Boston with William Morris Hunt, an eminent painter, and had opened her own artists’ studio. Because of her family’s reputation, and the way she had already used that reputation to leverage success in Concord and Boston, May had a built-in platform for her views. Unlike artists who had no public status and who may have had to struggle for notice — let alone place work in a leading newspaper — May had tools at her fingertips, and she used them. Notably, it was the profits from Little Women that enabled the real-life May Alcott to pursue her artistic career.
In an 1878 Boston Transcript column, May wrote, “I daily long for an opportunity to tell many of the girls who are struggling to find the right kind of help in America how easy a thing it is to cross the Atlantic with no escort but one of the kind courteous captains of the Cunard Line.” Her description of her ideal woman reader is similar in Studying Art Abroad:
I am supposing our particular artist to be no gay tourist, doing Europe according to guide books, […] but a thoroughly earnest worker, a lady, and poor, like so many of the profession, wishing to make the most of all opportunities, and the little bag of gold to last as long as possible.
As an artist who has already been admitted to the Paris Salon and who claimed to be satisfied with her life choices, May positions herself as the voice of experience, prodding readers to embrace her own lifestyle. She writes: “So free, so busy, so happy am I that I envy no one, and find life infinitely rich and full. Such being the case, […] I feel that I may venture to say to any other young woman of moderate means and artistic longings, ‘Take heart, come over and try art life in London.’”
The position May was taking here was controversial. Studying abroad — not as a “gay tourist” but as an “earnest worker” — was perceived to be a male adventure. Many art studios in the 1870s did not admit women. There was widespread concern that painting nudes could compromise women’s artistic virtues and that studying abroad could corrupt a woman’s morals. Other cultural conservatives preferred for women to study art merely as a precursor to keeping house, not as a profession. In the face of this resistance, some women artists tried to argue the radical position that gender shouldn’t matter at all.
For example, in 1873, the journalist Albert Rhodes visited a well-known studio in Paris, the Académie Julian, where two American women were working. As he reported in The Galaxy magazine, when he interviewed one of the artists, she told him that a female art student abroad must “forget the conventionalities” of society in order to achieve success:
[I]f a woman wants to be a painter, she must get over her squeamishness; if she wants to paint strong and well like a man, she must go through the same training. […] There is no sex here; the students, men and women, are simply painters. In the atelier, excessive modesty in a woman painter is a sign of mediocrity; only the woman who forgets the conventionalities of society in the pursuit of art stands a chance for distinction.
Rhodes observes that “[t]here was something almost defiant in the remarks of the young woman, as if she held a position that required defending. What she said, too, left an inference that she had broken many lances in maintaining herself on what is regarded as debatable ground.” Considering the interview in retrospect, the woman was obviously arguing a debatable position. Despite her claim that “[t]here is no sex [i.e., gender distinction] here,” Rodolphe Julian, founder of the Academy, ultimately decided that it was improper to mix the sexes in his own studio, and so separated men from women. Additionally, major schools, such as the École des Beaux-Arts, did not allow women to apply at all — and didn’t change this policy until 1897.
Writing from London just five years after the young artist’s interview, May takes for granted that a woman need not check her regard for convention at the door when pursuing a profession in art. Her efforts at persuasion, in other words, seek to balance a passion for professionalization with genteel femininity. By walking this fine line, she demonstrates that she was, in real life, much as Jane Smiley described the fictional Amy: a political operator, adept at working within oppressive systems to achieve her desired goals.
May’s performance on the page is blithely optimistic, both dreamy and hard-headedly practical. She uses references to nursery rhymes to convey the wonder of the artistic scene abroad, while also providing names and contact information (as well as prices) for art studios. She raves about how wonderful it is to buy dresses in August, the offseason, when “a young woman of moderate means can get up a neat and handsome wardrobe for half the sum it costs at home.” While she occasionally acknowledges the sexism faced by women abroad, she more often raves about the wonderful opportunities that are unavailable in Boston. In guides written for men during the same period, the many hardships of studying abroad are frankly acknowledged: loneliness, the difficulty of the language barrier, lack of familiarity, and homesickness. May doesn’t linger on these problems, which would have only been worse for most women in the 1870s.
In “A Letter from an Art Student in London,” May ticks off the major galleries one by one, referring to them as “the crowning glory of all to the new-comers,” and describes how accessible they are to students. At the National Gallery, for example, art students “have the right” to copy artworks two days each week — “when the public is excluded” — by making an “application to Mr. Norman.” (Giving the name “Mr. Norman” serves the purpose of providing her middle-class readers with a respectable, concrete connection. Elsewhere, May elaborates, “Especially if a woman, a few notes, suggestions, and addresses will prove useful.”) May is, in a sense, serving as a professional coordinator, providing her readers with a respectable network to pursue their studies.
Her glowing discussion of these museum opportunities differs significantly from how the situation is described in “The Art Student in Paris,” a pamphlet published in 1887 by the Boston Art Students Association. The anonymous authors, writing largely for a male readership, claim that a trip to a gallery or museum may be exhausting for a student who hasn’t taken the time to become familiar with art history: “Every time he visits the Louvre he is called to make a mental effort for which he has neither the time nor the strength; and he will end in taking a great deal of his artistic information second hand.” The layouts of some major museums are described as “bewildering” to someone who is “ignorant” about the major schools of art. These types of warnings are rarely found in May’s writing, which seems to assume that young women artists will be able to interpret the treasures of the galleries without extensive study.
Why was she so positive? I believe the same qualities Smiley observed in Amy can be applied to May: “As she grows up, [Amy] recognizes that what does work is a combination of charm, determination, and self-knowledge.” She minds her manners, focuses on the positive, and uses brute energy to burst through potential barriers. May trusted her readers would do the same and didn’t leave any room for them to question or doubt. Women, as Amy’s speech to Laurie in the movie emphasizes, can’t afford to acknowledge weakness. They must use the skills they have at their disposal to navigate the world, especially when they are of moderate means.
As the 19th century turned to the 20th, more women were studying art abroad professionally than ever before. Relying on census data, art historian Kirsten Swinth, in her 2001 volume Painting Professionals: Women Artists and The Development of Modern American Art, 1870–1930, notes the rise in the number of women who identified as professional artists from 414 in 1870 to nearly 11,000 in 1890. By the early 1900s, when both May and Louisa had died, the networks for women in Paris were well established. Swinth writes, “Women’s networks began at home. […] Advice filtered through letters, contacts, and friendships pointed women to the best ateliers, reliable teachers, and most likely means to attain a Salon entry.” The time when May was writing — 1876 through 1879 — was a formative period for professional women artists in the United States, and her forcefully optimistic rhetoric was necessary to counterbalance the equally extreme opposing views that existed at the time. The world needed an “Amy,” a poised, articulate feminist who could barrel through opposition with a knowing smile.
It might be tempting to dismiss these efforts as trivial for a variety of reasons. First, May wouldn’t have been able to travel to Europe, at least initially, without the financial support of her older sister Louisa. Given this fact, can we really say that she was independent? Also, it is perhaps a bit grating that May is essentially arguing for more privilege for women who were already fairly privileged. In the face of slavery, child labor, and mass poverty, does helping middle-class women study art abroad really count as significant feminist work? I would claim that it does, because ultimately May is trying to secure bodily autonomy, financial freedom, professional opportunities, and adventure for more women.
In her writings, May emerges as a staunch advocate for women’s professional rights. She positions herself not merely as a touristic guide for her female readers, but as an artistic sister, mentor, and friend. This actually distinguishes her from fictional counterpart. In Little Women, Amy admonishes Jo not to share the secrets of living well on a budget: “You needn’t go and tell them all our little shrifts, and expose them to our poverty in that perfectly unnecessary way.” By contrast, the real-life Amy — May Alcott Nieriker — was eager to share her tricks, in order to enrich the lives of her readers. It is high time that we acknowledged the true complexity of her character — as an ambitious artist, a political operator, and a savvy feminist.