This month’s best read is a book about an author that I absolutely adored and was fascinated by when growing up. Louisa May Alcott wrote a series of books loosely based on her life, and in The Other Alcott, Elise Hooper conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.
Perfect for fans of ‘Little Women’
The author explains her inspiration for writing the book about Louisa’s little sister, May Alcott.
We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.
I was immediately intrigued by this book and its promise to part the virtual curtain on this famous author’s life. I read Little Women in my pre-teens and felt a real affinity to Amy. Was she really as spoilt, selfish and vain as she appeared to be in the books?
May was a pioneering female artist
Instead of that egocentric little girl of Little Women, the real May Alcott was an ambitious artist. The book is set in the late 1880’s, at the time when it was unusual for a woman to be an artist, or even be able to study painting, let alone attempt to make a living from her paintings. Much of the book is taken up with May’s struggle to be accepted into the art circles or to be allowed to study art as easily as men can. Often, if she mentions her famous sister, doors are opened, something which May detests, especially as she often has to rely on her sister for financial assistance. But May struggles on, traveling to Europe to study and to pursue her dreams.
Friction between the two sisters
Louisa’ portrayal of May as Amy in Little Women, as well as the criticism her drawings in the first novel receive, are both initial causes of an early rift between the two sisters. When May, inspite of her early failures, decides to pursue a career as an artist, her determination in the face of adversity causes further friction between the sisters. You could say this conflict between the two sisters is the main theme of the book. The famous, successful, hard-working Louisa and her seemingly frivolous, comfort-loving sister May are poles apart in their view on how a young woman should lead her life. While Louisa and her books are read all over the world, May’s career as an artist faulters. Both sisters are equally ambitious in the pursuit of their art, but fail to see how similar they truly are.
Letters are revealing
The story is largely told in form of letters exchanged between the sisters, which adds to the sense that you are reading a true account of the lives of the famous sisters. Through the letters, we are also told about the deepening rift between them. Louisa feels she has devoted her life to providing for the family through her writing, while May believes her older sister’s authorship is driven by a wish to pursue her beloved form of art, very much in the same vein as she herself is trying to do. In The Other Alcott Louisa is portrayed as a rather harsh and judgemental character. She believes that, since May’s career as an artist is not equally successful in financial terms as her own, her sister’s place is at home, looking after her family, rather than in the pursuit of a selfish ambition.
Themes for International Women’s Day
The story of May’s struggle to be accepted as an artist, and her determination to pursue the life she wants for herself rather than the life those around her think she should lead, is a message all women still need to hear. Times are very different now; in the Western world at least, women can do almost anything they wish. However, there are still those who press us women to do what we ‘should’, act in a certain way, wear certain clothes, say – or not say – what we mean. It’s time to act more like May Alcott!
Credible, grown-up book about a popular author
I really enjoyed The Other Alcott and reading about May’s life. It’s always difficult to write about a hugely popular author or their books, but I believe Elise Hooper has created a credible, highly enjoyable, grown-up book for anyone who enjoyed – or even adored, like I did – Little Women. This novel manages to evoke the atmosphere of the original books by Louisa M Alcott while taking a modern look at the challenges women faced in the late 19th century.