- Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870–1871
Little Women Abroad is a major contribution to Alcott studies. The volume includes letters that Louisa and her sister May wrote to their family and friends during their 1870-71 trip to Europe with a companion, Alice Bartlett. The volume also includes substantive scholarly support, including a thorough introduction, extensive endnotes that explain pertinent historical and cultural information, maps, photographs, and many of May's lovely drawings sketched during the journey.
Daniel Shealy is to be commended for his sensitive editing of these letters. An experienced archivist, he has uncovered many previously unpublished letters; fifty-eight of the seventy-one letters included have heretofore gone unpublished. Moreover, Shealy's finely crafted introduction offers an insightful analysis of the context of the Alcott sisters' journey to Europe. Shealy describes not only the pertinent biographical information surrounding the sisters' lives, but he also includes descriptions of the historical contexts the women would have experienced in both Europe and America. The information he provides about revolutions in Spain, Italy, and the Franco-Prussian War that began in 1870 conveys the political unrest that the many Americans, empowered by the booming post–Civil War economy, discovered when they traveled in droves to Europe during the era. Shealy notes in his introduction that, prior to 1900, at least 1,822 books recorded Americans' experiences as they traveled to Europe (lxvi). Little Women Abroad thus stands as a contribution not only to Alcott studies but also to American Studies and to the study of travel writing during the Gilded Age.
Each of Louisa's and May's letters is followed by detailed endnotes that explain historical contexts that range from the politics of many countries to descriptions of various fabric types. Definitions of colloquialisms and contemporary slang further aid in the reading experience. I, for one, was amused to discover that May's croquet partners referred to her as "Mlle Mitrailleuse," thus named after a type of horse-drawn machine gun used during the Franco-Prussian War that had "thirty-five barrels that could fire all at the same time" (195n). May must have been a formidable opponent at croquet! The letters, too, reveal Louisa's quaint use of adjectives, like "earwigly" and "cravatly" (179, 201). Her infelicitous grammar abounds in her letters—and no wonder, given that she considers grammar to be "a vile invention of Satan!" (221). The net result is an authentic sense of Louisa's and May's individual voices.
This volume offers many original gifts to scholarship, including May Alcott's many drawings and sketches, which are included and made available [End Page 109] for the first time in this volume. The visuals are delightful, especially in the way that they provide details about the people May and Louisa traveled with and the places they visited. The drawings also offer testimony to May's developing talents. For example, she expresses dissatisfaction with her abilities: "If I could only use colors easily all would go well, but never having painted from nature, I am timid about beginning" (69). Certainly, May's ability to render architecture is astounding in its ability to evoke a sense of both mood and place. Because May's many accomplishments have historically been elided both by her sister's writing career and the tendency to diminish the accomplishments of women artists in the nineteenth century, this volume serves as both a historical corrective and as a feminist reclamation of one woman's talent.
Between Louisa and May, in both words and pictures, Little Women Abroad paints a portrait of Europe in 1870-71 from a uniquely American and feminist point of view. Louisa is quick to point out the weaknesses of the males around them; May asserts herself, more than once insisting on driving her own carriages, rowing and riding alone, and even climbing one of the Alps in a driving rainstorm "more fearfully beautiful" than anything May could have imagined (133). Her guide claimed that "he had never been...