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Portraits of the Artist as a Young Wife: May Alcott Nieriker’s Influence on her Sister’s Literary Sketches, Fragments, and Narratives

Azelina Flint

Abstract

Throughout their adult lives Louisa May Alcott and her sister, May Alcott Nieriker, debated whether the female artist could combine an artistic career with marriage. For Louisa, marriage was a useful plot device in domestic fiction, but it could undermine the female artist’s productivity in reality. Contrastingly, May viewed marriage as enhancing her artistic outputs. This article surveys Louisa’s assessment of her sister’s ideas of romantic love across four fictional narratives that feature a heroine based on May, alongside May’s correspondence on her married life, contrasting the sisters’ philosophies on the complementarity of female artistry and romantic love.

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  • 1 This essay will refer to Louisa May Alcott and May Alcott Nieriker by their first names to avoid co (...)
  • 2 Nancy Armstrong claims that the nineteenth-century novel was instrumental in creating and upholding (...)
  • 3 Trites observes that the heterosexual marriage plot is imposed on Alcott’s artist-heroines as a mea (...)

1Louisa May Alcott’s (1832-88) artistic philosophy was rooted in a personal paradox shared by many nineteenth-century female novelists. The role of the woman writer was to endorse the marriage plot, but she could not be married if she wished to remain a writer. As much as Louisa1 stood out among her peers in her perseverance to, in Anne E. Boyd’s words, “overcome the obstacles of [her] society’s prejudice against women becoming serious artists” (13), the marriage plot justified both the economic activities of the female author and the overwhelming focus on female subjectivity in the novel itself.2 Scholars of Louisa’s work have broadly observed she conflates romantic love and marriage with a type of domestic duty based on the sacrifice of the female artist’s self-fulfillment.3 The figure of the visual artist, however, presented a challenge to Louisa’s belief that marriage’s domestic duties compromised the female artist. Unlike the disreputable actress, the visual artist achieved public acclaim and maintained a professional respectability that allowed her to marry and continue working. Louisa struggled to incorporate this figure into the domestic novel because it offered a viable alternative to her vision of marriage as demanding the sacrifice of women’s artistic productivity.

  • 4 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879. MS (...)
  • 5 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879. A (...)
  • 6 May described domestic life in France in a letter to her family: “Here it is possible for a woman t (...)

2Louisa was acquainted with the vision of romantic self-fulfillment and artistic success embodied in the visual artist through the example of her sister, May Alcott Nieriker, who was a model for the female painters and sculptors of Louisa’s fiction. May, a painter and art critic who exhibited at the Paris Salon and wrote for the Boston Evening Transcript, put forward an opposing view of the inspirational power of romantic (married) love for the female artist. Where Louisa saw the unmarried female artist as upholding romantic love only in the realm of fiction, writing that “I enjoy romancing to suit myself… I hope it is good drill for fancy and language” (Myerson et al. 1997 109), May saw the female artist’s experience of romantic love as realizing the “ideal life”4 she imagined in her painting. Following her marriage to Ernest Nieriker in 1877, May wrote to her sister: “If I could only describe my life to you it would read like successive chapters in a romance[.]”5 Diverging from the doctrine of separate spheres, May affiliated herself with a vision of romantic love as “unfettered self-revelation” to another, leading to an enhanced sense of selfhood (Lystra 7). This heightened individualism was supported by the reorganization of domestic labor in her household in Meudon, France. May’s familial correspondence stressed that her experience as an expatriate artist allowed her to resist the subordinate role of women in the domestic sphere and extend her time to paint.6

  • 7 Berend argues that: “Louisa turned bonds of affection into financial bonds” and that she disapprove (...)

3This essay surveys Louisa’s assessment of her sister’s philosophy of romantic love across four fictional narratives, featuring a heroine based on May. I consider these narratives alongside a selection of May’s unpublished correspondence, composed during her courtship and marriage to ascertain how far Louisa was influenced by her sister’s views on romantic love and female artistic production. Historically, scholarship concerning May’s influence on her sister’s work has focused on Louisa’s jealousy of May, derived from Louisa’s economic support of her sister during the latter’s studies abroad.7 Such readings affiliate Louisa’s skepticism regarding her sister’s ability to combine marriage with professional success with her resentment of May’s happiness, achieved at the expense of her own, and fail to recognize the evolution in Louisa’s portrayal of the visual artist. Instead, I argue that Louisa’s final work featuring a heroine based on her sister, Diana and Persis (1879), considers the possibility that an idealized romantic union between artists can inspire the creation of a consummate work of art, facilitated by artistic collaboration and an equal division of domestic labor.

4Diana and Persis departs from Louisa’s earlier narratives in its portrayal of a supportive partnership between an artist-heroine and a male colleague. Louisa’s earliest stories to contain protagonists modeled on her sister, “A Sister’s Trial” (1856) and “A Modern Cinderella” (1860), imagine possible futures for May’s life, based on the renunciation of either romantic or artistic fulfillment. Louisa’s critique of May’s pursuit of romantic love reaches its height in Little Women (1869). This work reacts against May’s dogged pursuit of her double-vocation and challenges both her aspiration towards genius and corresponding rejection of domestic duty. Louisa’s fictional depictions of May respond to her sister’s vision of female artistry as May’s career develops, ending with Diana and Persis, which references May’s correspondence regarding her late marriage. Confronted with a union that combined professional success with romantic fulfillment, Louisa reconceived her understanding of the relationship between romantic love, domestic duty, and artistic inspiration.

5Yet, May’s intervention in Louisa’s depictions of the female artist remains gestational as she died before Diana and Persis was completed. Judy Bullington observed that May’s untimely death obscured her potential as an artist (197), while her association with her fictional counterparts overshadowed her own artistic achievements (177). Uncovering the implicit challenges to Louisa’s portrayal of the visual artist, which are articulated in May’s life-writing, allows the scholar to position May’s vision of the female artist against that of her sister. While we cannot fully assess the reach of May’s artistic achievements, we can set her own innovations concerning the female artist in the context of nineteenth-century domestic fiction. Both May’s professional career and her artistic philosophy facilitate a revaluation of the female artist’s relationship to domestic duty in her sister’s work. The proceeding pages track Louisa’s shifting portrayals of the visual artist across the trajectory of May’s life, in light of the influence that May’s artistic philosophy, as embodied in her unpublished life-writing, had on her sister.

1. The Artist and the Woman: The Dichotomy of the Double-Vocation

6In two early sketches for Little Women, “The Sisters’ Trial” and “A Modern Cinderella”, the youngest of a group of sisters chooses between domestic duty, conflated with romantic love, and professional fulfillment. In each story, the visual artist (based on May) exhibits no conflict in her final decision to pursue either her art or her duty—but Louisa imagines a different outcome for May’s life in each narrative. May studied and taught drawing when these sketches were published. Her education and apprenticeship remained incomplete; romance and courtship were probably far from her mind. These early fictional sketches encapsulate the philosophy towards art and romantic love, modeled by Louisa for her sister, foregrounding the implicit critique contained in Little Women where Amy March’s fate provides a symbolic riposte to May’s later pursuit of romantic fulfillment.

7“The Sisters’ Trial” imagines the first of two possible outcomes: choosing art over duty. The story begins with four orphaned sisters meeting on New Year’s Eve, agreeing to reunite in a year’s time after pursuing their fortunes. The youngest sister, Amy, wants to work as a companion in Europe for a year, passing her days “sketching, painting and taking care of Annie” (218). The experiment is a success and at the next gathering, Amy informs her sisters that she’s “gained courage, strength, and knowledge, and armed with these… the will and power to earn with [her] pencil and brush an honest livelihood.” (221). Her decision to pursue her art is unimpeded by romance, and she’s the most unconflicted of the sisters, alongside “Ella,” whose choice to become a wife and stepmother is similarly untroubled.

  • 8 In a journal entry for August, 1850, Louisa makes the following statement concerning herself and he (...)

8By contrast, the fate of the two sisters who try to integrate romantic love with art is more disturbing. The pride of the literary sister, Leonore (a successful novelist), jeopardizes her marital prospects: she shuns her cousin Walter after she hears slanderous rumors concerning his fidelity. Her mistake is rectified at the story’s denouement when she submits herself to a life of domestic penitence, in order to become “worthy” of Walter (228). The second eldest sister, Agnes, an early manifestation of Jo March and fictional counterpart for Louisa, similarly discovers that her success as an actress inhibits her ability to marry. When Agnes falls in love with the “accomplished Mr Butler” who returns her affection, he admits he’s “of a proud race and cannot make an actress his wife” (223). Agnes’s fate reflects the association of actresses with moral lasciviousness in nineteenth-century America, as well as the Alcott family’s discouragement of Louisa’s early ambition to pursue a stage career.8

  • 9 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Al (...)

9However, Agnes’s vision also bears similarities with May’s. Like May, Agnes longs to live in her imagined world, transforming its images and scenes into reality. She’s described as moving “in an enchanted world of [her] own”, becoming “the creature that [she] seemed” and existing in “a dream of joy and triumph” (222). May’s correspondence similarly describes her marriage as the realization of her “happy dream[s]”, deploying the term “air castle”9 used throughout Little Women. Whereas May’s marriage to Ernest realizes her dreams, Agnes’s dalliance with Mr Butler reveals her dreams to be “dizzy brain” delusions (223). It’s notable that art conflated with the imagination, the dwelling place of romantic love, threatens to immerse the female artist in a world of “selfishness and injustice” ultimately eclipsed by domesticity (222). Amy, who takes a pragmatic approach to her artistic training as an integral aspect of her professionalization, experiences no such conflict or punishment. In Louisa’s canon, women’s art must be separated from the delusional dreams of romance and affiliated with either domestic duty or dispassionate professionalism.

10In the second of the two sketches, “A Modern Cinderella,” Louisa imagines the second possibility: duty over art. Here, May’s counterpart, Laura, is an aspiring artist whose engagement to her lover, Philip, is obstructed by her father’s account of Philip’s “want of perseverance” (240, 236). Like May, Laura initially conflates matrimonial bliss with the parallel world she creates in her art. During her separation from Philip, Laura’s “one pleasure” is “to sit pale and still before her easel, day after day, filling her portfolios with the faces [Philip] once admired” (240). In Louisa’s story, however, Laura’s art fails to produce the ideal union she created on the easel. When her eldest sister, Nan, falls ill, Laura nurses her back to health and learns “a finer art than that she had left… the beauty of a self-denying life” (247). Remembering that “womanly attributes were a bride’s best dowry,” “Laura the artist” gives way to “Laura the woman” (247, 237). The reader is never told why Laura’s marriage leads to the sacrifice of her painting: it’s not a condition set by her father, but the story makes it clear that the “artist” and “woman” cannot co-exist (247, 237).

  • 10 Letter to Alcott Family, July 28th, 1877, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1724-1927, Series II. (5 (...)

11Louisa’s early sketches for Little Women are consistent in their assertion that some sort of renunciation is imperative for a woman who attempts to combine love and art. May did, in fact, experience the internal conflict presented in Louisa’s fiction, but she regarded this conflict as derived from the false distinction between women’s personal and professional identities perpetuated in the public sphere. Responding to familial enquiries about her marital prospects, May claimed that her romantic aspirations were obstructed by her art: “As to any beaux… I see not the slightest prospect of anything but a dead grind at art as I have wasted too much time already… and its [sic] too late now for me to expect anybody to fall in love with me.”10 Yet, despite resistance to the idea that a woman could embrace romantic love and an artistic career, May perceived her selfhood as shaped by her unfulfilled double-vocation. Her correspondence asserts that although circumstance thwarted her ability to realize both vocations, she wouldn’t relinquish her identification with them:

  • 11 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Al (...)

When I left home nearly two years I decided to make my life a different one from what it had been and I mean … to go steadily on with a purpose, and carry out a plan of which I had dreamed, but never expected to realize. To be a happy wife with a good true man to love and care for me, and then with my art. This blessed lot is now mine, and from my purpose I never intend to be diverted.11

12May’s conflation of romantic love with the world of dreams persists throughout her letters but, in line with her sister, she initially doubts the feasibility of realizing her dreams. The sisters’ perspectives diverge on the value of attempting to realize one’s dreams, despite possible failure. If May had been unable to fulfill her double-vocation, she would have still perceived it as an integral aspect of identity.

13May’s correspondence allows us to question the authenticity of Louisa’s portrayals of May. In Louisa’s early work, the heroines based on May are presented with a dualistic choice between romantic love and artistic fulfillment, reflecting Louisa’s views concerning the female artist’s relationship with domestic duty and obscuring the innovative possibilities of May’s artistic vision. May’s letters reveal that she conceived both her life’s outcome and her work’s content as dictated by her innate selfhood. The viability of realizing both vocations may have been doubtful, but the aspiration towards each shaped May’s character and the trajectory of her life. Her continued pursuit of romance in the face of disappointment allowed May to conceive her romantic “dreams” as forms of self-expression, rather than delusive symptoms of a latent solipsism. In her mature fiction, Louisa confronted that pursuit more explicitly, manifesting her disapproval of May’s alleged self-interestedness in the figure of Amy March.

2. “Talent Isn’t Genius”: Louisa’s response to May’s pursuit of the divine fire

14In Little Women, Amy March embarks on a quest to attain a vision of genius based on individualistic fulfillment and self-expression, but she foregoes this vision for an ideal of romantic love that embraces self-denial. Amy’s technical ability proves insufficient to sustain her artistic vision and she falls back on domestic duty. Amy contests the definition of genius May developed as she began to pursue artistic professionalism in the final decade of her life. May adhered to her father’s Transcendentalist definition of genius as the expression of the individual’s innate selfhood. For May, this innate selfhood was expressed both in the individual’s artistic output and their experience of romantic love, which allowed men and women to share “their interior lives with such intensity that many felt as if they had merged part of their inner being” (Lystra 9). As May developed this understanding of genius, she moved away from Louisa’s emphasis on renunciation in the domestic sphere. In Little Women, Louisa reacts against May’s rejection of Louisa’s artistic philosophy by conflating Amy March’s experience of romantic love with the sacrifice of her artistic ambitions.

15Amy embraces romantic love after confronting her artistic inferiority in Rome where the work of the great masters takes “the vanity out of [her]” (431). She tells her childhood friend and love-interest, Laurie, that she won’t pursue a career in art because “talent isn’t genius and no amount of energy can make it so” (431). Instead, Amy turns to a life of altruism, using her marriage to the wealthy Laurie as an opportunity to help impoverished “ambitious girls” like herself who “often have to see youth, health, and precious opportunities go by” (486). It’s notable that Laurie is Amy’s partner in her new-found mission because he’s Jo’s cast-off, rejected because he’d “hate [Jo’s] scribbling” (386). Himself a failed composer, Laurie is a fitting punishment for Amy’s excessive ambition. While Jo achieves literary acclaim through learning that she should write from the heart and not for “fame and money” (462), Amy decides to “Polish up [her] other talents, and be an ornament to society” (431). The visual artist who attempts to pursue individualistic fulfillment at the expense of familial and domestic duty is forced to channel her pursuit of romantic love into a wider moral purpose, extending her domestic duties to society as a whole.

  • 12 Shortly after her marriage, May wrote from London on March 15, 1878: “Your letters seem almost to r (...)
  • 13 Writing of her sister, Anna’s purchase of a house with her assistance in 1877, Louisa soliloquizes: (...)

16Amy’s figurative punishment for her initial neglect of familial duty pre-empts Louisa’s later judgment of May’s philosophy of self-fulfillment, developed during the latter’s studies abroad. Louisa funded May’s studies under the proviso that she return to Concord when needed by the family, an obligation May fulfilled in 1871 after her joint European tour with Louisa and in 1874 after studying in London for eleven months. However, after renewing her studies abroad in 1876, May failed to return for a third time following her mother’s death in 1877, instead eloping four months’ later. May’s apparent solipsism in immersing herself in romance so soon after her mother's death offended Louisa.12 Despite the fact it was written in 1869, Little Women anticipated May’s rejection of domestic life in favor of embracing her double-vocation. Amy accepts a trip to Europe formerly promised to Jo and is figuratively punished for her selfishness when her sister, Beth, unexpectedly dies at home. Given May’s travels abroad were funded by Little Women, it seems likely Louisa authored these fictional events in anticipation of the possible outcomes of her sister’s life: Abigail Alcott was already ailing at the time of Little Women’s composition and Louisa’s journals express envy about her remaining sisters’ ability to pursue their dreams at her expense.13 In Amy March’s failure to achieve artistic genius and her union with a husband who supports a life of altruistic service to others, Louisa enacts a fictitious punishment for May’s pursuit of love and art.

  • 14 Letter to Alfred Whitman, January 5th, 1869 (35), Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 11 (...)
  • 15 According to Ticknor, when questioned about Amy March, May answered “in a bored manner, as though s (...)

17May certainly seems to have regarded Amy March as an amalgamation of her worst qualities, designed to transform her artistic aspirations into episodes of comic relief. Writing to the real-life counterpart of Laurie, Alf Whitman, May asks: “Did you recognize the Cyclops in Little Women & that horrid stupid Amy as something like me even to putting a cloths [sic] pin on her nose!”14 Acquaintances of May in later life observed that she couldn’t stand questions about her resemblance to Amy March.15 This is hardly surprising, given May’s approach to genius opposed that of her fictional antagonist. According to Lauren Hehmeyer, May adhered to the Transcendentalists’ definition of genius as “sublime expression” (para. 10) and usurped the Transcendentalists’ monopoly on genius when she outlined her “necessary baptism into the sublime” (para. 40) during a mountaintop-storm on the Alps in a letter home to Concord. Studying the work of the great masters didn’t serve as an incentive for May to forego her art, nor did she regard her status as an apprentice as an impediment to her genius. Instead, the artist’s vision was upheld as pre-eminent, and its eventual execution was regarded as inevitable.

  • 16 Letter to Alcott family, Meudon 1878, Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Alcott Famil (...)
  • 17 Letter to Alcott family, June 6th 1878. Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts fr (...)
  • 18 Letter to Alcott family, April 20th 1878. Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879.

18In stark contrast with Amy’s union with Laurie, May also conceived her experience of romantic love as affirming her genius through enabling the diffusion of her artistic vision into another person. The effect was reciprocal, for just as May “fell to work at once and felt inspired”16 at the sight of her husband playing his violin, so did Ernest “play divinely” like “one inspired” before his wife at the easel.17 Radically, May viewed her married life as a collaborative work of art that realized both participants’ visions. Her repeated use of the word “romance” to describe her marriage also indicates that her married life transformed experiences formerly confined to the romantic novel into reality: “I feel I am living in somebody else’s romance for I cannot believe it is mine”.18 As May’s career developed and she began to formulate an independent artistic philosophy, Louisa became more polemical in her thinly-veiled critiques of her sister. It’s therefore valuable to ask how far May’s successful marriage impacted Louisa’s portrayal of the visual artist. Louisa’s unfinished novel fragment, Diana and Persis, starts to consider the feasibility of combining romantic love with artistic production.

3. May’s Intervention in Louisa’s Portrayal of the Married Female Artist

  • 19 Rosenfeld claims that Percy represents May and Diana is an amalgam of Louisa and Harriet Hosmer (7) (...)

19Despite the fact that Louisa evinced skepticism concerning May’s belief that romantic love could enhance women’s artistic productivity in the early- to mid-years of May’s career, Louisa reconsidered her attitude when May’s marriage affirmed the compatibility of married life and artistic production for women. Diana and Persis is a Künstlerroman of two female art students living abroad. It stands out among Louisa’s narratives by seriously considering the possibility that romantic love might be beneficial for the female artist. As with Louisa’s earlier depictions of visual artists, both heroines are conflicted between the demands of artistic professionalism and domestic life, but each heroine is more drawn towards one particular way of life than the other: “The same aim was theirs, success and happiness; but with Diana success came first, with Percy happiness” (392). The scholarly consensus is that Diana is based on Louisa and Percy on May,19 for Diana initially ventriloquizes Louisa’s philosophy that: “‘Success is impossible, unless the passion for art overcomes all desultory passions’” (393). Percy’s married life is also largely based on May’s letters home.

  • 20 This description complements that of May in Bronson Alcott’s elegy to his youngest daughter where s (...)

20However, conflating Diana with Louisa is problematic. Diana’s studies abroad are also based on May’s correspondence, and they don’t reflect Louisa’s autobiographical experiences. Moreover, Diana resembles May and her earlier fictional counterparts in both physical appearance and temperament as the “golden” (437) haired heroine who is “cold and brilliant and remote to all except… few”, described as a “fine creature” intent “upon her self-appointed task” (392).20 Conversely, Percy is quite the opposite of May in appearance and personality, and the text presents her as Diana’s foil. Diana and Persis conforms to Louisa’s earlier narratives featuring an artist-heroine by presenting two alternative outcomes to May’s life via the pursuit of either “success” or “happiness” (392).

  • 21 See en. 5.
  • 22 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon April 1878, Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Al (...)
  • 23 See en. 5.
  • 24 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Alcott F (...)

21Louisa’s representation of Percy’s fate expresses her latent envy of May’s “ideal life.”21 May’s correspondence repeatedly claimed that Louisa would experience happiness if she shared May’s life abroad. A letter of 1878 boasts: “This is the perfection of having the wife so free from household cares. I feel more and more satisfied that Lu must come and see how charming things are.”22 The reunion between Diana and Percy counteracts May’s claim that the expatriate female artist was free of the burden of domestic labor. Diana arrives to find “dust upon the easel and… dried-up paint upon the palette” in Percy’s studio (413). Louisa’s portrayal of Percy’s married life upholds her conflation of marriage with domestic duty, resisting the possibility that romantic love can transform the heroine’s artistic practice. In presenting such a reunion between the friends, Louisa enacts a subtle rebuke of May’s persistent comparison of her “ideal life”23 with Louisa’s life of domestic service. The reunion provides an imagined alternative to May’s claim that: “Lu must come and enjoy this ideal life and she will never want to live in stupid America again.”24

  • 25 Auerbach argues that Diana and Stafford’s union lacks intensity in comparison with that of Diana an (...)

22Nevertheless, Louisa entertains the possibility of a romantic union unburdened by domestic duty via Diana’s relationship with Anthony Stafford. My interpretation of Diana and Stafford’s union diverges from existing scholarship. A number of critics argue that the union does not provide a satisfying alternative to the heroines’ friendship.25 It is impossible to determine if this union would have satisfied Alcott’s readers, given the work is incomplete, but Stafford enables Diana to both experience romance and maintain her artistic career. Regardless of the union’s efficacy, it embodies a shift in Louisa’s depictions of visual artists. Diana’s reunion with Percy forces her to reconsider the value of marriage, making her “conscious of a deeper want, a bittersweet regret for something lost or never found” (428). This regret seems destined to be assuaged by Stafford, “a well-known sculptor whose fame was already made, whose maturity was already crowned with success,” but whose grief for his late wife has left him bereft of artistic “power” (439). Stafford assists Diana in achieving her potential by acting as her mentor. As a widowed father who has already had a successful career, he holds the key for a married life unburdened by childbearing, domestic labor, and artistic rivalry.

23Stafford’s mentor role is significant because he diverges from the earlier example of Laurie by supporting the female artist’s achievement of genius. When Stafford views Diana’s statue of Saul, he unhesitatingly expresses his admiration: “I am glad a woman did that… because it is so strong! There is virile force in this, accuracy as well as passion—in short, genius!” (438). Where Louisa’s earlier work locates genius in the public sphere, accessible only to men (thereby confining women to the domestic sphere), Stafford implies that women are forced into ancillary roles that don’t reflect their artistic potential. When Diana observes that few men would commend the “virile” qualities of a woman’s work, Stafford responds: “Few women give us the chance to say it. We have had sentiment enough” (438). Stafford’s assessment of women’s art is radical because he views women’s creative power as constrained by sentiment. Louisa finally gives voice to the possibility that the content of women’s art can move beyond the domestic sphere. As the love-interest for her artist-heroine, Stafford stands for an egalitarian union based on the exchange of ideas that might be realized outside the domestic novel.

24The key to Louisa’s ideal union is artistic collaboration, extending the shared vision of the world embodied by May and Ernest into artistic production. At the close of the fragment, Diana and Stafford create a clay bust of Stafford’s son, Nino. As parents of the sculpture, each artist invests it with elements of their own identity; Diana gives “the motherless boy the gentle caress he needed" (440), while Stafford makes “one effective dent in the round chin which gave Nino’s dimple to the life” (441). The substance used by the sculptors lends itself to reciprocal communication. Clay is malleable, allowing for constant change and adaptation; it captures the shifting and transitional form of the living model and enables the artists to participate in continuing dialogue. The generative potential of the sculpture suggests that women are able to create a living work of genius unimpeded by domestic duty if they are assisted by an equal who will share their burden of domestic labor and participate in their artistic vision. Diana’s union with Stafford affirms May’s claim that romantic love can enhance both the female artist’s self-fulfillment and her productivity.

25Examining Louisa’s changing depictions of the female artist in light of May’s correspondence and career allows us to witness the intervention that May’s philosophy of self-fulfillment had on Louisa’s assessment of the doctrine of separate spheres. Louisa’s early fictional portraits of her sister present the dual aspiration towards romantic and artistic fulfillment as dichotomous, advocating a choice between her respective vocations. As May starts to pursue an independent vision of artistic genius in the late 1860s, Louisa articulates a polemical critique of her sister’s perceived self-interestedness by creating an artist-heroine who’s punished for her solipsism by the enforced renunciation of her vocation. Louisa’s vision shifts again when confronted with the productive potential of May’s marriage in the late 1870s, and the regenerative power it possessed for May’s art. In Diana and Persis we see Louisa’s vision in flux: her dogged association of marriage with domestic duty is upheld by Percy, but Diana suggests that Louisa started to consider that a romantic union could possess an inspirational function for women artists if it facilitated artistic collaboration.

  • 26 On May’s death, Louisa wrote: “I shall never forgive myself for not going even if it put me back… ‘ (...)

26May’s gestational influence on Louisa’s work indicates that the figure of the expatriate female art student possessed the power to transform the self-sacrificial role of the female artist in the nineteenth-century domestic novel. In Diana and Persis, Louisa creates a female artist who’s not only daring enough to pursue self-fulfillment as her absolute right but shares this self-fulfillment with a male counterpart through creating a consummate work of art, expressive of the exchange of ideas between men and women. May might never have lived to realize her developing vision, but she bequeathed its potential to generations of female artists who succeeded her, starting with the sister who formerly satirized her hope to combine art with romance in America’s most iconic work of young adult fiction for girls. May eventually convinced Louisa of the potential existence of a female genius whose greatest work of art was realizing the unwritten chapters of her own romance. In later life, Louisa’s greatest regret was that she didn’t travel to Europe to witness the realization of her sister’s dreams.26 If she’d done so, Diana and Persis might have inspired a transformed vision of the female artist in Louisa May Alcott’s writing.

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Hehmeyer, Lauren. “‘Let the World Know You Are Alive’: May Alcott Nieriker and Louisa May Alcott Confront Nineteenth-Century Ideas about Women’s Genius.” American Studies Journal, vol. 66, 2019. Accessed 4 March 2020.

Kaplan, Amy. “Manifest Domesticity.” American Literature, vol. 70, no. 3, 1998, pp. 581-606.

Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford UP, 1989.

Matteson, John. Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Norton, 2007.

Rosenfeld, Natania. “Artists and Daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s Diana and Persis.The New England Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 1, 1991, pp. 3-21.

Seelinger Trites, Roberta. “‘Queer Performances’: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays, edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark, Routledge, 1999, pp. 139-161.

Showalter, Elaine. “Introduction.” Alternative Alcott. Rutgers UP, 1997, pp. ix-xliv.

Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. Alabama UP, 1985.

Ticknor, Caroline, May Alcott: A Memoir. Applewood Books, 1928.

Vidrine, Jessica Daigle. “Bisexual Desires and Spinsterhood as Intellectual and Artistic Genius in Louisa May Alcott's ‘Happy Women’ and ‘Diana and Persis.’” Women’s Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, 2010. Taylor & Francis Online. Accessed 4 March 2020.

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Notes

1 This essay will refer to Louisa May Alcott and May Alcott Nieriker by their first names to avoid confusing the reader with the similarities in their middle and surnames, and the changes to May’s surname during the period discussed (1856-79): she married in 1878.

2 Nancy Armstrong claims that the nineteenth-century novel was instrumental in creating and upholding the doctrine of separate spheres, “contest[ing] and finally suppress[ing] alternative bases for human relationships” (32). Beverly Lyon Clark and Elizabeth Lennox Keyser apply this view to Alcott’s work, contending that Little Women portrays the social function of books as to uphold marriage and domesticity.

3 Trites observes that the heterosexual marriage plot is imposed on Alcott’s artist-heroines as a means of repressing their queer tendencies (155), while Auerbach argues that marriage is conflated with death in Little Women and is presented a “destroyer of sisterhood” (15).

4 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879. MS. in the hand of Anna Alcott Pratt, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 1130.17), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

5 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879. A number of letters in this collection of extracts contain only the heading “Meudon ‘78”.

6 May described domestic life in France in a letter to her family: “Here it is possible for a woman to pursue art with sufficient diligence to achieve success and at the same time be faithful to her domestic duties.” Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879.

7 Berend argues that: “Louisa turned bonds of affection into financial bonds” and that she disapproved of May’s decision to use Louisa’s financial support to secure a “burden-free, family-free, self-centred existence,” pursuing romance at the expense of her familial duties in Concord. This view is also supported by Rosenfeld (6).

8 In a journal entry for August, 1850, Louisa makes the following statement concerning herself and her eldest sister: “Anna wants to be an actress and so do I. We could make plenty of money perhaps, and it is a very gay life” (Myerson et al 1997 63). Matteson claims that the sisters were discouraged from pursuing this ambition by the Alcott family, who disapproved of the “hint of scandal” associated with acting (185-6).

9 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 1130.17), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

10 Letter to Alcott Family, July 28th, 1877, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1724-1927, Series II. (53) (AM 2745), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

11 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 1130.17), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

12 Shortly after her marriage, May wrote from London on March 15, 1878: “Your letters seem almost to reproach me for being able to forget that dear Marmee has gone from us even during this most happy time of my life” (EML-p)

13 Writing of her sister, Anna’s purchase of a house with her assistance in 1877, Louisa soliloquizes: “Ought to be contented with knowing I help both sisters by my brains. But, I’m selfish and want to go away and rest in Europe. Never shall” (Journals 204-5).

14 Letter to Alfred Whitman, January 5th, 1869 (35), Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 1130.17), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

15 According to Ticknor, when questioned about Amy March, May answered “in a bored manner, as though she had heard [such questions] very often before.” (224).

16 Letter to Alcott family, Meudon 1878, Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 1130.17), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

17 Letter to Alcott family, June 6th 1878. Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, (17), Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879.

18 Letter to Alcott family, April 20th 1878. Extracts from May’s letters in Paris, 1878-1879.

19 Rosenfeld claims that Percy represents May and Diana is an amalgam of Louisa and Harriet Hosmer (7); Boyd contends that the text imagines what would have happened if Louisa had visited May in Meudon (112). Showalter views Percy and Diana as ventriloquizing “May’s letters and Alcott’s feelings about motherhood, marriage, and art” (xl).

20 This description complements that of May in Bronson Alcott’s elegy to his youngest daughter where she is characterised as a “maiden, full of lofty dreams, / Slender and fair and tall” who never ceased “seeking everywhere / Ideal beauty, grace and strength” (qtd. in Matteson 2007 395-6).

21 See en. 5.

22 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon April 1878, Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 1130.17), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

23 See en. 5.

24 Letter to the Alcott family, Meudon 1878, Extracts from May's letters in Paris, 1878-1879, Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (AM 1130.17), Houghton Lib, Harvard.

25 Auerbach argues that Diana and Stafford’s union lacks intensity in comparison with that of Diana and Percy (66), while Strickland describes Diana’s relationship with Stafford as emblematic of “an irreconcilable conflict that existed between feminism and the family” (82). Edwards objects to Stafford’s role as a male authority figure who invests Diana’s art with critical acclaim (12). Vidrine reads Diana’s union with Stafford as revealing the superior nature of the heroines’ friendship and the capacity of women “to fulfil other women” (1).

26 On May’s death, Louisa wrote: “I shall never forgive myself for not going even if it put me back… ‘Two years of perfect happiness’ May called those married years & said, ‘If I die when baby comes don’t mourn for I have had as much happiness in this short time as many in twenty years’” (Myerson et al. 1997 218-219).

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References

Electronic reference

Azelina Flint, “Portraits of the Artist as a Young Wife: May Alcott Nieriker’s Influence on her Sister’s Literary Sketches, Fragments, and Narratives”European journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 26 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18604; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18604

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About the author

Azelina Flint

Azelina Flint is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She wrote The Matrilineal Heritage of Louisa May Alcott and Christina Rossetti (Routledge, 2021), and, more recently, co-edited with Lauren Hehmeyer the first academic study of May Alcott Nieriker, The Forgotten Alcott (Routledge, 2022). Her work in American and Victorian studies has been published in a range of peer-reviewed journals including Horror Studies and Comparative American Studies.

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Copyright

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Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International - CC BY-NC 4.0

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