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Queering Louisa May Alcott: Gender and Genius in Diana and Persis

H.J.E. Champion

Abstract

Gender confusion and queer sexual feelings can be found throughout Alcott’s fictional and autobiographical writing, with the boundaries between both often ambiguous. This paper traces the queer nuances found in Alcott’s unfinished novel Diana and Persis. It analyzes Diana’s association with Stafford in Rome and Alcott’s references to Charlotte Cushman and Harriet Hosmer in order to explore Alcott’s reflections on (trans)gender identity. This curious line of questioning may offer alternative ways of framing the debate on Alcott’s ambiguous gender and sexuality.

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  • 1 The first chapter outlines the intimacy of their relationship and Diana’s reaction to Percy’s impen (...)
  • 2 While scholars continue to debate the risk of anachronism when using of the word “queer” to discuss (...)

1When scholar Sarah Elbert discovered an unfinished story by Louisa May Alcott consisting of 138 pages in Houghton Library at Harvard University, she gave it the title Diana and Persis. Elbert went on to publish the four-part manuscript in 1978. Alcott’s story is of Diana, a sculptor, and Persis, or “Percy” as Diana fondly nicknames her, a painter.1 The following paper will analyze the section in which Diana lives as a sculptor in Rome and her fortuitous meeting with the widowed Stafford, a literary re-imagining of William Wetmore Story. It will explore the ambiguous ending of this section, during which Diana and Stafford sculpt the face of Stafford’s child, noting that it is inconclusive as to whether Diana is tempted to get married and become a mother to the impish Nino, or not. The section serves to underline Diana’s approach to marriage and her understanding of her artistic self, a reflection on gender through the metaphor of the masculine artistic genius. It also evokes Rome of the 1850s and 60s, during which time the queer actress Charlotte Cushman reigned supreme surrounded by a collective of sculptors. This article will thus offer a reading of this final chapter of Diana and Persis that underlines the parallels to Cushman’s collective, particularly Harriet Hosmer, alongside Alcott’s literary response to nineteenth-century questions of gender. It proposes that the final chapter of Diana and Persis was a way for Alcott to imagine a lived adult “masculine” identity for herself. Here, a “queering” of Alcott refers predominantly to questions of gender, with the implication of queer sexual desire, both of which can be found throughout Alcott’s oeuvre.2

1. Reimagining a Lost Dream

  • 3 I will use the critically accepted pronouns of “she/her” for Alcott, while arguing for the potentia (...)

2By the middle of the nineteenth century, American women had begun to independently voyage abroad without a male chaperone, and Louisa May Alcott was no exception. In April 1870, the writer travelled to Europe with her sister May, visiting Rome from November of that year until April 1871.3 While Louisa eventually returned home, May ended up living on the continent, her joyful letters to her family juxtaposing the freedom she felt in her new environment with the restrictions of America: “This foreign life is so satisfactory so full of the picturesque, so independent & charming that Concord or Boston would be like a prison to me, & home could never seem the same” (May Alcott in a letter home from 1878, qtd. in Rosenfeld 17). Natania Rosenfeld writes of Alcott’s desire to return to Europe where she lived the “happiest [days] in [her] life” (6) and her inability to do so due to her familial duties. Similarly, Anne E. Boyd suggests that Alcott began writing Diana and Persis “to make up for her lost dream” of being unable to find her own self-fulfillment in Europe, due to familial duties which became an increasing burden as the century progressed (112). Yet what was the precise nature of this “lost dream”? Can it be argued that Diana and Persis was a way for Alcott to experiment with her own queer dreams of gender-related freedom?

3Travel allowed women like Alcott to experiment intellectually and socially, steep their minds in literary and mythic culture, and cultivate a classical or artistic education. Alcott’s writing often mirrors details found in her own life, and Diana and Persis is no exception, the second chapter diligently quoting verbatim passages from May’s letters home from Paris (Life, Letters 317). It seems that for Louisa, Diana and Persis was a way for her to explore elements of her own personality within her fiction, to imagine a better, or perhaps, rather, a different, life for herself (see also Auerbach, who writes that Diana is a reflection of Louisa). Boyd writes: “it is clear that she was inspired by May’s example to try to fictionalize... how women could achieve the ‘full’ life that Eliot seemed to have led” (112). This reference to Eliot ties Alcott’s understanding of a “full” life to masculinity. Indeed, Rosenfeld proposes that by sending Diana to Europe in Diana and Persis, Alcott was attempting to vicariously fulfill her desire for self-realization as an artist abroad. Yet the fact that she sends her to Rome specifically, the city of Charlotte Cushman and her “Harem Scarem” of queer artists, suggests that this “self-realization” could in fact be read further, as a literary imagining of Alcott’s queer desire for a form of masculine independence.

2. “Unsexing Themselves”: The Masculinity of the Female Artist

  • 4 French artist Rosa Bonheur was relatively open about her sexuality, wearing men’s clothing, living (...)

4The reaction to women traveling abroad to gain an artistic education was often negatively framed in discourse from the period. Such anxieties can be found in the second chapter of Diana and Persis, in which Alcott references queer artists Rosa Bonheur and Mary Cassatt (thinly disguised as “Miss Cassal”), who seem to have an effect on Percy’s burgeoning feminism.4 Percy indignantly derides the newspapers which sneer at the “women who unsex themselves” by going to Paris to study art, claiming that “but for her sex” Miss Cassal “would have made a name before now” (399, 400). While Paris was a hotspot for painters like May Alcott, Rome permitted those with more neoclassical desires to step into workshops swirling with plaster dust where they could learn sculpture from the masters.

5When famed actress Charlotte Cushman audaciously set up her home at 38, Via Gregoriana in 1852, the expatriate community was outraged. Cushman’s success enabled her to financially support herself and provide assistance to striving female artists. Sculptor William Wetmore Story wrote to poet James Russell Lowell about the “harem (scarem)... [of] emancipated females who dwell there in heavenly unity—viz the Cushman, Grace Greenwood, Hosmer-Smith and Co” (Merrill 171). Similarly, Henry James wrote sneeringly in 1903 of “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white marmorean flock” (257). For Cushman’s “strange sisterhood,” the artistic liberation they found in European life extended to a sexual liberation—a substitution of matrimony for matriarchy, Cushman’s community served as a safe enclave for same-sex relationships. This feminist “flock” lived together in defiance of restrictive conventions, working in masculine professions, and openly declaring their love for one another without fear of great reprisal.

  • 5 The “great actress” Miss Cameron in Jo’s Boys is a clear homage to Cushman. Miss Cameron is passion (...)

6Alcott was most likely no stranger to this “strange sisterhood.” A “Transcendentalist matriarch,” Cushman was celebrated by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, and Bronson Alcott (Daniele 14). Cushman was known for being gloriously unashamed of her queer sexuality and for crossdressing both on-stage and off. She was also not only able to play male characters, but roundly loved and celebrated for doing so, her Romeo in particular a raving success. Literary scholar Daniela Daniele writes that Alcott most likely saw Cushman’s performance of Romeo in Boston in the 1851-1852 season (18). In 1858, when she was in her late twenties, Alcott met Cushman and her long-term partner, sculptor Emma Stebbins (who had been living in Rome for six years by this point). Cushman’s exuberant independence clearly had an effect on Alcott, who wrote in her diary that she “had a stage struck fit” after meeting her (Life, Letters 80). On 17 September 1860, Alcott wrote to her aunt that she had recently dined with Cushman and Stebbins (Life, Letters 113). Clearly enamored, Alcott went on to use the actress as inspiration throughout her writing, with not only Little Women but also “Behind the Mask” (1866), “My Mysterious Mademoiselle (1869), “Betrayed by a Buckle” (1870) An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870) and Jo’s Boys (1886) all containing references to Cushman and her stage career (Daniele 20-21). Alcott’s literary expression of queer adoration for Cushman implies that it is very possible that she knew all about Cushman’s community of women in Rome and the nature of their relationships, while the description of Miss Cameron in Jo’s Boys might suggest that Alcott had a personal attachment to such relationships (and perhaps to Cushman herself), one she was only able to express in her fictional writing.5

  • 6 Alcott was seemingly not a fan of marriage, as is clear upon reading her 1868 autobiographical essa (...)

7A contextualization of both Cushman and her queer community of artists in Rome might thus allow the reader to see beyond initial impressions of the writing. Indeed, Harriet Hosmer, an important member of the “flock,” is another potential inspiration for the character of Diana (as first pointed out by Elbert, 13). Diana’s sculpture of Puck rather might reference Hosmer’s own Puck, created under the guidance of her master John Gibson (a likely inspiration for the character of Stafford). Hosmer had met Cushman when the latter was engaged in her farewell tour of the US in Boston, and she was enthralled by the actress’s descriptions of Rome, with its bohemian expatriate life, its queer artists, and its creative freedom. She arrived in 1852, studying under renowned sculptor Gibson. Hosmer’s liberal father had not only encouraged her to be an artist, but he also allowed her to pursue the most unfeminine form: sculpture. Indeed, not only did a sculptor have to partake in undignified physical activity but he must also adopt the masculine attire of trousers and learn about anatomy and as such, women sculptors were thus masculinized by society. Hosmer was described as having a “masculine strength of mind,” and the Waltham Sentinel wrote that she was “masculine in character and tastes” (Culkin 53). Like Charlotte Cushman, who declared “I was born a tomboy” (Merrill 15), and mirroring both Jo March and Louisa May Alcott herself, Harriet Hosmer’s love for rowing, skating, and riding horses earned her the description of “gay, romping” and “athletic” (Carr 12). Hosmer also shared Alcott’s opinions on marriage, writing in 1854 that she “wages eternal feud with the consolidating knot” (Faderman 220).6 As Lillian Faderman goes on to point out, however, Hosmer was not “unwilling to tie a consolidating knot with another female,” mentioning her relationships with Annie Dundas, Matilda Hays, “possibly” Charlotte Cushman, and “a Mrs. Sartoris” (449). Masculinity is thus inextricably intertwined with the notion of artistic genius during the nineteenth century, a period that witnessed a burgeoning shift in understanding of gender and sexuality through the publication and translation of European pamphlets on a new field of medical knowledge: sexology.

3. The Artist and the Invert: Expressions of Queer Gender in Diana and Persis

8A nineteenth-century understanding of gender and sexuality can be found in theories of the sexual invert. Sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s later description of female “uranism” (which first appeared in 1886) might well be a description of Cushman, or Hosmer, or Jo March, or even Alcott herself. She is firmly masculine, dressing “in the fashion of men,” playing “manly sports” and boy’s games: a “masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom” (263-264). This notion of “uranism” underlines the understanding of female same-sex desire in the nineteenth century as an “identity” based on masculinity. Persis, safe in her feminine role of motherhood, is spared suspicion of sexual deviancy. Diana on the other hand, in her position as unmarried sculptor, might resemble this proto-queer nineteenth-century identity of the “urning” or “female homosexual.” If one considers the acceptability of the romantic friendship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as described by social historians such as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Faderman, one is made aware of the fact that this acceptability rests on the premise of asexuality. It is when either party adopts a masculine role, or when there is some hint of a sexual act, that the romantic friendship reformulates from acceptable to “unnatural,” to use the language of the sexologists.

9This can be seen in the third section of Diana and Persis, when Diana makes the journey across the Atlantic to visit Percy, her husband August, and their new baby. At first August is portrayed as a generous husband: gracious to his unexpected guest, happy for his enthusiastic wife, and noble in his attempt to leave them together. Yet, throughout the section August becomes increasingly aware of the underlying homoerotic desire that sparks between Diana and Percy, his growing uneasiness at their intimacy finally erupting when he returns home to find both women drawing together.

  • 7 For a further queer reading of this scene, see Kent.

10Rosenfeld notes the sexual vocabulary as they lie in an uninhibited position on the floor, “hard at it” in a “painting [or, indeed, “panting”?] frenzy” (421). August cries “Unnatural mother!” and Percy hurriedly bundles up her baby in a blanket (421). The use of the term “unnatural” here references the language of sexology, with the natural act of reproduction here tied to “unnatural” motherhood through Diana and Percy’s artistic creation. Indeed, there is a certain kind of queer “reproductivity” happening here, as underlined by Rosenfeld: “Diana and Percy have been, in effect, creating a baby together: a female Cupid who revels in prelapsarian immodesty” (15).7

  • 8 As Percy’s eyes “shone with unusual fire” (421) one is reminded of Alcott’s use of the word “burnin (...)

11While nineteenth-century motherhood was a clearly normative feminine role, a sexuality defined by procreative acts and the ability to reproduce, this drawing session is an aping of the sexual act. Female artists are able to move beyond mere procreation toward the act of creation, it is notable that Diana does not create merely sculptures but “marble offspring”: she is able to mother without the presence of a father (410). When art allows for a subversion of “normal” heterosexual roles, when it provides a space for women to bond and create together, to transcend the male role in reproduction, August swiftly puts an end to it. Percy’s creation in his absence, with another woman, is deemed unacceptable.8

  • 9 As a child, she had been given a “masculine education,” writing in her memoirs that she had had “no (...)
  • 10 For more on Fuller’s “lesbianism,” see Wood.

12Motherhood and domesticity are thus clearly opposed to an artistic vocation. Boyd notes the “tension between the essentially feminine nature of ‘woman’ and the masculine conception of ‘artist’” (80). Indeed, it is likely that Alcott was aware of concepts found in the writing of Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. Fuller, like Hosmer, was also considered to be “too masculine for the era’s tastes” (E. James 679).9 Alcott knew Fuller personally, the latter having been hired by Bronson Alcott to teach languages in his Temple School. She was thus likely aware of Fuller’s theoretical writing, in which she proposed notions of gender that reflect those of queer theory espoused more than a century later.10 Indeed, Fuller arguably proposed the idea of gender fluidity as early as 1845, writing that while “male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism,” these sides are “perpetually passing into one another” as “[f]luid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman” (75). There is a clear intertextual connection between the figure of Diana and that of Fuller. Fuller indeed moved to Europe in 1846, to cultivate her writing career, and, intriguingly, she named her son Nino. Nino is clearly referenced in Diana and Persis as the catalyst for Diana’s meeting with Stafford, a meeting that enables her to fully explore her own (masculine and artistic) potential.

4. Diana, the Artistic Genius

13The final chapter of Diana and Persis shows a vanquished Diana in Rome and Percy left behind in Paris with a growing family nest (with, presumably, even less time to paint than before). Diana is fulfilling her artistic dream when a chance meeting with a young child wins her the yearned for introduction to his widowed father, the famous sculptor Stafford. After visiting Diana’s studio, Stafford is impressed by her work and together they sculpt Stafford’s son Nino in the form of Puck, their creation echoing (but not completely repeating) that of Diana and Persis in the previous chapter.

14Diana’s connection to Stafford makes her “conscious of a deeper want, an unconquerable yearning, a bittersweet regret for something lost or never found” (428). Elaine Showalter reads this “yearning” as evidence that Diana will marry and become a mother, and in doing so “become a much greater artist because she is no longer starving the sexual and emotional side of her nature” (xlii). This reading seems too easy, however. Why do we assume that Diana will marry Stafford? Nothing in the writing suggests a romantic attraction, rather they seem to be drawn together by a feeling of comradely artistic pleasure, Diana feeling a “deeper want.” While Diana and Stafford literally “make a baby” together, there is no hint of the “burning” passion that drove Diana and Percy’s creation of Cupid, rather they are absorbed by aesthetics; by the style and form of the bust. The reader is left unaware as to whether Diana indeed goes on to marry Stafford. While it seems to be suggested that she will, we can also reasonably assume that she does not. Indeed, is Diana’s “unconquerable yearning... for something lost or never found” a need for marriage as Showalter suggests, or can it be read in another way, as, perhaps, the desire to explore a masculine independence lost upon adulthood?

15Alcott’s description of Diana as described by Stafford in the final paragraph reflects the masculinity of Harriet Hosmer: “‘One feels as if there was a fine man and a fine woman working there together, and one scarcely knows which to admire most” (441). The description of Diana as not either/or but both man and woman also mirrors Fuller’s statements on gender. For Rosenfeld, Diana “incorporates both the maternal and paternal principles” noting that, as for Alcott herself, it is the “paternal [that] predominates” (9). Certainly, it is Diana’s masculinity that is emphasized in the description of her sculpting with Stafford. When Stafford tells Diana that her sculpture has a “virile force” she notes the immodesty of his words, saying “few men would say that to a woman” (438). This comment underlines the repeated references to Diana’s artistic masculinity. She wants Stafford to visit her “with more of the artist’s than the woman’s impatience” while “[t]he masculine fiber in her nature demanded recognition as it does in all strong natures and having won it, she could permit the softer side of her character to assert itself without fearing the accusation of weakness, which she hated like a man” (436). By renouncing domestic responsibilities for a career as an artist, Diana simultaneously renounces her feminine markers in exchange for the “masculine fiber in her nature” (436).

  • 11 Jo March wishes she was born a boy, regretting her lot in life that keeps her at home: ‘If I was a (...)

16If one refers to previous critical conclusions made on Alcott’s desire to live abroad “vicariously” through the character of Diana, this emphasis on masculinity takes on new dimensions. This gender struggle is not only the crux of Diana and Persis, but it also appears throughout Alcott’s writing, with Little Women, of course, the classic example.11 Alcott’s swaggering, cross-dressing, hair-cutting, bluntly speaking, gawky yet athletic, conflicted yet rebellious heroine clearly reads “masculine.” Furthermore, it has long been considered that Jo is inspired by Alcott herself, the writer alluding to her own tomboyish inclinations throughout her life: “[n]o boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy” (Life, Letters 20). At the age of thirteen she stated that she did not “care much for girl’s things” and that people thought she was “wild and queer” (Showalter xiv). As an adult she wrote that she had a male “nature” and “spirit” (Cohen 371). Speaking to Louise Chandler Moulton in 1873, when Alcott was in her fifties, she claimed that she was “more than half-persuaded” that she was “a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature in a woman’s body” (Showalter xx). Alcott uses the terminology of Krafft-Ebing’s gender inversion, meaning that Alcott’s tomboyish inclinations are worth investigating further, going beyond merely a distaste for “girl’s things.” Similarly, in the letter to her aunt describing a dinner with Cushman and Stebbins, Alcott describes herself as “topsy turvy” (Life, Letters 113). Such language again emphasizes her understanding of herself as inverted. The invert is arguably an early figuration of transgender identity. Might Alcott, therefore, be understood through proto-transgender frameworks? Such a claim must be explored in greater detail in literary criticism, as it allows for greater scope in an understanding of Alcott’s life and writing. Similarly, what can one make of the fact that Alcott met Cushman in both 1858 and 1860, later travelling to Rome in 1870-1? Did they meet in Rome, and if so, is this why Alcott described her time in Europe as the “happiest [days] in [her] life” (Rosenfeld 6)?

  • 12 One must not make the mistake of assuming, however, that masculine womanhood equates with butch “le (...)

17Diana and Persis offers a study of gender through the metaphor of the artistic genius, with sexuality, gender, and genius intricately enmeshed. Much like the figure of the sexual invert the female artist is considered “unnatural,” and Diana seems to be no exception. Such readings of the story further the ongoing debate over Alcott’s literary approach to gender, potentially offering new critical ways of reading Alcott’s oeuvre through the language of sexology. Alcott wrote in her journals and letters about the misery she felt at having to give up her dream of traveling in order to take care of domestic issues at home. When May and Ernest invite her to their “pretty apartment, with balcony, garden, etc.” on the outskirts of Paris, Louisa writes: “I doubt if I ever find time to lead my own life, or health to try it” (Life, Letters 316). For Louisa, it is “[her] own life,” which is at stake. Yet even if she never made it to May’s “pretty apartment,” in reality, she does “try it” within the safe confines of fiction. Rome serves as the perfect backdrop for Alcott’s heroine to achieve self-realization, just as it had allowed Cushman and her followers to do so twenty years earlier. Perhaps it could be argued that, through Diana, Alcott was vicariously living the Roman life of queer individual freedom she potentially yearned for, an individualism symbolized in Diana and Persis by the vocation of the masculine artistic genius.12 Encompassing Alcott’s own masculine inclinations might allow one the possibility of a deeper reflection on Alcott’s gender identity, toward an understanding of the ways in which Alcott scholarship intersects with proto-transgender studies. This line of questioning reflects the critical practice of using biographical details in fictional analysis to suggest an even more radical way of framing the debate on Alcott’s ambiguous identity. Perhaps we can consider Diana and Persis much like her other fiction, as a way of reflecting her life, working out her feelings, resisting normative expectations, and experimenting with social possibilities.

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Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. “Diana and Persis.” Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter, Rutgers UP, 1988, pp. 381-441.

---. “Jo’s Boys: And How They Turned Out.” Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, edited by Elaine Showalter, The Library of America, 2005, pp. 801-1045.

---. Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals, edited by Ednah D. Cheney, Boston, Roberts Bros., 1889.

---. “Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.” Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, edited by Elaine Showalter, The Library of America, 2005, pp. 1-246.

Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Harvard UP, 1978.

Bedell, Madelon. The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. Crown Publishers, 1980.

Boyd, Anne E. Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America. The John Hopkins UP, 2004.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World. 1890–1940. Basic Books, 1994.

Chevigny, Bell Gale. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings. Feminist Press, 1976.

Cohen, Daniel A. “Winnie Woodfern Comes Out in Print: Story-Paper Authorship and Protolesbian Self-Representation in Antebellum America.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 21, no. 3, 2012, pp. 367-408.

Culkin, Kate. Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography. Massachusetts UP, 2010.

Daniele, Daniela. “Toward a Genealogy of Jo March: Charlotte Cushman as a Crossdressed Icon of the Victorian Stage.” Intercontinental Crosscurrents: Women’s Networks Across Europe and the Americas, edited by Julia Nitz et al., Winter, 2016, pp. 11–31.

Elbert, Sarah. Louisa May Alcott Diana and Persis. Arno Press, 1978.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company Inc., 1981.

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Hosmer, Harriet Goodhue. Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, edited by Cornelia Carr, John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1913.

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James, Henry, Jr. William Wetmore Story and His Friends: From Letters, Diaries, and Recollections, Vol 1. Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. Diaries. public.co, http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj/let/soj-diary-1869.html. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.

Kent, Kathryn R. Making Girls into Women: American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity. Duke UP, 2003.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis with Especial Reference to Antipathetic Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Forensic Study. Translated by Franklin S. Klaf, Arcade, 1965.

Lindemann, Marilee. Willa Cather, Queering America. Columbia U.P., 1999.

Merrill, Lisa. When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. Michigan UP, 2002.

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.Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Michelle Anna Abate and Kenneth Kidd, Michigan UP, 2011, pp. 33-58.

Showalter, Elaine. “Introduction.” Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter, Rutgers UP, 1988, pp. ix-xlvii.

Wood, Mary E. “‘With Ready Eye’: Margaret Fuller and Lesbianism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.” American Literature, vol. 65 no.1, 1993, pp. 1–18.

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Notes

1 The first chapter outlines the intimacy of their relationship and Diana’s reaction to Percy’s impending journey to Paris to study art. The second chapter is a collection of letters from Percy that detail her success in Paris and her acceptance into the Paris Salon. The third chapter takes place a few years later and recounts Diana visiting Percy, now married with a child and living on the outskirts of Paris. Diana’s disappointment that Percy has given up a promising career for family life is made clear.

2 While scholars continue to debate the risk of anachronism when using of the word “queer” to discuss the nineteenth century, Alcott herself uses the term throughout her writing. While George Chauncey notes that the term was used as an adjective to refer to “homosexuals” as early as the 1890s, it can perhaps be traced back even earlier (14). The official entry of the term in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as significant of same-sex attraction was as late as 1913, in which it is defined as “[a]t variance with what is usual or normal; differing in some odd way from what is ordinary; odd; singular; strange; whimsical; as, a queer story or act” although by 1913 it had already begun to take on meanings of deviance, defined as “[m]ysterious; suspicious [and] questionable” and “homosexual.” Alcott’s use of the term certainly describes moments that could be referred to as “queer” in the contemporary critical sense of the word. The masculine Jo, for example, is “always scandalizing Meg by her queer performances,” gestures that are often linked to her performance of masculinity and anti-marriage principles, both of which have been defined as clues to same-sex desire during the nineteenth century (55). Alcott’s contemporaries and successors also used the word to describe feelings that might be defined as “queer” in the contemporary sense of the term. Jewett wrote in her diary in January 1872 that the presence of her intimate friend Kate Birckhead gave her “the queerest feeling,” while Willa Cather was calling herself “queer” in letters to (or about) her lover Louise Pound by the 1890s (Lindemann 12).

3 I will use the critically accepted pronouns of “she/her” for Alcott, while arguing for the potential to situate the writer within a proto-transgender identity. This article remains open to (and excited for) future pronouns and reconfigurations of ways to address and understand Alcott.

4 French artist Rosa Bonheur was relatively open about her sexuality, wearing men’s clothing, living with her first partner, Nathalie Micas, for over 40 years and later forming a relationship with fellow painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. Bonheur might also pop up in Little Women, with Daniela Daniele connecting Rosa Bonheur’s short hair and Jo March’s sacrificial haircut (17).

5 The “great actress” Miss Cameron in Jo’s Boys is a clear homage to Cushman. Miss Cameron is passionately yearned for by Josie (another Alcott avatar), who is unable to express her desire openly: “If kindly Miss Cameron had known what passionate love and longing burned in the bosom of the little girl... she would have made her happy by a look or a word” (912).

6 Alcott was seemingly not a fan of marriage, as is clear upon reading her 1868 autobiographical essay entitled “Happy Women,” in which she argues for the existence of independent and happy spinsters.

7 For a further queer reading of this scene, see Kent.

8 As Percy’s eyes “shone with unusual fire” (421) one is reminded of Alcott’s use of the word “burning” when describing Jo’s passion for writing. Same-sex desire is again enmeshed with artistic genius: as Jo writes, her sisters pop their heads around the door to ask, “Does genius burn, Jo?” (281), much as she “burns” for her sisters in the chapter “Tender Troubles” (a title peculiarly reminiscent of Judith Butler’s groundbreaking Gender Trouble) (345). This language is repeated in Jo’s Boys, as Josie’s “passionate love and longing” for Miss Cameron “burned in [her] bosom” (912). In Diana and Persis, this moment of creation signals Percy’s consuming passion for burning artistic genius—and thus gender transgression—firmly quenched by her husband.

9 As a child, she had been given a “masculine education,” writing in her memoirs that she had had “no natural childhood” (E. James 678). Emerson describes her “burly masculine existence,” while Bronson Alcott described her as having “the intellect of a man inspired by the heart of a woman, combining in harmonious marriage the masculine and feminine in her genius” (Chevigny 92, Bedell, 128).

10 For more on Fuller’s “lesbianism,” see Wood.

11 Jo March wishes she was born a boy, regretting her lot in life that keeps her at home: ‘If I was a boy, we’d run away together, and have a capital time; but as I’m a miserable girl, I must be proper, and stop at home’” (222). She wears a “stiff, gentlemanly linen collar” (33), with a “gentlemanly demeanor” to match (37). Jo is the “man of the family,” the “businessman” that will support them economically while their father is gone (11, 59). Not only is Jo “genderqueer” to the point of becoming “male,” she also declares her passionate desire to remain unmarried openly. For more on “queerness” in Little Women see Seelinger Trites.

12 One must not make the mistake of assuming, however, that masculine womanhood equates with butch “lesbianism,” as this not only poses problems for the burgeoning field of transgender history, it also serves to erase feminine lesbian identities. Indeed, Diana, who is “like a man,” might be considered an early figure of proto-transgender identity as much as an example of butchness.

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References

Electronic reference

H.J.E. Champion, Queering Louisa May Alcott: Gender and Genius in Diana and PersisEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 27 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18813; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18813

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About the author

H.J.E. Champion

H. J. E. Champion (she/they) is a doctoral candidate at Université Bordeaux Montaigne and the University of Eastern Finland. Her PhD dissertation explores queer desire through floral symbolism in nineteenth-century sketches by women writers from New England. She has published on Madeline Yale Wynne, Ada Trevanion, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and Edith Wharton.

By this author

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Copyright

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

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

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