It’s well known among Louisa May Alcott fans that Jo March, the most famous of the Alcott characters and the protagonist in Little Women, the most famous of the Alcott books, was based on Alcott herself. And that the rest of her family were templates for the Marches. I’m a huge Louisa May Alcott fan – she was my favorite childhood author – so I knew that. But I didn’t realize how very, very much the Marches resembled the Alcotts until I toured Alcott’s Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts.
Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, bought the circa 1700 Orchard House in 1857. There were actually two houses on the property when he bought it, and he moved the smaller of the houses from its position on top of a hill at the back of the property, and attached it to the rear of the larger house. The family – who moved a lot because Bronson was always hopping from one venture to another and never being very successful at any of them – lived there for 19 years. Louisa was almost 25 when they moved to Orchard House, and it was there that Louisa wrote Little Women.
We were there on May 22 and staff was preparing for a big event happening the next day: the 155th anniversary of the wedding of Anna March and John Pratt. Anna was the eldest Alcott sister and the prototype for Meg. That would make John Pratt, John Brooks. Pratt was a bookkeeper, Brooks was a bookkeeper. Pratt died early and unexpectedly, Brooks died early and unexpectedly. Proceeds of Louisa’s book Little Men, which features the death of John Brooks, supported Anna and her children after Pratt’s death.
Anna and Pratt married in the Orchard House parlor, and there were to be reenactments and special tours on the 23rd. Being there a day early, we missed all that, but there were “extra” exhibits – like dresses lying across beds – that were there to illustrate the lead up to the wedding.
Along with Anna and Louisa, there was youngest daughter Abigail May, who was turned into Amy in the March chronicles. Elizabeth, the Beth template, had died before they moved to Orchard House. We were shown how the girls put a curtain up between the parlor and dining room, and put on plays, just as the March girls did. They were in their mid-20s when they moved into the house, which seems to me to be a little old for that sort of thing, but maybe I’m being biased by the book, in which the characters are in their teens. Theatrics, I know, were a popular past time for all ages in the 19th century.
May’s drawings are everywhere in the house, including on the walls. I mean, she drew directly on the walls. Her parents encouraged it. An interesting piece of trivia that I learned at Orchard House: May taught art to Daniel Chester French. French would go on to design the Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial in DC, and the Minute Man statue on the Concord Battlefield, among other famous works.
Orchard House looked exactly as I always imagined when reading the books. Unfortunately, I can’t show you any of it because interior photos weren’t allowed. But I’m breaking my “no photos, no blog” rule for them for a couple of reasons. One is that the tour was a great one. Ask what was behind any closed door and the guide opened it so that we could see. And she had a detailed response for every question we asked. The second is that I pretty much owe my love of reading to Louisa May Alcott.
Later in the day, we went to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, where Louisa and the rest of her family (except May) are buried. Since it was Memorial Day weekend, the graves of those who served in the military were identified with flags. Louisa’s grave had a flag on it because she served as a nurse at a DC hospital during the Civil War. She caught typhoid there and almost died. The letters she wrote to her family while working in DC were published as Hospital Sketches.