Thursday, October 1, 2015
Little Woman in Blue - exploration of 19th century American matriarchy - interview with Jeannine Atkins
I just finished reading Little Woman in Blue, a marvelously eloquent and historically accurate new novel by Jeannine Atkins depicting the artistic and romantic pursuits of May Alcott, the younger sister of Louisa Alcott, the author of the timeless Little Women series. Here is the synopsis:
May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece―which many say is impossible for a woman―and of finding love, too. When she reads her sister’s wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa’s portrayal of her as “Amy,” the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay? Based on May Alcott’s letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.
MJN: I am grateful that you have written this novel. There are too many novels inspired by the life and works of Jane Austen. Too many titles flashing "Mr. Darcy ___" … Fill in the blank. So seeing a novel inspired by the life of the Alcott sisters is refreshing.
JA: I've had my share of fun with Jane Austen and those she's inspired, but yes, let's hear it for the Alcotts! Are their fans shyer? Or do readers prefer empire waist gowns to crinolines? The Alcott family has its romances and accompanying chatter and subterfuge, but the story is more focused on matriarchy.
MJN: Let's talk about the tradition of brides wearing white. The historical purist in me always has a fit when I see a film set in the Middle Ages or Renaissance period featuring a bride wearing white. That makes me want to pull my hair out. For a long time, white was considered the color of abdication and death, not purity. Purity was something that was expected from a first-time bride. It was non-negotiable. Brides would often opt for red, royal blue, emerald. The idea of white wedding gowns started with Jean Jacque Rousseau, who idealized the pastoral life of simple shepherds and milkmaids who wore white linen. In the opening chapter of your novel, the 30-year old bride insists on wearing grey.
JA: May Alcott followed fashion from "the continent" (as you mention later, Europe was a source of culture and style) and would have known that Princess Victoria in white set a fad. Boston then and now tended to be more practical than stylish, and Anna was always one to blend in. Not so May ... or so she first thought.
MJN: The grass is always greener on the other side of the pond. Europe has always been a source of fascination for Americans, just as the New World has been a source of inspiration for Europeans. Both parties sought the other continent as a place of opportunities that they were denied on their native soil. If I remember from "Little Women", Josephine was gravitating towards Europe, at the same time as Irish immigrants were coming to America by boatloads. Do you think that for some people there truly are opportunities on another continent, or is it just an illusion, wishful thinking?
JA: I think there's a mix of real and illusion. When the Alcott sisters were coming of age, some practical things were falling in place enough so that New Englanders could consider spending more time on art and literature. The Alcott's neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, urged them to look at the robins, pines, and fields outside their windows, but many still wanted to write or read about nightingales and cypress trees. The Boston MFA didn't open until 1878, so if May wanted to see art in museums, she really did have to go to Europe.
Of course those Irish immigrants were hungry, and many found jobs in the kitchens and laundry rooms of Boston homes. Louisa and May's mother, Abigail, was one of the country's first social workers, helping Irish immigrants find jobs. As a young woman in Boston, May would teach some Irish children. Their descendants helped shape the city.
MJN: Alcott was a notorious feminist and suffrage activist. Feminism in 1860s was very different from feminist 150 years later. There is no denying that the gender gap still exists. However, the severity of it has been subject to debate. There are some individuals who will acknowledge that yes, women get paid less for the same work as men do, and shrug it off. And then there are some who will insist that there is a "war on women" being waged. Personally, I believe that the world is not nearly as sexist or patriarchal as some people perceive it to be. We all know that perception is subjective, that's why I'm not passing any judgment. But do you think that Alcott herself had an accurate perception of the gender disparity?
JA: I think that Louisa Alcott might agree with you. Both she and her mother had faith in the change that might come once women got the national vote, and were first to sign up to vote in Concord. That, as many voters find, could only do so much. Louisa did get irked to find her opinion unwanted on some town matters, though, as she wasn't shy to bring up, as a well-paid author she paid some of the highest taxes in town. Beyond the politics though, I think Louisa's role as a woman writer, and the one she created for Jo March in LITTLE WOMEN, has inspired other writers, including J.K. Rowling. And the importance of ordinary girls is something many readers took in.
MJN: The idea of writing a book based on close family members who are still very much alive is daunting. Louisa did not even bother to change the name. She used the same letters in different order - May / Amy. The character of her real life sister who died, Beth, was given the same name in the book. Clearly, Beth could not object to her depiction, given that she was dead by the time the book was written. But May was peeved that the character based on her chose domestic bliss over artistic pursuits. Do you think that deep inside Louisa envied her youngest sister and used fiction to exercise power over her?
JA: Jealousy is usually if not always part of the relationship of even loving sisters. While Louisa was more modern and independent in overt and intellectual ways than May, I think May was truly more ahead of her time in that she could conceive of a life that would have both love and meaningful work. It took Louisa a very long time for her to imagine a strong woman could have both romance and art, and it was May who led her there. So, yes, somewhere inside Louisa must have envied what she couldn't believe she could have.