What We Can—and Can’t—Learn About Louisa May Alcott from Her Teenage Fiction

From The Literary Hub:

Last summer, an unfinished and previously unknown work by American writer Louisa May Alcott was published in The Strand Magazine, a small literary quarterly based in Birmingham, Michigan. 

“Aunt Nellie’s Diary” is not a lost tale about the March sisters, Alcott’s best-known creations. In fact, the unfinished story published in The Strand dates from the very beginning of Alcott’s career, before Little Women or any of its sequels. Discovered in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” was handwritten by Alcott in an 1848 journal, when she was just 17 years old. The story comes in at 9400 words, which is quite long compared to the stories published in the magazines Alcott admired like Godey’s Lady’s Book. (Among the poetry, gossip, advice columns, and essays on fashion, one issue I examined contained several short stories, all well under 7000 words). 

But “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” is still an incomplete fragment, not because the ending was lost or damaged, but because Alcott never finished it. She just stopped writing partway through a sentence: “I begged and prayed she would…” 

Did she get stuck? Bored? Distracted? We have no way to know.

What we do know is that at 17, Alcott was already an ambitious writer. According to biographer Katharine Anthony, at this point Louisa “could write melodramatic fiction with extreme fluency and prolificness.” She’d grown up writing plays with her siblings, which were often performed at family events. By the end of the following year, she’d finish her first novel, The Inheritance—though her first publication, in 1852 would come with a poem called “Sunlight” (under pseudonym “Flora Fairfield”) in Peterson’s Magazine, for which Alcott was paid $5. 

Scholars would class “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” as a piece of “juvenilia,” meaning that it comes from a writer’s youthful period, before finding publication or achieving wider recognition. Arguably, these early pieces can shine a light on crucial moments in a writer’s development, showing their interest in certain themes and highlighting supposed talents as well as deficits not yet overcome.

In The Strand’s introduction to the story, Dr. Daniel Shealy, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, claims that “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” has this kind of appeal, showing readers “an emerging talent on the cusp of a promising career.” 

Alcott’s diaries show that she modeled her early work on the stories that dominated popular magazines at the time. She hoped that commercial success would allow her to make an independent living as a writer. So she closely studied the wildly beloved Sketches of Everyday Life written by Fredrika Bremer. Bremer published stories of independent women travelling through Europe and the Americas, and describing the tangled marriage plots of others. Though called “sketches,” these were not insubstantial works at all—Bremer, sometimes called the “Swedish Jane Austen,” is regarded as an early activist for gender equality and radical for her view that fiction should center less on male characters. Alcott thought her stories were important, and in a memorable scene in Little Women, Alcott depicts Mrs. March reading Bremer’s book to her four daughters. 

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG found a book by the “Swedish Jane Austen” on Amazon.

Be warned, however that it’s one of those scanned-to-kindle out-of-copyright books that, in PG’s limited experience, are terrible reading experiences on a tablet or Kindle device.