Finding Louisa's Spirit 'Little Women': At New England's Orchard House, author Louisa May Alcott drew on her life in a loving, unusual family to create four beloved sisters.

June 21, 1998|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Sun Staff

CONCORD, Mass. -- The chocolate-brown clapboard house is not, I tell my daughter, just another old house with creaking floors, drafty doors, narrow hallways and musty rooms filled with worn antiques that she can admire but not touch. This house, I assure her, is not merely a shrine to a 19th-century literary figure, but a window into the life of Louisa May Alcott, one of her favorite authors.

At least that's my hope. After all, Orchard House is the setting for Alcott's "Little Women," the enduring, heartwarming story of the fictional March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and their beloved Marmee. Despite its universal themes of family and home, I was unfamiliar with the story until my 11-year-old daughter became fixated on the film version starring Winona Ryder as Jo. Since then, the book has become one of Courtney's favorites.

It was my idea to visit Orchard House during a trip to New England. I had learned enough about Alcott to know that the author had drawn on her own childhood and familial experiences for the novel. Perhaps I wanted to show my daughter, an aspiring writer who displays some of the same traits as the headstrong and adventurous Jo, that she, too, could find inspiration from her own life and her home. Imagine my chagrin when Courtney balked. "It's just another old house," she said, rolling her eyes and sighing as if to remind me that she's been through one too many old houses.

Astonishingly, her sister, Chelsea, 7, bubbled with enthusiasm, bombarding me with questions: When are we going? Is the house like the one in the movie? Was there really a Jo?

The writer's road

Our first glimpse of Orchard House came during a late spring downpour as we drove eastward from Concord along a two-lane road, the same byway Alcott and her family traversed, the same worn path the revered authors and thinkers Emerson and Thoreau traveled and the same road brash, new Americans and the British traipsed during the Revolution.

"It is the same house, Dad. Look!" Chelsea blurted.

Even in the rain we could distinguish the similarities: The same worn, two-story structure with a red chimney peeking over a gable. Later, we learned the film's producer was very careful in her re-creation of the Orchard House exterior on a movie set in Vancouver. Framed by a wall of trees, the house is neither imposing nor remarkable. Yet its name and the recollections of the family's life there, fictional or otherwise, evoke a warmth I am unable to ascribe to another writer. In our minds, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy could have easily emerged from behind the forest-green door.

Courtney's curiosity was piqued by Orchard House's resemblance to the film version. Of course, my daughters knew they would not find Jo in "plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut lovelocks" prancing about or kneeling at the foot of a handmade tower in the family's parlor. Or scribbling stories at her little desk in the garret. However, neither of them realized to what extent Jo was real ` that fragments of this memorable character lived and breathed here and elsewhere in the persona of an unusual woman from a remarkable and nontraditional family in mid-19th century New England.

It was easy to imagine "Little Women" in every room at Orchard House, actually two 18th-century structures that were joined before the Alcotts took residence. The Alcotts lived in many homes in Concord and elsewhere before Orchard House, but this is the house in which they lived the longest and the one in which Alcott wrote her best-known work. Surprisingly, only one "Little Women" event occurred at Orchard House. Alcott's sister Anna, the role model for the dutiful, obedient Meg, was married in the family's parlor in 1860. She married John Bridge Pratt, who readers may guess was the inspiration for John Brook. Elizabeth (Beth) never lived in Orchard House; she died three months before the family moved there in 1858. Neither Teddy Laurence nor Laurie ever lived next door.

In many respects, Orchard House is typical of the Victorian era. Much of the furniture is plain and well-used and belonged to the family. Visitors will find some of the family's kitchen utensils and the trunk and costumes used by the girls in their plays. But even in a room as seemingly ordinary as a kitchen, the uniqueness of Louisa and her family emerge. They were vegetarians, eschewing dairy products and meat. They were the first family in Concord to have running water. Each member of the family had a clearly defined role and, in this case, the kitchen belonged to Louisa's mother, Abigail, the heart of the household. She was a vibrant, educated woman devoted to her husband and four daughters. In her journal in December 1860, Louisa wrote: "All the philosophy in our house is not in the study, a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and scrubs."

Home's importance

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