What We Can—and Can’t—Learn About Louisa May Alcott from Her Teenage Fiction
Should an unfinished short story by the "Little Women" author, written at age 18, have been left on the library shelf?
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Each “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes to find the real story.
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.
Critics categorize stories like Bremer’s as “sentimental” works, employing high emotions and feelings to manipulate a reader’s sympathy disproportionately. The term “sentimental fiction” originated with a class of respected 18th century novels, like Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, but by Alcott’s time it was becoming synonymous with terms like “women’s fiction” and “domestic fiction,” and viewed as frivolous entertainment. One of Alcott’s biographers, Harrier Reisen, described these sentimental stories as the “chick lit of the day.”
In any case, the 17-year-old Louisa Alcott enjoyed these stories, and wanted to write some of her own, like “Aunt Nellie’s Diary.” But she also submitted her sentimental works to publishers under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, suggesting she may not have wanted her own name associated with them. In her diaries Alcott confessed she secretly preferred more “lurid things” like the Twice-Told Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, as long as they were “true and strong also.”
Louisa knew Hawthorne as an associate of her father, Bronson Alcott, who had also worked closely with Thoreau and Emerson in Concord. Hawthorne’s stories depicted a turn towards darker allegories like “The Minister’s Black Veil” and the complex psychological realism of stories like “Wakefield.” But for Alcott, her attraction to realistic fiction clashed with the uplifting sentimentality and melodrama she was writing.
Shealy argues that “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” reflects Alcott’s struggle between these two diverging literary paths, and that her abandonment of the story could be a sign that, at 17, she was not yet able to reconcile these strands as she eventually would, to great success, in later stories like “The Masked Marriage” and “The Lady and the Woman,” and then in her masterpiece, Little Women.
As the title suggests, “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” is written in the form of the actual diary of “Aunt” Nellie, beginning on her 40th birthday. (Unmarried and seemingly quite content, Nellie is a classic Bremeresque narrator.) The day is marked by the arrival of Nellie’s 18-year-old orphan niece Annie, and Annie’s friend Isabel Loving. Annie is “gentle,” “simple, loving, and sunny-haired,” and “full of quiet happiness,” even as a “solitary childhood and lonely life have thrown a shade of sadness over her.” But by a few days into the visit, Aunt Nellie seems to have had enough of the “beautiful” and “dark-haired” friend, Isabel: “How often are we deceived by a bright exterior, little dreaming of the darkness within. Isabel is not what I thought her. I fear under a fine gay manner of a light laughing face she conceals a cold, unfeeling heart, bent only on the accomplishment of her wishes. There is something not quite true about her,” she thinks. Nellie believes that it is Annie’s harder upbringing that has left her with “frank simplicity” while Isabel has been spoiled by a “selfish worldly” father who, in raising Isabel, “allowed her will in everything.”
The plot revolves around the girls’ shared interest in Edward Clifford, a sickly young man who has also lost his mother, and who blends a “gentle heart” with the “calm and noble mind of his father.” Once a “pale, slender boy” weeping at his mother’s deathbed, Edward is now a “tall noble-looking young man” with a “low musical voice.” Understandably, Aunt Nellie and Annie and Isabel are more than happy to nurse him back to health.
Then come a few pages of horseback riding and society parties; Edward reads aloud from a “Life of Napoleon” and does a sketch of Isabel. Annie refuses to get jealous, which annoys Isabel. There’s a fancy ball where Isabel wears a black Night costume covered in silver stars and moons, and Annie, naturally, wears all white with a “rose-coloured veil” and a wreath of “dewy half blown buds” so as to be Morning.
You get the idea.
It’s far from the quality of Alcott’s later works. Still, lovers of Little Women will find resonance with the sisterly tug-of-war between Jo and Amy over Laurie—though with far less shading and complexity. Here, the descriptive writing is already lush and impressive, but the symbolism is a little on-the-nose, the characters more like caricatures, and the plot stalls for pages. Once Alcott gets the initial pieces in place she couldn’t decide what to do with them.
Will the lovely (but much blander) Annie win over Edward? That would make for a suitable, sentimental story ending. But Alcott pulls repeatedly away from this conventional choice, in favor of spending more time with the more interesting (selfish, jealous, secretive) Isabel. In a Godey’s Lady’s Book story, Isabel should not triumph without being somehow morally redeemed. Over and over in the story, Alcott sets up moments that could push this to happen, then stops short.
Perhaps to try and resolve this (quite late in the story) Alcott adds a stately friend of Edward’s to the mix: a “Mr. Ainslie,” who arrives at the costume party dressed as “Saint Guy.” Seeing him makes Isabel turn “very pale” and hastily drop her veil. She claims she doesn’t know him, but rushes away. Nellie later witnesses Ainslie in the cloak room with Isabel, begging her to see him again, saying that he forgives her “for all that has passed” but that she should not “try” his love again.
Annie later confesses to Nellie that when she and Isabel were at school together, her friend had been engaged to “high-born rich and handsome” Herbert Ainslie, but that she did not love him. Annie simply can’t understand how her friend “could be cold and careless when she had won so true and fond a heart.”
And possibly Alcott could not either, because a few lines later, she abandoned the story in mid-sentence: “Well not many days ago she told me she had written to Mr. Ainslie, breaking off the engagement, that she no longer loved him and would not be fettered by any bonds. I begged and prayed she would…”
Here, The Strand Magazine urges its readers to submit their own endings to the story, in a contest for a chance to have their final scenes published in some later issue. One challenge in doing this would be reconciling the many inconsistencies in the story: did Isabel only just call off this engagement? If so, why hasn’t Annie once brought this up during her competition with Isabel over Edward?
Perhaps Alcott would have dealt with these issues in a second draft, in which she’d also have needed to trim a lot of wheel-spinning in the middle, to get the story to publishable length. But she never did.
Why did young Louisa never finish the story? Possibly she saw the sentimental ending coming, found it unsatisfying, and so preferred to just walk away. If she later would become a huge success for her ability to combine Hawthornian surprise and depth to romantic characters like the March sisters, at 17 she may simply have not quite been ready yet.
Of course, it is also possible that Alcott didn’t abandon the story because she was stuck, or lacked interest, but simply because life was getting in the way.
In 1848, Louisa’s father Bronson had spent his wife’s inheritance on an idyllic farmland in Concord he called “Hillside,” leaving nothing left to keep up with living expenses. The solution was to rent out the house and move everyone to a tiny basement apartment in Boston’s South End, where Bronson wanted to give a series of intellectual lectures called “Conversations on West Street” based on his transcendentalist work with Emerson and Thoreau.
Biographer Susan Cheever notes that Louisa was stretched thin in taking care of her siblings and their household while their mother was busy working. Due to the potato famine in Ireland, the city of Boston had recently become flooded with starving Irish immigrants—Louisa’s mother Abba Alcott was running a Mission project to care for them, even as the Alcotts themselves were falling into poverty.
At one point everyone in the Alcott household got smallpox, supposedly passed from an Irish family that Abba had been feeding at their home. Louisa wrote a series of “Hospital Sketches” during this time, describing the grotesque scenes of illness and death that she witnessed while helping her mother in these charity efforts, and these are notably quite different in tone from “Aunt Nellie’s Diary.” But she had little time for writing at all in that year.
Louisa was running the household, on top of teaching: her mother brought Louisa to help run a series of reading classes for emancipated former slaves in their neighborhood. Both women were active in the abolitionist and feminist protest movements of the day. Meanwhile, the nation was lurching towards Civil War, and Bronson Alcott’s ambitions as a street philosopher weren’t exactly paying the bills. During this period her father was also “experiencing mental states and visions that suggest a frighteningly disturbed mind.” According to Cheever, “he began working on a series of arcane charts showing invisible forces. He refused to sleep or eat. He thought he was God.”
It was one of the darkest and most difficult chapters in Louisa’s life. It is almost amazing that none of this weight is reflected in stories like “Aunt Nellie’s Diary.” Instead, it seems that Alcott relied on her scant writing and reading time as an escape from all the uncertainty and horror around her. Remarkably, she’d later look back on this same time in life as her “sentimental period.” Even as her father was turning into a character in a Hawthorne story, Louisa was reading as much “Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Charlotte Brontë” as she could get her hands on, and we can hope she found lots of “tenderness and compassion” in all the exploitation of “high emotions and feelings.”
Shortly after abandoning “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” Alcott began working on her first novel, The Inheritance, which Cheever describes as a “short romantic Cinderella story written in girlish, sentimental prose” that is “weirdly enlivened by desperate feelings of its author.” This novel revolves around an Annie-ish character: a young orphan named Edith Adelon, who works tirelessly for the wealthy Hamilton family, only to discover that she is actually the true heir to their fortune. When a will is finally discovered that proves she should get the inheritance, angelic Edith rips it up and says she doesn’t want the Hamilton family’s riches, but only their love. (But of course she does then marry a wealthy prince or something and so ends up wealthy anyway).
Harriet Reisen noted that the novel was also a kind of escapism for the overworked, struggling, impoverished Alcott, and with pages “furnished with the fine things she coveted.”Reisen notes that “Louisa never attempted to publish The Inheritance. She had written it only for practice, and as an exercise it is impressive.”
The Inheritance was not published until 1997, when editors at Dutton announced it as a “lost novel” of Alcott’s and compared it to the work of Jane Austen. There was no introduction explaining to readers that it was written by Alcott at age 18, or in any way framing it as a work of juvenilia that lovers of Little Women might find less accomplished.
A review in Publisher’s Weekly called the novel “charming” but noted it does not rise to the “smart dialogue or lived-in characters” seen in Austen’s works. (Interestingly, they noted that biographers contend that The Inheritance is the novel that Jo March is meant to have written in Little Women.) In either case, PW remarked that it is an impressive accomplishment for Alcott at age 17, a reminder again that the book, which Alcott herself never tried to publish, should be read and judged not as a mature work but as “juvenilia.”
Scholars will argue that juvenilia provides useful insight into the early training of great writers, and undoubtedly these works are of great importance to biographers. But by the same token there is something exploitative about unearthing these journeyman works and publishing them as if they are “lost” works by the master writers they’d someday become. These works weren’t misplaced somewhere, or held back by censors—they were never published because these writers didn’t want readers seeing their early fumblings, let alone comparing it to the work of their mature literary idols.
In a 2007 Guardian review of a newly published collection of Virginia Woolf’s early writings, Nick Tanner puts it this way: “Is there any point in reading juvenilia? Loosely defined as work created during a writer’s youth, the term encompasses everything from early jottings about pets to works of the status of Frankenstein. While the genre has always fascinated academics, however, a recent batch of publications has attempted to bring the writing of youthful authors to a wider readership. But are such works really a chance to watch a great artist finding his or her voice, or simply the literary equivalent of seeing a photo of your friend on a potty?”
In the case of Virginia Woolf, the publication was a collection of homemade family newspapers, some written when she was as young as 10, called Hyde Park Gate News. An introduction to the volume by biographer Hermione Lee, suggests that one can detect seeds of genius in the little news articles written with her siblings.
Three volumes of Austen’s childhood notebooks were similarly mined for stories and poems written when she was as young as 11 or 12, and published as “Other Youthful Writings” alongside a novella, Love and Friendship, written when she was 15. A series of stories written by 18-year-old Charlotte Brontë under pseudonym “Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley” supposedly contain early models for characters later found in Jane Eyre. One can find new publications of stories written by Truman Capote at age 8, Ernest Hemingway at 10, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “secret boyhood diary”, poems written by Faulkner for The Mississippian at 16, etc. etc.
These works are no doubt appealing to publishers because there aren’t many chances to sell “new” work by long-dead authors—never mind that this work from early in the lives of some of these early 20th century authors handily falls in the realm of public domain, and so can be printed freely, without need for royalties or obtaining permission from these writers’ estates.
The Strand Magazine has, as part of its stated mission, published a slew of “previous unpublished” stories similar to “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” including “John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Heller, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, and H.G. Wells.”
In some cases, these stories may have been better left resting in the university archives, for ardent scholars to find, without risking any public damage to the reputations of these authors. If a fan of Little Women were to pick up The Inheritance without knowing how young Alcott was when she wrote it (and that she never attempted to publish it), they might come away disappointed. On the other hand, there’s not likely to be much general interest in these kinds of works at all unless the writers’ reputations are widely secure. (Penguin Classics isn’t publishing volumes of the childhood work of just anybody.)
Recently, I told my own students that I’d saved my first rejection letter, for an 80-page fantasy “novel” based on an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign, which I sent to publisher TSR when I was thirteen. I’m proud of getting the rejection, but I’d sooner set the floppy disks on fire than have anyone read it now.
I’m reminded of a former professor of mine who said it was once traditional for graduates of our writing program to break into the university library to steal back their graduate theses so that these fumblings wouldn’t be found if they someday became famous. It’s a romantic idea, of course, from back in the day when these theses were actually printed out and filed away in hardcopy. Today’s writers would probably need to hire skilled hackers if they wanted to wipe their own juvenilia from the digital archives—let alone what floats around inevitably forever on the internet (old emails, blogs, forum posts, etc., etc.).
But I’m also reminded that, as a young fan of J.D. Salinger’s, I once crossed state lines (twice) to get my hands on some of his early unpublished works, knowing full well that the famous recluse never wanted anyone to see them.
Perhaps one of the best approaches to dealing with one’s early work is that of another reclusive writer, Thomas Pynchon. In 1984, he published a volume of stories called Slow Learner, containing several pieces written early in his career that he looked back on already as lesser work.
In a lengthy introduction to the book, Pynchon dissected these stories, pointing out for each what parts he now saw as cringeworthy, and what parts he still admired. “My best hope is that, pretentious, goofy and ill-considered as they get now and then, these stories will still be of some use with all their flaws intact, as illustrative of typical problems in entry-level fiction, and cautionary about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.”
For a writer who had by then already been living for twenty years out of the public eye, it is a touching and honest self-exposure—a comfort to young writers who admired him, to show that all that fumbling and awkwardness is a natural part of the process.
Maybe the early and previously unpublished works mentioned here will have that same impact on young writers today. Maybe a reader of The Strand will find “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” compelling and be inspired to find an inventive ending—and maybe it will inspire other readers to go deeper into Alcott’s work and life. But we should still be mindful of the fact that, from the start and then all through her long career, Alcott herself was not interested in going back to the piece, just as she never sought for The Inheritance to be published. Whatever reasons she had for leaving these in the drawer should still be taken into account.