Louisa May Alcott has been famous for hundreds of years as the author of Little Women. Not many people know that her younger sister, Abigail May (who went by May and is Amy’s counterpart in LW) had some success as an artist. May probably would have gone further in her career, but she died at the age of 39. The Other Alcott is Elise Hooper’s attempt to bring May’s story to the forefront via fiction.
The book begins just after Little Women has been published and the Alcott family received the first reviews. Praise was high for Louisa’s book, but not so kind for May’s illustrations. May decided she needed more instruction, so she approached Louisa about living with her in Boston and taking art lessons there. After some curmudgeonly grumbling, Louisa agreed.
A few years later, Louisa, May, and another friend traveled to England, where Louisa wrote and May explored and took lessons. They were prohibited from traveling to Paris at that time due to war, but a few years later May traveled to Paris on her own and continued her studies. She met John Ruskin and several other “women artists languishing in the margins of the historical record.” She became friends with Mary Cassatt during the beginnings of the Impressionist movement. Mary eventually became a well-known Impressionist, but the movement was controversial at first. May continued along a more traditional route. “Her paintings were exhibited in the Paris Salons of 1877 and 1879, major accomplishments for an artist of the era.” She wrote a book titled Studying Art Abroad, and How to do it Cheaply.
She met and married Ernest Nieriker, a Swiss tobacco merchant and violinist, in 1878. In November of 1879, May gave birth to a daughter named after Louisa but called Lulu. But May died seven weeks later, Wikipedia says from childbed fever, Hooper says from cerebral spinal meningitis. May wanted Lulu to be sent to Louisa in the event of here death. Louisa raised Lulu until her own death ten years later, when Lulu was sent back to her father.
I enjoyed learning more about May’s life. I had particularly wondered why her daughter was sent to Louisa, and this gave insight into that decision. It was interesting to read of the Impressionist movement’s beginnings.
May and Louisa seemed to be the most headstrong and spirited of the Alcott sisters. May’s burning of one of Louisa’s early manuscripts (an event that really happened and was portrayed in LW) gives a glimpse of the way they could clash. But I felt Hooper played up their differences and potential for butting heads a bit overmuch. She admits in her afterward that the estrangement between the two in her book was made up for the story. I know authors may have to make up some details and dialogue in a fictionalization of a true story, but I felt this went too far. Hooper also portrayed May as resenting the way her book counterpart, Amy, was portrayed. I don’t know if this is true or made up or over-emphasized for the book. The book indicates Louisa was unhappy about May’s marriage and suspicious that her husband was really after Louisa’s money, but Wikipedia says, “Louisa Alcott called the day a ‘happy event’ and described Ernest as a handsome, cultivated and successful ‘tender friend’. Further, ‘May is old enough to choose for herself, and seems so happy in the new relation that we have nothing to say against it.'”
Louisa comes off as mostly grouchy in this portrayal. The author says of May, “Creating beauty through art made her happy. And being happy seemed to be her natural state.” But Hooper did not portray May as happy except during her courtship and early married days.
Hooper describes one scene where May finds herself in a class of all men sketching a male nude model who, when he sees May, acts lewdly toward her. Again, I don’t know f this scene is real or invented, but even if real, it went into more detail than needed.
So, I have mixed emotions bout the book, and reviews seem to be mixed as well. Though I did enjoy learning more about May, and I think the cover of the book is gorgeous, I don’t think I will be reading this author again.