A Conversation with Elise Hooper, Author of The Other Alcott

May Alcott Nieriker

Many of us grew up reading and re-reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. But while most fans cheer on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the “real Amy” — Louisa’s sister, May.

In The Other Alcott, a captivating work of historical fiction, Elise Hooper gives readers a glimpse into the youngest Alcott’s artistic pursuits and her side of the sibling rivalry. Here’s an in-depth conversation with Elise Hooper, the author of this intriguing work of historical fiction.


Q: Why did you feel compelled to write about May Alcott?

A: I grew up in Massachusetts near Concord and attended drama camp at Orchard House. Along with all of my visits to the Alcott family home, I read many of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, but it was really Little Women that gave shape to my desire to be a writer at a young age, so for my first novel, I wanted to revisit the historical figures who played such a formative role in my own interests.

Many writers have already covered interesting aspects of the Alcotts’ lives so I felt pressure to find a unique path. I researched and researched and experienced a few false starts, but found May’s story largely untold—which is amazing because it’s so compelling!

She was such an optimistic figure, despite the many challenges that faced her, and she’s always been overshadowed by her infinitely more famous older sister, making me feel that her story needed to be told. Furthermore, I thought many modern readers would relate to May’s struggle to balance her desire for a career with her search to find love.

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Q: Upon reading The Other Alcott, Little Women fans may be surprised at Louisa’s conflicting feelings about the beloved classic. How much of the portrayal of Louisa is true and how much did you fictionalize?

A: To understand Louisa, readers must understand the real circumstances of the Alcotts prior to Little Women being published. Unlike Little Women’s March family who live in a state of genteel poverty, the Alcotts were flat-out impoverished.

May’s father, Bronson, refused to accept monetary reward for work, so they relied on the generosity of family members and a small inheritance May’s mother, Abigail, received upon the death of her father.

While struggling to stay afloat financially, the Alcotts moved more than twenty-two times in almost thirty years before eventually settling in Concord, Massachusetts, after Ralph Waldo Emerson offered to support them.

Although all of the Alcott sisters grappled with poverty’s challenges, Louisa, in particular, vowed that one day she’d be “rich and famous,” yet for years her various writing endeavors didn’t lead to riches.

It wasn’t until Louisa’s longtime publisher, Mr. Thomas Niles, saw the success of William Taylor Adams’s novels for boys that he proposed a “domestic story” for girls to Louisa. Initially she dismissed the idea, feeling the book would be dull, but eventually Niles wore her down.

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The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

More About The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

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Q: Did Louisa really resent the success of Little Women the way she does in The Other Alcott?

A: Louisa had a complicated relationship with Little Women from the start, and I wanted to explore this complexity in my novel. She often called her writing for the juvenile market “rubbish” and declared she only produced it for the money.

She became annoyed with the fan mail that focused on marriage and felt “afflicted” by the pressure her publisher placed upon her to marry all of her characters in a “wholesome manner.”

I think most artists can identify with the tension Louisa faced between creating work that satisfied her own need for self-expression and producing work that held the market’s interest.

Because the Alcotts depended upon her income, Louisa chose to answer to the market, but I believe she remained uncomfortable with that decision for the rest of her life.

All of her journals and letters make her insecurities clear; she is forever tallying up her income in her journal and lamenting writing the juvenile content her audience demanded. Fame and fortune did not live up to her expectations.

But despite her uneasiness with writing for children, it must be noted that she took her young audience seriously and never condescended to her readers. In fact, many of Louisa’s stories tackled fairly adult themes, such as injustice, duty, and self-reliance.

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Little women illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

More about how Louisa May Alcott came to write Little Women
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Q: Did Louisa really teach herself to write with both hands?

A: Yes, she did! She wanted to be able to write for long stretches of time without stopping, so she simply switched back and forth between her right and left hands while she worked.

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Q: In The Other Alcott, Louisa always seems ill. Was her health really that bad?

A: Unfortunately, Louisa was bedeviled by a variety of ailments throughout adulthood. During the American Civil War, she served as a nurse for the Union Army in Washington, D.C., and caught typhoid fever while working at Bellevue Hospital. Although she eventually recovered, doctors used a compound to treat her illness that she later believed gave her mercury poisoning.

Today, doctors suspect Louisa suffered from lupus. But her health woes may have been even more complicated than physical ailments alone.

In her documentary Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen speculates that Louisa may have suffered from manic-depressive disorder based on her tendency to immerse herself so completely in her writing that she would neglect to eat and sleep for days at a time. Louisa referred to these manic periods as “falling into a vortex” and would emerge from them depleted and in poor health.

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Learning To See by Elise Hooper

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Q: It seems like Bronson Alcott, Louisa and May’s father, could be considered radical for his era. What contributed to his unusual views?

A: Bronson was a unique individual, even by today’s standards. Among other things, he was a philosopher, abolitionist, vegetarian, suffragist, and progressive educator. In fact, today’s kids who love recess can thank Bronson Alcott because he introduced the idea of “physical activity breaks” during the school day well before this was the norm.

When May was a toddler in the early 1840s, he even started a small utopian community in Harvard, Massachusetts, called Fruitlands and moved his family there.

Daily life at Fruitlands was a challenge—its residents ate no animal products, bathed in cold water every morning, wore plain tunics and slippers made of linen (to avoid wearing slave-picked cotton), and refused to use any livestock for farming.

Hungry and cold, the community’s residents chafed at the group’s stated goal of being self-reliant. When Bronson started discussing celibacy, Abigail Alcott announced she was leaving and taking Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, and May. The whole Fruitlands experiment fell apart after only seven months, but Bronson stuck with his transcendental philosophy for the rest of his life.

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winona ryder as jo march in the 1994 film version of Little Women

10 Writers Who Were Inspired by Jo March of Little Women
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Q: What was transcendentalism and how did this philosophy impact May?

A: Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century rooted in the belief that human nature was inherently good but could be corrupted by society’s institutions, such as organized religion and political parties.

Transcendentalists believed self-reliance and independence to be the ideal state of man. Because of his transcendental philosophy, Bronson Alcott didn’t want to participate in economic systems and refused to receive money in exchange for work.

Luckily for the Alcotts, Mr. Emerson believed Bronson to be a great philosopher and helped the Alcotts in many ways over the years. While May didn’t identify herself as a transcendentalist explicitly, the movement’s beliefs undoubtedly influenced her desire to forge her own path that differed from mainstream society.

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Q: Of all of the women artists in The Other Alcott, only Mary Cassatt is a name that most people today recognize. If women began studying art in larger numbers during the late 1800s, why are there not more well-known women artists?

A: While studying art became more accessible to women during the late 1800s, the commercial arena of artistic success still remained mostly closed to women for many reasons. For one, it took years to hone the skills and business connections needed to become a successful painter or sculptor.

Most women did not have decades to develop their talents and build connections with art dealers because they often needed to marry to ensure their own financial well-being. In addition, women lacked access to birth control, and their long-term careers as artists were compromised since marriage ensured periods of creative unproductivity due to childbearing and childrearing.

The most well-known American women artists of the late 1800s — Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux, to name a couple—remained unmarried because they were from wealthy families and possessed the means to be independent.

Several of the women in The Other Alcott, including Rosa Bonheur, Anna Klumpke, Anne Whitney, and Adeline Manning, lived in “Boston Marriages” a term used to describe two women living together in a long-term relationship, but these women had the means to eschew traditional marriages and focus on their careers unimpeded by familial responsibilities.

One of the few women who juggled motherhood with her professional career as an artist was Berthe Morisot, a wealthy member of the French aristocracy.

She continued to work as an Impressionist painter after the birth of her daughter, Julie, because she could hire help and her husband, also a painter, supported her endeavors. This was unusual. Overall, most women painters found it challenging to maintain professional artistic lives once they married and started families of their own.

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May Alcott Nieriker Orchard_House watercolor before 1879

A Visit to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House
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Q: What kind of research helped you better understand this family and the era?

A: I started by learning as much about May Alcott and her family as possible. Biographies of the Alcotts are plentiful, especially about Louisa and Bronson, so I immersed myself in secondary sources to get a broad sense of the major milestones in their lives and formative experiences before turning to primary sources.

The Alcotts were a family of prolific letter writers and journal keepers, so there was a wide selection of material from which I could experience their individual personalities.

Rereading some of Louisa’s novels, especially Little Women and An Old-Fashioned Girl educated me on Victorian life, from big topics to small details, ranging from Victorian recreational activities to the types of flowers an upper-class family would have on their dining room table.

As I delved deeper into creating my story, I discovered I needed more information on Victorian life, such as steamship and rail travel, so I studied everything from ship menus to railroad timetables.

The Seattle Public Library provided countless books about the Impressionists and the Salon, art exhibition catalogs, and out-of-print books about various women artists from the era. I scoured antique maps of Concord, Boston, Rome, London, and Paris and used Google Maps to virtually “walk” some of the neighborhoods that May trod, all while sitting at my computer.

Honestly, writing historical fiction must have been very, very, very time consuming before the Internet came along. Sometimes I stretched the truth, such as when May tries to reach Hunt’s studio during the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

In fact, I don’t know where May was during the fire, but Louisa writes about her own experiences watching the conflagration, so I decided to put May in Boston too because the fire significantly impacted her art studies.

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The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper Audiobook

The Other Alcott on Amazon
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Q: Describe how you wove fictional elements into a real story.

A: When I needed an activity to engage characters, I turned to artifacts and some quintessential Victorian activities and let my imagination loose. For example, how would I set up the moment when May begins to doubt a future with Joshua Bishop?

An old photograph by Josiah Johnson Hawes titled Snow Scene on the Northeast Corner of the Boston Common made me realize I could literally put my two characters on a collision course with a sleigh.

When I needed to make May realize how much she cares for Ernest Nieriker, I capitalized on the Victorian bicycle craze and stuck the poor fellow atop a big wheeler, sending him on a bumpy ride.

Perhaps one of my favorite historical details came to me as I was researching the Boston Public Gardens and learned the history behind the city’s beloved Swan Boats. Although to the best of my knowledge Louisa never wrote a letter endorsing the widow who wanted to run the family’s Swan Boat business after the death of her husband, it seemed like a cause Louisa would have wholeheartedly embraced, so I worked it into one of her letters to May.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Madeleine B. Stern’s Brilliant Analysis of Little Women

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This conversation with Elise Hooper, author of The Other Alcott (2017) is reprinted by permission of the publisher, William Morrow.

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