May Alcott Nieriker: Thoroughly Modern Woman

may alcott niereker

Susan Bailey of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion introduces Literary Ladies readers to May Alcott Nieriker, the youngest sister of Louisa May Alcott (“Amy” in Little Women, the autobiographical but idealized version of the Alcott family’s life). An immensely talented visual artist, May’s education was made possible by Louisa’s literary success.

While researching May and Ernest’s home in Meudon, France (see previous post), I had a chance to read May’s thoughts in her letters home from Caroline Ticknor’s book, May Alcott: A Memoir.

May was a happy newlywed reflecting on her perfect life with gratitude. In one sense she was blissfully naive but her charm was precisely the way she always viewed life as a glass half full.

A diehard European

Her flight to Europe thanks to the help of her sister, Louisa May Alcott. I set May free from Victorian womanhood. She hesitated about leaving that final time as her mother was quite feeble but it was Abba who pushed her to go. One might say that Abba saw this daughter as the one who would truly be set free, thus realizing her mother’s hopes and dreams.

May had no intention of returning to America:

“For myself this simple artistic life is so charming, that America seems death to all aspirations or hope of work … Meudon seems a Paradise. With Ernest, and pictures, I should not care if I never saw a friend or acquaintance again. It is the perfection of living; the wife so free from household cares, so busy, and so happy.” 

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The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

You may also enjoy:
The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper (a novel of May Alcott)
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A different view of marriage

May and Louisa both witnessed their parents’ marriage and while Louisa feared the institution as a result, May had a different take:

“I think of how she [Abba] married for love and struggled with poverty and all possible difficulties and came out gloriously at last, all the stronger and happier for so mastering circumstances, and this gives me courage, hoping her example will be always a safe guide for me.” 

May is nothing if not blunt: “In my case it will be easier to be brave, because Ernest is a practical, thrifty businessman; he is young, ambitious, with real faculty instead of an impractical philosopher.” Ouch!

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May alcott and ermest niereker

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Same home life, different outcome

May certainly benefited from being the baby of the family. By the time she was born Bronson had lost interest in the obsessive scientific study of his children and she reaped the rewards of his seeming neglect. Her upbringing was the most normal of the four daughters.

She was too young to have experienced the trauma of Fruitlands and was deliberately sheltered from many of the problems and added responsibilities brought on by the family’s poverty. Louisa took on the mantle and May was just as happy to allow it.

While Louisa was jealous of May’s carefree life and sometimes resented the burdens associated with being the head of the household, she would not delegate responsibilities to May. There were times when she called her younger sister home to help with her parents but she also financed May’s trip to Europe and encouraged her to develop her talents.

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May Alcott Nieriker Orchard_House watercolor before 1879

May Alcott Nieriker’s Orchard House watercolor (before 1879)
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Free from her family

It is no wonder then that May naively assumed that her mother had “mastered her circumstances” on her own power. Without Louisa’s support as breadwinner,  best friend and caretaker, Abba might not have triumphed.

May saw the results without truly understanding the sacrifices made by her older sister. With wounds too deep and fresh, Louisa could not dare to undertake marriage. May, free from such wounds, embraced it wholeheartedly.

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Louisa May Alcott Books

Louisa May Alcott books on*
Louisa May Alcott page on Amazon*
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One life transformed, another life saved

Living across the ocean in France May was free from the responsibilities of caring for her family. It was not without cost. Failing to read the signs and return home before her mother died caused her great guilt and bitter grief. Yet two years after Abba’s death, May was able to move on into a new life while Louisa grew mired in the old, having lost her purpose for living.

May’s choice would ultimately benefit Louisa with new hope and a new life as mother to May’s daughter Lulu. It was the greatest gift the youngest sister could have given to her Lu.

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Lulu Niereker

Lulu Nieriker, May and Ernest’s daughter
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Also by Susan Bailey:
How Louisa May Alcott’s Feminism Explains her Timelessness

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*These are Bookshop Affiliate and Amazon Affiliate links. If the product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

8 Responses to “May Alcott Nieriker: Thoroughly Modern Woman”

  1. Thank you, Susan Bailey. Your outline of May’s life aroused my curiosity about her life. I have carried a love of Louisa May Alcott’s books since I was a young girl. I have just finished reading The Other Alcott and discovered a totally different woman in artist May Alcott. She is brave and pursues the life she loves while Louisa stays home and struggles to continue writing the novels that supported her and her whole family. She is depicted as a very bitter woman who wanted to write a different type of book. I loved the book and would recommend it to all.

    • Thank you for your comment, Sandra. May Alcott Nieriker was indeed a fascinating woman who died all too young. If you’d like to delve further into The Other Alcott, this site has a conversation with its author, Elise Hooper: — I’ll also see if I can get Susan to comment as well. Though I know that Louisa was burdened and disappointed by some aspects of her life, I’m not sure I agree with the depiction of her as very bitter. I’d be curious to see what Susan has to say, as I consider her a foremost LMA expert!

      • I agree that Louisa was not as bitter as portrayed in this novel (although the author did say she used it as a means of creating greater conflict in the story). Oh yes, she was jealous of May and her “good fortune,” brought about by a combination of hard work and a winning personality, but she also was determined to give her sister the chance to succeed. And she was so proud of her. May is a wonderful study and I predict there will be much more written about her, especially after Florence Pugh’s portrayal in Gerwig’s film.

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