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.

 

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

Also by Susan Bailey:
How Louisa May Alcott’s Feminism Explains her Timelessness

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