Victorian Smackdown? Five Little Peppers v. Four Little Women: Part 1

On the road from Lexington to Concord, Massachusetts, midway between the welter of orange-striped traffic barrels on the outskirts and the boutiques and pricey restaurants downtown, two old wood-framed houses sit side by side. One of these, Orchard House, is famous as the place where Louisa May Alcott wrote some of her best-known books. The other, formerly known as “Hillside” and later renamed “The Wayside,” is less well known but at least as remarkable.

For three years (1845­­ – 48) this early eighteenth-century house was the home of young Louisa May Alcott and her family, serving as the real-life setting for many of the episodes Alcott later incorporated into Little Women. In 1852 the house was purchased by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, who for a time were next-door neighbors to the Alcotts at Orchard House. Just over thirty years later the youngest Hawthorne, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, sold The Wayside to a Boston publisher and his wife Harriett [sic] Stone Lothrop, keen Hawthorne admirers who jumped at the chance to spend their summers in Hawthorne’s old house. Harriett Lothrop is better known as “Margaret Sidney,” the pseudonymous author of the Five Little Peppers books. At the time she and her husband (no relation to the Lathrops, despite the similar name) moved into The Wayside, the first volume in the series – The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew – was already a record-setting bestseller.

All this is the stuff of many a website and museum exhibit, and when I started working on this piece I intended to focus on the phenomenon of three successful novelists occupying the same house within the span of a few decades. But in reading a 1940 book about The Wayside by Harriett Lothrop’s daughter Margaret, I noticed a curious imbalance between Lothrop’s treatment of Hawthorne and her treatment of Alcott: heavy on the former, skimpy on the latter. Excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal and letters, old newspaper stories and census records, and reports and archival materials of the National Park Service (which owns The Wayside today) deepened my impression that the relationship between the Lothrops and the Alcotts was complicated, if not downright hostile. Juicy stuff, indeed.

The late 1870s and 1880s were melancholy years for the Alcott family. Though it was now many years after her death, the family still mourned the loss of Elizabeth (“Beth”). Abba (“Marmee”) Alcott was dead as well, as were Abba May Alcott Nieriker (“Amy”); the husband of the oldest Alcott sister, Anna (“Meg”); and Bronson Alcott’s dearest friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both the elderly Bronson and his daughter Louisa were in declining health and spirits. The presence of Abba May’s infant daughter Lulu in the household brought joy to the adults, but also added to Louisa’s crushing burden of responsibility – the sort of burden that Harriett Lothrop assumed only relatively late in her life, and to a far lesser extent.

Louisa May Alcott (uua.org)

Louisa May Alcott (uua.org)

Harriett’s father, Sidney Stone, was an architect who designed public buildings and houses for wealthy New Haven clients. In 1860, when Harriett was fifteen, her father’s real estate holdings were valued at $16,500 and his personal wealth at $2,100.  By contrast, here is how Louisa May Alcott described her circumstances at more or less the same age: “The trials of my life began about this time, and happy childhood ended. One of the most memorable days of my life is a certain gloomy November afternoon, when we had been holding a family council as to ways and means. In summer we lived much as the birds did, on our fruit and bread and milk; the sun was our fire, the sky our roof, and Nature’s plenty made us forget that such a thing as poverty existed.” Although Alcott doesn’t identify the precise year, the context strongly suggests that this family council prompted the family’s decision in November 1848 to leave The Wayside and move to Boston, where there was more opportunity for employment. Louisa went on to publish her first book at the age of twenty-two. At twenty-four, she wrote in her journal, “I have done what I planned – supported myself, written eight stories, taught four months, earned a hundred dollars, and sent money home.”

Harriett Lothrop, AKA Margaret Sidney (wikipedia.org)

Harriett Lothrop, AKA Margaret Sidney (wikipedia.org)

At twenty-five, Harriett Lothrop was five years away from submitting her first piece for publication and was still living in New Haven with her family, whose wealth, according to the 1870 census of that year, totaled $188,500. As a child Harriett longed to exchange her opulent home for a “little brown house” where she could enjoy all the imagined pleasures of rural poverty: “It was a great calamity to me that my father was a successful architect and not a poor man living in the country – I always settled things in my own mind, that we should live in a little brown house, quite old and run down, while we, the family, had to scratch for a living.” Having imagined the house, Harriett populated it with a family of three boys and two girls. “So the years passed, and I passed along with them, thinking and writing, and having awfully good times with all the creatures of my imagination, till, and I was as much surprised as any one, they simply had to get between book covers.” Lothrop’s jejune notion of  “having awfully good times” with her imaginary friends well into adulthood is a world away from the many entries in Alcott’s journals in which she describes her writing as grueling hack work.

Louisa sold Orchard House in July 1884, during Harriett and Daniel Lothrop’s second summer in Concord. She spent portions of the next three summers in her sister Anna’s house less than a half-mile from The Wayside. Anna herself continued to live in the house until her death in 1893. It is almost inconceivable that in a town as small as Concord the paths of the Alcotts and the Lothrops would never have crossed, if only by chance. Yet in recounting her family’s time at The Wayside, Margaret Lothrop mentions no personal contact with the Alcotts whatsoever.

Famous residents of The Wayside

Famous residents of The Wayside : Note the hierarchy of names and the variation in size.

The Lothrops were on conspicuously good terms with other members of Concord’s intelligentsia. Margaret Lothrop writes that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian visited The Wayside soon after its purchase by the Lothrops and corresponded with them thereafter; and Hawthorne’s daughter Rose was a frequent visitor to the house. Julian and Rose’s aunt, Elizabeth Peabody, was also a friend of the family’s and attended meetings of the East Quarter Literary Circle at The Wayside. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter Ellen orchestrated Margaret Lothrop’s lavish fifth birthday party. Margaret also devotes several pages of her book to encounters with John Greenleaf Whittier and Oliver Wendell Holmes, despite the fact that her family’s friendships with them were based in Boston and had nothing to do with The Wayside. Though there’s no reason to believe that Daniel and Harriett Lothrop felt insecure about their place in Boston and Concord’s literary society, Margaret’s account of The Wayside nevertheless conveys a sense that Harriett, in particular, was something of a tuft-hunter, eager to associate herself with as many of the great and good as possible. How odd, then, that the only reference to any of Louisa’s kin that I’ve found in newspaper accounts of social events hosted by the Lothrops is the inclusion of her mother’s elderly cousin, Frederick May Holland, in a guest list from the summer of 1886.

Though the Lothrops bought several pieces of Hawthorne furniture from Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and proudly displayed a portrait of Nathaniel over the mantelpiece of his study  at The Wayside, the National Park Service report on the contents of the house mentions nothing Alcott-related except for two busts of famous educators that might possibly have belonged to Bronson. In a house furnished with inscribed photographs of Lothrop friends Julia Ward Howe and Edward Everett Hale, portraits of Milton and Wagner and Erasmus, busts of Plato and Franklin, and even a mug bearing the image of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, Louisa’s absence is conspicuous.

Taken together, all this begins to look very much like a snub. But why would Harriett Lothrop, who devoted her entire literary career to writing for young people and was married to a children’s publisher, snub such a distinguished young-people’s author? Was the feeling perhaps reciprocal? To be continued…

In a smackdown between the Alcotts and the Lothrops, whose side would you be on?

 

 

 

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15 thoughts on “Victorian Smackdown? Five Little Peppers v. Four Little Women: Part 1

  1. Lothrop’s dreams of a “little brown house” and a life of poverty sound so absurd, yet Marie Antoinette was cut from the same cloth. She had an “ideal” farm constructed on the palace grounds and selected a few of her companions to dress as milkmaids and shepherdesses. See http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/11/14/when-marie-antoinette-pretended-to-be-a-milkmaid/ What does it say when the poor dream of being rich while the rich, of being poor?

    • Wasn’t it Marie Antoinette who said, “Let them eat cake,” when she was told the peasants were out of bread? Doesn’t sound like she understood much about their plight—even if she envied it.

      • I see the parallel, for sure. But in Marie Antionette’s defense (ack — I never thought I’d say that), she would have had little or no chance to see the reality of poverty for herself, or to read about the lives of the poor. Harriett Lothrop didn’t live in that kind of a bubble, though. As an adult, she could perfectly well have visited a hovel or two, read some muckraking journalism, acquainted herself with actual poverty in any number of ways. What I find so horrible is that she chose instead to cling to her childhood fantasies.

  2. Love the way you approached this, Kate. Between your account of literary sleuthing and what you found out, am totally hooked. Looking forward to next installment.

    • What Eve said—and I must add that i found every word of this intensely interesting—just the kind of voyuerism I love about authors’ lives. I can only imagine what fun the research was . . .
      I also remember visiting the Hawthorne house as a second grader with my family, but remember no visit to Orchard House. Must remedy that soon!

  3. This is so juicy. You should really get on the historical fiction train and write a novel about this, because it would sell like hotcakes! Nicely researched, and exciting to read.
    And Alcott all the way. Although I actually have a Marie Antoinette fascination (just last week saw the Nola Project’s new play “Marie Antoinette” here), I always go underdog. Even when that underdog is a little capital-punishment happy… which is like, the worst crime imaginable. IMHO, Marie suffered from a superbad PR campaign against her (she probably didn’t even say the cake thing), not that she was altruistic or anything, she still shouldn’t have gotten the guillotine. But hey, if you’re going to execute nearly 16,000 people in Paris alone (in less than a year), nuns included, I guess Marie Antoinette would be near the top of the list.

    • Thank you, Stephanie — I’m sorta kinda mulling over the historical fiction angle, so it’s nice to get some encouragement! As for Marie Antoinette (and you’ll see that I had a lukewarm word in her favor above), it’s hard not to be moved by the plight of those young princesses who got shipped off to make foreign marriages, like it or not. Caroline Matilda, George III’s sister, is another one who springs to mind.

  4. Not only would this make great historical fiction, but it could be the next Downton Abby! I visited this home years ago and was not aware of the literary intrigue that must have taken place there. A literature major could write quite a thesis based on your research. Can’t wait to read part two.

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