At Home with Louisa May Alcott

Reading Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women was one of Harriet Reisen’s seminal experiences growing up, as it is for many girls the world over (the book has been translated into over 50 languages and has never been out of print). But Reisen, a documentary screenwriter, took her enthusiasm a step (or two) further by doggedly pursuing her goal of bringing Alcott’s rags-to-riches life story to the screen. The resulting biopic, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, debuts on American Masters on PBS on December 28, but a companion biography written by Reisen is due out in bookstores today.

I chatted with Harriet Reisen about Louisa May Alcott sites to visit, Louisa’s own travel experiences, and how travel and literature intersect.

Readers have flocked to visit Orchard House, the Alcott home for 20 years in Concord, Massachusetts, ever since Little Women became nearly an overnight bestseller in 1868. Any tips on what to look out for on a visit there?

When Louisa describes the March home in Little Women, she is describing Orchard House. Visiting it brings the March and the Alcott family alive. The Alcotts feel very present, as if they’ve just stepped out for a moment. Everything’s there: the elder sister’s wedding gown, Louisa’s mood pillow. Louisa was very moody and she had a pillow that she put up to signal you could approach her, but when she put it sideways, beware.

Don’t miss the costumes that the Alcott children wore in their homemade theatricals, including the russet boots Louisa loved. She said she only wrote parts for herself in plays where she could wear the russet boots.

In between the windows of her very small room is a little wooden desk, a semi-circular surface probably 14 inches in diameter, if that. It has just enough room for an inkwell and a piece of paper. And on this desk, she wrote Little Women in just ten weeks.

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Did you get to film in Orchard House?

We shot there for three days. It felt like we lived there. What I got from the shooting was how small the house was, and confined. The rooms are so little. We were on top of each other. In her later life when she had money, Louisa didn’t want to live in Concord. She thought Concord was stuffy; as an adult there was no place for a single woman. Any time she could get away, she went to Boston.

Was Louisa herself a traveler?

The Alcotts valued travel. As kids, she and her siblings would play a game called Travel: “Let’s play Travel again!” On her first trip to Europe in 1865, she went as a ladies companion to the daughter of one of Boston’s richest merchants. By the time of her second European trip in 1870 she had money and was famous. She actually wrote a travel book titled Shawl-Straps, in which she fictionalizes her account of that second trip. In the foreword, Louisa writes, “There is a sort of fate about writing books of travel which it is impossible to escape. It is vain to declare that no inducement will bribe one to do it, that there is nothing new to tell, and that nobody wants to read the worn-out story. The only way in which this affliction may be lightened to a long suffering public is to make the work as cheerful and as short as possible. With this hope the undersigned bore has abstained from giving the dimensions of any church, the population of any city, or description of famous places…” Basically she is telling people just to pick up your backpacks and don’t read every word of that guidebook. Be imaginative, try things. For example, she arranges to ride a mail carriage in England. She has a very nice sketch of London, and riding the new subway. She also was in Rome for awhile and wrote Little Men there.

Why do you think people travel to author’s houses?

When a writer speaks to you, it’s a big thing. You want to visit them, have them come alive. It’s certainly that way at Orchard House, where you really get a sense of a person who lived and breathed. I’d like to see Louisa celebrated more than she is. Little Women especially is written from her heart to her reader’s heart.

Photos: PBS