A previously unpublished piece by Louisa May Alcott, the author best known for her novel ‘Little Women’, is now available in print for the first time.
The piece, ‘Aunt Nellie’s Diary’, is one of Alcott’s earliest works. She hand-wrote it in a journal in 1849, when she was only 17.
The story offers a new glimpse into the imagination of a writer who was prolific even as a teenager. At the time, Alcott was living in a basement apartment in Boston with her family, and they were struggling to stay afloat.
And even then, her prose was impressive, said Daniel Shealy, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and an Alcott scholar.
“She already possessed the skills and the imagination that a professional writer would need,” he said. “We can see her ability to give wonderful characterizations, and her ability to plot her story and pace it in a way that keeps the reader’s interest.”
‘Aunt Nellie’s Diary’ is in the newest issue of The Strand Magazine, a literary quarterly based in Birmingham, Michigan. The magazine has previously unearthed pieces by Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler and John Steinbeck.
Andrew F. Gulli, the Strand’s managing editor, said the Alcott manuscript came from Houghton Library, a repository for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard University. “When I read it, I was thinking, ‘Wow, what maturity,’” Gulli said.
The story takes the form of a diary written by Aunt Nellie, a 40-year-old woman living in a place called Ferndale. She takes three young people under her wing: her orphaned niece, Annie; Annie’s friend, Isabel; and a family friend, Edward.
The three young people fit neatly into archetypal roles. Edward is charming and kind. Annie is sweet and innocent. Isabel is witty and artful.
Annie and Isabel seem to see Edward as a potential love interest. (This relationship structure — a triangle of affection — would be revisited in many of Alcott’s later works.)
At one point in the story, the girls attend a masquerade ball in costume as Night and Morning. “Isabel in a black robe and veil spangled with silver stars and a crescent in her dark hair made a splendid Night, a little too cold and haughty but very beautiful notwithstanding,” Alcott, as Nellie, wrote. “Annie in snow white garments, pale rose-coloured veil, and wreath of dewy half blown buds was as fair a Morning as ever dawned in Ferndale.”
Orphans like Annie, a sincere and quiet heroine, often appear in Alcott’s work, said Harriet Reisen, the author of ‘The Woman Behind Little Women’.
“She had distinguished relatives and she was from an old, established family,” Reisen said of Alcott. “I think this orphan thing had to do with having these wealthy relatives who couldn’t give her what she needed.”
Alcott’s work did not always borrow inspiration from her own life. She wrote poems, fairy tales, romances and dark, sensational thrillers.
And then came ‘Little Women’, a novel about four sisters that was published in two volumes, in 1868 and 1869. It has since become an American classic and has been adapted for the silver screen multiple times, most recently by Greta Gerwig last year.
But Alcott seemed to have mixed feelings about the novel; she later quipped that she was tired of writing “moral pap for the young.” At times she gravitated to darker themes like murder, scandal and drug addiction. “I think my natural ambition is for the lurid style,” she once said in an interview.
Gulli was thrilled to find the ‘Nellie’ manuscript, but he was in for a slight disappointment. Alcott did not finish the story. The piece cuts off abruptly, midsentence: “I begged and prayed she would...”
But Gulli saw an opportunity in those ellipses. He said the magazine would have a contest, inviting aspiring writers to send in submissions to finish the story. The winner’s version, he said, would be featured in a later issue.
But even with the abrupt ending, the ‘Nellie’ manuscript is valuable because so many of Alcott’s other journals were destroyed, either by herself or by family members at her request, Shealy said.
“While it does leave us with questions, I think it’s still important because it is a work that shows us the earlier stages of Alcott’s career,” Shealy said. “We don’t have all that much of that.”