Abigail Alcott was the wife of Bronson Alcott and the mother of the well-known author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. It was her Concord neighbor, Henry David Thoreau, who said that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” Abigail, however, could not let it alone. Married to the benignly philosophical and totally impractical Bronson Alcott, she had to provide for herself and their four daughters – and often for him as well.
In the months before they were married, Abigail saw in Bronson the ideal person, whose contrasting qualities would contribute to their life together.
I do think him in every respect qualified to make me happy. He is moderate, I am impetuous. He is prudent and humble, I am forward and arbitrary. He is poor, but we are both industrious. Why may we not be happy?
Still, she finishes the thought with, “We talk little of heaven, but are already busy in schemes for our future independence and comfort.” Raised in comfortable circumstances herself, she hoped for comfort, but that was never Bronson’s goal. Abigail reminds me Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, marrying her idealistic vision in haste. Abigail then repented, not in leisure, but in grinding hard work for more years than Dorothea had to endure.
In My Heart Is Boundless, Eva LaPlante has brought together the writings of Abigail Alcott – the letters and journal entries which were scattered in various collections. A journal keeper all her life, many of Abigail’s entries were destroyed or truncated after her death. From what remains, one can see why.
I wish all philosophers could consent to admit in their domestic arrangements a financier. They require this agent more than any people in the world. They are often (for lack of this) reduced to the most humiliating dependence. Wisdom must be fed and clothed, and neither the butcher [n]or tailor will take pay in aphorisms or hypotheses.
Abigail, the four Alcott daughters and, to a considerable extent, Abigail’s relatives served as financiers to Bronson Alcott’s impecunious household. Some of the most moving letters in the collection are from Abigail to her loyal brother Samuel. After the birth of a stillborn son, she wrote,
Our plans are all undefined. We seem to be floating along, sometimes rough, then smooth, then becalmed, sometimes high and dry, then engulfed in an ocean of difficulties. But I am getting hardened, toughened, indifferent. I care less for this world than ever….
In the end, she could not turn away from the man she still termed her “excellent husband” and her four needy children. She understood clearly by then what Bronson was.
Wife, children, and friends are less to him than the great idea he is seeking to realize. How naturally man’s sphere seems to be in the region of the head, and woman’s in the heart and affections.
And somewhat more bitterly,
He [brother Sam] seems quite at a loss himself, and feels dissatisfied that Mr. A[lcott] finds no means of supporting his family independent of his friends. They have to labour, why should not he? It is a difficult question to answer.
Many of Abigail’s entries in My Heart Is Boundless are concerned with the intellectual and moral development of her daughters. She taught them not to depend on their father, but to act for themselves. To aspiring writer Louisa, she said,
Your temperament is a peculiar one, and there are few or none who can intelligently help you. Set about the work of formation of character, reformation of habits, and believe me you are capable of ranking among the best….
This advice sounds very like that offered by the Marmee depicted in the pages of Little Women.
Abigail at times sees her problems in relation to the position of women in the society she knows.
I had a curious speculation on the condition of woman the other day. Told Mr. Alcott I thought there was some mistake when she was created. It was an afterthought, indeed Adam’s fancy for a companion first suggested it to the Almighty power, and she was called in to being after all other animals were made and pronounced good, but no such benediction was pronounced on her, but a tacit curse.
In her last years, Abigail was able to live in greater comfort and security, due to the success of Little Women and the books which followed. Ironically, even Bronson began to produce some income. Conversation audiences were now willing to hear his stories about his author daughter and other Concord neighbors, wrapped in a little philosophy, of course.
Abigail respected Bronson for his interest in the issues engaged her: “The great questions of right and wrong, of expedient right and necessary wrong, have always puzzled me.” Her final judgment of herself was mixed:
I fear little, I hope much, for malice finds no place as an element in the composition of my character. I am impulsive but not vindictive. I love long, love much and hope to be forgiven. My education was defective. My married life has been filled with trials. I was not prepared for [it], and hardships I resisted rather than accepted or mitigated. I writhed under the injustice of society, and mourned my incompetency to live above it.
What is it that the spiritual sings? Keep your hand on the plough, hold on! Abigail’s married life was “filled with trials” and she never answered the great questions, but she held on, held on. It was the best practical philosophy she could command.