The Big Idea: Kelly O’Connor McNees
Louisa May Alcott is the noted author of a beloved work in the American canon… and what else do we know about her? As it turns out, not as much as we might, despite the public and active life the author led in her time. So when Kelly O’Connor McNees chose to make Alcott the subject of the novel which would become The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, she knew that she’d have to go beyond the facts to get to the woman behind Little Women. Here’s how she did it.
KELLY O’CONNOR McNEES:
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott imagines a fictional affair between this beloved writer and a young man named Joseph Singer, who would later inspire the character of Laurie in Little Women. But that’s just the novel’s premise. That’s not the Big Idea.
Louisa May Alcott was a complex, passionate, and ambitious woman who is remembered for a single novel she wrote in 1868. Written for young readers, Little Women tells the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, whose father is away in the Civil War serving as a chaplain. As the story unfolds, the girls come of age under the wise and gentle eye of their mother Marmee. Each learns to overcome a weakness in her character, and, most famously, Alcott’s altar ego Jo finds a kindred spirit in the next-door neighbor, Teddy “Laurie” Laurence. He later asks Jo to marry him, but to most readers’ great surprise, she refuses.
A longtime admirer of Little Women, I began to read about Alcott’s life a few years ago and found myself completely engrossed by her. Very quickly I understood that I wanted to write a novel about her, but I had no idea how to do it.
The more research I did, the more apparent it became that Alcott’s voice was elusive. I realized that we take for granted the idea that we know this iconic woman—a woman who gave us a story that became an essential part of American girlhood. But it turns out we actually don’t really know her at all. I read several carefully researched biographies and found them captivating, but I couldn’t find Alcott’s voice there. Next, I turned to Alcott’s own letters and journals, and while her words offered a clearer picture, I knew it was incomplete. Alcott was famous in her own lifetime and, fearing the biographer’s eye, destroyed swaths of letters and journals.
It was through this struggle to truly see her that I came upon the Big Idea, which was really more of a question I tried to answer by writing this novel. How do we disentangle Louisa the person from Louisa May Alcott the historical icon? It’s easy to forget that she even was a real person. From 2010, we see her life story and all her accomplishments as inevitable, but I’m sure they didn’t feel inevitable to her. The 150 years of mythology between Alcott and us—the voices of academics who seek to put her in the broader context of American literary history and feminism, as well as Alcott’s own attempts to “edit” her legacy—is quite a lot for Louisa the person to carry on her shoulders. To render her in fiction, I knew I would have to try to strip all that away and get at who she was before she wrote the novel that would make her famous.
I began to imagine Louisa at twenty-two, when she was full of ambition and confidence but had received no confirmation from the world that her confidence was warranted. I pondered who she might have been then. I asked questions like, what kind of person, particularly a woman at this time, makes a conscious choice to believe in herself and try to achieve something without anyone telling her she can, or should?
She succeeded, so we say, “Of course—she knew she was destined for greatness.” But what if she had failed? Well, I wouldn’t be talking about her right now, but in some ways that is irrelevant. What interested me, as I tried to separate the woman from the icon, was not what she accomplished. It was her initial leap of faith, the decision to try to be the thing she wanted to be. That faith stemmed from something, a kind of determination, within Louisa herself. I felt if I could wrap my head around that, I had a place to begin.
Paradoxically, it seemed fiction was the only avenue through which I would be able to see her fully. And just what kind of story could I tell about this woman, a real woman holding equal parts doubt and hope, who is on the cusp but doesn’t know it yet? The answer, it seemed to me, was the commonest story of all: the euphoric and miserable experience of falling in love for the first time. For Louisa, as for many of us, this love would be a threat to life as she knew it. Whatever she did about it, whether she embraced or rejected this love, it would change her. My story, then, would be about how this love shaped her and her writing. It would be about the choices she was forced to make and how the echo of those choices might have appeared later on in Little Women.
On any given day we are, simply, the product of the choices we made on all the days that came before. Alcott’s accomplishments—writing a cherished novel, serving as a Civil War nurse and recording that experience in the fascinating Hospital Sketches, advocating for suffrage and abolition—were not ordained by history. They were not inevitable. To believe that is to deny the existence of the real woman, and the real woman is the essence of the story.