May Alcott subject of fiction novel

  • —Courtesy

  • Elise Hooper —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A sister who lived in the shadow of a famous family has come to light in Elise Hooper’s first novel, The Other Alcott.

May Alcott, sister of Louisa May Alcott and daughter of Bronson Alcott, was an accomplished painter, as much as women could be painters in the mid-1800s. However, she is better known by the vain character Amy in her sister’s novel, Little Women.

Hooper, who graduated from Hopkinton High School, became fascinated with the Alcott family upon visiting the Orchard House in Concord, Mass. Hooper is now a history teacher and lives in Seattle.

She started working on her historical fiction novel by researching Louisa, who had written extensively about her life in diaries and letters. But, Louisa was plagued by illnesses and was housebound often. As a Civil War nurse, she had contracted typhus and the medicine used to treat likely gave her mercury poisoning.

Hooper said because Louisa was so frequently housebound, there wasn’t much of a story there.

But in her sister, May, Hooper found a compelling tale.

At the Orchard House, May’s room is covered with her sketches, which piqued Hooper’s interest in her.

During her life, May traveled frequently, penning her own book on European travel.

The final spark Hooper needed for inspiration was the discovery that, while Louisa’s Little Women received wide acclaim, May’s illustrations included in it were panned.

What was a great moment for the family, since Louisa’s writing supported them, was a humiliating moment for Amy.

“That tension, right off the back … interested me,” Hooper said.

May didn’t let the criticism stop her.

“How did May move beyond that?” Hooper said.

It was difficult for women to become professional painters at that time, Hooper explained. There were no museums, so you had to have rich friends who owned art if you wanted to view it. Women had few chances to take art classes and generally were not allowed to use nude models to study the human figure. Furthermore, women were expected to have children and to give up artistic pursuits to raise them.

“It was very challenging,” Hooper said.

Since May lived in the shadow of her sister’s success, she was a perfect subject of a book, Hooper said. Records give a general idea of her, where she was and what she was doing, but it’s open-ended enough to be creative with the novel. 

Hooper said her favorite part was writing letters the sisters would have exchanged.

The author relied on researching other aspects of the time period to round out the image of May: who were other women artists at the time, what would have been eaten on a steam ship, what areas did the Great Boston Fire effect?

“That’s the beauty of the internet,” Hooper said. 

Another favorite scene of Hooper’s is when May and her beau, Ernest, go to St. Jame’s Park, and Earnest rides a bone crusher, a high-wheeled Victorian bicycle. It’s a risky endeavor, but it leads May to a romance Hooper thought she deserved after everything the artist had been through. 

Hooper will be returning to New Hampshire this week with her new novel. She will discuss The Other Alcott on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Hopkinton Town Library.