One of Cornelia Meigs's central points in Invincible Louisa is that Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is largely autobiographical. Jo is really Louisa, sickly Beth is really little Elizabeth Alcott, Mr. March is Louisa's father Bronson Alcott, etc. Meigs offers incidents and people from real life who mirror those in the children's classic, giving us a clearer picture of Louisa May herself while helping us put her most famous book in context.
It's hard to say what kind of book this is, though. If it's a biography, it's surprisingly free of the kind of facts or establishing dates we expect from the chronicle of someone's life, especially that of an author. If it's a story, there's not nearly enough dialogue, or enough detail and variety to keep most readers going till the end. Meigs employs an almost maudlin style as she persistently casts a good light on nearly every endeavor of the Alcotts, presenting Louisa's life through the writing of Little Women in narrative form.
Louisa's father Bronson was a Transcendentalist philosopher who attempted throughout his life and the lives of his family to create an ideal society in New England. He was good friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose children Louisa taught), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other thinkers and writers, and he experimented in the same ways they did—giving away what he had, living in communes, running model schools in Boston, and other shennanigans.
Meigs consistently defends Bronson as an honest and idealistic man, and while she admits he made mistakes, she also presents him as a good, wise, kind man. Her descriptions of the life he forced on his family, however, sound like anything but the way a wise or good man would raise his daughters. Because of his "high-mindedness" and frequent chasing after new ideas, his family was often overworked, cold, hungry, without consistency or security, and geographically unsettled.
Meanwhile, Louisa developed a strong imagination that found its best outlet in her writing. She began by penning plays for her sisters to perform, moved on to a regular newsletter for the sisters's own Pickwick Club, and eventually matured into novel-writing (though her first attemtps were mere pulp stories). She left home to teach, to write, and to tour Europe (where she met a young Polish man who was the model for Laurie), but always her goal was to provide for her family and lead them out of poverty.
Readers learn plenty about Louisa May Alcott's desires, dreams, fears, and activities. Unfortunately, each of these is described with an absence of flair: in other words, the book is boring. Diehard fans of Alcott's books will probably want to read this one, but most casual readers won't find themselves caring much about Miss Alcott or her many joys and travails. Invincible Louisa would be much more rewarding if it was either an actual biography with psychological elements, or if it was much more story-like.
In one sense, Meigs's writing imitates, if not Alcott's, at least the style popular in Alcott's day. Yet she doesn't quite pull off the imitation, and it often seems merely sentimental where it should be polished and proper. Particularly, the Alcotts' foibles and shortcomings are consistently glossed, while their supposed virtues are loudly extolled. That these praises are sung repetitiously for 250 pages makes this an underwhelming and not altogether instructive book.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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