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Keeping Secrets

Keeping Secrets

by Mary E. Lyons
The Girlhood Diaries Of Seven Nineteenth-Century Women Writers


The Girlhood Diaries Of Seven Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Gisela Jernigan
The author skillfully brings together excerpts from the journals of seven special 19th century American women. These selections, along with other biographical information, create fascinating portraits of young women who often struggled with the challenges of growing up, becoming independent and reconciling personal desires with the constraints of family, tradition and society. Of the seven women, (Louisa Mae Alcott, Charlotte Forten, Sarah Jane Foster, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ida B. Wells and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), three are African American. All of them faced problems related to women's limited roles of that period. This book could well inspire young writers to keep a journal and to delve further into the lives of the women that we meet in such a personal, intriguing way.
Hazel Rochman
In the style of Boas' "We Are Witnesses: The Diaries of Five Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust" , Lyons weaves her own commentary and analysis with quotes from the girlhood diaries of seven nineteenth-century women writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Forten, Sarah Jane Foster, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ida B. Wells, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A center inset includes one small photo of each of the seven. Lyons writes with style and feeling, creating a strong sense of each individual life story, even as she gives us a social history of what it was like to be a woman at that time. We see young people caught between public docility and private anger. Lyons is admiring without being adulatory; for example, she laments Alcott's narrow vision ("she could have been much more" ) and wishes that Forten had gone beyond the "19th century woman's garden--marriage, motherhood, and religion." Lyons shows that the very act of keeping a diary helped these women take risks and explore dangerous feelings until each was able to find a voice of her own. Any teen who keeps a journal will recognize what the title implies: the private world behind the mask of duty. Notes; bibliography.

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Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
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Keeping Secrets

The Girlhood Diaries of Seven Women Writers

By Mary E. Lyons

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1995 Mary E. Lyons
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-884-6



"The Children's Friend"

Louisa May Alcott wanted to be a good girl more than anything else in the world. Even as a two-year-old, though, her strong will was a powerful presence in the Alcott household in Boston, Massachusetts. She threw food at the supper table, slapped her older sister, Anna, and defied her father with a passion that exhausted him. "Her force," Bronson Alcott wrote wearily in his own diary, "makes me retreat sometimes from an encounter."

Bronson and Louisa were like crossed sticks throughout her childhood. She tried to behave, but he thought she was "obstinate" and often put her to bed "without the usual story or parting caress." When punishment did not dissolve her stubborn streak, he devised moral lessons to teach self-control. "Should little girls take things that do not belong to them — things to eat or drink?" he asked his daughters one day in the dining room. "No," each answered like a baby parrot. Then he placed an apple within easy reach and left them to fight temptation alone.

When he returned, he saw an apple core resting beside Louisa's plate at the table. "Why did you take it before father said you might have it?" Bronson asked, setting her on his knee. She wiggled like a worm, but her smile was as sweet as sorghum. "I wanted it," she replied.

In 1868, thirty-five-year-old Louisa May Alcott finally found a way to be an obedient daughter. She created an entire family of good girls in Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The Story of Their Lives. A Girl's Book. The four daughters in Little Women are the fictional counterparts of the Alcott sisters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, and May. Louisa's mother, Abba, appears as the saintly Marmee, and she transformed Bronson into Papa, the holy father of the March family.

Little Women was an instant success. The first two thousand copies sold quickly, and millions more have since been printed around the world. For over one hundred and thirty years, the trials and triumphs of the March family have delighted young readers. Why is their story such a timeless classic?

Little Women wrapped its readers in the warm wool of familiarity. Nineteenth-century girls enjoyed the feminine finery — pearl pins, silk gloves, curling irons — that beribboned the plot. And girls who spent most of their time at home felt reassured when the March sisters sewed sheets, fried cakes, mended clothes, and had teatime, just as they did. Like many other novels of the day, Little Women reinforced a conventional belief in marriage, motherhood, and home as a girl's proper destiny.

But most of that wholesome literature was written in a melodramatic style that contrasts with Little Women's lively humor. "I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!" Jo March declares in nineteenth-century slang. Jo, like her counterpart, Louisa, is a tomboy with a "quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit." Although she is "always getting into scrapes," she struggles to become the perfect girl (a little woman). Readers love her, not when she succeeds, but because she usually fails.

Some aspects of Little Women are puzzling, however. At first, the book seems to be a moral tale for girls: "We can make little sacrifices," Meg preaches to her sisters on the first page of the book. Yet underneath its do-good surface is a perverse layer of rebellion.

Louisa May Alcott claimed she never wanted to marry. "I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe," she told her diary. Then why did she lock her fictional self into a marriage? Why did she wed Jo to a frumpy older man instead of the boyish, handsome Laurie? And if she admired her "brave" and "serene" father, why did she reduce his character in the book to a mere shadow? These riddles add spice to the homey pot-roast flavor of Little Women. They show how the author used her pen to create a subtle escape from reality.

Louisa learned how to be a good girl so well that she had no life of her own after she grew up. Caught in a snood of self-sacrifice as nursemaid, housekeeper, or breadwinner, she always put the needs of her family first. The real Louisa lived behind the mask of a dutiful daughter. But sometimes in her diary, then as the mysterious author "A. M. Barnard," and finally in Little Women, she dropped this domestic disguise. In these texts Louisa May Alcott resisted her good girl role and played tricks on her readers and even herself.

Childhood 1832–1843

It is no wonder that Louisa felt tied down to her mother and father. Her identity as the daughter of Abba and Bronson Alcott was sealed from the day she was born. A "fine, healthful" baby, she arrived in 1832 on her father's birthday, November 29. Abba's family name, May, became the infant girl's middle name. How could little Louy ever feel independent when she had to share her name with her mother and every birthday with her father?

Bronson Alcott recorded his daughter's birth in his diary, but he could have been writing about the arrival of new puppies instead of a baby girl. "This is a most interesting event," he coolly noted. The words expose a dreamy detachment from his feelings, fatherhood, and the practical demands of life.

Louisa's father was part of a movement known as Transcendentalism. In the 1820s a group of former students from Harvard Divinity School rejected the idea of organized religion, including the popular Unitarianism. Unitarians were too worldly, claimed Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The route to salvation did not include churches or ministers, they said. Only appreciation of nature, rejection of material pleasures, and self-reflection could bring enlightenment.

Shy, gangly, thin-haired Bronson was attracted to this philosophy of solitude. He especially liked the idea of self-discovery through keeping a diary. He could record every event, then dissect it for its spiritual lesson. Beginning with a goose-quill pen at the age of twelve, he wrote in a diary almost every day for the rest of his life. By the age of eighty-eight, he had filled thirty thousand pages with five million words.

The diaries were not just a record of Bronson Alcott's life. They were his life. Unable to express deep emotion, he sometimes substituted them for himself. When he was courting Abba, for example, he gave her sixty diary pages to read rather than speak his feelings aloud. "We know we love her — we almost believe that she loves us," he wrote, using the royal "we." "Let us enjoy the pleasing idea."

Diaries were so important to him that every member of his family kept one, whether they wanted to or not. Once Louisa was "unfaithful" to her diary, and Bronson made her eat supper alone. A journal of conscience, this was hardly the place for a child to store a secret: "Father asked us all what faults we watted [wanted] to get rid of," his ten-year-old daughter wrote early in 1843. "I said impatience."

To check for moral growth, both Bronson and Abba peeked at Louisa's girlhood diaries. Sometimes her mother even slipped a note between the pages. "DEAR LOUY," she instructed the daughter who had her own dark hair and blue eyes, "remember, dear girl, that a diary should be an epitome of your life. May it be a record of pure thought and good actions, then you will indeed be the precious child of your loving mother."

Abba wanted Louisa to be an ideal daughter, just as she idealized her own mother, who "adored her husband and children" and "went about doing good." With no formal education or profession of her own, Abba also made it her job to be a good wife. From the beginning of the Alcotts' courtship, she felt responsible for Bronson's finances. "He is poor," she worried in a letter to her brother. "I do think the ladies ought to remunerate him generously. ... I feel anxious for his means."

Her outlook fit perfectly with the Transcendental view of the sexes: men were creatures of intellect and justice, women were sympathetic and full of compassion. But caring for her "good, mild, vague, and somewhat absurd" husband eventually stole all of Abba's strength, a burden she bequeathed to Louisa. And Louisa, raised to be a good little Transcendentalist, shouldered the load.

Meanwhile, Bronson allowed himself the luxury of a simple philosophy. "I set out from the ground of Spirit," he wrote in his diary. "This is. All else is its manifestation." His deeply spiritual nature inspired everyone who knew him, including his wife and children. Unfortunately for his family, though, "all else" included earning a living.

At first he supported the family by teaching school in Boston, but parents fired him when he substituted moral lessons for geography and arithmetic. Discouraged, he decided to live near Emerson and Thoreau, his Transcendental companions (both men later became Louisa's tutors). He moved his family to Concord, Massachusetts, where he earned money by chopping wood for a dollar a day. Then Bronson concluded that working for a wage was morally wrong — he should only accept money, not earn it. So he decided to give spiritual lectures and ask for donations.

Louisa often felt afraid and ashamed when she was growing up. Where would the money come from if her father refused to work? "I don't see who is to clothe and feed us all," the frightened girl once wrote, "when we are so poor now." How anxious she must have been, watching Bronson sit under a tree as he waited for passersby to stop, listen, and give — knowing there would be only apples and rice for dinner that night.

And the more she worried, the more she misbehaved. One day she spoke "unkindly" to her younger sisters and was "disobedient to mother and father." On the next she was "gentle" with her sisters and "obedient and kind to Father and Mother." Louisa's unpredictable behavior was a barometer of the family's unstable life. They frequently lived on the charity of friends and relatives, relocating to another town or house almost every year of her childhood.

Fruitlands 1843–1845

Despite the poverty, there were many loving, cheerful times in the Alcott family. They were poor, but fun was free. Bronson enjoyed being a teacher to his four daughters. He let them build "houses and bridges" in the study with his diaries and dictionaries and lay on the floor while they traced letters in the air with his spindly legs.

The girls put on plays in the barn with an ever-changing cast of dolls and cats. Like the colorful characters she would later create, Louisa's babies were "fed, educated, punished, rewarded, nursed, and even hung and buried." One Concord playmate remembered that Louisa's theatrics made his "sides ache with laughter."

Most of these carefree moments disappeared in 1843 when Bronson helped start "Fruitlands," a Transcendentalist farming community. The experiment was a bitter failure that almost destroyed the Alcotts' marriage. The rules of the community were clear: No animals could be used to provide labor, meat, or dairy products. No leather could be worn, only tunics of brown linen. Meals occasionally consisted of "cakes" made of maple sugar, dried peas, and grains, but most were a simple course of bread, fruit, and water. For some reason even salt was forbidden.

Abba was the only woman in the community of seven men. She prepared all the food, starting with breakfast at five A.M. and ending with a late afternoon supper. The severe schedule and spartan diet made her wonder in her diary if she would go mad.

Young Louisa absorbed her mother's misery. Thirty years later she avenged Abba in a parody of the Fruitlands fiasco called Transcendental Wild Oats. In this brief satire, a newcomer asks if there are any beasts of burden at Fruitlands. The character of Sister Hope (Abba) answers, "Only one woman!"

Shortly before moving to Fruitlands, Bronson wrote a note to Louisa about her "anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, vileness, heedlessness, and rude behavior." No wonder she used language in her Fruitlands diary that would please her parents! "I was cross to-day, and I cried when I went to bed," she confessed to her diary-mother-father. "I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If only I kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the world. But I don't, and so am very bad."

Still, angry feelings sometimes erupted in the landscape of penitent words. "I hate her," Louisa wrote of her music teacher, "she is so fussy." And when Abba wanted to divorce Bronson because she was "so tired," Louisa fled to her diary with the awful news. "Anna and I cried in bed," she confided, "and I prayed God to keep us all together."

An underground diary where Louisa recorded fantasies helped her cope with her parents' problems. "I wrote in my Imagination Book and enjoyed it very much," she told her diary. "Life is pleasanter than it used to be and I don't care about dying any more." Louisa had discovered how to make sweet illusion replace hard reality.

The dark days at Fruitlands finally ended when the community fell apart in 1845. By then, Louisa was twelve years old, an age when a girl craves privacy, especially from her family. But her diary was still a bow to her father's beliefs. She had to figure out a way to make diary writing private and personal. Only then could it give her the power she needed to become herself.

Heart-Journal 1846–1847

Louisa was absolutely certain she needed a space of her own. "I have been thinking about my little room which I suppose I never shall have," she pouted in a note to her mother when she was twelve. "I should want to be there about all the time and I should go there and sing and think." And be alone! Louisa did not write the words, but it is easy to sense her longing for a retreat.

A year later, in 1846, her wish came true when the Alcotts moved into a house near Emerson's home in Concord. "I have at last got the little room I have wanted so long," the thirteen-year-old exulted in her diary, "and am very happy about it. It does me good to be alone, and Mother has made it very pretty and neat for me." The room opened onto a garden that led to the woods — an idyllic place for a young girl to grow into womanhood.

Immediately she cuddled up with her diary and told it a secret. "I have made a plan for my life, as I am in my teens, and no more a child," she wrote in the only surviving entry of her 1846 diary. "I have not told any one about my plan; but I'm going to be good."

Despite the vow, though, her behavior worsened, and Bronson grew so exasperated that he mentioned her only once in his diary that year. "I had a Possessed One sitting by my side all winter," he brooded, a daughter whose "will was bound in chains" by devils. Why was fourteen-year-old Louisa so hardheaded? Perhaps her rebellion gave voice to the secret that no one could say aloud: the real "possessed one" in the family was Bronson, who hid his neglect behind a sincere but self-centered piety.

Louisa depended on her diary to survive these confusing years. When she turned fifteen, she began what she later called her "romantic period." Too restless to sleep, she roamed around the yard in the moonlight when everyone else was in bed. She wrote great lumps of maudlin verse and kept a "heart-journal."

Although she later destroyed the 1847 diary, it probably recorded a crush on her teacher, "Mr. Emerson." Years later, Louisa said she left anonymous bouquets on the poet's doorstep and shyly sang a serenade under his window. When Emerson lent her a book about a young girl who writes worshipful letters to an older man, Louisa was inspired to do the same. With long legs dangling from the bough of a cherry tree, the lovesick young woman wrote notes to the man she later called the "god" of her "idolatry."

We can only imagine her words of adulation, for she never sent the letters. Like the diaries from 1846 and 1847, she later burned them. Guarding her girlhood secrets must have given the grown-up Louisa some sense of control over her life. And though we long to read these diaries and letters now, their destruction proves one thing: Young Louisa had discovered the magic of hiding secret thoughts inside written words.


Excerpted from Keeping Secrets by Mary E. Lyons. Copyright © 1995 Mary E. Lyons. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mary Lyons is the author of a number of award-winning books, including Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston; Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural; and Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Mary Lyons is the author of a number of award-winning books, including Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston; Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural; and Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Mireille Vautier has illustrated more than fifteen books for children in her native France. Her books have won many prizes, including an honorable mention for Yesteryear at the Bologna children's Book Fair. She lives in Paris, France.

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