10 Fascinating Facts About 'Little Women' Author Louisa May Alcott

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This November 29 marks the 185th birthday of writer and feminist Louisa May Alcott; and next spring, readers will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women, Alcott’s bestselling and most widely-read publication. In honor of the writer who gave readers everywhere the unforgettable March sisters, we’re looking at some interesting facts about Louisa May Alcott and her life — facts that prove readers can still learn a lot from her, even 150 years later.

First published in 1868, Little Women has been translated into over 50 languages worldwide, adapted to film six times (and counting), and developed into television series, plays, and operas both in the United States and around the world. Telling the coming-of-age story of the life and times of the March family — sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — it is considered by some readers to be children’s or young adult fiction, by others a romance or a family drama. Still more readers see Little Women as an early feminist novel, most notably for the character of Jo March, who Alcott modeled after herself. But whether you read it for the romance, the feminist undertones, or another reason entirely, there’s no denying the staying power of Alcott’s classic novel.

Here are 10 interesting facts about Louisa May Alcott, in honor of the 150-year anniversary of Little Women.  

1The writer grew up around some of the greatest thinkers of her time.

Louisa May Alcott was raised by her transcendentalist parents — the educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abigail May. She was also surrounded by many well-known writers and thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and the feminist and journalist Margaret Fuller; all of whom were Alcott family friends, and perhaps early influences of the young writer.

2‘Little Women’ is loosely based on Alcott’s own life story.

First published in 1868, the novel Little Women is set in the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts. The novel was inspired by Alcott's childhood experiences with her three sisters — of whom she was the second. Alcott based her heroine (and, let’s be honest, every reader’s favorite “Little Woman”) Jo on herself. The key difference between the two is that Jo married at the end of the story, while Alcott chose to remain unmarried throughout her life. (More on that later.)

3She was an abolitionist.

In 1847, Alcott and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, first by housing a fugitive slave for a week. After the American Civil War began, Alcott served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C. for six weeks, during which time she contracted typhoid and was forced to quit. She used her time as a nurse as inspiration for abolitionist (and some humor) pieces she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly and other publications.

4She was also an early American feminist.

Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia

In addition to growing up around the influence of women like Margaret Fuller, Alcott also read the Declaration of Sentiments, published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights in 1848, which advocated for women's suffrage. Alcott went on to become the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, in a school board election. She was also part of a group of female authors of her time known for frequently and directly addressing women’s issues in their writing, including Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, Anne Moncure Crane, and others.

5Alcott was a runner as well as a writer.

This may sound like a small thing, but women in the late 19th century didn’t go around jogging in yoga pants like we do today. But Alcott often wrote about going on regular runs in her personal journal — an activity she enjoyed up until she died. She also worked against gendered, social norms by encouraging her female readers to run themselves.

6‘Little Women’ took the novelist only 10 weeks to write.

Alcott began what would become her most-famous novel in May of 1868. Reportedly, she worked on the book day and night, sending all 402 pages of that first manuscript to her editor just weeks later, on July 15. In September of 1868, four months after she began writing, Little Women was published and became an instant bestseller.

7Despite bestselling status, Alcott refused to cave to reader-pressure.

Alcott, who deliberately never married herself, wrote of wanting Jo’s character to remain unmarried as well. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women — which was published in two installments, in 1868 and 1869 — fans were reportedly begging the writer to have Jo marry Laurie, the charming boy next door. At the time, Alcott wrote in her journal: “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” As readers know, Alcott married Jo to the far less charming character, Professor Bhaer, giving Laurie to Jo’s sister Amy instead — reports are mixed as to whether this was a compromise to please Alcott’s readers, or a move to spite them for their preoccupation with the romantic partnering of her most feminist heroine.

8‘Little Women’ wasn’t the writer’s only boundary-pushing publication.

Still unknown to most readers of Little Women, prior to starting the novel Alcott actually wrote passionate, sensational, and sometimes-erotic stories under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, including the titles A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment. Just like Jo, Alcott’s protagonists in each of these books were strong, smart, and fierce women.

9Alcott’s literary career actually began well before ‘Little Women’.

Another little-known-fact about the writer behind Little Women, Louisa May Alcott had been writing and publishing poems, short stories, thrillers, and young adult titles since 1851. Her first pseudonym was Flora Fairfield, which she changed to A.M. Barnard in 1862, before beginning to write under her own name.

10She was an example of financial independence for women.

Public Domain/Wikimedia

A strong believer in the idea that a woman’s life should not center around marriage, nor should women be financially dependent on their father’s or husbands, Alcott practiced what she preached. Even before her days of writing she worked a number of jobs to support her family. Following the success of Little Women, Alcott achieved personal financial independence, which she enjoyed for the rest of her life.