Louisa May Alcott is one of the many women writing in the long nineteenth century. She has a wide array of novels and short stories and is most popular for her series on the March family; you may have read Little Women. Still today many of her works can be found re-published and translated. And as the Women Writers database illustrates she was a well-read author in her time[i]. Then why is she, like many other women writers of the nineteenth century, not included at length in literary histories[ii] or in educational curriculum nowadays? I remember reading multiple male writers from that period during high school (Charles Dickens, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, Frederik van Eeden, Piet Paaltjes and Multatuli to name a few I was privileged enough to read) however no female writers
were brought up. After reading a couple of novels by Alcott and appreciating their quality, I felt that there was no justice done to this author, alike it wasn’t done to many others. The question that begs to be answered here is: how could this happen?
This is one of the questions widely studied within the HERA TTT project through digging up the connections between these women writers, their reviewers, translators, everyday readers and other people affecting the lives of their work within the reception. This post serves as an introduction to a blog series in which I explore Louisa May Alcott within this framework, especially in relation to the Netherlands. I am doing this research as an intern in the context of my master gender studies at Utrecht University. My master has given me this critical position in which I constantly question who gets excluded, why and at what cost[iii]. That is why I was so caught by the HERA TTT project and hope to deliver a contribution with these explorations into Louisa May Alcott.
At the end of last year the hard work by the Dutch team of HERA TTT of organizing the exhibition “Omdat ik iets te zeggen had” on different women writers within the Netherlands, paid off and an enthusiastic visitor, Lida Kuijer, prompted that she had some original Dutch translations of Louisa May Alcott’s work lying around. These translations became for me the center of my research on which I will elaborate in this blog series.
This corpus of translations consists of 10 books[iv] which I use as a source for my blog series. For the broader analysis the whole corpus is used but in close-reading I focused, because of limited time, on 4 titles: Onder Moeder Vleugels, a translation of Little Women done by Almine[v]; Een Nichtje met Zeven Neven, a translation of Eight Cousins by P.J. Andriessen; Sylvia en Hare Luimen, a translation of Moods by an unknown translator; and De Kostschool van Meneer Beer, a translation of Little Men by one Misses S. I choose these because they are a representation of the diversity in the translations.
So before we delve into these translations and Alcott’s other relations let us see: who is Alcott? Louisa May Alcott, 1832 – 1888, started writing short stories and later also novels. Her life and works have been considered at length in Kim Well’s master thesis[vi] and the 2009 biography Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen. Both works refer to Alcott’s upbringing by Amos Bronson in a Transcendentalist household, where she got into contact with more known writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. This, next to knowing a life of poverty, was the context in which Alcott wrote her works. We have Elaine Showalter to thank for her discovery in the eighties of some more works by Alcott, written under the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard.[vii] These later publications are exemplary for the contradictory nature of Alcott’s writing: on the one hand she promotes morals in all of her stories, on the other she played around with the potentialities of writing about norm-bending characters as tomboys, giving several of her works a feminist undertone.
And who am I but also a feminist trying to live my life? As a graduate student in gender studies I am trying to balance what is expected of me in so many areas of my life, with my own critical feminist mind, arguably as Alcott did in her own writing. This blog series will be inspired by this background, trying to provide a dialogue between my background in gender studies and the findings of the research based in different disciplines.
Using both translations as well as reviews, the first blog will focus on the transnational differences and how Alcott’s texts travelled to and in the Netherlands, with a focus on the educational value of her works. The second blog will talk about the methodology and the transdisciplinary approach, strengthening my thematic analysis of the travelling text with linguistic findings. Finally, the last blog will zoom in on trans once more, as a concept of playing, putting the transgender character of the tomboy at the center, as it is the center of many of Alcott’s stories as well.
As you can see I apply the concept of trans to my research. My starting point is transversal politics as described by Nira Yuval-Davis.[viii] This type of politics acknowledges that everyone comes from a different position, that equality does not have to mean the erasure of difference and that people from different positions can have the same values and vice versa. This influences both my method as well as the content of my research. The Travelling Texts’ team tries to cross from the fringes to the center in doing their work, they are constantly rooting and shifting you could say, uncovering the dialogues going on. These dialogues are the means by which transversal politics works, and thus also what I will try to uncover in the works of Alcott.
These series will present my findings and some of the results of diving into the world of the nineteenth-century women writers and their traveling texts. Hopefully this will allow me to demonstrate how interesting these women, and Alcott specifically, still are to us nowadays and what such a critical approach can lead us to.
[ii] This issue has been explored for Dutch writers by Suzan van Dijk in her article “Large numbers of women writers in this small country” on the gaps in Dutch literary history, which one can read here: http://www.womenwriters.nl/images/3/39/SvDijk_art_Historica_engels_translAsK_18-3.pdf
[iii] I am mostly following Donna Haraway’s line of thought here as explored throughout her oeuvre.
[iv] Translations of the following works: Little Women (1868); Eight Cousins (1875); Good Wives (1871); Jack and Jill (1880); Jo’s Boys (1880); Little Men (1871); Moods (1882); Rose In Bloom (1876); Proverb Stories (1868). All English original were retrieved from the Gutenberg project in digital form.
[v] Pseudonym used by Aleida Doedes and Wilhelmina Doedes-Clarisse, who translated books from English together.
[vi] See http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess/lma.htm for an exploration of Alcott’s life based on Kim Well’s master thesis.
[vii] See Alternative Alcott by Showalter for an elaboration on the consequences of having these works join Alcott’s oeuvre for our understanding of her work.
[viii] For an introduction to transversal politics read “What is ‘transversal politics’?” by Nira Yuval-Davis. The exact application of this concept will be explored in each blog individually in relation to the topic of the blogpost.