ALCOTT, LOUISA MAY. (1832-1888). American author best known for her novel Little Women. SP. (“Sairy”). 1p. CDV. N.p., May 1882. Inscribed by Alcott in ink on the verso of the photograph, “Betsey from Sairy May 1882.” Below the inscription is a pencil notation in a later, unidentified hand, “Sairy = Louisa M Alcott, Betsey = Mary H. Williams.”
Inscribed Photograph by the Author of “Little Women” Using the Name of a Character from Charles Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit”
Signed by Louisa May Alcott
The daughter of transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and abolitionist Abigail May, Alcott had an unconventional upbringing. She spent her childhood living according to her father’s philosophical ideals including time in a short-lived Utopian community, which he helped found. Living out his beliefs often meant financial hardship as his schools failed for being too progressive. In addition to taking odd jobs such as sewing and teaching, Louisa began a literary career to help alleviate her family’s situation, and earned money by selling her magazine articles, gothic romance novels and children’s stories. Eventually, her reputation was made with the 1868-1869 publication of the novel Little Women and a series of subsequent related novels including Little Men. Little Women’s headstrong protagonist, Jo, was based on Alcott’s own experiences as a willful and independent child.
The fictional character of Beth closely paralleled that of her sister Elizabeth “Lizzie” Alcott, who contracted scarlet fever in 1856 and would further deteriorate until her death in 1858, at age 22. During her convalescence, Louisa nursed her sister, entertaining her with stories including those from Charles Dickens’ 1844 serial Martin Chuzzlewit, which featured alcoholic nurse Sairy Gamp and her assistant Betsey Prig. “The Alcott sisters also produced family theatricals based on Dickens including LMA as Sairy Gamp to [elder sister] Anna’s Betsey Prig… and they often signed their letters with these names,” (The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, Eiselein and Phillips).
In 1862, Alcott reached the age of 30 and was qualified to volunteer as a nurse to Civil War wounded. The month before departing for Washington, she wrote in her journal, “I love nursing and must let out my pent-up energy in some new way,” (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Reisen). She departed for her long journey to the capital on December 11, with “her journal, Dickens to read to the convalescing soldiers, paper for transcribing their letters and writing her own, and enough sandwiches, gingerbread, and apples to eat all the way to the capital,” (ibid.). For six weeks she tended the wounded in the makeshift hospital in the Union Hotel, assisting with amputations, reading to and writing letters for the injured and comforting the dying.
“The hospital matron, Mrs. Ropes, admired Louisa and gave her the responsibility of assigning the patients in her three-room ward to the appropriate quarters, according to their condition: the ‘duty room’ held the newly wounded; the ‘pleasure room’ was for recovering soldiers, whom Louisa entertained with games, gossip, and probably the Dickens’ Sairy Gamp imitation that had been her sister Lizzie’s sickbed delight. The ‘pathetic room’ of hopeless cases was a place to bring ‘teapots, lullabies, consolation, and, sometimes, a shroud… Nursing tempered Louisa, matured her, replacing her book knowledge of behavior under duress with real-life experience. For all their liberality, her parents’ notions of human character were just that—notions. They were idealists (especially her father but also her mother) who didn’t see people for who they were so much as for how far they fell short of what they should be. Louisa wanted to know life in all its true variety, and she was getting the chance.’” (ibid.). In 1863, the abolitionist magazine Boston Commonwealth published a series of articles based on Louisa’s experiences, later issued in the book Hospital Sketches.
Louisa’s service was cut short when she contracted a life-threatening case of typhoid pneumonia. She was treated with large doses of calomel and, though she recovered, her health was permanently damaged by the mercury it contained. She died at the age of 56, two days after her father whom she had been nursing after a debilitating stroke three years earlier.
Alcott’s published letters (ed. Cheney) include one to Mary H. Williams, possibly a relation on her mother’s side, whom she addresses as “Dear Betsey,” and is the likely recipient of this precious image. Our sepia carte-de-visite image of Alcott at 50 years of age bears no photographers’ identification. Some light toning and wear and a small spot along the bottom edge that does not affect the inscription or image. In very good condition and very rare in this format.