Two things hooked me on Jane Goodwin Austin. First, she created the story of the first Thanksgiving. Second, she was friends with Louisa May Alcott.
As a little girl, I loved to read old books. I had all the early Nancy Drews, Bobbsey Twins, and the Little House series, as well as anything I could acquire by LM Montgomery. And of course, I read a lot of Alcott’s novels. In fact, I read Little Women every winter as a sort of ritual.
My trip to Concord in the mid-1980s solidified my passion. Once I actually saw New England and visited Orchard House, I knew I had been born in the wrong place and time (what do you expect? I was thirteen!).
So 25 years later, the day I idly Googled “Jane Goodwin Austin” and saw the Wikipedia entry claiming she was friends with Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, I knew I was onto something meaningful. (Side note: the research I did for my dissertation convinced me that the Austins probably had only a passing acquaintance with the Hawthornes, if they ever met at all).
Since then, I have found connections between the Austins and the Emersons. I also know that the Jane’s husband Loring knew Thoreau. And I’ve uncovered numerous other connections to Concord notables, including the Sanborns, the Goodwins, and the Hoars.
Because Louisa was also affiliated with all of these families, and Concord was not that big of a town, it seems inevitable that the two would have met at some point. Plus, they were close in age and both had budding interests in writing. And by that time period, they also both had financial reasons to publish.
I recently wrote a brief essay for the Louisa May Alcott Society newsletter about my research, so I decided it would be a good time to publish an expanded version on the blog. Here goes!
Sources that mention a friendship
I started my search by looking in old Concord histories, where I found mentions of their friendship. Josephine Latham Swayne’s The Story of Concord Told by Concord Writers, published in 1911, says that Austin was “a good friend of the Alcotts” (224). Benjamin Franklin Sanborn’s Women of Concord also mentions that he could write more about Austin, who was a “good friend of the Alcotts,” but then maddeningly concludes that “these reminiscences and inedited papers have already been extended too far” (44). Various other obituaries and biographical essays also corroborate a connection.
But I haven’t found any sources that suggest a truly close relationship. Nor have I found any letters or archival materials. It’s true that Louisa destroyed a lot of her personal papers in order to maintain some privacy. And I have yet to find an extensive collections of Austin’s letters or papers. But new finds happen all the time, so while I don’t expect to find volumes of correspondence, I have some hope of finding at least one or two letters someday.
Any fan of Little Women knows that acting and the theater were essential hobbies for the March girls. Although the novel is not entirely autobiographical, the playacting scenes were taken from the Alcotts’ life. Anna and Louisa Alcott performed plays as children, and later, as young adults, they performed in plays in Concord and in Walpole, New Hampshire. Sometime in the late 1860s, Austin joined the Concord company. I believe that there is at least one playbill, dated July 8, 1867, that proves both Jane and Louisa acted in the same play. It’s in the Concord library, but I didn’t know about it the last time I visited.
Especially interesting is that Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer, claims Alcott’s theatrical experience influenced her work on Gothic-style thrillers. Since Austin’s work also included similar themes, it’s not difficult to imagine the two talking about various influences and inspiration.
Boat ride and Picnic at Conantum
In his Sketches from Concord and Appledore, published in 1895, Frank Preston Stearns describes a Fourth of July party in 1864 at the home of the Honorable Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar. He writes that Alcott, “with a humorous twinkle in her eye,” invited him to a picnic at Conantum, a nearby village, because she, her sister May, and Jane wanted to rent a boat for the occasion and needed a “muscular heathen to row it.” The next day, the party set out. Despite being in the “best of spirits,” however, they encountered various difficulties, including a strong head wind and a missing rudder. Stearns found it “terribly hard rowing,” so Louisa and May disembarked at the next bridge and walked to the site of the picnic, where Jane and Frank soon joined them.
Weekends at Clark’s Island
Clark’s Island lies about two miles off the coast of Duxbury in Plymouth Bay and is only accessible by water. Jane and Louisa were there together in September of 1867, as Franklin Sanborn noted in his journal: “the Alcotts, Mrs. Austen [sic], Miss Fanny Lombard, and other ladies—in all a houseful” (46). With no space left, Sanborn was forced to leave for Martha’s Vineyard. Alcott also noted this trip in her journal. Earlier in August of 1863, Louisa had also noted that her sister May visited Clark’s Island with the Austins, Sanborns, and Goodwins. I’m pretty sure this is the house where they stayed.
I’m working on some other references to Clark’s Island that I need to verify more thoroughly, so stay tuned.
During the 1860s when both women were in Concord, they were working to establish their literary careers. Throughout this period, their work appears in similar publications, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Monthly to The Atlantic, suggesting that they might have been helping each other find publication venues.
Both Jane and Louisa also published Gothic-style thrillers and dime novels with Elliott, Thomes & Talbot. Austin’s The Novice; Or, Mother Church Thwarted was published in 1865, the same year that Alcott published V.V; Or, Plots and Counterplots under her pen name, “A.M. Barnard.”
The Novice, a dime novel I viewed at the Houghton Library at Harvard years ago, is set in Lisbon and concludes with an earthquake, just like Jo March’s award-winning story in Little Women. Most Alcott scholars attribute Jo’s as a nod to Voltaire’s Candide, but it’s clear that Jo is writing a sensational story, just like The Novice and not at all like Candide. Plus, the earthquake is situated at the beginning of Candide, not the end.
But that’s not the only coincidence I’ve found. Austin’s 1865 children’s novel, Dora Darling, was written while she lived in Concord. It features a bold little girl who joins a Northern Civil War regiment as a vivandiére. Could Dora have been an inspiration for Jo March’s wish to go to war as a “drummer, a vivan–what’s its name?” Alcott’s brief nursing experience during the Civil War may have also informed the nursing and hospital scenes in the novel. Also in Dora Darling are two characters named Jane and Louisa who despise housework and seek to “escape” their mother’s “tyranny” on cleaning days (56).
I haven’t read all of Alcott’s or Austin’s fiction from this period, so there may be even more connections. Maybe these are just coincidences, but they are substantiated by Austin’s dedication of her novel Cipher to Alcott.
Madeleine Stern, the noted Alcott scholar, claims that “L” is Louisa.
I was especially touched by this dedication when I visited Concord in May and saw Austin’s house off of Main Street, only about a mile and a half from where the Alcotts lived at Orchard House. Later that night, I plotted the houses on Google maps.
Notice how the town brook winds right between the two houses. Can’t you just imagine a 30-something Louisa and Jane taking a momentary pause from the stress of their days to take a walk? Perhaps they met up at the town brook to chat, and ended up feeling a little silly and throwing sticks while they talked about their various writing projects.
These are the verified connections, but I’ve got quite a few more possibilities that, if I can prove them, would be pretty amazing new finds for Alcott scholarship. But until I can prove them, they’ll just have to be tantalizing details!