Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Hailed by NPR as one of the best books of the year, Marmee & Louisa paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, the real “Marmee.” In this dual biography award-winning author Eve LaPlante mines the Alcotts’ intimate diaries and other private papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and others thought to have been destroyed, to resuscitate this remarkable mother and daughter. Abigail May Alcott—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure—comes to life in Marmee & Louisa as a gifted writer and thinker. An activist feminist firebrand, she fought for universal civil rights, an end to slavery, and female suffrage. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women transforms our view and deepens our understanding of one of America’s most beloved authors.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Having read Marmee & Louisa, do you believe that the March family created by Louisa in Little Women was in fact autobiographical? If so, in what ways? Who was the model for Mr. March, a character unlike Louisa’s actual father? Is “Marmee,” the mother in the novel, an accurate portrayal of Abigail?
2. Why was the adult Louisa, despite her extraordinary success as an entrepreneur and writer, never really able to separate from her first family?
3. The real-life Marmee, unlike the homely retiring housewife we tend to envision, was a strong and complex person with dreams familiar to women today. From girlhood Abigail desired things she could not have: an education, public power, and a voice in the world. How did she succeed realizing her goals, both in her own life and also vicariously, through her daughters?
4. Abigail was Louisa’s mentor, muse, and inspiration. Not only did she encourage Louisa to write from an early age, but also she provided material for Louisa’s fiction. She encouraged her daughter to read her private journals, which contained detailed descriptions of Abigail’s marital troubles, dreams, and frustrations. Discuss the ways in which aspects of Abigail’s inner life reappear in Louisa’s adult novel, sensational stories, and juvenile fiction.
5. The Alcott family biographer Madelon Bedell claimed that Abigail was “in some ways… a better writer than her more famous daughter.” Do you agree?
6. Considering both Marmee & Louisa and its companion volume, My Heart Is Boundless: Writing of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, compare the writing styles of Abigail and Louisa.
7. Based on their writings, what sort of women were Abigail and Louisa? Consider their differences and similarities.
8. It seems incredible that Abigail has so long been ignored. Her husband’s and daughter’s journals and letters have been in print for generations, but Abigail’s papers are only now being published and discussed, even though hundreds of pages of them existed in university archives. How do you explain this long neglect of Abigail?
9. How do the stories of these nineteenth-century women, Abigail and Louisa, resonate for you as a modern reader? In what ways can you identify with one or both of them? In what ways do you face the same challenges the Alcott women faced?