During the years of writing Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, I was delighted to catch sight of May wherever I could. Most often this was in biographies that focused on her sister Louisa May Alcott and sometimes their parents, Abigail and Bronson. I also came to know May from memoirs of nineteenth century neighbors, such as novelist Julian Hawthorne and sculptor Daniel Chester French. I was delighted to find May in two novels by contemporary women that feature Mary Cassatt. Both May Alcott and Mary Cassatt were expatriate painters in Paris at the same time and became friends. I liked to imagine walking in on one of the Thursday night soirées at the Cassatt family home in Montmartre, or listening in as May and Mary rode in a horse-drawn carriage through an elegant park.
One book that gives a fictional peek into their lives in 1870’s Paris is Harriet Scott Chessman’s Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper. This spare and lyrical novel shines with reflections on art, family, the nature of memory, and mortality. Like my novel, there are sketches of sisterhood, but the relationship here is gentler. Lydia Cassatt has Bright’s disease that she knows will cut her life short, and seems mostly resolved to her role as model and muse for her hugely talented sister. Such a role would never have contented May Alcott, who was blessed with good health and felt determined to make her own mark. But I like the theme of the person who finds the courage to contend with the limits illness forces upon her and to find grace in the milestones of an inner life. It’s not easy to live in the shadow of someone famous, and Lydia does so with affection and courage. The story is told in her voice and in present tense, and as seems befitting with someone who struggles with pain and for whom energy is at a premium, the narrative is written in vignettes with pauses in between. It’s structured in five sections related to five of Mary Cassatt’s paintings, which are reproduced here, and show Lydia’s observant eye and an artistic sensibility that only Mary, and then we the lucky readers, can share. We see Lydia with embroidery hoops or at a loom. “I yearn to be simply present in this day, filled for the moment with color and shape, my own hand urging the needle through the silk.”
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira is told as if by Mary Cassatt, framed with the mention of letters found after the death of Edgar Degas, when Mary helped clean his studio and hunted for these souvenirs of their deep friendship. The nature of love between them is not as direct as the title suggests, but complicated, ambiguous, and shifting, as both Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas put much of their time and passion into painting. We get to know the confident woman from Philadelphia and the gruff Frenchmen. Mary is shown as a prudent businesswoman, but did more than tally “coin and admiration,” caring more about “the moment, the breath, the seeing.”
The novel focuses on Mary’s relationship with Degas, but we also get to know her sister, her parents who were more conservative than she was, and other artists, including Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet. Perhaps most interesting for me was the way the novel opens with a scene of Mary Cassatt and May Alcott. To avoid the potential awkwardness of dialogue between Mary and the similarly sounding May, Robin Oliveria wisely chose to call her Abigail, which was May’s given name (as a young woman, May chose to use her middle name, since it was prettier, and her mother’s maiden name, passed along to her two most creative daughters.) The friendship of Mary and May is full of warmth and trust, a refuge as Mary contends with much and comes to question Degas’s statement that “Only paint was honest.”
I enjoyed both these novels for the depiction of Mary Cassatt’s struggles and successes, and the enticing glimpses I got of May. With Little Women in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott I give May a stage of her own. I hear the novel is in from the printers and starting to be stocked, so you kind people who’ve pre-ordered may get copies soon. I’m excited!