Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 21, 2015

Peeks into May Alcott’s Paris

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.

lydia

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.”

always-loved-you-bookImg

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!

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Responses

  1. Ooo, I will definitely have to read the one about Lydia because from the way you describe her, she sounds a bit like Lizzie Alcott, Exciting about your book, I plan on ordering one for my sister as she is a painter.

    • Yes! I think I may have felt that sense of LIzzie as I read, but didn’t articulate. I think you’ll feel familiar with the gentleness and subdued yearning and finding a way to be resolved to what life hands Lydia.

  2. What a beautiful run-up to your novel, Jeannine. You write as beautifully about some of your literary sources as you do in your own work. I’m one of the “pre-ordered gang” and can’t to meet May!

    • It’s hard to do justice to books you admire, though I guess as a teacher I try to do more than wave them around and say, “Read this!” Thanks, Sarah and for being in the pre-ordered gang!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this post, Jeannine. I second what Sarah said — a beautiful run-up and now I’m even more anxious to read your new novel! Fascinating stuff about Lydia here. Thanks!

  4. I read a lot about Mary Cassatt when I was writing the novel, not only because she and May were friends, but to learn about the time and place they shared. I’d always liked Mary Cassatt’s work, but learning more about her life, liked her drive and determination and its accompanying grumpiness at times. But Lydia remains a shadow in the biographies, so I loved how Harriet Chessman put her into the light. It’s a lovely quiet novel — and you know I always use that word “quiet” with deep respect. It takes a talented novelist to take a life that lacks surface drama and make it riveting.

  5. I loved reading this post, Jeannine, for the insights it gives me into the way you research and build your character web – not only from the perspective of May alone, but for the world she lived in and atmosphere of her thinking, living, doing days. I can’t wait for your book!

    • Research is such a treasure hunt! I loved looking at old paintings not just at brushstrokes and patterns, but to see what people might wear or put on their tables. It’s good to look beyond the biographies. I explore the travel sections in libraries for both old and new photographs and maps. Memoirs and biographies of others living at the time may or may not provide cameo appearances, but the good ones show neighborhoods or period rooms. Thanks, Tara, for your loyal enthusiasm, and best wishes for the fall around the corner.

    • Inceillgente and simplicity – easy to understand how you think.

  6. How wonderful that you could catch glimpses of May in these books, Jeannine. I will have to search them out, particularly the one about Lydia Cassatt. To “find grace in the milestones of an inner life” is a great achievement for anyone. Can’t wait to read your own portrait of May! xo

    • Always so good to hear from you, Amy. I think you would love Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper for its language. It’s a book that, like poetry, can keep you quiet company and deepen the feeling of that quietness.

  7. Reblogged this on Louisa May Alcott is My Passion and commented:
    Jeannine Atkins’ historical novel on May Alcott called Little Woman in Blue is coming out September 15. She posted a wonderful write-up on May’s time in Paris with artist peers such as Mary Cassatt through books she used to research her book. Be sure and pre-order Jeannine’s book on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Little-Woman-Blue-Novel-Alcott/dp/1631529870/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1440519088&sr=8-1&keywords=little+woman+in+blue and write a review of her book on Launch Day (September 15)—it will give her book a great boost on Amazon and let others know about it.
    Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters is writing a review as we speak and I will add my thoughts too. Let’s just say we are really excited! In the meantime, enjoy this peak into May’s past in Gay Paree!


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