Girlhood Dreams: Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House

By Saturday, November 20, 2021 , , ,

Greetings, friends! I'm admittedly cheating slightly with this post, as it's a piece I wrote for my recently begun graduate program in writing, but I want to keep writing here. I'm still working out what it'll consist of reguarly, but I figure this piece is a good place to start. As last year's posts made clear, Little Women has been on my mind frequently, and, in exciting news, I recently visited the Alcott house for the second time! This reflection was written with my first visit there in mind, and in anticipation of the second. The story of the March sisters and their parents continues to inspire and give me courage, and I certainly want this space to be one that celebrates courage and beauty. I hope this short missive in honor of the Marches and their author does that and perhaps encourages you to pick up Little Women for the first, or maybe the one hundred and first, time :) 

Girlhood Dreams: Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House

It’s like stepping back in time, I thought in excited wonder. The countless nights spent with my battered paperback copy of Little Women came rushing back as I walked up the drive of the Alcott Orchard House. The famous soundtrack from the 1994 movie rang through my mind. Of all the sights to see in Boston and the surrounding area, this little house on a quiet street in Concord called my name most of all, for here Louisa May Alcott had penned her famous 1868 story of the March family, inspired by her own family, that would thrill generations of young women after her. For me, Little Women had always presented a compelling picture of family, love, pursuit of dreams, and growth into womanhood. Traversing to its place of origin now offered me the chance for fresh reflection on its formative influence.

Everywhere I looked inside Orchard House surfaced more memories and images. The family room looked exactly like it did in the movie. That’s where Marmee reads letters from Father to the four girls, I mused, studying the large easy chair by the fireplace. Will I have a family to sit by a cozy fire with someday? I’d definitely want to be a mom like Marmee. Across the hall stood the dining room, where the March sisters famously decided to give away their Christmas breakfast to a family in need, effected by their mother’s encouragement. I hope I’d inspire that kind of virtue in daughters of my own one day.

The tour group wound its way upstairs. Every turn brought images and scenes to mind. Here in the hallway, Jo and Meg had paced nervously while waiting for news of Beth’s illness. In that bedroom, Beth and Amy had whispered and giggled into the night as young girls. We enter another bedroom and pause to admire an authentic, well-preserved gown from the 1860s. The guide explains it belonged to Anna Alcott, Louisa May’s elder sister and the inspiration for Meg March of Little Women. It seems appropriate to display a fashion item in honor of “Meg,” who wrestles with materialism and vanity throughout the novel. But the gown on display boasts simple patterns and colors, perhaps reflective of Meg’s growth. The beautifully admonishing words of the film version’s Marmee come to my mind:

“If you feel that your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty. But what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind, your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you.”

As a young girl reading Little Women, I cherished those aspects of Meg too, as I did various quirks of each sister. Unlike many readers of the novel, I never strongly preferred one sister over the rest, but found characteristics I loved in all four. Meg’s tender and motherly spirit, Jo’s writerly ambitions, Beth’s love of home and family, and Amy’s fascination with beauty all spoke to me. And at the quiet and steady helm of their struggles into womanhood, their mother kept faithful watch, gently guiding and rebuking and encouraging each of them into the best versions of themselves. In the March women, I found early models of courage, virtue, and femininity to emulate, and they represented the family I dreamed of making one day.

The old walls of Orchard House bring the Marches closer than ever. To how many childlike dreams, whispered hopes, family arguments, and murmured prayers has the worn wallpaper borne witness through the centuries? How many young women like me does it now usher into nostalgia every day? I stop short as I pass Anna Alcott’s dress and come to a small, simple table surface cut out of the wall. Here, shares the tour guide, likely marks the place where Louisa May Alcott wrote most of Little Women. Tears sting my eyes. Here she sat more than a hundred years ago to bring Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy to life. Did she have any idea how much they would speak to girls like me? How their story would become such a significant girlhood rite of passage for so many? I let my fingers reverently brush the old wooden surface before turning back out of the bedroom.

Back outside, I turn to gaze at the beautiful, simple front of the house once more. The realization of all I owe to the Alcotts and their fictional counterparts in the Marches strikes me anew now that I see the home in which they lived and learned. In each March sister, I found role models for family, friendship, and pursuit of dreams. They showed me virtue lived courageously and love given unconditionally. Marmee offered me an example of joyfully embracing motherhood with all its trials and blessings. I hope I can make a home like this one day, I murmur inwardly, turning back up the street. Hope flares brightly inside me as Orchard House fades into the distance, its images burned into my mind. Hope for a home, a family, the warmth of a shared hearth, and days filled with love and laughter.


I sigh in contentment from my couch in Washington, D.C. Candles burn, friends sit around me with sewing projects, and the newest film adaptation of Little Women plays in the foreground. The famous words of Mr. March’s letter from the book play in voiceover as the sisters excitedly perform a play for neighboring children:

            “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them, I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”

My heart swells with affection for the women around me. My home may not look like Orchard House, and I may not yet have daughters to love, but I can invite others into my everyday spaces now. I keep re-reading and studying Little Women these days, and I reminisce often on my visit to Orchard House. Then, I didn’t fully understand that while the Marches certainly encourage hope for good things, they also make a case for relishing the beauty of the present. Yes, hope for a family and a shared fire, but also make a home in your little D.C. townhouse that lacks a working fireplace. Make it a place that invites friends to gather and love to be shared. In doing so, maybe you’ll see a little taste of Orchard House right in front of you. Tears prick my eyes as I watch Marmee on the screen applauding her girls’ performances. I want to be like her, I ponder. If I have daughters, yes, but also right now.

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