Louisa May Alcott
b. November 29, 1832
d. March 6, 1888
The woman best known as the author of Little Women was the second daughter of Abigail May, a women's suffrage and abolitionist advocate, and Amos Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist philosopher and social reformer. After a failed experiment of living at the communal Fruitlands farm, the family moved to Concord, Massachusetts where Alcott was friendly with fellow transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Around the age of fifteen, Alcott started to contribute to the family income with various positions including teacher, seamstress, and servant before earning an income with her pen. In 1854, her first book Flower Fables was published. In 1860, Alcott began writing for the Atlantic Monthly, and she worked as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862-1863. Her letters home, revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863), garnered her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. But like many other nurses, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and although she recovered, she would suffer the poisoning effects of calomel, a drug laden with mercury then used to cure typhoid, for the rest of her life.
For extra income, Alcott also wrote "potboilers" such as A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline's Passion and Punishment, usually under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. In 1869, she published Perilous Play, a short story wherein a group of young socialites enjoys hashish bon-bons. Alcott's brief description of hashish's effects may have been only a fantasy designed for book sales: Starting in the 1860s, the Ganja Wallah Hasheesh Candy Company made and marketed maple sugar hashish candy, and in Philadelphia during the American Centennial Exposition of 1876, the Turkish exhibition included a hookah and at least one pharmacist sold hashish. However, A Modern Mephistopheles, the novel Alcott published anonymously in 1877, contains a much fuller description of hashish's effects. Jasper Helwyze, the book's devilish character, is an opium addict (as was Alcott, for medicinal reasons) who slowly seduces Gladys, the innocent young wife of his colleague Felix Canaris with Eastern delights:
"One recess [of Helwyze's room] held a single picture glowing with the warm splendor of the East. A divan, a Persian rug, an amber-mouthed nargileh, and a Turkish coffee server, all gold and scarlet, completed the illusion." Helwyze describes to Gladys an Eastern bazaar with "Lustrous silks sultans were to wear…cashmeres, many-hued as rainbows; odorous woods and spices, that filled the air with fragrance never blown from Western hills…" He entices her with his collection of "Hindoo" gods and goddesses, carved in ebony and ivory—Vishnu, Siva, Kreeshna, Varoon and Kama.
Faced with an intolerant and inattentive husband, childless, and guilty over her feelings for Helwyze, Gladys enters a period of melancholy and sleeplessness. Helwyze urges her to "try my sleep-compeller....these will give you one, if not all three desired blessings—quiet slumber, delicious dreams, or utter oblivion for a time....As he spoke, Helwyze had drawn out a little bonbonniere of tortoise-shell and silver, which he always carried, and shaken into his palm half a dozen white comfits, which he offered to Gladys, with a benign expression born of real sympathy and compassion."
"Without a word, she took them; and, as they melted on her tongue, first sweet, then bitter, she stood leaning against the rainy window-pane, listening to Helwyze, who began to talk as if he too had tasted the Indian drug, which 'made the face of Coleridge shine, as he conversed like one inspired'....for he had given Gladys hasheesh," his "bitter-sweet bonbons."
When Gladys's husband comes over an hour later, he comments, "What have you done to make yourself so beautiful tonight? Is it the new gown?" She replies, "It is not new…but you never noticed it before." She displayed "shining eyes, cheeks that glowed with a deeper rose each hour, and an indescribably blest expression in a face which now was both brilliant and dreamy." While the men played chess, Gladys "sat by, already tasting the restful peace, the delicious dreams, promised her." She intercedes in the game, producing a checkmate for her husband, against the usually-dominant Helwyze, who cries foul. Speaking in "a low, intense voice never heard from her lips before, she says, 'I have won him; he is mine, and cannot be taken from me any more.'"
Commenting that the scene resembles Retzsch's drawing "Game of Life" (in which the devil plays chess with an angel looking on), Helwyze's wife Olivia suggests she and Gladys bring other tableaus to life by acting and singing scenes from Goethe's poem to Sheeva, "The God and the Bayadere." Gladys says in reply, "I have never acted in my life, but I will try. I think I should like it for I feel as if I could do anything to-night;" and she came to them "with a swift step, an eager air, as if longing to find some outlet for the strange energy which seemed to thrill every nerve and set her heart beating audibly."
Helwyze puts the household and its staff at the ladies' disposal. "Order what you will [from Mrs. Bland, the housekeeper] if you are going to treat us to an Arabian Night's entertainment." After seeing Gladys perform, Canaris exclaims, "I never knew how beautiful she was!" Gladys' eyes "were luminous and large, her face growing more and more colorless, her manner less and less excited, yet unnaturally calm." She was soon "Carried beyond self-control by the unsuspected presence of the drug, which was doing its work with perilous [that word again] rapidity." She began "slipping fast into the unconscious stage of the hasheesh dream, whose coming none can foretell but those accustomed to its use." What happens after that I will not reveal, except to say it is strongly moralistic.
Even in Little Women, Alcott shows signs of rebellion and an interest in magical brews. Her character Jo, the "little woman" who wrote plays her sisters performed (as did Alcott), once wrote of a villain named Hugo who demanded a love potion and a second one to destroy his rival from a witch named Hagar. Hagar calls up the spirit who will deliver:
from thy home
Airy sprite, I bid thee come!
Born of roses, fed on dew
Charms and potions canst thou brew?
Bring me here, with elfin speed
The fragrant philter which I need;
Make it sweet and swift and strong,
Spirit, answer now my song!
When Jo leaves the city to possibly reunite with her admiring younger man, her professor/father figure "took down his seldom-used meerschaum, and opened his Plato."
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