Louisa M Alcott and the transvestites

Louisa M Alcott aged 25 or thereabouts

(wikipedia commons)

We’ve been watching the recent miniseries of Little Women on the ABC, as always showing years later than everywhere else.

Being male, I, of course, had never read Little Women, and had tended to assume that it was some goody two shoes improving moral tale.

It is, of course, more so than that, the American civil war is a recurrent theme in the background, as well as the social tensions caused by the girls growing up in genteel poverty.

I also knew nothing about Louisa Alcott’s life, so I did what everyone would do, looked her up on wikipedia, discovered not only had she had a hard life – but that to pay the rent she’d written pulp novels featuring spies and transvestites – something that certainly brought a smile.

But, then, on reflection, it’s not so strange.

There are other near contemporary examples, the best known of which is Mary Braddon, who knocked out over eighty gothic and sensation novels to finance her life, in part because of the limited opportunities for middle class women to support themselves outside of conventional married life.

If a mid Victorian middle class woman needed to earn an income and stay respectable the options really came down to:

  • Governess, dull boring, respectable, bad pay, and often at risk of sexual exploitation
  • Actress – often seen as a euphemism for whore, and the pay was terrible
  • Author – poor returns at first, but if you lucked out …
  • Schoolteacher – better than being a governess, but only just

And of course Alcott and Braddon were writing at a time where changes in technology, such as the use of cheap wood pulp paper, lowered the cost of book and magazine production considerably, increasing the number of titles published per year and increasing literacy produced a massive demand for novels and short stories, both as books and serials magazines and newspapers, in the mid Victorian era, making it possible for comparatively unknown writers to gain traction.

And of course, it’s no surprise that there was a lot of gothic and sensation fiction – that is of course what paid in the 1860’s.

So we should celebrate the likes of Braddon and Alcott as tough women who succeeded against all the odds and who made their writing pay, and pay handsomely …

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About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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