Finding Louisa's Spirit 'Little Women': At New England's Orchard House, author Louisa May Alcott drew on her life in a loving, unusual family to create four beloved sisters.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CONCORD, Mass. -- The chocolate-brown clapboard house is not, I tell my daughter, just another old house with creaking floors, drafty doors, narrow hallways and musty rooms filled with worn antiques that she can admire but not touch. This house, I assure her, is not merely a shrine to a 19th-century literary figure, but a window into the life of Louisa May Alcott, one of her favorite authors.

At least that's my hope. After all, Orchard House is the setting for Alcott's "Little Women," the enduring, heartwarming story of the fictional March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and their beloved Marmee. Despite its universal themes of family and home, I was unfamiliar with the story until my 11-year-old daughter became fixated on the film version starring Winona Ryder as Jo. Since then, the book has become one of Courtney's favorites.

It was my idea to visit Orchard House during a trip to New England. I had learned enough about Alcott to know that the author had drawn on her own childhood and familial experiences for the novel. Perhaps I wanted to show my daughter, an aspiring writer who displays some of the same traits as the headstrong and adventurous Jo, that she, too, could find inspiration from her own life and her home. Imagine my chagrin when Courtney balked. "It's just another old house," she said, rolling her eyes and sighing as if to remind me that she's been through one too many old houses.

Astonishingly, her sister, Chelsea, 7, bubbled with enthusiasm, bombarding me with questions: When are we going? Is the house like the one in the movie? Was there really a Jo?

The writer's road

Our first glimpse of Orchard House came during a late spring downpour as we drove eastward from Concord along a two-lane road, the same byway Alcott and her family traversed, the same worn path the revered authors and thinkers Emerson and Thoreau traveled and the same road brash, new Americans and the British traipsed during the Revolution.

"It is the same house, Dad. Look!" Chelsea blurted.

Even in the rain we could distinguish the similarities: The same worn, two-story structure with a red chimney peeking over a gable. Later, we learned the film's producer was very careful in her re-creation of the Orchard House exterior on a movie set in Vancouver. Framed by a wall of trees, the house is neither imposing nor remarkable. Yet its name and the recollections of the family's life there, fictional or otherwise, evoke a warmth I am unable to ascribe to another writer. In our minds, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy could have easily emerged from behind the forest-green door.

Courtney's curiosity was piqued by Orchard House's resemblance to the film version. Of course, my daughters knew they would not find Jo in "plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut lovelocks" prancing about or kneeling at the foot of a handmade tower in the family's parlor. Or scribbling stories at her little desk in the garret. However, neither of them realized to what extent Jo was real ' that fragments of this memorable character lived and breathed here and elsewhere in the persona of an unusual woman from a remarkable and nontraditional family in mid-19th century New England.

It was easy to imagine "Little Women" in every room at Orchard House, actually two 18th-century structures that were joined before the Alcotts took residence. The Alcotts lived in many homes in Concord and elsewhere before Orchard House, but this is the house in which they lived the longest and the one in which Alcott wrote her best-known work. Surprisingly, only one "Little Women" event occurred at Orchard House. Alcott's sister Anna, the role model for the dutiful, obedient Meg, was married in the family's parlor in 1860. She married John Bridge Pratt, who readers may guess was the inspiration for John Brook. Elizabeth (Beth) never lived in Orchard House; she died three months before the family moved there in 1858. Neither Teddy Laurence nor Laurie ever lived next door.

In many respects, Orchard House is typical of the Victorian era. Much of the furniture is plain and well-used and belonged to the family. Visitors will find some of the family's kitchen utensils and the trunk and costumes used by the girls in their plays. But even in a room as seemingly ordinary as a kitchen, the uniqueness of Louisa and her family emerge. They were vegetarians, eschewing dairy products and meat. They were the first family in Concord to have running water. Each member of the family had a clearly defined role and, in this case, the kitchen belonged to Louisa's mother, Abigail, the heart of the household. She was a vibrant, educated woman devoted to her husband and four daughters. In her journal in December 1860, Louisa wrote: "All the philosophy in our house is not in the study, a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and scrubs."

Home's importance

Mealtime was an important event in the Alcott home. Louisa's father, Bronson, a leader of the transcendentalists and an educator, assumed a great role in raising his children. He believed the key to social reform and spiritual growth was in the home. At mealtime, the family shared and discussed the day's events. Each kept a journal, and their entries were shared "in order to foster an openness of thought and feeling," Julie Dapper, a former curator of Orchard House, wrote in a booklet about the family and their home.

Alcott taught his daughters self-sacrifice, charity and a sense of duty, all characteristics that emerge among the fictional March girls. As we left the dining room, my daughter did not mention that she, too, keeps a journal, but I was certain at this point that she must have felt a kindred spirit to Alcott.

My daughters were most interested in Louisa's bedroom, which she shared with Anna. Courtney zeroed in on Louisa's desk and the built-in bookcases. Chelsea was intrigued by the large fireplace, where May, the role model for the ebullient Amy, painted an owl in honor of Louisa, her "wise owl."

Here, in the summer of 1868, Louisa started writing her classic novel and hardly stopped. "I can just imagine her sitting there writing," Courtney said. "I wish I had my own desk."

The image of Alcott sitting there at her desk must have left an indelible impression on Courtney; she later bought a postcard with that very image. May's room also sparked interest. Furnished with blue and white cottage furniture and decorated in May's own drawings and sketches, the room symbolized one thing to Courtney: independence. "I wish I had my own room," she whispered. More interesting to Chelsea, with whom she shares a room, was a small staircase that led down to the dining room. The steps came in handy when the Alcott women performed plays, much like the March sisters.

We left Orchard House in silence, perhaps a little saddened, as though we had just finished a good book. We retreated from the rain at the Colonial Inn, an 18th-century structure that houses a restaurant and inn that overlooks Monument Square in Concord, where we shared our impressions of the afternoon. The girls noted similarities between the Alcott sisters and themselves. They found the house inviting -- a great place to play hide-and-seek, according to Chelsea -- and they thought that our tour guide did a great job in bringing Louisa and her family to life among century-old furniture, paintings and heirlooms.

I wish I could write that Courtney walked away from Orchard House inspired by Louisa May Alcott, her unusual life and her literary achievements. That she was able to see the richness in the fabric of daily life; that sibling rivalry wounds but ultimately strengthens relationships; and that Orchard House, though in another place and time, was really no different from her own home. Like Alcott, she could find inspiration in the pages of our lives, no matter how domestic or uneventful they seem at times. That is lesson her father learned in that curious house on an educational excursion for his children.

AN IDEAL DAY

9 a.m.: Begin your visit at Orchard House, which is on Lexington Road, one mile east of Concord Center. Allow time to wander the tree-shaded grounds and gardens, which include Bronson Alcott's School of Philosophy. In the summer, the school is the site of lectures on history, literature and philosophy. Before you leave, stand in front of Orchard House and see if you, too, can imagine the fictional March girls coming and going.

10:30 a.m.: Walk next door to the Wayside, which was home to the Alcotts at one time. It was later inhabited by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Sidney, who was the author of a popular 19th-century children's story and was instrumental in preserving the Wayside and Orchard House. A visitors center provides background on the authors.

11:45 a.m.: Hop back in the car and drive west to Concord. Have lunch at the Colonial Inn, which was built in 1716 and has been operating as a hotel since 1889.

2 p.m.: Drive south along state Route 126 to Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau escaped civilization and wrote his classic, "Walden Pond." His cabin no longer exists, but a replica is there for the curious. The 62-acre pond is inviting, and the adventurous can even rent a canoe.

3 p.m. to 5 p.m.: Head back into Concord and return to the Colonial Inn for tea. High Tea includes pate, sandwiches, berries, pastries and scones. Advance registration is required for High Tea. The price is $16.50 per person. Other teas offer less fare, and the prices are lower, $8.50 to $11.50. Reservations are recommended on weekends.

5:30 p.m. Before the sun sets, visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Alcott and her family, and other notable figures from history are buried, including Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. See if you don't feel a sadness upon finding the grave of Elizabeth Alcott, the inspiration for the fictional Beth, who died shortly before the Alcotts moved into Orchard House.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there: All the major airlines fly from BWI to Boston's Logan Airport. From there, you'll need a car for the 45-minute drive to Concord. Take the Sumner Tunnel to Interstate 93 north to Interstate 95 south. Continue to Exit 29B (state West Route 2) and follow the signs to Concord.

Must sees:

* The Wayside. The fictional Teddy Laurence may not have lived next door to the Alcotts, but the reclusive Nathaniel Hawthorne did. Built before the American Revolution, this imposing house is noted for being the home of three famed authors, Hawthorne, Alcott and Margaret Sidney, author of "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew," a children's story popular in the late 19th century. A visitors center features exhibits about the authors. 455 Lexington Road, Concord. 978-369-6975.

* Walden Pond State Reservation. Who wouldn't want to catch a glimpse of Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond or walk through the same woods the author did? This 411-acre state park features hiking trails, recreational activities and a replica of Thoreau's cabin. The 62-acre pond is the real thing. A day pass costs $2 per vehicle. 978-369-3254.

* Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Here lie Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne, Daniel Chester French, Margaret Sidney and, of course, the Alcotts.

Where to stay: We didn't have the opportunity to spend the night in Concord but would have chosen the Colonial Inn, which overlooks the town's Monument Square. Built in 1716, the inn was the home of one of Concord's first settlers and, later, the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau. The inn has 49 rooms. Rates range from $125 to $195. Also recommended is the Hawthorne Inn, which sits across from the Orchard House and the Wayside. The 19th-century home features seven guest rooms, all with private bath, and children are welcome. The two-story inn is decorated with antiques and includes resident cats and dogs. Rates range from $125 to $225. 462 Lexington Road, Concord. Information and reservations: 978-369-5610.

Where to eat: The Colonial Inn offers casual and formal dining in four rooms, including the popular Village Forge Tavern. The menu is varied, and the specialties are seafood, but be sure to try the homemade Indian pudding, a Colonial-era dessert. Entree prices range from $13.25 to $21.50. The inn also serves tea from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 Sunday. Prices range from $8.50 to $16.50. Reservations are recommended on weekends. 48 Monument Square, Concord, Mass. 01742. 800-370-9200 or 978-369-9200.

Tips: Best times to visit are spring and fall, when trees and flowers are showing their colors. Patriot's Day, April 19, celebrates the "shot heard around the world," the beginning of the American Revolution. Activities include a parade from Concord Center to the North Bridge, and a re-enactment.

Information: Concord Visitor Center 978-369-3120.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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