Alcott’s own story is full of drama

LIANE BRANDON Elizabeth Marvel plays the adult Louisa May Alcott in Nancy Porter’s documentary.
Elizabeth Marvel plays the adult Louisa May Alcott in Nancy Porter’s documentary. (Liane Brandon)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 28, 2009

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This new installment of “American Masters’’ plays a little bit like an episode of “Masterpiece Classic.’’ “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ ’’ manages to penetrate the facts of Louisa May Alcott’s life (1832-1888) to get at her humor, her spirit, and her growth as a person. With a smart, tasteful use of docudramatic re-creations, director Nancy Porter gives us the story of a writer’s interior world and genesis with more drama and color than you generally expect from a 90-minute documentary.

But don’t think the movie, which airs tonight at 9 on Channel 2 and is based on the biography by Harriet Reisen, is hopped up on fictionalization and artificial histrionics. Nearly all of the dialogue and monologues we hear have been taken from the writings of Alcott and those who knew her, and the delivery by the actors (including Jane Alexander as one of Alcott’s biographers) is elegant and restrained. And there is footage of the actual locations in Cambridge and Concord where Alcott lived. “The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ ’’ maintains an appealing balance between historical accuracy and Hollywood storytelling.

Alcott’s father was an idealist who nearly drove the family to starvation with his dream of living off the land in Western Massachusetts. The family moved into the basement of a Boston slum, while Alcott’s mother worked as a maid and cursed the inability of women to help financially. But the family, particularly Louisa and her sisters (all models for “Little Women’’), remained close throughout their troubles. Eventually, the family returned to their Concord home, with neighbors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau making regular appearances.

Louisa May had a schoolgirl crush on Thoreau, who was a kind of science mentor to her, but generally she was independent-minded and stayed away from marriage. She was bent on pursuing her writing career, as well as lone adventures such as working at a hospital during the Civil War. Her increasingly successful gigs as a pulp fiction writer helped her stay unencumbered, and she was finally able to travel to Europe. In Paris, she fell for a younger Polish man, and he eventually became the model for Laurie in “Little Women.’’

Elizabeth Marvel, the actress who plays Alcott as an adult, is well-cast as a woman with a wily imagination and a down-to-earth nature. Gradually, when Alcott becomes famous and wealthy after “Little Women’’ becomes a bestseller, Marvel brings a nice touch of frustrated ambition to her portrayal. Alcott had become a brand name, which brought prosperity and silk dresses; but it also forced her to avoid stretching her literary muscles outside of young adult fiction. She was a little trapped by her huge success.

The end of the movie is poignant, as Alcott becomes increasingly infirm and addicted to opium. Her dear sister May dies in childbirth, and Louisa gains custody of the child, making her a single mother. But her health deteriorates profoundly in the Beacon Hill home where she lives with her aged father. In a sorrow-filled denouement that almost seems scripted, Louisa May and her father die only two days apart, under the same roof.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit

On: PBS, Channel 2
Time: Tonight, 9-10:30

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