by Dave Monk, The Telegraph, December 26, 2019
To appreciate the real story behind Little Women, there’s no better place to start than where it all began – Orchard House, the home of the book’s author Louisa May Alcott.
After disembarking my cruise ship, I took a 40-minute train ride from Boston’s North Station to Concord, Massachusetts. From there I took a short cab ride to see the bedroom where in 1868 the 36-year-old sat at the half-moon desk her father built for her and wrote her most famous work.
It was to this house that director Greta Gerwig brought the cast of her new film of Little Women, which goes on general release across the UK today, to learn about Alcott and her real family that the book was so closely modelled on.
In the latest production, Saoirse Ronan plays Josephine "Jo" March – Alcott’s alter ego – while Emma Watson is Meg (based on Louisa’s real-life sister Anna), Florence Pugh is Amy (youngest sister May) and Eliza Scanlen is Beth (namesake of Elizabeth). The role of their mother “Marmee” is taken by Laura Dern and Meryl Streep is the formidable Aunt March.
For Jan Turnquist, the executive director of Orchard House, working with the stars in the historic setting was a “great pleasure” – though she had to keep it quiet at the time to prevent them being disturbed by fans.
“I was delighted by the actors' questions about who the Alcotts really were,” she told me.
“This cast clearly understood that Louisa based the Marches upon her own family and that they could enrich their characterisations by having deeper knowledge about the real Marmee, Father, Anna, Louisa, Beth and May.
“Greta Gerwig and her production team certainly cared deeply about authenticity, as well. Even before Greta brought the cast to Orchard House for a tour and conversation, she and her advance team made multiple research visits here.”
The Alcotts’ home has been preserved largely as they left it, down to Louisa’s needlework kit with her name embroidered on it. The kitchen still has the soapstone sink and a bread board that artist May used to practise pyrography – burning pictures into wood.
May’s paintings and drawings also adorn the dining room, parlour, Louisa’s room and her own bedroom. In the study is a portrait of May, who spent her last years in Europe.
Other pictures of the family can be seen around the house, including Louisa, of course, and Elizabeth who, like her namesake in Little Women, died at a young age.
The girls’ father Amos was an idealist teacher who championed vegetarianism, social justice and women’s rights but whose financial mistakes kept the family in poverty. The house was already 200 years old when he bought it in 1857 and named it after an orchard of 40 apple trees within the grounds.
His wife Abigail, or “Abba”, always stood by him, despite his inability to support her and their daughters. Being without him would be like “living without breath”, she wrote in her journal.
Louisa managed to make money by selling stories before eventually writing Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. However, she took refuge away from her fame in Switzerland as her health deteriorated. Having published more than 30 books and collections of short stories and poems, she died aged 55.
Walking through Orchard House now, you feel some of the confinement – but also togetherness – the family must have experienced. You can imagine them all in the kitchen where they prepared food and did the laundry. Mr Alcott joined in too, building a water boiler and clothes drying rack.
The sisters would also use the dining room as a stage, performing home-made plays for friends and neighbours gathered in the adjoining parlour.
Despite its novelty, the Alcotts’ home isn’t the only historic building in Concord (pronounced “Conkered”). The town’s museum holds one of the lanterns which patriot Paul Revere used to warn his fellow Bostonians that “the British are coming” on April 18, 1775.
The following day came the Battle of Concord-“the shot heard around the world” which began the American Revolution. You can still see the Wright Tavern, which was the base for the local minutemen on the morning the conflict started, and later that day the HQ of the British.
My private visit to Orchard House came during a two-day stay in Boston on the Viking Ocean Cruises ship Viking Sea. Knowing it was docked overnight meant there was no pressure to be back by a certain time and no dramas if my trains were delayed.
The following day, before sailing, I also visited Revere’s house in Boston and walked the rest of the “Freedom Trail”, including the Granary Burying Ground where some of the heroes of the Revolution are buried.
After Boston, the cruise, which began in New York, continued on to Canada, with stops including Halifax, Quebec and the final destination, Montreal.
They are all beautiful and interesting cities. But when I settled down at a Cineworld screen in Leicester Square to watch an IMAX preview of Little Women, my thoughts returned to only one place – the remarkably ordinary home in Concord where the enduring story came to life.
A 13-day cruise on Viking Star from New York to Montreal, leaving on September 22, 2020, costs from £5,240pp, including flights (0800 298 9700; vikingcruises.co.uk).
A separate four-hour excursion from Boston cruise port to Cambridge, Lexington and Concord, including admission to-and an hour's tour of-Orchard House costs from £45.60pp (viator.com).
Orchard House (louisamayalcott.org) is open year-round.
A book, Little Women: The Official Movie Companion by Gina McIntyre, introduction by Greta Gerwig (Abrams Books, £17.99), is available now.