What would it be like to read actual letters from the March sisters? How would their handwriting appear? What could the composition of such letters reveal about the characters, and how would it affect your reading experience?

You can discover the answers to these intriguing questions and more in an exquisite new edition of Little Women curated by Barbara Heller, the creator of a similar book for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Heller’s motivation was simple — she wanted to hold letters written by Louisa May Alcott’s timeless characters in her hands. Titled Little Women: The Complete Novel, Featuring the Characters’ Letters and Manuscripts, Written and Folded by Hand (Chronicle Books), this volume includes many of the letters from the book that Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Mr. March, Laurie, Mr. Laurence and Hannah, the maid, wrote to each other. After conducting meticulous research about the longhand of the time, the type and color of paper used, and the writing instruments and their ink colors, Heller hired talented calligraphists and graphic artists to recreate the correspondences exchanged between the characters.

PENMANSHIP REVEALS PERSONALITY AND EMOTION

In the introduction, Heller writes, “The range of letters and ephemera in the novel expresses the family ethos and the joy of creativity. While they do not always drive the plot, these texts reveal emotions and desires, often with humor, and deepen our connection to the characters. I wanted to bring these handwritten elements to life, to capture their playfulness in spirit, and, in several instances, their sadness.” 

Heller believes that handwriting provides insight into each character’s inner life — their personalities and emotions at the moment when they wrote the letters, thus creating greater intimacy between the reader and the person. An integral part of her research revolved around the Alcott family upon whom Little Women is based and the extensive collection of their letters and journals available for viewing at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Heller used these materials to inform her decisions in representing the characters in Little Women through their penmanship.

Letters can be found throughout Little Women, hand-folded and tucked into glassine envelopes. There are other items too, including a recreation of the telegram received by Marmee about her husband’s illness, a newspaper clipping of Jo’s published poem, “In the Garret,” and best of all, a sizeable two-sided version of “The Pickwick Portfolio,” the hand-written newspaper produced by the March sisters. 

ATTENTION TO DETAIL LIFTS CHARACTERS OFF THE PAGE

I have had the immense privilege of holding in my hands the letters and journals of the Alcotts. Keeping the family in high esteem, I expected I would be awed by the experience. I was, but not in the way I imagined — instead of reading letters from legends, I fancied I was reading personal correspondences from relatives and friends. The experience of connection and intimacy is hard to put into words.

I felt the same way about Little Women: The Complete Novel, Featuring the Characters’ Letters and Manuscripts, Written and Folded by Hand. I was astonished at the attention to detail that made these characters come alive. Such attributes included an image of a pansy that Beth had pressed into her letter and a teardrop at the end of Jo’s scribbled poem, “My Beth.”

I had the pleasure of combing through the letters with a tour guide from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Jennie Watters. Her reaction was similar to mine: “Holding something real in your hands is a truly moving experience, as well as a rare one in today’s world. There is a very special feeling about receiving a handwritten letter, a certain warmth, and that is the same feeling you get holding these letters from the beloved characters in Little Women. The handwriting matches each character to perfection, and the paper of each missive varies. I can’t recommend this book enough to fans of Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel — you won’t see the characters in the same way after this!”

You may think you have enough copies of Little Women. Perhaps you own the original, printed in 1868, or the annotated versions edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips, Daniel Shealy, and John Matteson. Your collection, however, is not complete without Barbara Heller’s unique and lovingly curated edition.


RELATED POSTS

For Both Devoted Alcott Fans and any Christian Little Woman, Here’s a Devotional to Cherish

Little Women Grow Up in “Meg and Jo”

“Beth and Amy” Is a Delightful Sequel to Virginia Kantra’s Fresh Take on a Beloved Classic


Buy this book!

Barbara Heller is a set decorator for film and television and a writer and director of award-winning short films. Her previous books include a special edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She lives in New York City.