Forget Amy March. Meet May Alcott

Why you should care

The inspiration for Amy March got a lot more done.

If you’ve been following the Little Women discourse surrounding the Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig film, you’ve noted that much of it revolves around the rehabilitation of Amy March. Played by actress Florence Pugh, this nouveau Amy abandons the unremitting petulance of past cinematic Amys, instead forging a strong-willed feminist character in her own right. The bones of her story are the same: The youngest of the four March sisters, Amy burns Jo’s precious manuscript, goes to Europe to study painting, only to abandon her avocation and marry the hot (and wealthy) boy next door — thereby dashing the dreams of nearly everyone who’s read the novel or consumed any of the adaptations since Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was first published in the late 1860s.

But Little Women was based on Alcott’s actual family, and each of the March sisters has a direct analog in Meg (Anna), Jo (Louisa herself), Beth (Emma) and Amy (May). And while Amy the character may have been set in stone by her writer sister, the real May had a lot more to say for herself.

Amy, in case you haven’t watched the movie or read the book, travels to Europe with her rich aunt with aspirations of becoming a painter. But in the book’s final chapters, she decides that “talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so.” She opts instead to marry well.

Also unusual for a woman of that era, May stayed single well into her 30s. 

But here’s what actually happened to May, born eight years after Louisa: Already an artist when the books were published in two volumes, as Little Women and Good Wives, she created the original illustrations. A year after the second volume was released, she left for Europe, funded by her sister’s new fortune derived from Little Women, in pursuit of her painting dream.

Rare among women at the time, says Azelina Flint, a scholar at the University of East Anglia who’s written about Alcott’s life and work, May characterized herself as an artistic genius at a time when women could study art but were almost never accepted as serious talents. “Bronson Alcott [Louisa and May’s father] expected everyone to sacrifice their artistic ambitions to support him, because he’s not willing to work. Louisa never writes the work or novel she wants to because she’s writing to support her father and mother,” Flint says. “May is the one to say, I’m not willing to pick up the slack and I’m going to have my artistic career and be very unapologetic for that.”

But unlike the fictional Amy, May did not sacrifice art for love. Instead, she spent a decade living an audacious, creative life overseas, even writing a guide for would-be female artists — Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply. She worked in London, Rome and Paris, where she paid for private art instruction since women were barred from the prestigious state-run École des Beaux-Arts. Even May’s private instructors refused to allow her to sketch naked male models due to her gender — so she hired her own, an African man whom she drew partially clothed. Her teacher would come to compliment both the painting and May’s strongly held abolitionist views. In contrast to the self-absorbed, only mildly principled Amy captured by Louisa, May was vocal about fighting both racism and sexism in her life and her art. Her painting of a Black woman, La Négresse, was striking in that its subject was shown not as a servant or a minor part of the composition but as its main subject, her complex human emotions clearly expressed in her eyes. The painting was included in that year’s Paris Salon, a celebrated art exhibition, alongside works by Édouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Also unusual for a woman of that era, May stayed single well into her 30s. She wrote to her mother in 1877, at the age of 37, that she had probably missed her chance at romance — but that she got “more satisfaction from my painting.” And then, soon after her mother passed away, May met Ernest Nieriker, a Swiss banker who played the violin and was 16 years her junior. She was charmed that he supported her artistic ambitions — a weird parallel to Jo March’s romance with Professor Friedrich Bhaer in Little Women — and after a whirlwind romance, they married and moved to France.

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Twenty-one months later, May was dead at 39. While her death is often blamed on the birth of her only child, Lulu (named after Louisa), the cause has been disputed. It could have been meningitis or a brain tumor, Flint explains, based on the symptoms recorded in family letters.

After May’s death, Lulu — in keeping with her mother’s wishes — was sent to live with Aunt Louisa, who adopted her, and stayed until Louisa died eight years later.

Despite her too-short life, May Alcott Nieriker was able to live it as she desired — and would reportedly get annoyed by questions about the similarities between herself and Amy. Of course, it was the success of Little Women that funded May’s initial trip to Paris and the journey that would lead to who she was meant to be. The latest film iteration of the story may expand the spotlight on Amy, but her personality and fate are still defined by her sister who held the pen.

Little Women is written from Jo’s persecutive,” Flint says. “I’ve always thought it would be really interesting to see it written from Amy’s perspective.”

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