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Louisa May Alcott: a Spinner of Fairy Tales

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) loved to spin fairy tales. The prolific, 19th-century writer is perhaps best known for writing the timeless classic Little Women (1868), but as Neil Philip states in his introduction to Alcott in American Fairy Tales, while working on her novel “based on the ‘queer plays and experiences’ of her childhood . . . she herself would have preferred to write ‘a fairy book.’” Perhaps this statement is best revised to state “another fairy book” because throughout her career she produced a number of collections devoted to literary fairy tales.

Alcott’s preference for fairy tales is demonstrated throughout her career. In fact, her first book is called Flower Fables (1854), and it is a compilation of stories she told to her younger sisters and their friends, including Ellen Emerson, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Alcott dedicates the book to Emerson’s daughter, with the inscription, “To Ellen Emerson, for whom they were fancied, these Flower Fables are inscribed by her friend, the author.” The nine stories contained in the collection are literal fairy tales in that they contain fairies or elves (Alcott uses the two terms interchangeably) and other supernatural creatures. Alcott presents a charming way to introduce the tales: as the narrative begins, the Queen of the fairy folk asks each of her “maids in waiting” to “tell a tale, or relate what we have done or learned that day.” Each of the maids take turns telling fables or singing songs they learned during their day in the garden among the flowers, and, like so many enduring folk and fairy tales, the stories provide moral lessons about such universal virtues as patience, hard work, kindness, and the power of love. Later, many of these stories were republished in a three-volume collection of tales called Lulu’s Library (1886-89). During her career, Alcott also published other collections which included fairy tales, such as Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag (1872-82) and Spinning-Wheel Stories (1884).

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