The Toast’s previous literary pilgrimages can be found here.
As soon as I say the word “Concord” to the woman selling rail tickets, I’m terrified that she knows everything about me.
After all, if you don’t have a car of your own, you have to actually tell someone you want to go to Concord before you can get there. With a population of only 17,000, it’s not a destination for anyone to visit casually. You either live there, or you’re going on a pilgrimage.
I was, on that day in 2010, wearing the Kate Beaton shirt that features the three Brontë sisters. I had a notebook. There was only one place I could be headed.
Orchard House is about a mile and a half away from the rail station. You take the Fitchburg/South Acton line, get off, and walk.
I’m nervous that everyone I pass on the road knows everything about me.
You have to pass Emerson’s house before you get to the Alcott home, and I felt like he was watching me from the transcendental beyond and feeling a bit snubbed. Most people I saw on the road were headed towards Orchard House. Gillian Armstrong has yet to make a film about Ralph Waldo Emerson that stars Winona Ryder and Christian Bale.
I mean, to be fair, I loved Little Women before the 1994 movie. I think most of the people who take the Fitchburg/South Acton line out to Concord and then walk the dusty road in the shadow of the same trees that shaded Louisa May Alcott and her sisters (and Emerson too, whatevs) loved Little Women before the 1994 movie.*
We carry with us the sister we are “most like” (Amy, thanks to the whole talent isn’t genius chapter, though I’ve felt like all of them at various points in my life) and the film adaptation we like most (sorry, Katharine Hepburn). We have very, very strong opinions about Professor Bhaer.
Little Women is one of the rare books that still has something to teach us every time we read it. It’s telling that the story opens with each sister receiving a book that they are intended to read and re-read throughout their lives, but most of us these days skip Pilgrim’s Progress and re-read Little Women instead. Alcott literally outwrote her source material.
Those of us walking along the path to Orchard House have probably also seen the Armstrong film at least five (or fifteen) times**, which is why the building itself is instantly familiar, and why I had the strange sensation, standing in the Alcotts’ parlor, that I had been there before. Unlike previous Little Women films, Gillian Armstrong and her team recreated much of Orchard House for the 1994 movie (pictured). Once you’re inside, you already know where to turn to see the stove where Amy dropped the potato or the table where Marmee and Aunt March sat for tea.
In the film, of course, the house is bigger. Here, there is barely space for six people in any individual room, along with the slightly bored docent who explains quickly at the beginning of her presentation that when she is not docenting she is a professional actor, as if to apologize for being the only person in the room who isn’t happy to be there.
(The majority of the people who have made the pilgrimage to Orchard House that afternoon are female and white, although there are also several people of color taking the tour. There are women who have come alone and there are families. The person who appears most excited to be there is a young boy, who is very eager to answer the docent’s apologetic, rote trivia questions.)
The two most striking parts of Orchard House are not included in the Armstrong film: Louisa’s desk and May’s walls. Louisa’s desk — “she wrote Little Women here,” the docent explains as if that weren’t a miracle — is tiny, a half-circle of painted white wood placed into a wall between two windows. Her father built it for her.
Amos Bronson Alcott also constructed May’s room. The doors and ceilings are designed both so that the unusually-tall May would not have to stoop, and so she could use them as a perpetual canvas, painting over the sketches she did not like and keeping the ones she did. Her drawings still remain, all over the walls and the woodwork.
There is something wonderful about Amos Bronson Alcott building his family home so that Louisa could write and May could draw. (The feminist part of me knows that his wife Abigail Alcott must have been involved too, although the docent presents this information as if it were entirely Amos’s work.) I’d like to assume that he would have built equal space for his other daughters Anna and Lizzy, had either of them claimed Orchard House as their home.
That’s the big reveal, of course; the one that even the docent knows is a disappointment. Louisa May Alcott may have written Little Women at Orchard House, but she and her sisters never lived there as children. In fact, the four sisters never lived together at Orchard House at all. Anna Alcott lived there for only two years before marrying John Pratt in 1860, and Elizabeth Alcott died before the family took residence.
It’s a sharp reminder that even though you feel like you’ve seen this home before, like you know it as well as you know the Von Trapp estate from The Sound of Music or the stairs that lead to the spare room in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, you don’t actually know Orchard House at all. It doesn’t carry the memories you think it does; those were crafted later, by a woman at a small desk shaped and painted like a half-moon.
And so I returned from my pilgrimage a bit wiser, passing women along the road heading in the opposite direction and thinking I knew everything about them — and they, in turn, everything about me: that we would walk the mile-and-a-half from the commuter rail station to see a building where a book was written because we loved the story that much, and because we thought the characters in that book lived there.
I walked away from Orchard House knowing half of that was still true, and asked for a ticket back to Boston.
*Except people born after 1994 who are somehow old enough to read this article because time works in mysterious ways and I wish that time would just stop working like that.
**Unless you were born after 1994 and spent the entire time watching Hannah Montana or something; I have literally no idea what you did with your lives.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and ghostwriter. She had to stop ballet lessons before she went en pointe, but she has been in A Midsummer Night's Dream twice. Her work has been featured in The Billfold, Yearbook Office, Unbest, and Who Are We Now, and she posts weekly Tumblr essays about earning money as a writer.