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The ‘Little Women’ family of Oscar fame originated in the author’s actual home

This year’s film version of “Little Women” received six Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. Author Louisa May Alcott was inspired to write her landmark novel, which was based on her own family, at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Special correspondent Jared Bowen of Boston’s WGBH looks at how Alcott’s sense of place yielded a work that still endures some 150 years later.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight: The film "Little Women" received six Oscar nominations this week, including for best picture.

    The movie is an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott.

    But it turns out we have been saying her name wrong, as you will soon find out in this report from special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH in Boston.

    He traveled to the writer's family home in Concord, Massachusetts, to see how it led to a work that endures some 150 years later.

    It's part of ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    Bronson Alcott always had a place everywhere they ever lived where she could think, write, read.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Intellect was power. That's how Louisa and her sisters Anna, Elizabeth and May were raised.

    They were young adults when the family moved to Concord, purchasing this home situated on 12 acres and an apple orchard, for $950 in 1857.

    What's the correct pronunciation of this family's last name?

  • Jan Turnquist:

    All-cut.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Not all-cot, as I think so many…

  • Jan Turnquist:

    Not Al-cot.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jared Bowen:

    Jan Turnquist is the executive director of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House, although she first came here as a guide when she was in her 20s.

    She's steeped in the family's history and their everyday life, how the young Alcott women were encouraged to live freely and dance regularly.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    They had a lot of company. Every Monday night, they were at home. They would put a curtain up across here, and the family would put on plays, especially Louisa and her sisters.

    They would play games. Mrs. Alcott loved to play chess. And we have the original board.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Mid-1800s Concord was a who's-who of thought leaders, all friends of the Alcotts, Emerson, Thoreau, and next-door neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, who didn't always share their ideals.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    The Alcotts were very progressive, liberal, abolitionists, and just maybe suffice it to say that than Nathaniel Hawthorne was very different politically.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Already a published author in 1868, Louisa was asked by her publisher to write a girls story, much to her dismay.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    As she put it, she never knew many girls. She played with boys. She played with her sisters.

  • Jared Bowen:

    But needing money, she wrote "Little Women" with stories inspired from her own childhood.

    She used this home as the setting. It remains largely as it was when Louisa lived here.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    When people walk through and see items that it's so clear they had to have touched and used, like the sewing materials, like the needle work that they did, the paintings and drawings, I think those speak most closely to that sense of, they're here.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Now, this, I assume, is just the heart of the pilgrimage right here. This is where "Little Women" was written?

  • Jan Turnquist:

    Yes.

    Louisa was so fortunate to have this desk. It doesn't look like much. But you have to remember that, in that time, women were not supposed to be serious writers.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Here in her bedroom, surrounded by art made by her sister May, Louisa wrote "Little Women" in three months on the desk her father built.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    It wasn't only her father. Her mother was extremely supportive too. And they were saying, you can do this.

  • Jared Bowen:

    One room over is her sister May's bedroom. It's decorated, as is much of the house, with her own artwork.

    May was an accomplished painter, whose work sold well in Europe. She was especially adept at painting in the style of JMW Turner.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    She was hired by a London art museum to copy their Turners, so that they could loan her copies out to artists who were trying to practice.

  • Jared Bowen:

    We find the intersection of the visual arts and theater right here in this trunk. What do we see here?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jan Turnquist:

    Yes.

    Well, these boots were made by Louisa herself. She writes about them in her journals. She actually sometimes created characters for the boots, because she liked wearing them so much. They fit her.

    And if you look in this sketch that May Alcott did, here you see the boots being worn by Louisa. She's playing the role of Rodrigo. And if you read "Little Women," that is the play described that the girls are putting on for Christmas Day.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Lots of people read "Little Women." Almost instantaneously, the book was a bestseller.

    But Louisa didn't relish her newfound celebrity.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    She sometimes would say she was porky piney about it, because people would come right up to this house, right up to the front door and ask for an autograph.

  • Jared Bowen:

    She would sometimes answer the door pretending to be a servant?

  • Jan Turnquist:

    Yes, yes, she absolutely did. She would do that.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Fame is visiting this house once again.

  • Saoirse Ronan:

    I'm working on a novel. It is a story of my life and my sisters.

  • Jared Bowen:

    The latest film adaptation of "Little Women," written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is in theaters now, and just collected six Oscar nominations, including best picture.

    Turnquist was a consultant and says the filmmakers wanted to be as authentic as possible.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    Greta Gerwig took such an interest, kept coming back to the house, brought the cast through the house, and the different production people were through and talking about paint colors and measurements and floor plans.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Turnquist says the new film captures the essence of the home like no other adaptation has.

    Of course, nothing compares, she says, to experiencing the Alcott home in person, and often with people who've come from around the world.

  • Jan Turnquist:

    And when they come in with so much awe, enthusiasm, and really love — they love the book. They liked the values of that family. They like the idea of caring for your family and helping other people.

    And then that jibes very well with our staff that feel the same way. So it's almost like a little celebration.

  • Jared Bowen:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Concord, Massachusetts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the "NewsHour"s executive producer, Sara Just, got to visit that house when she was in the sixth grade. Very special information.

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