Join us as we celebrate Pink Umbrella’s newest historical fiction author, Lorraine Tosiello, before the December release of Only Gossip Prospers. The book deftly blends fact and fiction to draw a realistic portrait of Louisa May Alcott’s sojourn in New York City at the height of her fame in 1875.
Only Gossip Prospers began in part as a bit of a love letter to New York City, your home. What would Louisa love about the New York of 2019?
Louisa would be wild about the theater scene in New York City! I see her up front and center for To Kill A Mockingbird and Hamilton but she would also be delighted by the serious Off-Broadway plays. I even see her ferreting out the Off-Off Broadway venues that are on third floors of industrial buildings, or site-specific theater where the audience travels to different points during the show. I wouldn’t put it past her to try to pass off a script to one of these avant-garde theater companies, or anonymously play a character part just for fun.
How did your medical background inform the development of the book? What about 19th century medicine do you find interesting?
When Louisa came to New York she stayed and took the bath cure at the Dr. Eli Peck Miller Hygienic Hotel. That made it possible for me to people the book with characters who naturally had physical ailments. Some of the illnesses, such as Marchesa Contini’s dementia and Augustine’s rheumatoid arthritis, become a part of the plot. Perhaps, since I am a physician, it was only natural to have a cast of characters in my head with some type of medical condition. Maybe this is the first novel to have a demented woman, a rheumatic man, a woman wracked by a back injury and a protagonist struggling with intermittent muscle and joint pain! It’s not as gruesome as it sounds—we all have the same kinds of issues in our lives.
The book does present some of the less scientifically cogent practices of the 19th century: the bath cure itself and the craze for phrenology. The Civil War was the impetus for an amazing advancement in surgical procedures but there were still no effective treatments for medical illness, infections or chronic diseases in Louisa’s time. I was recently at a Benedictine church in Rome and was able to buy a salve made from arnica, which Louisa used. It’s mentioned in Little Women and I mention it in Only Gossip Prospers too.
Louisa May Alcott didn’t strike literary gold until her thirties, and she came into her celebrity fully in middle age. Refreshingly, Only Gossip Prospers champions Louisa as a successful middle-aged woman who is more handsome than beautiful and more aching in the joints than aching for beauty. What can you do with a fully mature character that you can’t do with an ingenue, one of the heroines from Louisa’s potboilers, for example? What did you achieve in middle age and beyond that you couldn’t have accomplished in your younger years?
When Louisa visited New York in 1875 she really was the most popular and successful writer of the time. She was invited to dinners and lectures and was often the object of the most attention, even at salons filled with famous people. She could pick and choose who she wanted to associate with and where she wanted to go. It is telling that she visited the Newsboys’ Lodging and the orphanage and asylum on Randall’s Island. She identified always with the underdog. It was easy to take this lead and make Louisa fearlessly fill the role of the social activist in this story. Even so, in her middle age, nothing about Louisa’s character is starry eyed. She faces everything head on and pragmatically. On an interpersonal level, having a character of middle age encourages the fostering of mentorship, and Louisa does fill that role for a number of the youngsters in the story.
Similarly, with increasing age comes a sense of power generated from experience. Women who have attained some professional stature by middle age will likely agree with me that there is a sense of competence and confidence that allows one not defer to others, to be able to press one’s point, persuade others, in a way that young people just cannot for lack of experience. For me, turning forty was very liberating. There’s still a male hierarchy in medicine and once I hit middle age, I was able to stand my ground more effectively.
What aspects of Louisa’s personality resonate most with you?
Her tenacity. Her devotion to work. Her ability to concentrate and shut out her own needs and troubles and get her job done. She reveled in work; it enriched her. The phrase “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person,” could have started with her. She wrote novels for both adults and children, haunting novellas, serials in newspapers, collections of stories for children, poems for children and adults. She worked for women’s suffrage, gave liberally to orphanages and hospitals, and lent her name to support liberal causes. She never stopped trying to be the change. She never stopped working for that change through the messages in her stories.
Join us for more Lorraine and Little Women in our next post!