Local Calligraphers Take on Character Roles to Write Letters in ‘Little Women’ | Books
Over the past 90 years, the characters of “Little Women” have been played by a multitude of movie stars, including Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Sarandon, Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan.
Now, a group of talented New Orleans people have taken on the roles in Louisa May Alcott’s classic, and they’ve delivered their performances without opening their mouths or letting their audience watch them work.
These professionals are calligraphers, artisans who praise exquisite writing. Through their calligraphy, they expressed the personality and circumstances of the characters in a new version of “Little Women” (Chronicle Books, $ 40) in 17 letters written by the March sisters and others around them.
The letters of the characters are separate pieces, folded by hand inside glass envelopes which are interspersed in the text.
Anne Boyd Rioux, an Alcott scholar who is a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, calls the concept “really cool because it makes the reader feel really intimate with the characters to see the handwriting.”
The letters “make you feel like you are in the world that the book creates,” Rioux said. “You’re still a little off the printed page, but there’s something about the letters that brings the reader closer to the characters. “
“Little Women” tells the story of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – as they came of age in Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the Civil War. Although this is a novel, the inspiration for “Little Women” came from the life of Alcott and his three sisters.
The new edition of the classic is an brainchild of Barbara Heller, who last year oversaw a similar treatment of missives that Jane Austen’s characters wrote in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Heller, a native of New Orleans who lives in New York City, came up with the idea from his publisher and one of his sisters. Since she was in New Orleans during much of the pandemic, Heller decided to take on the project with five local calligraphers – she calls them scribes – whom she found through the New Orleans Lettering Arts. Association.
Working with local talent allowed Heller to have frequent face-to-face meetings with the scribes over details such as what types of paper and ink the Marches would use, how a giddy loving teenager would write, the the way Mr. March would write. to his family while fighting the Civil War, and the evolution of a person’s calligraphy over the years.
All of this has been supported by a considerable amount of research. With the exception of LSU, where in person she looked at letters written during the Civil War, virtually all of her research must have been online due to pandemic restrictions.
Such painstaking work was difficult but necessary, Heller said. “In order for it to feel real to the reader, it has to be rooted in the ability to really convey the time as well as the emotion of the character. Getting the details right means a lot to me, and it means a lot to the scribes too. They worked to make the writing appropriate for the character and appropriate for the time.
Then there was the issue of mistakes, crossed out words and stained paper and, says Rioux, passages where the reader can see where a scribe ran out of ink and had to dip a quill in the inkwell.
Even though calligraphers pride themselves on producing beautifully inscribed invitations and proclamations, Heller encouraged the occasional mess among scribes because, she said, this is how mortals write.
“Do I need to say this is anathema to a professional calligrapher?” Said Patti Adams, who wrote Theodore “Laurie” Laurence letters. “Letting go of perfect letters was the biggest challenge. Barbara told me that she had to let go of the calligraphers (for ‘Pride and Prejudice’) because she said they couldn’t write haphazardly enough.
“You have to let go and think more about the character and what was going on at the time. … You would be amazed at how many sheets I sent to Barbara. The messiest was the one she really loved.
Yvette “Eve” Rutledge, who wrote the letters to Beth March and Amy March, explained it this way: “We are chameleons. We put different colors for different people. … This is our life. We do not represent ourselves. We represent them.
Further, she said, “Barbara made it clear that people don’t have piles of paper lying around. If you’ve made mistakes, you’re not going to throw away a messy sheet.
Rutledge is married to Vince Mitchell; both own Mystic Blue Signs, a Magazine Street company that produces handmade signs. Mitchell was the scribe who wrote the letters to Mr. March, the patriarch of the March family, and Mr. Laurence, Laurie’s father.
“It’s a minor game in a way, but it’s fun,” Mitchell said. “Sir. March was an upper middle class man, and Mr. Laurence was rich and kind. I tried to embody that through writing.”
“Sir. March was easy. I don’t know if it’s because my family has a military background, but I felt like I was related to Mr. March in some way. get his style. For Mr. Laurence, on the other hand, I pretended I was in boarding school and had pretty good handwriting. I worked a little harder on that one.
In addition to writing the letters for Mr. Laurence, Mitchell designed a monogram for the stationery of this fictional character.
Rutledge and Mitchell have adjoining work tables. “I was fascinated to see Vince become Mr. Laurence,” said Rutledge. “Sir. Laurence had confidence in herself and was an established member of the community. There was a time when Vince was comfortable with this change.
Rutledge and Mitchell teach calligraphy, as does Adams, who also plays the flute in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
For this project, “Barbara was the conductor,” Adams said, “and I was trying to play my instrument, and I don’t usually play it that way. It was an effort to lose my own sense of fine calligraphy and go see Laurie. “
Part of that process was watching every “Little Women” movie and freezing the action whenever a letter popped up so she could study calligraphy. She was also tough on her feathers.
“The less good the quill, the better my handwriting,” Adams said. “It’s weird, but I was definitely in character mode after two or three weeks of that. I must have been pretty messy.
“It’s like playing the method, taking on a role where you have no idea what the character is. We were doing it with pens in hand, trying to capture the frivolity of a young girl in love, or a young boy in love with Jo and her sister. It’s like a cape you have to put on to become someone else.
Adams compared her work on the book to her flute playing when, she said, “I take the voices of the different composers that we play. … I really think (the book) has been a transformative experience in how you can get lost in a character the way I get lost in a piece of music. I imagine that’s what people feel when they take action.
Adams was so invested in her work that she missed Laurie when she finished her assignment, almost as if she had said goodbye to a real person. When she saw the letters in a first copy of the book, “I had this visceral reaction,” she said. “I was really moved. It was strange. I looked at the last letter I wrote, and as I folded it, I thought, “I hope you are enjoying your life now.” “
Barbara Heller and the scribes will present the “Little Women” project and sign copies of the book on Saturday, November 6, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St.
In the age of instant communication, Barbara Heller loves letters. She enjoys receiving letters and she enjoys writing letters.
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