Louisa’s first earnings came from endeavors far less glamorous than acting or writing. By her late teens she had worked, for pitiful wages, as a governess, teacher, seamstress, laundress, and live-in household servant. By her twenties, Louisa was determined, as she put it in a letter to her father, “to turn my brains into money by stories.” Soon her romantic tales were appearing regularly in local publications. She learned to tailor her material to different markets and experimented in various styles of fiction, gradually becoming more skilled and confident.
Poverty gave Louisa a vantage point shared by few women of her background. When her mother took a job running an unemployment agency, she came to know the illiterate Irish immigrant and black women who had to take the roughest jobs. With nothing else to give, Louisa, her sister Anna, and their mother held free classes in reading and writing. At home, shy Beth Alcott kept house, and somehow money was found for May to go to school. Bronson Alcott’s financial contribution was negligible; he returned from a long lecture tour with one dollar. In 1858, ten years after they came to work in Boston, the Alcotts learned that Beth was dying from the effects of scarlet fever. Relatives and Emerson made possible a return to Concord, where Beth died. A few months later, after thirty family moves, the Alcotts finally came to rest at Orchard House. They would live there for the next twenty years.
Anna, the oldest and closest to Louisa of the Alcott sisters, was married soon after the move to Orchard House. Louisa returned to Boston to find work, in such despair about the diminished family circle that she briefly considered suicide.