Lorraine Tosiello, left, and Jane Cavolina went to high school together in Manhasset, and they reunited six years ago at Bradley Beach, New Jersey, and decided to write a book about an imagined friendship between Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson. Credit: Noah K. Murray

A few years ago, two ribbon-tied packets of letters were discovered in a secret niche inside a Victorian writing desk in Lexington, Massachusetts. The find revealed a stunning friendship between Emily Dickinson, one of America's greatest poets and a women so shy she only talked to visitors through her door, and Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women” and a blunt-spoken activist who raged against the era's male dominance. In their touching last years in the late 1800s, Alcott wrote about finally working her way out of poverty and traveling the world, while an ailing Dickinson said she was content to live out her life in the internal universe of her family home.

A pretty story, isn’t it? Of course, it’s not true.

“It could have happened,” said Dr. Lorraine Tosiello, who created the scenario in “The Bee & The Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott & Emily Dickinson.” The book was co-written with Jane Cavolina, a good friend she met 50 years ago at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset.

Dickinson and Alcott pen pals? Really?

The authors point out that the writers were contemporaries, had a close circle of mutual friends in Massachusetts and lived only 74 miles apart. Alcott’s last published work included a story about a bond between a timid secret poet and her friend who encourages her not to hide her gift. Finding the proof is likely impossible. Alcott purged her correspondence of personal relationship references. Dickinson asked that her letters be burned at her death, which was the custom.

But for Tosiello and Cavolina, the possibility was a delicious notion.

“There’s no evidence of any of this,” said Cavolina. “But it makes sense to us.”

A reviewer for the online literary magazine BookTrib liked the premise, writing: “Laced with humor, poignancy, deep affection, respect and truth, the letters blossom into a true-to-life fictional friendship between the two writers.”

With the theme for Women’s History Month “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” these two famous 19th century writers certainly had stories to tell.

Alcott, the most popular author of her time, has never been out of print and remains in the popular consciousness primarily through her beloved “Little Women.” The work has been translated into 50 languages and made into a movie seven times. A Japanese animé adaptation has 48 episodes.

Dickinson, a spectral vision so agoraphobic that in later years she wouldn’t come downstairs to her father’s wake, only published 10 poems. Her sister, Lavinia, discovered 1,800 unpublished works in her room after her death. They revealed an unsung genius whose verse was filled with unconventional dashes and rhythms, references to death and immortality, and startlingly beautiful descriptions of nature.

“The Bee & the Fly” authors imagined Alcott as an ambitious bee and Dickinson, the affectionate fly. Later, they ran across a Dickinson poem that perfectly fit the concept.

“It was eerie,” Cavolina said.

The project wasn’t generated by any hidden cubby holes in a desk, but it did involve serendipity.

Tosiello is a 68-year-old internist who practices in Manhattan and New Jersey after growing up in New Hyde Park. Cavolina, 68, a freelance book copy editor and co-author of the bestselling “Growing up Catholic: An Infinitely Funny Guide for the Faithful, the Fallen and Everyone in Between” (Doubleday, 1984), was raised in Bayside, Queens. They became close friends at St. Mary’s High School, but lost touch after graduation.

Six years ago, when the high school alumni put out a list of classmates, Tosiello noticed her friend was only an hour away from her Jersey Shore home. She phoned. They walked on the beach.

“We hadn’t seen each other in 40 years,” Cavolina said. “After a few moments, it seemed like four minutes.”

For Tosiello, it was more than just a casual reconnection.

Captivated by “Little Women” since childhood, she had visited Alcott’s Concord, Massachusetts, home and, afterward, Dickinson’s home, which she was surprised to learn was in nearby Amherst.

The seed that perhaps the two had crossed paths was planted.

Meanwhile, Tosiello began finding out all she could about

Alcott, including the fact that she was an ardent suffragist and abolitionist whose family once hid a runaway enslaved person. Alcott’s three sisters were the inspiration for her novel. She was the tomboy cutout for “Jo,” since she rejected marriage and considered herself more masculine than feminine.

Tosiello continued to pore through Alcott’s works, including early pulpy thrillers filled with love, sex and revenge, and books about true-life experiences as a nurse tending to Union soldiers during the Civil War. The result was “Only Gossip Prospers: A Novel of Louisa May Alcott in New York” (Pink Umbrella Books) published four years ago.

But she also remembered the ghostly feeling while visiting Dickinson’s home that the poet and Alcott might have been friends. A novel came to mind. But she wasn’t immersed enough in Dickinson’s work to imagine her voice.

Then, on the walk with her old friend, Tosiello asked who her favorite poet was.

Dickinson, Cavolina replied, thinking it was just a passing query.

“It was a trap,” Cavolina told Newsday with a laugh.

Over the next four years, the two began a make-believe correspondence sketching out a narrative that reflected actual events in their lives.

“I never knew what I was going to say until a letter showed up,” Cavolina said.

The imaginary back-and-forth in “The Bee & the Fly” reflects the corset-tight restrictions placed on women of that era who could not vote, make contracts or hold property. Alcott complains, “Must we pretend that only the men know what is for our own good?”

Dickinson, who studied botany and kept a leather-bound book of pressed flowers, talks about her writing style and confides, “Let me whisper that when I am the most loquacious, I use the fewest words.”

Alcott describes her friend’s poems as sprinkled with fairy dust and that she sometimes struggles to understand them herself. “You are either half cracked or a savant, and as I like my friends to be sane, let’s both agree you are a genius,” she says.

Alcott takes up most of the book since more of her life was documented than Dickinson’s. The rags-to-riches tale is as dramatic as anything in her own work.

Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a lecturer and transcendentalist who dragged the family into poverty with his dreamy schemes. Young Louisa and her three sisters had little to eat and often lived off the charity of others. She worked as a seamstress and a servant. The family moved 22 times in 30 years.

Encouraged by her father to write, she churned out “potboilers” to put food on the table. Her “Little Women” classic was produced at the suggestion of her editor (Alcott originally titled it “The Pathetic Family” and thought it was rubbish). She hoped to sell it for $100 to pay some debts. The editor believed the work would never be profitable and insisted she accept royalties instead. Big mistake.

Reviewers raved. Book orders soared. Alcott wrote two popular sequels — “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys.” One biographer estimated she was soon earning the equivalent of $2 million a year and taking shockingly unchaperoned trips with her sisters to Europe.

“I was stunned by her progressive point of view,” said Tosiello. “She was a woman way before her time.”

Like Alcott, Dickinson has not been out of print since the first volume of her poetry was published in 1890. Most of the poems came from the 40 notebooks found in a locked chest in her bedroom. Cavolina’s research concluded the poet may have been eccentric, but loved her limited surroundings on the grounds of the family mansion overlooking the town cemetery.

“Most people think of her as someone dressed in a white nightgown sitting in a bed,” she said. “I think she learned to see the world in her little life. She wrote some of the greatest poems in the English language in her room.”

Born into a prominent family, Dickinson was well educated for a woman of her time because of her encouraging father and the liberal community, where her grandfather was a founder of Amherst College. She was more socially active when younger, visiting a circle of friends and relatives. Some believe she had a romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, which was the premise of the 2018 romantic comedy “Wild Nights With Emily.” But expressions of “love” between women back then were common and didn’t necessarily indicate intimacy, Cavolina said.

The poet also possibly had a late-life relationship with a judge, reflected by the fawning letters they wrote to each other every Sunday.

Dickinson explored weighty themes, but she also could be funny and iconoclastic. Take, for example, her breezy dismissal of both death and the afterlife in a poem that ends:

I reason that in Heaven —

Somehow, it will be even —

Some new Equation given —

But, what of that?

Although largely avoiding the public in her later years (townspeople called her “the myth”), Dickinson occasionally received visitors. One was an author, minister and later a friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She asked him to evaluate her poetry. After his visit, he described Dickinson as a plain woman with two bands of reddish hair who wore a blinding white dress. Her intensity drained his nerves, he said.

“Without touching her, she drew from me,” Higginson wrote. “I am glad not to live near her.”

Both women died at the age of 55; Dickinson in 1886 and Alcott two years later.

Toward the end of the imaginary friendship in “The Bee & the Fly,” Alcott grumbles about the family responsibilities that have come with her new wealth and asks to visit her friend in Amherst.

The fatally ill Dickinson declines, explaining she is “on the threshold of the next home.”

So, now that their literary journey is over, do the “Bee & the Fly” authors miss their playacting? Their made-up talks?

“Truthfully, no,” Cavolina said. “Being Emily was exhausting.”

Tosiello agreed that their epistolary exchange had run its course.

“It ended the way it should have,” she said. “Emily died. There was nothing else we could do.”

Still, Tosiello remains fascinated by Alcott, rabble rousing “Little Women” author. She said her next book will be about the writer’s travels in Italy.

“Alcott will always be with me,” she said. 

"The Bee & The Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott & Emily Dickinson" (Clash Books, 2022), available at booksellers including Barnes & Noble and amazon.com, got its name after the authors came across Dickinson's poem "Bee! I'm Expecting You!," which they felt perfectly fit their concept.

Bee! I'm expecting you!

Was saying Yesterday

To Somebody you know

That you were due —

The Frogs got Home last Week —

Are settled, and at work —

Birds, mostly back —

The Clover warm and thick —

You'll get my Letter by

The seventeenth; Reply

Or better, be with me —

Yours, Fly.

A few years ago, two ribbon-tied packets of letters were discovered in a secret niche inside a Victorian writing desk in Lexington, Massachusetts. The find revealed a stunning friendship between Emily Dickinson, one of America's greatest poets and a women so shy she only talked to visitors through her door, and Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women” and a blunt-spoken activist who raged against the era's male dominance. In their touching last years in the late 1800s, Alcott wrote about finally working her way out of poverty and traveling the world, while an ailing Dickinson said she was content to live out her life in the internal universe of her family home.

A pretty story, isn’t it? Of course, it’s not true.

“It could have happened,” said Dr. Lorraine Tosiello, who created the scenario in “The Bee & The Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott & Emily Dickinson.” The book was co-written with Jane Cavolina, a good friend she met 50 years ago at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset.

Dickinson and Alcott pen pals? Really?

The authors point out that the writers were contemporaries, had a close circle of mutual friends in Massachusetts and lived only 74 miles apart. Alcott’s last published work included a story about a bond between a timid secret poet and her friend who encourages her not to hide her gift. Finding the proof is likely impossible. Alcott purged her correspondence of personal relationship references. Dickinson asked that her letters be burned at her death, which was the custom.

But for Tosiello and Cavolina, the possibility was a delicious notion.

“There’s no evidence of any of this,” said Cavolina. “But it makes sense to us.”

A reviewer for the online literary magazine BookTrib liked the premise, writing: “Laced with humor, poignancy, deep affection, respect and truth, the letters blossom into a true-to-life fictional friendship between the two writers.”

With the theme for Women’s History Month “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” these two famous 19th century writers certainly had stories to tell.

Jane Cavolina and Lorraine Tosiello wrote "The Bee & The Fly," an epistolary novel, by exchanging letters over the years in the character of Dickinson and Alcott, respectively.  Credit: Noah K. Murray

A beach reunion

Alcott, the most popular author of her time, has never been out of print and remains in the popular consciousness primarily through her beloved “Little Women.” The work has been translated into 50 languages and made into a movie seven times. A Japanese animé adaptation has 48 episodes.

Dickinson, a spectral vision so agoraphobic that in later years she wouldn’t come downstairs to her father’s wake, only published 10 poems. Her sister, Lavinia, discovered 1,800 unpublished works in her room after her death. They revealed an unsung genius whose verse was filled with unconventional dashes and rhythms, references to death and immortality, and startlingly beautiful descriptions of nature.

“The Bee & the Fly” authors imagined Alcott as an ambitious bee and Dickinson, the affectionate fly. Later, they ran across a Dickinson poem that perfectly fit the concept.

“It was eerie,” Cavolina said.

The project wasn’t generated by any hidden cubby holes in a desk, but it did involve serendipity.

Tosiello is a 68-year-old internist who practices in Manhattan and New Jersey after growing up in New Hyde Park. Cavolina, 68, a freelance book copy editor and co-author of the bestselling “Growing up Catholic: An Infinitely Funny Guide for the Faithful, the Fallen and Everyone in Between” (Doubleday, 1984), was raised in Bayside, Queens. They became close friends at St. Mary’s High School, but lost touch after graduation.

Six years ago, when the high school alumni put out a list of classmates, Tosiello noticed her friend was only an hour away from her Jersey Shore home. She phoned. They walked on the beach.

“We hadn’t seen each other in 40 years,” Cavolina said. “After a few moments, it seemed like four minutes.”

A yearbook inscription from Cavolina to Tosiello from when they attended St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset. When they reunited six years ago, “we hadn’t seen each other in 40 years,” Cavolina said. “After a few moments, it seemed like four minutes.” Credit: Lorraine Tosiello

For Tosiello, it was more than just a casual reconnection.

Captivated by “Little Women” since childhood, she had visited Alcott’s Concord, Massachusetts, home and, afterward, Dickinson’s home, which she was surprised to learn was in nearby Amherst.

The seed that perhaps the two had crossed paths was planted.

Meanwhile, Tosiello began finding out all she could about

Alcott, including the fact that she was an ardent suffragist and abolitionist whose family once hid a runaway enslaved person. Alcott’s three sisters were the inspiration for her novel. She was the tomboy cutout for “Jo,” since she rejected marriage and considered herself more masculine than feminine.

Tosiello continued to pore through Alcott’s works, including early pulpy thrillers filled with love, sex and revenge, and books about true-life experiences as a nurse tending to Union soldiers during the Civil War. The result was “Only Gossip Prospers: A Novel of Louisa May Alcott in New York” (Pink Umbrella Books) published four years ago.

But she also remembered the ghostly feeling while visiting Dickinson’s home that the poet and Alcott might have been friends. A novel came to mind. But she wasn’t immersed enough in Dickinson’s work to imagine her voice.

Then, on the walk with her old friend, Tosiello asked who her favorite poet was.

Dickinson, Cavolina replied, thinking it was just a passing query.

Louisa May Alcott, top left, is the "bee" of the book's title, and Emily Dickinson, right, is the "fly" (see sidebar below). The bottom photos are Tosiello and Cavolina's graduation pictures from St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset.  Credit: Top photos: Library of Congress; bottom photos: Lorraine Tosiello

The letters

“It was a trap,” Cavolina told Newsday with a laugh.

Over the next four years, the two began a make-believe correspondence sketching out a narrative that reflected actual events in their lives.

“I never knew what I was going to say until a letter showed up,” Cavolina said.

The imaginary back-and-forth in “The Bee & the Fly” reflects the corset-tight restrictions placed on women of that era who could not vote, make contracts or hold property. Alcott complains, “Must we pretend that only the men know what is for our own good?”

Dickinson, who studied botany and kept a leather-bound book of pressed flowers, talks about her writing style and confides, “Let me whisper that when I am the most loquacious, I use the fewest words.”

Alcott describes her friend’s poems as sprinkled with fairy dust and that she sometimes struggles to understand them herself. “You are either half cracked or a savant, and as I like my friends to be sane, let’s both agree you are a genius,” she says.

Alcott takes up most of the book since more of her life was documented than Dickinson’s. The rags-to-riches tale is as dramatic as anything in her own work.

Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a lecturer and transcendentalist who dragged the family into poverty with his dreamy schemes. Young Louisa and her three sisters had little to eat and often lived off the charity of others. She worked as a seamstress and a servant. The family moved 22 times in 30 years.

Encouraged by her father to write, she churned out “potboilers” to put food on the table. Her “Little Women” classic was produced at the suggestion of her editor (Alcott originally titled it “The Pathetic Family” and thought it was rubbish). She hoped to sell it for $100 to pay some debts. The editor believed the work would never be profitable and insisted she accept royalties instead. Big mistake.

Reviewers raved. Book orders soared. Alcott wrote two popular sequels — “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys.” One biographer estimated she was soon earning the equivalent of $2 million a year and taking shockingly unchaperoned trips with her sisters to Europe.

“I was stunned by her progressive point of view,” said Tosiello. “She was a woman way before her time.”

Perennially popular

Like Alcott, Dickinson has not been out of print since the first volume of her poetry was published in 1890. Most of the poems came from the 40 notebooks found in a locked chest in her bedroom. Cavolina’s research concluded the poet may have been eccentric, but loved her limited surroundings on the grounds of the family mansion overlooking the town cemetery.

“Most people think of her as someone dressed in a white nightgown sitting in a bed,” she said. “I think she learned to see the world in her little life. She wrote some of the greatest poems in the English language in her room.”

Born into a prominent family, Dickinson was well educated for a woman of her time because of her encouraging father and the liberal community, where her grandfather was a founder of Amherst College. She was more socially active when younger, visiting a circle of friends and relatives. Some believe she had a romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, which was the premise of the 2018 romantic comedy “Wild Nights With Emily.” But expressions of “love” between women back then were common and didn’t necessarily indicate intimacy, Cavolina said.

The poet also possibly had a late-life relationship with a judge, reflected by the fawning letters they wrote to each other every Sunday.

Dickinson explored weighty themes, but she also could be funny and iconoclastic. Take, for example, her breezy dismissal of both death and the afterlife in a poem that ends:

I reason that in Heaven —

Somehow, it will be even —

Some new Equation given —

But, what of that?

Although largely avoiding the public in her later years (townspeople called her “the myth”), Dickinson occasionally received visitors. One was an author, minister and later a friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She asked him to evaluate her poetry. After his visit, he described Dickinson as a plain woman with two bands of reddish hair who wore a blinding white dress. Her intensity drained his nerves, he said.

“Without touching her, she drew from me,” Higginson wrote. “I am glad not to live near her.”

Both women died at the age of 55; Dickinson in 1886 and Alcott two years later.

Toward the end of the imaginary friendship in “The Bee & the Fly,” Alcott grumbles about the family responsibilities that have come with her new wealth and asks to visit her friend in Amherst.

The fatally ill Dickinson declines, explaining she is “on the threshold of the next home.”

So, now that their literary journey is over, do the “Bee & the Fly” authors miss their playacting? Their made-up talks?

“Truthfully, no,” Cavolina said. “Being Emily was exhausting.”

Tosiello agreed that their epistolary exchange had run its course.

“It ended the way it should have,” she said. “Emily died. There was nothing else we could do.”

Still, Tosiello remains fascinated by Alcott, rabble rousing “Little Women” author. She said her next book will be about the writer’s travels in Italy.

“Alcott will always be with me,” she said. 

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Credit: Noah K. Murray

"The Bee & The Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott & Emily Dickinson" (Clash Books, 2022), available at booksellers including Barnes & Noble and amazon.com, got its name after the authors came across Dickinson's poem "Bee! I'm Expecting You!," which they felt perfectly fit their concept.

Bee! I'm expecting you!

Was saying Yesterday

To Somebody you know

That you were due —

The Frogs got Home last Week —

Are settled, and at work —

Birds, mostly back —

The Clover warm and thick —

You'll get my Letter by

The seventeenth; Reply

Or better, be with me —

Yours, Fly.

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