Behind a mask : the unknown thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (book review)

Louisa May Alcott, known as “the children’s friend,” and beloved author of Little Women, was also the author of much more lurid and gothic fiction. Written anonymously or pseudonymously, these tales contained femme fatales, prophetic ghosts, vengeful women, and unlikely heroines.

The unearthing of these tales is its own inspiring story, which Madeleine Stern discusses in her introduction. The challenge was to find a correlation between the “blood-and-thunder” tales the character of Jo in Little Women wrote to support her family and the “necessity” stories Alcott wrote for the same purpose.

Stern uncovered a plethora of previously unknown works of the famed children’s author, which for all of their gothic intent and background still show the style, and depth of characterization that one would expect from such a prolific and intelligent author.

Behind A Mask brings together four such tales of Alcott’s carefully hidden lurid and grandiose style. While Stern and others have released several compilations of Alcott’s thrillers, Behind A Mask serves as the most representative of her gothic works.

The titular story, Behind A Mask Or a Woman’s Power, is for me, the most striking and memorable, as well as the most modern. It about Jean Muir, a newly hired governess with a dark and lurid past and the havoc she wreaks upon the unsuspecting Coventry family.

Appearing as a young and lonely governess (she claims to be 19 when she is at the very least 30), she immediately wins the sympathy of the younger Coventry siblings. She is distrusted at first by the eldest Coventry brother Gerald and his cousin/fiancé Lucia. But, Muir is not dissuaded by these obstacles and merely sees them as a challenge to her final plan, which is to marry into the family and become part owner of its estate.

As the youngest brother begins to unravel Jean’s past and along with it her plan, Jean works to win her prize before she is completely found out. That she emerges victorious is a testament to the type of unlikely heroine that Alcott favored. Jean Muir for all of her villainous intent and actions is the one that the readers root for.

In Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, we meet another strong female character. Gilbert has jilted Pauline, for a younger, richer woman. Rather than whither under sadness or depression, Pauline is possessed by the need for revenge.

She does not want Gilbert’s death, as that would be too quick. She wants him to suffer the regret of having lost her forever to a man who is everything Gilbert is not. She wants Gilbert to feel trapped when he looks at his young wife and the life he has purchased for himself. So, she convinces the young and rich Manuel to help with her revenge.

Manuel, having loved Pauline for years, is willing to go along with this plan. So they marry and search for Gilbert and his wife while on their honeymoon.

In a carefully calculated meeting, Pauline throws down the gauntlet and Gilbert accepts the challenge “to the tournament so often held between a man and a woman – a tournament where the keen tongue is the lance, pride the shield, passion the fiery steed, and the hardest heart the winner of the prize.”

Even when Pauline begins to see and regret what her thirst for vengeance is doing to those around her, she is unable to let go of her obsession until the surprising climax leaves her to suffer the punishment of all her deeds.

For the critical reader, the most interesting thing about this particular story is that revenge isn’t simply an emotion for Pauline. It is a supernatural presence that possesses her and leaves her unable to stop until the final card is played even if it is to the destruction of those she cares most about.

The third story, The Mysterious Key and What it Opened, is different from the previous two in that it has a male hero. The story begins with Richard Trevlyn reading an ancient family prophecy to his young, pregnant wife. He is called away to meet with a stranger who has shown up at their door. His wife listens in on the conversation and hears something that nearly destroys her.

That same evening, Richard dies mysteriously, and Lady Tervelyn gives birth. For 12 years, their daughter Lillian grows up in a house secrets. Quite unexpectedly, a young teenaged boy named Paul appears with a letter recommending him to work for the family.

Paul, the young servant, ingratiates himself into the family and – much like Jean Muir of the fist story – hides a secret agenda. While searching for the proof he needs to fulfill his plan, Paul falls in love with Lillian. He disappears one night with no warning.

He returns four years later as a rich war hero, bringing with him a mysterious and beautiful woman named Helen who seems to hold a power over him and will not let him forget his original plan.

As the plot unwinds, we learn the truth of Helen’s birth, and the deep regret Paul feels for having to deceive a family that had so loved and cared for him. This story is akin to Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, or even Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It contains the trademarks of the Gothic novel with its ancient estate, seemingly supernatural events, and a scheming yet brooding hero.

The final story, The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Tempation: A Christmas Story, while containing the constant elements of Gothic fiction, is lighter than the three before it. It much more reminiscent of the Louisa May Alcott, readers are more familiar with.

The story centers around three cousins Jasper, Octavia, and Maurice as well as a mysterious femme fatale known as Mrs. Snowdon.

The events take place during a Christmas holiday at the family estate amidst many guests and great revelry. Maurice, who has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident is in love with his cousin Octavia and was, before his accident, the pride and joy of their rich uncle. There is a mysterious scandal that took place shortly before the accident – the details of which are known only to Maurice, Jasper, and Mrs. Snowdon – which caused the rich uncle to completely disinherit Maurice and leave everything to Jasper.

During the course of the celebration, the mystery is unraveled, Maurice’s condition takes a turn for the better, we discover that Mrs. Snowdon has a heart after all, and there is a death predicted by a ghostly Abbot.

Of all the stories in this collection, The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation, is the only one to contain an actual ghost. It is also the only one that can be described as a “parlor romance” in the vein of Austen.

Fans of Louisa May Alcott will whet their appetites on this book. They will want to discover more of her anonymously published works. Fans of richly characterized, plot driven literature will love it almost as much.

Available via libraries and bookstores

Chasity McWilliams-Moody is a web developer at the University of Georgia, who spends her spare time reading and then writing about what she’s read. She blogs at Parenthetical Views (http://www.parentheticalviews.com).

An archive of Chasity's articles is located here.

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