Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name. And some that were written under a pen name. The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher. The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.
According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in. She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.
“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess. It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut. Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family. However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.
Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other. But in fact her ambitions are even higher. And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal! This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction. On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited. And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.
One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.” At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank. This worked out about as well as you’d think.
“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba. Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman! She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it. They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel. Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust. Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.
Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.) Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge. But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.
There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type. This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.
“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain. Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives. We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.
The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family. He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.
Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot. He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene. Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.) Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.
This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.
“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story. The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide. Love triangles abound as a result. Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again. He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.
Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes. It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family. Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?) Who will die, and who will get married?
There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.
Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.
The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references. While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.
Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.