Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, Good Wives. We know Louisa May Alcott by her most popular books, stories of the March family, depicting life in the late 1800’s that give us a safe, warm feeling. In my Books Read binder, however, are some lesser–known tales by Alcott.
One of these stories is Behind a Mask, originally entitled A Woman’s Power. It was apparently written using the pseudonym A. M. Barnard in 1866 during a time of economic trouble for the Alcott family. The author entered the manuscript into a contest and won one hundred dollars for it, which would be worth about $2,500 today.
I actually skimmed this novelette first, and my first impression was that it looked boring. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of an author with such a sweet reputation writing what the cover claimed were “blood and thunder tales” created by the “gruesome, gory, passionate, darker side of the writer…” So as happens often, when I actually started reading it word for word, it captured my attention and it was a discipline to put down.
All during the first chapters I felt like something was strange and a bit disjointed. Alcott drops little hints, and I became increasingly nervous and couldn’t wait to find out what was really taking place. In this mysterious tale, many relationships develop that build the suspense—some you didn’t want and you wished you could warn the characters away from them. With her typical talent for drawing us into her fictional world with men and women we want to spend time with, in this book we also enter into a dangerous adventure with the antagonist. We hold our breath for most of the story, and yet are still not plunged into a sordid playing out of base immorality, foul language or complete abandonment of propriety, as too many contemporary novels unnecessarily subject us to. It takes genuine talent to accomplish that, and I admire Alcott for this work.
To give an idea of the premise, young, shy Jean Muir comes from Scotland to the Coventry household and joins the family as governess for Bella, yet no one can be comfortable or entirely sure about her. She was recommended by Lady Sydney, but the reasons why she left the Sydney family are a mystery. As she flirts with the men and the women become jealous, some love her, some hate her, the rest are tentative and wary. I’d spoil it if I told much more, but I’ll add that I’ve never been so gripped by a book that was filled with so much secrecy, manipulation and malevolence. I give it an A for entertainment value, but lest you consider buying it for your daughter, I give it a D for the lack of wholesome, admirable characters that you’d like your child to emulate!
Have you read this book, or Louisa May Alcott’s other thrillers?
Behind a Mask is available on Amazon as part of a set of Alcott’s novelettes, and for free through several websites offering classic literature, such as www.gutenberg.org .
[Next review of Louisa May Alcott: Pauline’s Passion and Punishment]