Writing advice from some of Alcott’s characters

As I was enjoying a short story by Louisa May Alcott, I found spirited conversations among the characters about reading and writing. I seriously doubt that it was the author’s intention to pass along writing tips in her story, but I got a kick out of the subtle wisdom and commentaries on the writing life included in the dialogue!

No doubt many fiction writers have received responses similar to the ones below, even from well-meaning non-authors. And maybe there’s some truth in them! You decide…

A little background to the story: Sophie’s aunt had invited her to visit for several weeks in “the wilds of Vermont”, and Sophie in turn invites some of her city friends to join her during the holiday. The friends arrive and meet Saul, who works on the farm. They invite him to share his war experiences with Randal, one of their friends from the city…

* * * *

It took you how long to write your novel?!

Saul responds politely to their request. “When I’ve foddered the cattle and done my chores I’d be pleased to. What regiment were you in?” asked Saul.

Randal replied, “In none. I was abroad at the time.”

“Sick?”

“No, busy with a novel.”

“Took four years to write it?”

“I was obliged to travel and study before I could finish it. These things take more time to work up than outsiders would believe.”

“Seems to me our war was a finer story than any you could find in Europe, and the best way to study it would be to fight it out. If you want heroes and heroines you’d have found plenty of ’em there.”

A pleasant surprise, and appreciation for novels

“Tell us about your book, we have been reading it as it comes out in the magazine, and are much exercised about how it’s going to end,” began Saul.

“Do you really read my poor serial up here, and do me the honor to like it?” asked the novelist, both flattered and amused, for his work was of the aesthetic sort, microscopic studies of character, and careful pictures of modern life.

“Sakes alive, why shouldn’t we?” cried Aunt Plumy. [For Aunt Plumy I translate from the colloquial] “We have some education…a town library…magazines…Our winter is long and evenings would be kind of lonesome if we didn’t have novels and newspapers to cheer ’em up.”

Randal replies, “I am very glad I can help to beguile them for you. Now tell me what you honestly think of my work? Criticism is always valuable, and I should really like yours, Mrs. Basset,” said Randal, wondering what the good woman would make of the delicate analysis and worldly wisdom on which he prided himself.

“Criticism is always valuable to an author”… unless…

Aunt Plumy…rather enjoyed freeing her mind at all times, and decidedly resented the insinuation that country folk could not appreciate light literature as well as city people. “I’m not a great judge…but it really does seem as if some of your men and women are dreadfully uncomfortable creatures.

It seems to me it isn’t wise to be always picking ourselves to pieces and prying into things that ought to come gradually by way of experience and the visitations of Providence. Flowers won’t bloom…if you pull them open. It’s better to wait and see what they can do alone.”

Aunt Plumy continued. “I do feel as if books would be more sustaining if they were full of every-day people and things, like good bread and butter. The books that go to the heart and aren’t soon forgotten are the kind I like. Miss Terry’s books*, now, and Miss Stowe’s, and Dickens’s Christmas pieces, they are real sweet and cheering, to my mind.”

Randal… was quite composed and laughed good-naturedly, though secretly feeling as if a pail of cold water had been poured over him.

[* Just a short note, Miss [Harriet Beecher] Stowe and Dickens we’ve heard of, but I was curious about who “Miss Terry” could be. I believe she could have been the author Rose Terry Cook (1827-1892) who lived in Connecticut, the next-door state to where Alcott lived. And Cook was related to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who Alcott’s parents knew.]

Differing opinions about making a living

Randal responds, “Many thanks, madam; you have discovered my weak point with surprising accuracy. But you see I cannot help ‘picking folks to pieces,’ as you have expressed it; that is my gift, and it has its attractions, as the sale of my books will testify. People like the ‘spice-bread,’ and as that is the only sort my oven will bake, I must keep on in order to make my living.”

Aunt Plumy adds, “So rum-sellers say, but it ain’t a good trade to follow, and I’d chop wood before I’d earn my living harming my fellow man.

I’d let my oven cool a spell, and hunt up some homely, happy folks to write about; folks that don’t borrow trouble and go looking for holes in their neighbors’ coats, but take their lives brave and cheerful; and remembering we are all human, have pity on the weak, and try to be as full of mercy, patience and loving kindness as Him who made us.

That sort of a book would do a heap of good; be real warming and strengthening and make them that read it love the man that wrote it, and remember him when he was dead and gone.”

A frustrated author, realizes he’s not writing what he wants to write

“I wish I could!” and Randal meant what he said, for he was as tired of his own style as a watch-maker might be of the magnifying glass through which he strains his eyes all day. He knew that the heart was left out of his work, and that both mind and soul were growing morbid with dwelling on the faulty, absurd and metaphysical phases of life and character.

He often threw down his pen and vowed he would write no more; but he loved ease and the books brought money readily; he was accustomed to the stimulant of praise and missed it as the toper [drinker] misses his wine, so that which had once been a pleasure to himself and others was fast becoming a burden and a disappointment.

The joy of unexpected support

The brief pause which followed his involuntary betrayal of discontent was broken by Ruth, who exclaimed, with a girlish enthusiasm that overpowered girlish bashfulness, “I think all the novels are splendid! I hope you will write hundreds more, and I shall live to read ’em.”

“Bravo, my gentle champion! I promise that I will write one more at least, and have a heroine in it whom your mother will both admire and love,” answered Randal, surprised to find how grateful he was for the girl’s approval, and how rapidly his trained fancy began to paint the background on which he hoped to copy this fresh, human daisy.

Saul brought the conversation back to its starting point by saying in a tone of the most sincere interest, “Speaking of the serial, I am very anxious to know how your hero comes out. He is a fine fellow, and I can’t decide whether he is going to spoil his life marrying that silly woman, or do something grand and generous, and not be made a fool of.”

How does an author know how to end the story?

“Upon my soul,” Randal said, “I don’t know myself. It is very hard to find new finales. Can’t you suggest something, Major? Then I shall not be obliged to leave my story without an end, as people complain I am rather fond of doing.”

“Well, no, I don’t think I’ve anything to offer. Seems to me it isn’t the sensational exploits that show the hero best, but some great sacrifice quietly made by a common sort of man who is noble without knowing it. I saw a good many such during the war, and often wish I could write them down, for it is surprising how much courage, goodness and real piety is stowed away in common folks ready to show when the right time comes.”

“Tell us one of them, and I’ll bless you for a hint. No one knows the anguish of an author’s spirit when he can’t ring down the curtain on an effective tableau,” said Randal.

* * * *

Thank you, Miss Alcott, for sharing your wisdom in such an entertaining way!

Louisa May Alcott

Was that helpful or inspiring? I hope if nothing else, you got a chuckle!

My favorite lines:

Now tell me honestly what you think of my work.

…Flowers won’t bloom if you pull them open.

…That sort of a book would do a heap of good; be real warming and strengthening.

People like the ‘spice-bread,’ and …that is the only sort my oven will bake…

He often threw down his pen and vowed he would write no more.

Louisa May Alcott’s characters

If you care to read the whole short story, you can find the pdf online by going here to find Alcott’s short stories, then search for “A Country Christmas”.

I was also interested to find a letter that Louisa May Alcott wrote to a fan who asked for her advice on achieving success.

And here, a blogger gleans writing lessons from Louisa May Alcott’s journal, along with secrets to her success.

Happy writing! And happy reading!

Thank you awesome photographers! Image credits:

Winter country painting: George Henry Durrie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,

Writing Photo by Negative Space at Pexels

Girl reading Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio ,

Fireplace and book Photo by Mohamed Hassan from PxHere

Review of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase

Lately I’ve been reading parts of Louisa May Alcott’s journals and poems and, especially in her younger years, she writes with sweetness and light. After all that I’ve read of hers, I am still astounded at her talent for words and her inviting tone. Yet here is another one of her “blood and thunder tales”, swinging to the opposite end of the pendulum, yet never losing the wholesomeness and decency the author is known for.

 

Interesting things happened to me with this novel, which I will talk about later. Here I will give as thorough a summary of A Long Fatal Love Chase as possible without spoilers. If you are like me, and you don’t want any of the important parts revealed, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs and just trust me that this is a novel you must seek out and read.

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This is a love story between an adventurous young woman, Rosamond, who marries an exciting, brooding, mysterious stranger, Tempest, and sails away with him, leaving behind a restricted life with her grandfather. However, she learns that her beloved has not been honest with her, and kept a very important fact from her. Rosamond runs away from him, and hides in a place she believes he will never look for her. She no longer believes he is an upright man, and knows she should be through with him completely; yet she still loves him. He finds her and she flees; he pursues her obsessively. He wears her down with his ability to track her no matter where she goes and to appear out of thin air.

 

Finally, she seems to have lost him. Her life settles into a routine. She is safe living with a woman who is an unexpected, most improbable friend, and enjoying the protection and affection of her devoted priest, Ignatius. But her feeling of security is short-lived. Tempest pursues her when she flees by ship, separating her from the people who had kept her safe, terrifying her. The nightmare she had dreaded and endured for so many years has come true. I won’t tell the ending, but be assured that it is fascinating, unpredictable, and gripping until the last word.

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I always love “visiting” distant countries of the world that are the settings of characters’ lives. We visit England, France and Italy in this novel, originally titled A Modern Mephistopheles, and have the unique advantage of also experiencing life aboard a ship.

I started reading and thoroughly enjoying this book and then lost it. A year later, I found it in the zipper pocket of a suitcase. After a couple weeks I lost it again (honestly, this carelessness with books is not like me; it has never happened before or since), but found it soon after under my car seat (which gave me an image of sitting in my car while waiting for one of my sons to get changed after a hockey game.) At any rate, I’m glad it kept finding me!

Alcott quote

An extraordinary thing happened with A Long Fatal Love Chase. A co-worker and I had been discussing our favorite books, and we realized that we had the same preference for high quality fiction and classic authors. After this talk, we both felt that we had some books the other would like, and agreed to bring one the next day. Even though I felt she might be disappointed that I brought something rather obscure, outdated and melodramatic (and even had a twinge of fear that she might even lose respect for my reading tastes!), I brought A Long Fatal Love Chase to work the next day for her to read. As we pulled our books out of our bags, I could see that she had brought a thick book with an interesting cover. She handed it to me and I laughed. Although a different cover, she had brought me the same book!

 

I give an A+ to this less well-known but high quality 1866 Gothic romance by Louisa May Alcott. You don’t have to cave in to books with vulgarities, brutal violence or overly sensual relationships if you or your adolescent daughter are looking for excitement, drama, danger and tension in your reading. The latter is the kind of book that I enjoy, and this book of Louisa May Alcott’s, as well as the others I’ve previously reviewed*, fit the bill perfectly.

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Remember that a vast amount of Alcott’s writings are available online for free reading.

 

* My other L.M. Alcott book reviews are here…. here…. and here.

 

Book cover images from www.librarything.com

Louisa May Alcott’s First Novel, The Inheritance

Written in 1849, first discovered in 1988 and published in 1997, The Inheritance, as expected, is a breath of fresh air. This is no surprise, considering the era in which it was written, when writers consistently wrote with dignity, delicacy, insight, and restraint. It is considered Alcott’s first novel, written when she was only seventeen years old.

 

My first reaction, as the plot unfolded, was that this story reminded me of MansfieldPark, by Jane Austin. In both stories, the heroine, a poor girl of low status with the highest of character, is indebted to the unkind head of the household, but is befriended and defended by the hero, a rich, honorable authority in the household. The ending was a bit common and predictable, but the details, reactions and the uprightness of her characters were not.

 

It’s a lovely book, but not perfect. I wouldn’t usually be excited about reading a novel that began with a detailed description of a house and its landscape, yet the opening sentences show that this type of flowery description must have been popular in that time:

 

“In a green park, where troops of bright-eyed deer lay sleeping under drooping trees and a clear lake mirrored in its bosom the flowers that grew upon its edge, there stood Lord Hamilton’s stately home, half castle and half mansion. Here and there rose a gray old tower or ivy-covered arch, while the blooming gardens that lay around it and the light balconies added grace and beauty to the old, decaying castle, making it a fair and pleasant home. The setting sun shone warmly…”

Alcott The Inheritance

During the first third of the book I was actually impatient, because we were seeing scene after scene which demonstrated with exaggeration just how good and sweet and self-sacrificing Edith Adelon is, how much the same is Lord Percy, and how much he loves Edith from the start. It’s a little too much for me, when a man reacts so decidedly, so quickly, toward a woman. And it is always hard to get into one of these eighteenth or nineteenth century stories about people who sit around all day, looking for ways to amuse themselves, because none of them has any kind of job or responsibilities to speak of. (Even if they are rich, don’t they have some contribution to make to the household or society?)

 

Again, the author shows her mastery of suspense. As soon as the conversations start, and we find out something tragic happened to the awaited Lord Percy, and we start to see the envy and evil in Ida, it is impossible to put down. The good and evil are sharpened, and go to extremes as the story goes on, and the reader can hardly believe (in a good sense!) how rotten some characters can be and how angelic and suffering Edith can be.

 

A little mystery is added with the arrival of an unidentified elderly man, and soon after Edith burns all chances of ever having any financial security or standing in life. We are in awe of her complete lack of selfishness, and frightened at such a level of undeserved trust.

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I enjoyed every page of this high quality book. But what makes it so extraordinary?

 

First, the focus of the heroine is different from that of a typical contemporary book: instead of seeking love, security, power, respect, revenge, or any other “worthy” goal (by some standards), Edith seeks the good of others. She seeks to serve and to sacrifice, and she is grateful, humble, gentle, truthful, and disciplined. How uplifting.

 

Second, she admires a man with the same qualities as her. Most contemporary heroines admire a man who has wealth, power, prestige, and good looks, but rarely does the heroine know much about his moral character and inner strength and convictions. Edith respects a man who respects her. The concept of “love” in this period of books is also different. Love in The Inheritance is based on what is inside, instead of what is on the outside.

 

Third, the expression of love is in good deeds and kindnesses in this novel, whereas contemporary fiction usually shows love expressed in sensual physical contact.

 

The fourth extraordinary quality relates to my pet peeve with fiction, a lack of believability. Although it is certainly made up of idealistic, romantic characters, I found the dialogue, plot and events realistic and natural.

 

This widely available book is a treasure, ideal for a young girl. An A+.

 

An interesting note: according to the scholars who found the manuscript in Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1988, The Inheritance is the novel Jo March writes in Little Women. To read an interesting article about the discovery of this manuscript, click here.

Louisa May Alcott’s Pauline’s Passion and Punishment

“To and fro, like a wild creature in its cage, paced that handsome woman, with bent head, locked hands, and restless steps.”

 

We know Louisa May Alcott by her most popular books showing life in the late 1800’s that give us a safe, warm feeling. Most are stories of the March family: Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, Good Wives, and the best-known Little Women and Little Men. In my Books Read binder, however, are some lesser-known tales by Alcott.

 

In addition to Behind a Mask, originally entitled A Woman’s Power, which I wrote about previously, Alcott wrote another captivating story with a nasty, tragic “heroine” called Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. It is a story of bitter revenge, intensely focused and planned. What morally deprived women the author contrives! However, the redeeming quality of these books is that each story shows clearly the natural consequences of such evil.

Alcott portrait

Pauline is jilted by her beloved Gilbert and plans revenge by taking a kind young man, Manuel, as her husband. Manuel is deeply in love with her and agrees to marry her even after she explains honestly that her primary motive for marrying is to use him to make her former beau insanely jealous and remorseful. She even warns him that the prospects of her ever being a happy, loving wife for him are slim and empty. Both characters lost a lot of credibility for me at this point, and made me wonder if it also affected the nineteenth century readers the same way, but also reminded me that it is holding true to the intended story form of melodrama.

 

Pauline’s plan works perfectly and Gilbert desperately wants her back, even planning to leave his wife. In the meantime, Manuel meets and grows close to Gilbert’s wife. This part made it nearly impossible for me to finish reading, as it gets worse and worse, more horrible and tragic with each page. That is where I’ll leave off in relating the plot, but be assured that Alcott provides some literary “satisfaction” in the end, a good transformation, which was a great relief to this reader.

Alcott Little W inside

As in Alcott’s other books, we are still safe in knowing that we won’t have the unpleasant shock of reading offensive material, just a suspenseful and truly well-written story. As I did for Behind a Mask, I give this novelette an A for entertainment value and for a realistic moral message, but a D if you’re looking for wholesome, commendable characters.

 

Published in 1863, I believe this was also written using the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. Pauline’s Passion and Punishment is contained in the anthology Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, as well as other anthologies. It can be found on Amazon, and for free through several websites offering classic literature, such as www.gutenberg.org.

The Versatility of Louisa May Alcott: Behind a Mask

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 lesserknown 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.

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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.

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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 .

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[Next review of Louisa May Alcott: Pauline’s Passion and Punishment]