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!

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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]