Thursday 26 December 2013

Review: Behind a Mask, Louisa May Alcott (A.M. Barnard), 1866

Louisa May Alcott
For many, Louisa May Alcott’s name is entirely synonymous with her semi-autobiographical Little Women (1868) – a novel which can in some ways be seen to epitomise clean cut nineteenth-century morality. Yet the stories Alcott published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard are markedly different from her most famous literary creations. The novella Behind a Mask, written at the height of public desire for sensation, is dramatic, amoral, action-packed and ironically pointed – an example of an American writer not just imitating an import hot off the British press, but responding and adding to its generic complexity. 

For general readers: This is a riot (or as close to one as a story about a Victorian governess can be!). The scheming Jean Muir would eat Jane Eyre for breakfast (and most probably Rochester, Bertha and Mrs Fairfax too). At only a hundred pages this is a quick read and one which will see you very much rooting for the ‘bad’ woman, who sets out to win her man, and his fortune, with  determination and grit, destroying anyone who gets in her way with relish. The only downsides to the book are what it might do to your perceptions of a) men; and b) ageing. Top tips for entrancing a man include: fainting (of course), having aristocratic lineage (poverty is just about acceptable, commonness not), singing like a nightingale (don’t we all…), making his brother fancy you (even if it nearly ends in fratricide), mopping his brow when he’s indisposed (as always) and throwing yourself into his arms while staging amateur theatricals (I’ve still to test this one). And once you’re thirty, you’ll need to wear not only make-up and false hair but even false teeth to trick anyone into walking you down the aisle. 

For students: This is a little gem. The novella’s subtitle is ‘A Woman’s Power’, and the character of Jean Muir is perfect for comparison with Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s governess figures, or with Wilkie Collins’s Lydia Gwilt (in Armadale, also 1866). There’s also material here for those looking at nineteenth-century literary treatment of actresses or the ubiquity of railway accidents in novels of the 1860s, among other topics. The ending comes as a surprise even (or maybe especially) to sensation stalwarts, making it an interesting text for those unpacking the moral implications of sensation novels, their endings and the sensation novel (anti-)heroine. For students of American literature, seeing a different side to Alcott will be of interest, as will the publication history of the text and her adoption of a pseudonym. 

Have you read Behind a Mask or any other Louisa May Alcott short stories? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And don't forget to VOTE for the Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards.
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