Behind the Mask of Louisa May Alcott
by Lauren Jackson
Louisa May Alcott is a woman of many shades of ink; first coating the page in light drops filled with moral goodness and feminine models, to smearing and staining and blotting the pages with lurid and swashbuckling tales that shed light on an immoral underbelly. The consumption of written works from and for a female perspective were to be all light and goodness, all religiously sound and backed by male authority, yet Louisa tread the line delicately between moral tastefulness and unrestrained freedom. Thus the question poses itself, just what kind of writer was Miss Alcott? Louisa was torn between two worlds of writing – was she the Jo March everyone thought her to be? Or something darker? Something embodied perhaps in one of her thrillers. By taking a thorough look at some of her own novels, articles, and short stories, as well as her letters and biographies, we can begin to cast a shape to this morphing phenomenon of language that constitutes Miss Alcott’s literary career.
In one of Louisa’s thriller novels, Behind The Mask – or A Woman’s Power, Louisa lets a woman deceive an entire household of men, showing that women are powerful, that she captivates but not because she’s a witch, but because she’s smart. This is one of the rare occasions in literature of this sort where the female heroine is not punished for her ‘misdeeds’ but instead wins the game that she set up to play. She does not die and is not cut off, but instead ends up with a husband that adores her, money, and a title.She wins through and through, even destroying their proof of her malfeasance. This was a radical story for the time, as women were always punished for deceiving men, or using their bodies to gain their way through life.
Indeed, the novel’s heroine was an actress in this novel. It begs the question that perhaps Louisa was attempting to warn male society that if you force unnatural roles upon women, or make women be something they’re not, that it will ultimately result in the male’s destruction, and the tearing down of societal values and norms. You cannot make women suffer and be meek and tortured and victims all the time and expect them to never revolt. It is also dangerous to make them pretend to be something they’re not. There is a certain contempt in the tone of voice Alcott takes through the novel as well. She makes one of the men that get trampled in the story rather a stereotypical type: “But presently he wearied of her society, for she was not a brilliant girl, and possessed few of those winning arts which charm a man and steal into his heart,” (31, Behind a Mask), when discussing his own fiancee! This was to show the waywardness and fallibility of man. And rather it shows man as weak and woman as charmer. Yet real men as everyone knows are chivalrous: “He pitied her, desired to help her, and regretted his past distrust, as a chivalrous man always regrets injustice to a woman” (37, Behind a Mask). But the worst role of all is played by a woman, and to be the villain one must be strong. How could a woman possibly do it? The characters in the novel even doubted the tenacity of a female menace: “‘She never wrote that! It is impossible. A woman could not do it,’” (110, Behind a Mask). She wins over the men by appearing meek and docile, yet holding a secret flame that would fan with desire if only they could possess her. She wanted them to think her innocent and claimed that she had fled from cruel abuse, those wanting to take her ‘good name’ for everyone knew that was the only thing of value a woman possessed.
Thus throughout the content of this novel one can see that Louisa is longing for something a bit more than what society had to offer by way of gender roles and status. She longed for women to have the kind of power and freedom she alluded to in this novel, and to succeed with it.
In The Inheritance, a novel Louisa wrote in 1849, when she was only seventeen years old, she depicted a tale of the utmost moral fortitude in the character of Edith Adelon. Edith allowed herself to be abused, betrayed, cast off, neglected, unloved, and turned against, and in the end won herself true love. This smacks of a sharp intellect possessed by Miss Alcott, on recognizing, even at this early age, the docility and obedience expected of a woman. If one is not meek, if one does not accept her lot calmly no matter the cost, then she will end up with no one.
In the midst of writing thriller stories that supported her and her family, Louisa also wrote her best known work Little Women. Louisa seems to have embodied herself in the young and charming character of Jo March in the novel. Jo writes stories, wins prizes, earns money for the family, and essentially is an independent little writer throughout the novel. She even takes a stint in sensational story writing, but is reprimanded and discouraged from doing so further by her future husband Mr. Bhaer: “There is a demand for whiskey, but think you and I do not care to sell it. If the respectable people knew what harm they did, they would not feel that the living was honest. They have no right to put poison in the sugar-plum, and let the small ones eat it. No; they should think a little, and sweep mud in the street before they do this thing!” (377, Little Women). This place in the novel is rather an interesting one, for Louisa herself was forced to write and sell sensational stories to papers to support her family and herself. The March family in Little Women are extremely poor, and at this time in the novel, Jo has left home to be a governess for a time.
After Mr. Bhaer’s stern warning against such trashy literature, Jo burns her stories and puts off writing any more of them forever. She even says of her work as she watches it burn: “‘Yes, that’s the best place for such inflammable nonsense, I’d better burn the house down, I suppose, than let other people blow themselves up with my gunpowder,’” (378, Little Women). The sense of bitter sarcasm and contempt that bleeds through these lines is palpable. It seems Louisa merely recognized the world she and Jo lived in was one wherein men were the rulers of female virtue and morality, and to survive one had to comply with their wishes. Jo does all that is expected of her and comes out with Mr. Bhaer as a husband. But to have continued on her merry, reckless way and providing an extra income for her family, she would have been subjecting herself to the basest immorality for a woman, despite the absolute lack of sexuality these stories engendered. This was the silent whip and lash of control of men. Louisa had never intended to write for the youth, despite her stories being taken as moral lessons for children throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.: “She did not want to write a girls’ book. After everything she had been through– the war, her illness, the death of her sister, the decades of gritty poverty, the dozens of melodramatic stories written to make money, the serious novel, Moods, and then Hospital Sketches about her nursing experience, the magazine jobs and advice columns – hadn’t she earned the right to choose her own project?” (Louisa May Alcott, 2). Thus we can deduce more in the way of highlighting male and female roles in society and the harshest light being shined upon them, than we can of teaching children how they should act.
It also seems telling that in Little Women, the only one of the March family to die is little Beth March. Beth is the saintliest of all the March sisters, and endeavors to sacrifice herself in all that she does; attending to the sick and poor, playing music for her elders, and attending to domestic and filial duties with assiduity and alacrity. Her heart is always pure and selfless, and bitterness has never touched her soft, angelic face. She is all goodness and light. Yet Louisa kills her off as a weak creature, taken up to God as one of his angels. Beth is also the only character in the novel to not fall in love, to not have a male protector, to not be married off. The implication being, without a man, a woman cannot survive long in this world.
Perhaps Jo March doesn’t have the happy ending that Louisa tried to trick her audience into thinking. Perhaps she was trying to convey the message that if one gives into what society demands, or more specifically, what roles men demand of women, then you are casting up your hopes and dreams for the domestic life ruled by a man, and nothing more. For as much as Jo may have espoused the perfect feminine virtue in Little Women, Louisa did not follow her example in real life, having never married or having children of her own. She wrote her whole life, both secretly and openly. That in itself may say a lot in solving this mystery of Alcott’s true writing persona.
Psychology lends itself to the belief that the personality suppressed and repressed is often the true personality attempting to free itself of the bonds imposed upon it. Alcott was fettered with the bonds of society and had to conform or lose her reputation. She never used her own name to publish the thrillers she wrote, she even used a male pseudonym, telling far more than words ever could. In writing those thrillers: “She also found it ‘fun’ to be an anonymous someone else for a while, and the someone else who was able to turn sensational stories into fifty or seventy-five dollars was a writer who dwelled among shadows, pursuing strange and exotic themes of sadomasochism, mesmerism, East Indian Thuggism. These were no themes for Concord, Massachusetts, where Alcott’s neighbors included the revered Ralph Waldo Emerson; indeed, they were no themes for her own family, especially not for her father, who could have conversed with Plato” (5, A Double Life). Louisa was raised in a strict household, her father brought her up to behave in a very controlled and specific manner: “Father Bronson Alcott made it clear that he expected his little women to aspire to attributes of courage, loyalty, kindness, self-control, and sweet temper” (112, Kate’s Choice). Her writing career started early in a childhood diary she kept: “In a diary, she listed Love, Patience, Industry, and Generosity as among her life’s goals. This diary was available to her parents, who regularly read it in order to encourage their daughter to aim high and believe in her perfectibility” (113, Kate’s Choice). This smacks of pressure and shaping at a very young age, yet from the beginning it seems something in Alcott must have longed to rebel with her true nature. For she learned to play the game, and write all the words her parents would long to read, yet simultaneously would she write Little Women and thrilling murder and love stories.
In Ariel, a Legend of the Lighthouse, a thriller of Miss Alcott, bitterness seems present in the words Alcott uses to describe a’ true woman’.:“…patient and passionate, like a true woman” (Ariel, A Legend of the Lighthouse, 183). Why must women always be patient and waiting for a man? It seems Alcott questioned this as well. And even further when the heroine of the story rescues the hero in a flipping of the damsel in distress trope: “Coward! you dared not end your life when all seemed lost, but waited for a woman to save you. I will show you how a brave man dies” (192). The lover’s jealous enemy rages at him for allowing a woman to save him from certain death. For it is more manly to die than be saved by a woman. Again we see Alcott toying with common sense, yet reiterating what was commonly held as true at the time. That she indeed questions it though, there seems no doubt.
In Alcott’s thriller Taming a Tartar, young Sybil is a companion to a Russian prince’s sister. The prince quickly falls for Sybil and yet gives in to raging fits of madness. When he thought he had struck her during one of those fits, Sybil declares he did not strike her, but that if he had she stated: “I think I should have killed you, or myself, after such degradation. Unwomanly, perhaps, but I have a man’s sense of honor” (Taming a Tartar, 206), women should suffer in silence rather than fight back. And when they do, it is better for them to die than to live it out. Thus she identifies it as a ‘man’s sense of honor’. She later exemplifies this by plainly stating: “Women early learn to suffer in silence” (Taming a Tartar, 222).
It is my belief that Louisa is both writers that she so fervently pens as. She is both the thriller writer and Jo March. For Jo embodies Louisa as pointed out in the Introduction to Jo March’s Attic with this excerpt from Little Women identified Jo as essentially Louisa:
“…she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex…writing away…Her scribbling suit consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, ‘Does genius burn, Jo?’”
For Louisa fell into these same writing vortexes and would as she said ‘write away the winter’. It seems she was living out her double life through Jo in Little Women, but acquiesced to the standards of the time inhibiting women from being storytellers about things that were sexual, deviant, and most assuredly unfeminine. Susan Cheever, in her biography of Alcott, says this in defiance of any comparison of Jo to Louisa: “Most strikingly, Louisa May Alcott is not Jo March. Jo is a rebel who is nevertheless beloved. Louisa was a rebel who often seemed genuinely disappointing to her parents and who found scant love from them or their friends” (Louisa May Alcott, 5). But Cheever seems to contradict herself in this assessment. Pages prior, Cheever described the love and golden times spent with Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond, and her ramblings about with the Emerson family. Alcott also deeply loved her mother and had a very close relationship with her. Although Bronson Alcott fought with Louisa throughout her life, he did not remove his love from his daughter. It seems Cheever might be confusing love with poverty. Further, Jo is perhaps a rebel at first, but she is tamed in the end. And though Louisa appears to not be a rebel, she does not conform to marriage as society would deem fit. Louisa may not be completely Jo, but I believe Jo is a version of Louisa that she was attempting to see come to life. Louisa may have wanted to view how life would end for her if she ceded to a married and domestic life. Perhaps she didn’t like what Jo March became.
Ultimately I see these characters in Alcott’s stories to be an expression of herself, if not wholly herself. Perhaps Alcott was experimenting with different roles and seeing which ones fit her best. Rather she was truly Behind a Mask or a band of the Little Women she in all ways was both. They were both her creations and therefore both contained a part of herself, despite whatever criticisms were obtained from them. The true Louisa may be somewhere between rebel and domestic, yet she is made up of the consciousness of both, through her own tenacious perseverance and the ability to keep her family fed and clothed.
Alcott, Louisa M. A Double Life. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1988. Print.
Alcott, Louisa M. Behind a Mask or A Woman’s Power. N.p.: Wildside Press, 2005. Print.
Alcott, Louisa M. From Jo March’s Attic. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. Print.
Alcott, Louisa M. Kate’s Choice. Tulsa: River Oak Publishing, 2001. Print.
Alcott, Louisa M. Little Women. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Alcott, Louisa M. Plots and Counterplots. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1976. Print.
Alcott, Louisa M. The Inheritance. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.
Alcott, Louisa M. The Quiet Little Woman. Tulsa: Honor Books, 1999. Print.
Cheever, Susan. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print.
Graves, Kerry A. The Girlhood Diary of Louisa May Alcott. Mankato: Blue Earth Books, 2001. Print.