While rereading and discussing the Pulitzer winner (2008) Louisa May Alcott and Her Father I got interested in reading some of her other books. I’ve read Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys but that was it. I read them all at about age 12 and Little Women again about 10-12 years ago. Anyway, it got me curious –
Behind the Mask is probably the best known of Louisa May Alcott’s “pot-boiler” thrillers. The tale reminds me of Wilkie Collins’ Aramadale which was first published in serial format a few years prior to Alcott’s. Alcott’s work is totally original, though – the point of comparison are basically the thriller style and a mysterious and villainous woman trying to entrap two related men. The Collins story is far more convoluted in plot as well as being more stylishly written.
Behind a Mask is set in Great Britain and concerns a woman named Jean Muir, a governess newly hired by the wealthy and aristocratic Coventry family. Muir has a very mysterious past and at the end of the first chapter we are treated to a piece of the reality:
“Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth, and slipping off her dress appeared herself indeed, a haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least. The metamorphosis was wonderful, but the disguise was more in the expression she assumed than in any art of costume or false adornment. Now she was alone, and her mobile features settled into their natural expression, weary, hard, bitter. She had been lovely once, happy, innocent, and tender; but nothing of all this remained to the gloomy woman who leaned there brooding over some wrong, or loss, or disappointment which had darkened all her life. For an hour she sat so, sometimes playing absently with the scanty-locks that hung about her face, sometimes lifting the glass to her lips as if the fiery draught warmed her cold blood; and once she half uncovered her breast to eye with a terrible glance the scar of a newly healed wound. At last she rose and crept to bed, like one worn out with weariness and mental pain.”
So we know for sure no matter how sweet and wonderful she appears, this woman is wearing a mask (and costume!) and is up to no good. We just don’t know the specifics. They are revealed slowly – deliberately.
The above is a good sample of the writing, too. Not Little Women by any means, moral or aesthetic. But readable and straightforward enough for Victorian prose. For comparison, here’s the last paragraph of the first chapter of Little Women:
“At nine they stopped work, and sang, as usual, before they went to bed. No one but Beth could get much music out of the old piano, but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys and making a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meg had a voice like a flute, and she and her mother led the little choir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the airs at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a croak or a quaver that spoiled the most pensive tune. They had always done this from the time they could lisp . . .Crinkle, crinkle, ‘ittle ‘tar, and it had become a household custom,, for the mother was a born singer. The first sound in the morning was her voice as she went about the house singing like a lark, and the last sound at night was the same cheery sound, for the girls never grew too old for that familiar lullaby.”
So Jean enters the family having decided to marry one of the eligible sons – she has made herself into everything a gentleman could ever want in a woman – albeit a bit more than the normal unattractive grumpy governess – which is a bit of a possibly deliberate stereotype. The family is divided – some see she is phony, others not, some change. So using all her womanly little skills, she manages to get both brothers into her romantic clutches. That’s apparently her “power” from the subtitle. But she still has tricks up her sleeve – as well as a lot to hide.
Suspense is built around the unmasking of Jean (who was she, what is she up to?) as well as the issue of will she marry one of these guys and/or will she get “caught” prior to that? How? Alcott’s pretty good at building suspense.
The thing that grabs lit critics and is that the mask Jean wears is so similar to the faces of the Little Women. What lurks behind that shy sweet Victorian smile and helpful loving demeanor? The book is kind of radical in it’s own way because it’s essentially saying that if women put on the “mask” (in lots of ways), play the men right (meaning they are the powers and to acknowledge that in little ways), then women can “win.”