Friday, March 9, 2012

Adventure classics -- The mysterious Miss Alcott

Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power

by Louisa May Alcott, writing as A.M. Barnard


What nineteenth century reader of paperbound dime novels would have suspected the purported author of today’s Adventure classic, worldly A.M Barnard, as a writer of moral children’s fiction? None, Louisa May Alcott hoped.

Alcott became famous under her own name for that model of family values, Little Women. But before the tale of the four March sisters, she supported her family -- including her high-minded Transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott -- with tales of the type she termed “blood and thunder.”

There are hints about these in Little Women -- references to writerly protagonist Jo March’s forays into newspaper serials, to family theatricals, and stories such as the “Phantom Hand” which paid for a new carpet for the poverty-stricken March family.

But the sensational stories existed only a scholarly conjecture until antiquarian book dealers Madeleine Sterne and Leona Rostenberg located correspondence from a publisher listing Alcott’s pseudonyms.

Although they announced their find in an issue of the Bibliographical Society of America in 1943, it took the feminist renaissance of the 1970’s to prompt reissuance of the stories themselves.

Alcott’s novella, Behind a Mask, opens with the arrival of Jean Muir, a new governess wispy enough to make Jane Eyre seem overfed. She feigns a sympathy-inducing faint in
the first chapter. But when the most astute of her observers murmurs, “scene first, very well done,” the demur Miss Muir lets her mask slip a moment to remark, “The last scene shall be still better.”

And it is -- but I won’t give away the rapidly twisting plot that will have readers rooting for the governess despite her shifty ways. The story, and others by or about Alcott are widely available now, occupying dozens of pages on (I got tired of clicking “next” after page twenty-five.)

Modern readers may find the biggest mystery in Alcott’s apparent repudiation of her suspense stories. They’re surprisingly good. (And actually make easier reading in the twenty-first century than the works of Alcott’s near-contemporary, H. Rider Haggard, discussed last Friday.)

As Ms. Sterne writes in her preface to Behind A Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, “Her characterizations were natural and subtle and her gallery of femmes fatales forms a suite of flesh-and-blood portraits. Her own anger at an unjust world she transformed into the anger of her heroines, who made of it a powerful weapon with which to challenge fate.”

For more about Alcott -- and Ms. Sterne -- see Alcott’s official website,

(Next Friday, Adventure classics takes a break from the nineteenth century for Michael Crichton’s 1960’s medical thriller, The Andromeda Strain.)

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