Written by Xuelin Yeong
Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, is famous for her ‘sentimental’ stories, or what she calls ‘moral pap’ for the younger readers. Most of her stories are preachy; that is, they talk about various virtues, the goodness of simplicity, modesty, frugality—well, you get the idea. “Rose in Bloom” features a rich and beautiful heiress, who is kind and generous despite her wealth; “Kitty’s Class Day” is about a young girl who insists in imitating other girls and dressing up in ridiculous fashions that was unsuitable for her. She comes to grief when a young gentleman accidentally stepped on her long dress, ruining it and humiliating her in front of public.
Initially I enjoyed reading such stories very much, for it gave me a glimpse into Victorian life, including the way they dressed and the moral ideals they upheld; but at one point all the ‘moral talk’ became too much to bear, and I started to wonder if Alcott only wrote such stories, and nothing else.
Then, scrolling through my book list in my e-book reader, I came across an interesting title –Behind the Mask/A Woman’s Power. I thought that it is a book about feminism—but no, it wasn’t. It turned out that I have stumbled upon one of Alcott’s ‘blood and thunder tales’, which, in other words, are sensational stories (by the standards of those days, of course). These stories feature deceit, twisted love and obsession, manipulation, and even murder.
I did some research online, and was a little surprised to learn that Alcott actually enjoyed writing these stories than what she called ‘moral pap’ for the young. Little Women brought her fame as an author but Alcott viewed her writing as a duty she had to fulfill in order to support her family. Her sensational stories, on the other hand, provided an outlet for her to vent her feelings and protest against the unjust expectations society had on women. Yet she could only publish her stories under a pseudonym.
Her feelings on this are mirrored in a scene in Good Wives, where Professor Bhaer found out that Jo had been writing sensational stories to earn money. He reprimanded her indirectly and gently, and Jo gave up on writing these stories after that. Similarly, in real life, Alcott wrote those stories, but refused to identify herself as the author, as she feared the way society would look at her character and her family.
Back to the story itself. (Spoilers ahead) As mentioned above, I have finished ‘A Woman’s Power’ and yes, I really enjoyed it. The story starts with the arrival of a young governess at a rich household. She is everything a governess is expected to be—simple, modest, meek. The family is pleased with her, and the young lady of the house (Bella) even takes pity on the hard life she’s had. Only two members—the eldest son Gerald and his supposed fiancée Lucia distrust her. It seemed like the perfect start to a Jane Eyre-like governess love story.
However, once the young governess—Jean Muir returns to her room, the readers are revealed to the true woman behind the mask. Most surprisingly, Jean Muir is a woman nearing thirty—not a young girl of nineteen as she claimed. Even her youthful appearance is a hoax, just like her modest character. This spurns interest to find out more about who she really is, and what her motives are.
Bit by bit, the story unravels—Jean soon becomes the favourite of the household, and the house is filled with pleasant conversation, music and laughter after her arrival. She even wins the heart of Edward, the youngest son, who is sent away for this folly. In the end, the eldest son Gerald falls in love with her, and went to the extent of ending all ties with Lucia, his supposed fiancée. (The family hopes that they will eventually marry, but Gerald claims that they were not properly engaged). Even Sir John Coventry, the wealthy uncle, also develops a liking for Jean.
At the peak of her success, Jean receives a letter from the Edward who finds out about her true identity from her former employer and asks her to leave in three days time, or else he will reveal her secret before his family. It turns out that Jean is actually a divorced actress, who aims to marry a rich man in order to get a share of his wealth and title. In a desperate attempt, Jean manages to get Sir John Coventry to ask for her hand in marriage. Several unexpected events unfold, and the family, still unaware of this, gets together in the last chapter where Edward showed them the letters that revealed Jean’s true identity. They are shocked and realizes that they have been fooled, but it was too late. Jean was already married to Sir John Coventry, and now bore the title of ‘Lady Coventry’.
The second story I’ve read is ‘Pauline’s Passion and Punishment’. Pauline is a beautiful girl who is jilted by her lover, Gilbert. Gilbert had married another girl for her fortune, and this angers Pauline. She seeks revenge on him, and marries a rich young man who truly adored her. Pauline and her new husband visit the hotel where Gilbert is staying with his wife. Pauline appears before Gilbert in all her beauty and finery, tricking him into believing that she still loves him, and at the same time, convinces her young husband to win Gilbert in gambling and humiliate him with his debts. In the end, Gilbert confesses to Pauline of his love, but Pauline coldly snubs him. In a fit of rage, Gilbert commits a rash act that leaves Pauline regretful for her entire life, thus starts her long punishment for her passion.
I have yet to read ‘A Long Fatal Love Chase’, which my best friend recommended, but I believe that it will be as thrilling as the other two.
Although Alcott was ashamed to own up that she was the author of those sensational stories, they were not without depth or value. ‘A Woman’s Power’ spoke of the injustice of those days—a woman’s only way to riches and success is to marry a husband with wealth and position. Jean may seem deceitful, but in reality she was just a poor woman struggling for survival. It also speaks of the unequal treatment as received by governesses. A governess is a lady employed to teach the young ladies of rich families things like French, music and drawing, in order to make her suited for ‘fashionable life’. A governess was not a servant, nor is she an equal of the family, and that leaves her in an awkward social position between the upper and lower classes. She was expected to have good breeding, manners and training, but was treated a little better than a servant. The most famous fictional governess is arguably Jane Eyre, who eventually falls in love with her master, but in reality, many governesses suffer from a fate like Jean Muir, their only escape being marriage with a man of decent income.
In ‘Pauline’s Passion and Punishment’, the author cautions the readers against holding grudges and following one’s heart desires. Pauline could have led a comfortable and happy life with her adoring husband, and enjoyed her friendship with Gilbert’s wife, but in the end she chooses a path that shoves the four of them into a miserable fate.