Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is usually remembered as the author of LITTLE WOMEN (1868- 1869), a novel for young people that has inspired numerous film adaptations. It is a book whose sentimental style is realized within the strict moral code of the Victorian period. Most of Alcott’s early fiction, however, consists of thrillers. These are the anonymously and pseudonymously published stories of murder, drug addiction, and thwarted passion that brought badly needed cash to the Alcott household.
The twenty-nine stories in LOUISA MAY ALCOTT UNMASKED: COLLECTED THRILLERS first appeared in print between 1863 and 1870, and editor Madeline Stern deserves much praise for her dedication in ferreting them out from obscure periodicals for this new collection. Also laudable is Stern’s fine introduction. She places the stories in the context of Alcott’s life and times, making mention of the author’s interest in the theater, art, and feminism. The latter can be seen in “Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power,” where a governess schemes her way into a family’s good graces and triumphs by marrying the family patriarch. Even more startling is “Taming a Tartar,” where the heroine manages to break the will of a despotic Russian aristocrat. Clearly, Alcott did not intend to serve her readers pablum.
These tales, however, do have their drawbacks. Alcott unashamedly employs romantic cliches (storms, foreign settings, star-crossed love, and so forth) and convoluted plots. Yet these are more then compensated for by Alcott’s sheer storytelling skill. Her female characters are intelligent and engaging, and they cast nineteenth-century American literature in a refreshingly new light. Alcott fans and general readers alike will find themselves enthralled by her potent imaginations.