Because Alcott is so well known for Little Women, much of her other work is generally overlooked. Yet she was a highly prolific writer who wrote throughout her life, virtually from childhood to the grave. The many stories and home theatricals that she wrote as a child constituted an apprentice period for her craft; much of her mature writing summons up this early period.
The mid-1850’s found Alcott writing the sentimental stories popular in the Victorian era. She was always attuned to her audience, writing what would sell to a publisher and be enjoyed by a real audience. While this shows a certain kind of sensitivity, it also restricted her writing. Victorian sentimentality was something she could always fall back upon, and in some of her later novels, when the modern reader hopes for a more mature engagement of ideas and testing of hypotheses, Alcott seems to take the easy way out into the old sentimentality that had worked so well in the past.
Although she was a hospital nurse for only six weeks during the Civil War, the experience was a turning point for Alcott. It had both good and bad outcomes. On the negative side, she never fully recovered her health from the typhoid fever she contracted or from the medication given to cure her. On the positive side, she had the time and the inclination to rewrite the letters she had written home, which were published in 1863 as Hospital Sketches. This work, published under her own name, established Alcott’s reputation as a serious writer. Of particular note were her frankness and graphic detail, qualities that would continue to serve her well as her career developed.
At the same time, she was writing the gothic stories that were published anonymously or under a pseudonym (frequently A. M. Barnard). In Little Women, when Jo March, generally considered to be Alcott’s self-portrait, writes thrillers, she does so with a sense of shame and hides her identity from her publishers, her family, and friends. She soon abandons this form of writing, even though she is good at it and needs the money that can result from these stories, agreeing with Professor Bhaer that money earned in this way is not worth the moral degradation it necessitates.
Jo no doubt betrays some of Alcott’s own misgivings about the genre. Her gothic thrillers and sensation stories were and are good reading material, however; they are fast-paced and full of suspense. Characterization is lively, although plots are sometimes unbelievable. With that willing suspension of disbelief demanded by all writers of the gothic, Alcott created some memorable characters who play roles in dramatic and compelling plots. No doubt Louisa’s own experiences as a hospital nurse, as traveling companion for a disabled woman in Europe, and as a woman attempting to earn money in and around Concord and Boston introduced her to a number of colorful personalities with rich stories, who provided inspiration for the heroes and heroines of her thrillers. The gothic thrillers must have provided not only a rich outlet for her imagination but also a safe way of living vicariously experiences that conventions and responsibilities prohibited in real life.
Many of the gothic thrillers feature strong, courageous, and independent heroines who are bent on carrying out some plot of revenge or ambition. Passionate and dramatic, these women manage to control and manipulate others to accomplish their dire ends. Generally, they succeed in their plans, although the outcome may entail more than originally intended. In Alcott’s 1866 story “Behind a Mask,” for example, the bold heroine manages to entice several brothers to love her in order to humble them and teach them a lesson about their pride. Although her plot almost fails, she entices the uncle to marry her. She thus secures for herself a devoted husband as well as the security of becoming a legitimate member of a highly reputable, wealthy, and good family despite her own unsavory past. Although it is quite clear that the heroine is an evil woman, Alcott makes the reader appreciate her daring, her shrewdness, and her power to carry it all off. The reader ends up celebrating the villain’s triumph. No doubt it is for this reason that Alcott chose to write these gothic thrillers under a pseudonym and had moral qualms about them.
Not all the gothic thrillers flaunt quite so blatantly a different set of values from those conventionally upheld, but many deal with the bringing down of proud families by individuals with the boldness to use less than praiseworthy means to accomplish their ends. While sometimes these means are necessitated by...
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