Louisa May Alcott wrote most of her thrillers, or what she called her “blood and thunder” stories and novels, from 1863 to 1868, starting with her story “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” which won a prize. Published anonymously or under a pseudonym, these tales often focused on heroines who defied traditional ideals of Victorian womanhood. Attaching her name to them might have tarnished Alcott’s reputation, tainting the image readers later had of the morally impeccable author of Little Women.
Similar to Alcott’s thrillers, her realistic novel Moods (1864) portrayed a lack of opportunities for women to develop their full potential, a recurrent theme throughout her work. Rather than writing serials, however, Alcott presented readers with a new cast of characters for each piece she wrote. Two of her most striking characters, Rosamond Vivian in A Long Fatal Love Chase, rejected for publication in 1866 as “too sensational” but rediscovered and published in 1995, and Jean Muir in the novella “Behind a Mask: Or, A Woman’s Power,” elude the attempts of others to pigeonhole them into certain roles (devoted wife for Rosamond and guileless governess for Jean). It is their successful escapes that thrill the reader. These methods of escape are both geographical and psychological, as the heroines leave the homes with which they are familiar to enter new territory and create new lives for themselves, eluding capture or discovery of identity as they travel and renegotiate their roles.
In another major thriller, A Modern Mephistopheles, Alcott departed from her defiant heroines to portray the ideal Victorian woman in Gladys Canaris, the young and naïve devoted wife of a man who is doomed by the total devotion he has pledged to his diabolically manipulative employer in return for attaching his own name to his employer’s writing to achieve literary fame. Gladys is a foil to Alcott’s other heroines who are determined to be independent despite the attempts of others to control them.
Alcott’s sensational stories and novels are characterized by confinement and the attempt to break free from it. Male characters such as Philip Tempest in A Long Fatal Love Chase and Jasper Helwyze in A Modern Mephistopheles attempt to control the heroines through seduction and threats. Jean Muir emerges victorious, securing wealth and position through marriage, as she has sought to do, but Rosamond is defeated and conquered after a long journey and a case of mistaken identity. Whether they emerge triumphant or defeated, Alcott’s heroines reflect the challenges women faced and the obstacles they encountered.
“Behind a Mask”
“Behind a Mask” is considered one of Alcott’s most shocking thrillers...
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