Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power Characters

Louisa May Alcott


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The central character of Behind a Mask is Jean Muir. Jean is not merely the ruthless, vengeful perpetrator of a plot to get ahead. She is also a remarkably observant woman, with keen powers of analysis and judgment that can turn disadvantages into steppingstones. Jean draws upon what talents she has, and these are superlative. Her consummate acting skills become obvious at the end of the first chapter, when after convincing a group that she is an innocent nineteen-year-old, she adjourns to her room and adopts an expression of fierce disdain. "Come, the curtain is down," she declares, "so I may be myself for a few hours, if actresses ever are themselves."

Jean undergoes an amazing metamorphosis. She takes from her head "the long abundant braids," wipes "the pink" from her face, takes out "several pearly teeth" and undresses to emerge "a haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least." Jean is a remarkable fictional creation partly because she is nothing like the sentimental, domestic Victorian she impersonates, and partly because she has an unknown past. During her private unmasking, the reader becomes aware of a "newly healed wound" that seems to symbolize a psychological one. Jean creeps to bed "like one worn out with weariness and mental pain."

Jean is remarkable, too, for her ability to play to each member of her audience. She times her words and gestures perfectly, staging songs, swoons, tears, silences, or ecstasies which draw out the best or the worst in each Coventry, as well as entrap. "The arrival of Miss Muir seemed to produce a change in everyone, though no one could have explained how or why." Among those changed are shy, sixteen-year-old Bella, a "rosy little creature," who is enchanted by the tutor who sings so well. Bella's mother, Mrs. Coventry, sickly and peevish, is "quite won by the modest, domestic graces of the new governess."

Bella's cousin Lucia Beaufort, who oversees the servants with great care to assure they pay due respect to rank, is subdued by Jean's art but still hostile. Lucia is upset by Jean's power over Gerald, the man she loves and heir to the family fortune. Lucia is...

(The entire section is 880 words.)