The nineteenth century produced an extraordinary number of superb women authors- the Brontes, George Eliot, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Jane Austen, to name a few....and Louisa May Alcott.
Everybody reads “Little Women,” of course, the book is as comfortable as an old shoe, but Alcott wrote a great deal more including some astonishing horror-mystery stories under her nom de plume. A.M. Barnard. As an author deserving much more scrutiny, Alcott gets shoved under the rug as her work is virtually never discussed in college literature courses.
Poverty made it necessary for Alcott to seek employment as a teacher, seamstress and governess. (Doesn’t that remind you of the Bronte girls)? Although she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in an escape from being a governess, when the Civil War broke out she served as a nurse in a Union hospital for six weeks. She was both an abolitionist and a feminist and her family even harbored a runaway slave. She kept on writing no matter what and her pen was always her great escape.
Remember kindly Professor Bhaer in “Little Women” telling Jo she should write from her own experience and not produce lurid, scandalous tales? Jo was in tears over the gentle criticism, but promised to reform. But the real Jo, Louisa May Alcott, didn’t “reform” at all but plunged right into the penning of those lurid tales of women scorned, murder and mayhem and wickedness and revenge and opium dens told in the over-wrought prose very popular at the time.
Would you believe Alcott hated “moral pap for children” her exact words and relished hiding behind the name A.M. Barnard and going amok? In her wild writing mode Alcott reminds me a bit of Emily Bronte. The woman behind A.M. Barnard was a very different woman than the one behind “Little Women.” When Alcott was in Europe she apparently had quite a passionate fling with one Ladislas Wisniewski (Laddie) the inspiration for Laurie. Alcott removed from her journal all references to this romance before she died, but it’s quite likely this was the emotional and sexual relationship of her life. Still waters run deep.
I’m glad Alcott got back to writing “moral pap” for children and penned the superb “Little Women.” “Little Men” “Jo’s Boys” and her other novels for young people never quite produced the same popularity as “Little Women.” But from a literary standpoint her lurid stories can’t be shoved under the rug. They are quite fabulous, if overwrought. In a book entitled “Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott” four of the Gothic tales are compiled by the well-known biographer and antiquarian Madeleine Stern. A review of these astonishing tales will follow this one here on Lunch.
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