The woman writes as if the Devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.
Louisa May Alcott, beloved author of children's fiction, wrote a series of thrillers or sensationalist stories before her success with the domestic novel, or the novel of sentiment, Little Women, in 1868. Her "juvenile stories emphasize self-sacrifice and devotion to duty" (Bedell 8); whereas, Alcott's thrillers examine the darker side of human nature and criticize the Victorian ideal of femininity as unrealistic and false. Her subversive sensational stories not only defied nineteenth-century values of womanhood, but also rebelled against the teachings of her father, Bronson Alcott, who believed in traditional "femininity" and sentimentalism, in a search for human perfectionism. Although the act of writing symbolically asserted Alcott as independent from her father and his teachings, she dismissed her success as a writer as only the performance of a "duty" for her family, who remained constantly in debt because of Bronson's permanent unemployment. Alcott carefully constructed her role as a writer born out of economic necessity, portraying herself as the perfect Victorian woman, who sacrifices her own needs for those of her family. Thus, she negotiates the autonomous and self-fulfilling act of writing as merely work to support herself and her family, simultaneously denying her ego and selfhood. By doing so, Alcott gives herself permission to write the "lurid" stories openly condemned by Concord society. However, she never was never able to claim her sensational stories as her own for fear of disappointing her father, family, and friends.
As an adolescent in mid-nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts, Alcott grew up under the influences of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was educated by the Transcendentalist quest for self-reliance, a "protest against the stifling pieties and wrongs of contemporary custom, in order to strengthen both the individual and the culture" (Douglas x) and her father's vision of sentimentality, or human perfectionism. Alcott's willful and unpredictable temperament made it difficult, if not impossible, for her to live up to Bronson's expectations. At the young age of ten, her father gave Alcott a letter defining and explaining his personal code of conduct that he expected all members of his family to follow:
Bronson's moral standards are echoed in Little Women when Marmee cautions Jo to master her "passion" and to conquer the troubles and temptations of life by a steadfast belief in the "Heavenly Father"; thus, Jo learns the "sweetness of self-denial and self-control" (Alcott 77), the same lessons Bronson worked hard to teach his own children. These high moral standards, however, are much easier for a fictional character of a sentimental novel to follow than a little girl, or even an adult. Bronson's unrealistic demands left a permanent mark on Alcott, who lived her whole life suffering from feelings of inadequacy and the belief that she was inherently wicked and undeserving of love. Hence, she remained ambivalent toward her sensational fiction--writings that she publicly condemned, but privately relished the emotional and authorial pleasure she found in composing thrillers.
In 1851, at age nineteen, Alcott was forced into service for Hon. James Richardson, as a companion to his sister, because of her family's economic needs. For Victorian women, the opportunity for employment was limited to roles sanctioned and contained by domesticity (governess, teacher, lady's companion/maid, etc.); therefore, Alcott had little choice among respectable employment. Although she was hired as a companion to his sister, Richardson demanded all of Alcott's time, forcing her to participate in metaphysical discussions and leaving notes of reprimand under her door. Alcott endured this abuse and humiliation for seven weeks; she finally displayed her independence and left her employment after refusing Richardson's demand that she clean his muddy boots. Almost two months of hard work earned Alcott only $4, clearly not enough to assist her struggling family (Stern 52). This experience as a female domestic taught Alcott a lesson in the inequity among male and female roles and unfair treatment of the nineteenth century women under the patriarchal society.
At the start of the Civil War, Alcott wrote in her journal: "'I long to be a man, but as I can't fight I will content myself with working for those who can" (Davis xviii). This sentiment is reflected in Jo's complaint: "'It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it's worse than ever now for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman'" (Little Women 5). Alcott yearned to contribute and do her duty for the war effort, which was limited only to domestic, and thus passive, roles. During her brief stint as a Civil War nurse, "Alcott lost her hair, her one real vanity, from the illness she contracted . . . from the cure prescribed for the illness, she permanently lost her health. For her work, she received $10" (Fetterley 2). Once again, Alcott experiences the inequities and disadvantages of public work as a female; service work, for women, was meant to be an act of self-sacrifice and generosity, not a means for women to support themselves and their family. This fact was illuminated by her receipt of $100 in 1862 for "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," her first attempt at sensational fiction, which was published anonymously in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (Stern 55). Nineteenth-century society insisted that women remain virtuous; however, there remained a great disparity between the economic rewards for domestic work and those of writing sensationalist fiction.
During the 1860s, the sensational novel was at its height of popularity in both England and America; leading this genre were Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose stories were "characterized by incest, bigamy, confusions of identity, disguised returns from the grave--in short, by any violation of Victorian norms which involved deception and double identities" (Douglas 236). Despite the genre's obvious breach of Victorian conventions, sensationalist stories were eagerly and quickly consumed by the prurient reading public. Publishers paid high prices for these thrillers because of high market demand; thus, many writers were attracted to writing sensational stories for quick money, as was Alcott. Particularly, female writers were drawn to the sensation genre, not only as a means of support, but as an opportunity to reveal their "dislike of their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers" (Showalter 158) in the contained forum of fiction. This sensational writing provided a safe outlet for the repressed female rage at the James Richardson's of the world. And, thus, this genre was very popular with the female reading public: "These women novelists made a powerful appeal to the female audience by subverting the traditions of feminine fiction to suit their own imaginative impulses, by expressing a wide range of suppressed female emotions, and by tapping and satisfying fantasies of protest and escape" (Showalter 158-59). By writing and reading thrillers, women could pretend to be the femme fatale; a woman that owns herself and her sexuality. She uses her power for her own gain and to undermine the patriarchy. These themes is what made the sensational novel "sensational" to the repressed Victorians.
Female authorial challenges to male power did not go unnoticed; sensation fiction was parodied, criticized, and condemned by a male populace who sensed the subversive subtext of female fiction. In 1868, the Tractarian Francis Paget attacked his genre and its female authors:
For the Victorian woman, success as a sensational novelist came with the sacrifice of her character and reputation. Even if a female author published pseudonymously or anonymously, her identity would be discovered or assumed by the prying public and she would be attacked and condemned for a wicked and disobedient harlot, who had the audacity to remain a single woman.
It is not surprising then that Alcott went to great lengths to conceal her identity as an author of thrillers and explain her choice for writing these tales to her friends and family. In a letter to her childhood friend, Alf Whitman, June 22, 1862, Alcott writes: "'I intend to illuminate the Ledger with a blood & thunder tale as they are easy to "compoze" & are better paid than moral & elaborate works of Shakespeare so dont be shocked if I send you a paper containing a picture of Indians, pirates, wolves, bears & distressed damsels in a grand tableau.'" (Stern 50-51). Alcott must overcompensate her penchant for writing sensational stories by claiming economic necessity; however, "Louisa' blood-and-thunder tales would be not only 'necessity stories' produced for money--from fifty to seventy-five dollars each--but a psychological catharsis" (Stern 55). Under the guise of fiction, and a pseudonym, Alcott could fulfill her economic need and release her built up frustration and anger she suffered under male authority. Thus, her thrillers are "sensational," not because they discuss deception, envy, passion, and other characteristics undesirable in the proper Victorian female, but because her stories challenge and contradict the role of female domesticity, or little women.
In her first sensationalist story, "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," Alcott rejects the sentimental heroine, or angel in the house, in exchange for a tragic and problematic heroine. The title character, Pauline Valery, seeks revenge against her false lover, Gilbert Redmond, who abandoned her to marry a wealthy, younger woman. Although she admits that her vindictiveness is "weak, wicked, and unwomanly" (Alcott 5), Pauline is determined to wound Gilbert as he wounded her. She enlists the aid of the loyal, young, rich Manuel Laroche, who agrees to marry her so that she can have the freedom and protection to carry out her plan. The newlyweds meet up with the Redmonds and, immediately, the drama unfolds as the unrequited lovers don their masks and play the roles of coy mistress and ardent lover. Pauline and Gilbert's preoccupation with one another causes the neglected Babie and Manuel to take comfort in one another; as they are alike in wealth, position, age, and heart, they quickly fall in love. Manuel, disgusted at Gilbert's habit of gambling and his dishonorable treatment of his young wife and Pauline, confronts Gilbert and demands justice. Gilbert seizes Manuel's gentlemanly challenge as an opportunity for murder and pushes him off a cliff into the sea. In despair, Babie jumps after her love, and the thriller ends with Pauline's desire for revenge unsatisfied.
Although considered "rubbish," this short story is didactic, like Alcott's sentimental fiction, because it cautions the reader against unrestrained passion, maliciousness, gambling, hatred, and vindictiveness. Pauline, who seeks to destroy Gilbert, only destroys herself as the last line of the story reveals: "And with that moment of impotent horror, remorse, and woe, Pauline's long punishment began" (34). Her punishment is the guilt and blame for the deaths of two innocent people, both of whom loved her more than she loved them. Had Pauline forgiven, or at least forgotten Gilbert, and freed her heart to Manuel, a man truly deserving of her love and affection, the needless deaths of Manuel and Babie would not have happened. This story is a lesson in the joys of forgiveness and the punishment of resentment; a lesson that Jo learns in Little Women. Amy almost drowns in the nearly frozen river after Jo leaves her behind because she still held a grudge against Amy for burning her manuscripts. Jo knows that she is responsible and tells Marmee, "'Mother, if she should die, it would be my fault.' And Jo . . . telling all that had happened, bitterly condemning her hardness of heart, and sobbing out her gratitude for being spared the heavy punishment which might have come upon her" (75). Jo learns that bitterness can only bring sorrow and forgiveness brings peace and love. Jo was spared the punishment of Amy's death because Little Women is a sentimental novel and she did not actively seek revenge against Amy. However, Pauline is punished, not only because she did not forgive Gilbert, because she purposely sought to destroy him.
Alcott does moralize in this tale, yet it is sensational, not only for its themes of passion, power, and vengeance, but for its criticisms of society's treatment and expectations of the Victorian woman. Pauline lost her lover because she did not have money or position to recommend her. All she has of value is her beauty, which she knows is fleeting, as she tells Manuel: "'Remember, I am older than yourself, and may early lose the beauty you love so well, leaving an old wife to burden your youth'" (6). Beauty is Pauline's only possession that makes her marketable for marriage; she is burdened by the knowledge that it will soon fade and she then be unmarriable. However, Pauline's beauty did not sustain Gilbert's love; he left Pauline to marry someone younger and richer--a double insult to Pauline. Alcott is critical of a society that values beauty and youth in a woman because these things are impermanent and not indicative of character. Babie, for all her youth and wealth, suffers as Pauline suffers. When Babie learns that Gilbert married her only for her money, she tells him, "'You treat me like a child, but I suffer like a woman, and you shall share my suffering, because you might have spared me and you did not'" (17). Babie knows that Gilbert is really in love with Pauline and if he had married her, Babie would have been free to fall in love with Manuel. "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" is subversive because it explores the burdens, and not the joys, of womanhood in the nineteenth-century; and it also condemns the power and privilege that men exercise over women.
After the success of her first sensational story, Alcott continued to write thrillers under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. Yet, "despite pleas and bribes from her publishers, who offered her more money if she would put her name to her work, she would not be identified with this 'rubbish,' as she constantly referred to her sensational work" (Strickland 64); Alcott understood that if she were to maintain her virtuous reputation, she could not claim her sensational stories as her own. Writing under an assumed name brought Alcott economic success, but not the notoriety that she desired. Alcott wanted to be "'famous enough for people to care to read my [her] story and struggles'" (Davis x). She could not publicly acknowledge herself to be the author of those "lurid" tales without bringing judgment on her character and her family. Thus, Little Women was "an act of impersonation designed to save her psychological skin and ensure her economic survival" (Fetterley 13). Through the success of a sentimental novel, Alcott could achieve the fame that she longed for and fulfill societal expectations; however, Alcott did not receive emotional fulfillment writing Little Women, as she noted in her journal: "'I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing'" (Davis vi). Little Women was written in a "slapdash" manner as "she did not revise Little Women, or its successors, as she did her sensationalist works" (Douglas xvii). Thus, it could be assumed that Alcott was more serious about her sensational fiction than her sentimental novels.
To dismiss Little Women as simply "moral pap," however, would not do justice to Alcott's craft. Although she proclaimed her children's literature as "dull" and her worst "scrape," the reading public simply loved it. Little Women was thought to be "'a lively story for the young . . . exceedingly interesting'" (Strickland 70). One anonymous critic wrote that "Thousands of young people will read her story of these healthy, happy homes and their standard of home and happiness must in many cases be raised" ([Review of Little Women, Part II, 1869] 83). Despite such glowing reviews, Alcott remained indifferent towards Little Women. The contradiction between her success with this novel and the subsequent sequels and her seeming dislike of them is indicative of Alcott's uncertainty as a skillful writer and her inability to accept praise. As a writer, Alcott was far too demanding of herself; and her low self-esteem lead to the devaluation of her children's literature and shame for the sensational stories she loved to pen. In Little Women, the characterization of Jo reproduces Alcott's own internal struggle regarding sentimental and sensational fiction.
The tension between the appropriate occupation of writing sentimental fiction and the worldly task of penning thrillers begins when Jo receives a $100 check for her first sensational story. In the spirit of Bronson Alcott, Jo's father cautions her: "'You can do better than this, Jo. Aim for the highest and never mind the money'" (Little Women 249). The implication is apparent: writing sensation fiction is the lowest, unworthy of Jo and of Alcott. However, the money Jo earns pays for a much needed vacation, by the sea, for sickly Beth. Like Alcott, Jo learns that by writing the thrillers considered "rubbish," she could earn more money than by selling her hair or working as a ladies' companion. Jo, also like Alcott, learns to devalue her own talent because it is belittled and unappreciated by those she loves best: "it was so pleasant to find that she had learned to do something, though it was only to write a sensation story" (249 my italics). Jo refuses to take pride or receive any satisfaction in herself as a writer; rather, she justifies her "scribblings" as economic necessities that pay for the family's debt. Interestingly enough, Mr. March, like Bronson Alcott, is unable to sustain his family financial, yet both men all held in high esteem by society. Jo continues to write these "lurid" stories, each more sensational than the previous, until the prudish Mr. Bhaer denounces thrillers as "bad trash" (326). Fearing his condemnation and desirous of his approval and affection, Jo decides to cease writing stories "worse than trash" (326).
Jo turns to writing the sentimental fiction commended by society, and her family, as proper for a female writer. However, the tension between the self that found pleasure in writing sensational stories and her shame for this desire still existed. Jo ceased to write thrillers because of the opinions of others: "'I can't read this stuff in sober earnest without being horribly ashamed of it, and what should I do if they were seen at home or Mr. Bhaer got hold of them?'" (326). Her fear of public humiliation is far greater than her fear of corrupting her virtue by dwelling on themes of passion, romance, and the tragic underworld. Thus, Jo sacrifices her identity as a writer for the esteem and regard of her family and friends, despite her natural abilities for the sensational story. The novel ends with Jo's marriage to Mr. Bhaer and together they run a school for little boys. Her days as an authoress are at end, for "now she told no stories except to her flock of" school boys (444). Jo fulfilled the expectations of society by succumbing to the domestic role of housewife and mother, sacrificing her the self-fulfillment she received from writing. Although Jo traveled a similar path as Alcott's, their endings differ dramatically. Alcott would not accept the "bliss" of married life for herself, as is evident by her comment on her sister's honeymoon cottage: "'Very sweet and pretty, but I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe'" (Strickland 43). Little Women provides the tidy ending of Victorian domesticity and sentimentality in fulfillment of the reader's hopes for the March girls. Jo's conflict as a writer is resolved by her marriage to Mr. Bhaer and her days of sensational writing become part one of the mistakes of youth; Alcott, however, did not resolve this conflict in her personal life. Ann Douglas notes that "Little Women seems an examination of the moral effort which a nature like Alcott's makes to bridge the distance between its own turmoil and the serenity represented by her father . . .Alcott hoped to let sensational fiction and domestic fiction educate each other" (238). Yet, this seems to be an impossible task for Alcott, who could not negotiate the gap between societal pressures and her inner desires.
As Alcott later confided to her friend, LaSalle Corbell Pickett, she believed her talent lay in writing sensational stories, and not sentimental fiction: "'I think my natural ambition is for the lurid style. I indulge in gorgeous fancies and wish that I dared inscribe them upon my pages and set them before the public'" (Pickett 42). Her imagination ran wild with stories of passion and she could not rest until she put them to paper. In 1886, Alcott scribbled in her journal: "'Wrote a little on three stories which would come into my head and worry me until I gave them a "vent"'" (Davis xi). Alcott believed that her natural writing style was sensational fiction and she a had a strong drive to write these stories; however, she was unable to own this "unwomanly" desire because of propriety:
Thus, Alcott felt chained by her upbringing, education, and Concord society. She had to wear the mask of the sentimental author in order to maintain decorum and her reputation among her family and friends. This suppression of her identity as a writer left her "'a wretched victim to the respectable traditions of Concord'" (Pickett 42) and feeling unfulfilled as an author publicly chained to the sentimental genre.
With the exception of A Modern Mephistopheles, published anonymously in 1877 as part of Roberts Brothers' No Name Series, Alcott largely abandoned writing sensational stories in adherence to societal demands for the female writer. She was unable to completely give up this genre, as she noted in her journal, 1877: "'Went for some weeks to the Bellevue [hotel] and wrote A Modern Mephistopheles . . . It has been simmering since I read Faust last year. Enjoyed doing it, being tired of providing moral pap for the young'" (Davis vi). Writing this novel was a welcome release for Alcott from the drudgery of writing to please others and not herself. Similar to Little Women, A Modern Mephistopheles is autobiographical in nature as it explores Alcott's duplicity in writing sentimental fiction publicly and privately writing sensational stories. The novel is a modern retelling of the Faust legend. Jasper Helwyze, the "modern Mephistopheles," rescues the suicidal young poet Felix Canaris for a psychological experiment, and to amuse himself. Felix becomes his protégé and servant, continually at the mercy of Jasper's whims and fiendish desires. He achieves success and fame as poet by deception; he passes off the writings of Helwyze as his own. Undoubtedly, Felix's deceit mirrors Alcott's own troubled feelings at having to write her sensational stories under an assumed name. Unsatisfied and bored with his game, Helwyze demands that Felix marries the young and innocent Gladys for his own amusement and pleasure. The return of Helwyze first lover, Olivia, completes the love quadrilateral; Jasper orders Olivia to distract Felix so he can attempt to corrupt Gladys. Despite his plans, the young couple learns to love one another with honesty and sincerity; however, their new-found, domestic bliss is destroyed when Felix admits that he plagiarized Jasper's poetry. Gladys' innocence and faith in her husband is devastated and she dies of a broken-heart.
The heroine Gladys is caught in a web of male deception and privilege, despite her goodness. She is, literally, the angel in the house as Jasper observes when she emerges "from the gloom into a flood of sunshine, which touched her head with a glint of gold" (A Modern Mephistopheles 11); the sun illuminates her brow, forming a halo--a reference to her angelic nature. The power she held over those around her was the power of truth that "won gently and held firmly the regard it sought . . . 'little Gladys,' without apparent effort, had subjugated haughty Olivia, wayward Felix, ruthless Helwyze; and none rebelled against her. She ruled them by the irresistible influence of a lovely womanhood" (157-58). Gladys is the perfect Victorian woman, who inspires truth and honor in those around her; she remains uninfluenced by others' faults and teaches them to strive for virtue and goodness. She is the perfect little women: "'beautiful, accomplished, and good . . . admired, loved, and respected'" (Little Women 92); however, this does not secure her the perfect domestic ending of Little Women. Gladys' life ends tragically because of the abuse she suffers at the hands of male power. A Modern Mephistopheles explores the problematic nature of "little women"; to be virtuous cannot secure a woman safety from the evil designs of others. A nineteenth-century woman was constantly at the mercy of her father, brothers, husband, or male guardian; she had no autonomy. Thus, the Victorian woman had no power or control over her fate. Alcott recognized this lack of power in her own life and used her sensational stories to condemn a society that refuses to acknowledge women as independent and capable.
As Jeanne Bedell notes, once
Alcott was "Freed from the necessity to provide socially
and morally acceptable models for the young, she was able to
reveal the duplicity and deception characteristic of women's
lives and in the process to emphasize the destructive potential
of social stratification, male authority, and role-playing"
(13), as in evident in "Pauline's Passion and Punishment"
and A Modern Mephistopheles. Alcott's sensational stories
are "sensational" because they defy Victorian propriety
and criticize the male power unfairly used against women. These
stories are didactic and the lesson Alcott is imparting to her
female readers is the same lesson that James Richardson taught
her at age nineteen: the patriarchal structure of society is
damaging and limiting to women. Although Alcott used her sensation
fiction to express her frustrations and anger at being held captive
by male authority, she was never able to break the bonds of this
authority in her own life. She was unable to negotiate the gap
between sensational fiction and sentimental fiction; thus, her
identity as a writer remained confused and repressed. Alcott's
distaste for her domestic fiction, like Little Women,
reflected her anger at a society that forced her to write in
a proscribed genre. Her dislike is not for sentimental fiction;
rather she dislikes the expectations of Concord society that
make it impossible for her to be a writer of sensation fiction.
Thus, writing is not an act of self-fulfillment and independence
for Alcott because she remained caught between her public image
of the beloved children's author and her secret identity as sensational
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868. New York: Penguin, 1983.
----. A Modern Mephistopheles. 1877. New York: Bantam, 1995.
----. "Pauline's Passion and Punishment." Revenge: Short Stories by Women
Writers. Ed. Kate Saunders. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1991. 1-34.
Bedell, Jeanne F. "The Necessary Mask: The Sensation Fiction of Louisa May Alcott." Publications of the Missouri Philological Association 5 (1980): 8- 14.
Davis, Octavia. Introduction. A Modern Mephistopheles by Louisa May Alcott. New York: Bantam, 1995. v-xx.
Douglas, Ann. Introduction. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. New York: Penguin, 1983. vii-xxvii.
----. "Mysteries of Louisa May Alcott." New York Review of Books 25 (28 Sept. 1978): 60-63. Rpt. in Stern 231-240.
Fetterley, Judith. "Impersonating 'Little Women': The Radicalism of Alcott's Behind a Mask." Women's Studies 10 (1983): 1-14.
Pickett, LaSalle Corbell. "[Louisa Alcott's 'Natural Ambition' for the 'Lurid Style' Disclosed in Conversation.]" Across My Path: Memories of People I Have Known. New York: Brentano's, 1916. 107-108. Rpt. in Stern 42.
[Review of Little Women, Part II, 1869]. Commonwealth 7 (24 April 1869): 1. Rpt. in Stern 82-83.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Bronte to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.
Stern, Madeleine B. ed., Critical Essays of Louisa May Alcott. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984.
----. Introduction. Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. New York: William Morrow, 1975. vii-xxii, xxvii-xxxiii. Rpt. in Stern 50-64.
Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in
the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. University, Alabama:
U of Alabama P, 1985.