Copyright Kim Wells, 1998


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"I have found that women always wear a mask. It's made of cosmetics and fashion. Women consider it a masculine trait simply to be yourself. But they end up being caricatures of themselves, which makes them easy to mimic ." -- Lynne Carter, female impersonator, qtd. in Mary Elliott 299.

"A woman's highest duty is so often to suffer and be still"-- Mrs. Sarah Stickney Ellis, 1845, qtd. in Vicinus 1.

     Alcott's frustration with and anger at the economic dependence of women on men, who can sometimes be impractical, easily swayed, and financially unstable (as Bronson is in "Transcendental Wild Oats"), are illustrated in a number of her gothic stories. Far from being what modern readers assume are "typical" romances, filled with weak-hearted, swooning damsels in distress and swarthy, dark men who torture or save them, the majority of these gothic tales are populated with opinionated, strong, and sometimes cleverly manipulative, at times almost modern, women. In Alcott's scandals, women often do not play the expected role of victim but are instead assertive heroines who use whatever powers they possess to succeed against all odds. They are often conscious of the mask that they are wearing, and of the power that not "being themselves" gives them. When their "self" is everything that society considers pitiful-- poverty, femininity, youth-- these women realize that they must use those weaknesses to their advantage, and hide whatever cannot be used behind the personality that society expects them to show. Whether the mask Alcott's heroines wear is that of beauty, innocence, and youth, or that of the respectable married woman, they are all consummate actresses.
     In other words, Alcott's gothic characters are frequently not what they appear to be. As such, these women are quite capable of manipulating emotions and controlling situations in a manner that was considered unbecoming to middle-class Victorian women. Still, despite their seemingly unbecoming traits, Alcott portrays her scandalous women sympathetically. She does not seem to judge them for their acts of violence, revenge, and what society would call immorality. When reading Alcott's stories about these dramatic and imperviously powerful women, one comes away with an impression of Alcott's admiration for their ability to guide their own fates rather than to let others rule them. Those few punishments that Alcott does give her heroines are far less exacting than those that society would impose upon them, and even the characters (often male) these scheming women wrong are very forgiving. In fact, historian Beth Kalikoff's description of the "typical" gothic villainess's fate is quite the opposite of what Alcott's wicked women suffer. Kalikoff demonstrates in her study Murder and Moral Decay in Victorian Popular Literature that "the most common formula for the genre requires a male villain, but [when] female villains appear . . . they are often punished for their crimes with greater severity than their male counterparts" (22). Alcott's female villains do not suffer as much as Kalikoff's study shows they might be expected to. Why does Alcott seem to have less moral indignation at the actions of immoral women? Perhaps she is more understanding because she, too, has been pushed to her limits by economic necessity.
     By sympathetically defining the situations of these women, Alcott offers a step-by-step exploration of how an innocent girl can be forced, often through economic circumstances, into what society would call immorality, but what the heroines call necessity. By compassionately depicting her gothic heroines in previously unacceptable situations, Alcott sets up her own definition of "true womanhood." Alcott's definition includes aggression and seductiveness in addition to nurturing and compassion. She has claimed her "right to labor" (Letters 178) by claiming for herself the profession "writer," and in so doing, she has succeeded in "claiming the right to make meanings" (Davis 53). Alcott's characters reveal, through their actions, that they are aware that there is a difference between what society expects of women and what society actually rewards; Alcott seems to sense that those differences actively "made all women actresses," because they cannot claim power outright and must do so in subversive ways (Davis 53). Women, according to what we see illustrated by Alcott's heroines, can be successful only if they can power, specifically in taking financial control of their own lives. It is in careful analysis of the lessons these gothic heroines teach us that we can see an important side of Alcott's body of work-- the practical moneymaker, the author who was not afraid to shock her readers and who actually enjoyed doing so, and the woman and daughter who was conscious of the penalties for a woman who lets her "mask" slip.
     Actually, Alcott considered being even more shocking than she was as a writer of tabloid stories; she briefly toyed with becoming a professional actress herself, although professional actresses, and theatrical people in general, were considered depraved:

Professional entertainers throughout the nineteenth century were social pariahs. Their exotic dress and lifestyle and their reputation, usually undeserved, for licentious and scandalous behavior, put them beyond the pale of normal society. This . . . should come as no surprise in a nineteenth century imbued with religious evangelical fervor and rigid moral and racial codes. The road to social respectability was not an easy one [and] . . . the stage was looked upon as a place of evil, a breeding ground for sin that all decent people avoided. (Hanners 2-3)

     Instead of sharing this attitude about actors, Alcott reveals, directly in some of her gothic stories and more subtly in others, her affinity for actresses and all women who must perform in public because of economic necessity. Even women who are performing the roles (public in the sense that these roles require leaving one's home) of governess or nurse are clearly linked to those who work on stage. The women of Alcott's stories do not content themselves with remaining in the private sphere; instead, they reveal themselves in a number of public displays that are meant to seem private, causing us to question the distinctions between public and private acts. Alcott's theatrical language and awareness of the nature of "scene" the characters enact supports the supposition that she was aware of being "on stage." But she is also aware of the dismay with which Victorian society viewed women who allowed themselves to be seen in public acts, knowing that "the distinction between women of a 'private' and of a 'public' character hinged on more than the propriety of their sexual conduct outside of marriage. Exhibiting private emotions before 'the many-eyed gazing mass' of public spectators compromised-- even obliterated, a woman's modesty and her integrity as a private person" (Davis 53). Alcott uses her awareness of these tensions to her benefit as a writer, manipulating them to provide conflict in her stories.
Only an Actress: Challenging the Role of Angel/Sinner on the Stage
     Even knowing the restrictions against public display of emotions, Alcott wrote in her journal in 1858 that "perhaps it is acting, not writing, I'm meant for. Nature must have a vent somehow" (qtd. in Whispers 132). It seems that her "vent" became, in part, writing about actresses. "Marion Earle; or, Only an Actress!" appeared later that year, and is considered by some to be her first "thriller" because of its theme of sexual abandonment and betrayal, complete with an unwed mother and an interrupted wedding. However, the story is primarily a moral exemplar, since Marion Earle, as the perfect, virtuous, and forgiving woman, is the character with whom women readers are meant to sympathize. If it weren't for her profession, Marion would be the ultimate self-effacing angel whom Victorian women were called upon to emulate. By depicting this societally questionable "actress" sympathetically, Alcott demands that the reader re-evaluate those definitions of what really is "moral" and "immoral."
     "Marion Earle; or, Only an Actress!" begins in mid-conversation as a defense of actresses in general: "But Mrs. Leicester, all are not weak, frivolous and vain. I have known actresses as virtuous and cultivated as any lady . . . faithful wives, good mothers, and true-hearted women" (Whispers 133). The defender then turns to specifics, citing Marion Earle as a truly virtuous woman. Marion's defender tells us her background; we learn that she and her little sister are both "friendless and poor" orphans and that Marion, in order to support herself, "had the courage to enter the profession for which her talents fitted her" (134). The truly virtuous woman is the one who remains "good" in the face of temptation. Although she is engaged in a profession that needs to be defended as possibly virtuous, Marion is described as "respected . . . for not a breath of slander ever touched her name" (134). Alcott here reminds her reader to judge a woman not by her circumstances but by her actions. The mood of this story is gossipy as a result of its beginning with this whispered conversation, and the story becomes even more so as we discover, like the gossipers, more details. We are meant to question not Marion's virtue, but the gossipers, as gossip, in the eyes of Victorian society, should be even more improper than the behavior being gossiped about. In questioning the gossipers as reliable judges of personality, we are driven to question our own role as spectator to the performance of the unfolding drama.
In the midst of a stage performance, Marion learns that her sister, to whom she has been a mother, has died, and she is publicly sorrowful. Most of the theatergoers, and probably most of Alcott's readers, feel sympathy for Marion's obvious distress. However, Mrs. Leicester is unmoved by Marion's tragedy and consequent sorrow, and she gives the story its title, exclaiming to her young niece, "Don't be foolish . . . her tragedy air was vastly effective; so never waste your pity, child-- she is only an actress" (135). To Mrs. Leicester, Marion, as an actress is less than human, and less than worthy of human compassion because the emotions actresses express must all be false, since they are allowed to be seen in public. Only private emotions are valid, it seems.
     On the other hand, Mrs. Leicester, who expresses the typical Victorian attitude against actresses, blindly and publically dotes upon her son, and whole heartedly denies the "slanders" that dotouch his name. She does not consider her own public emotions as false. In some ways, Mrs. Leicester is more trapped in her own role than any of the other characters of the story; as a result, she must rigidly attempt to keep everyone else in their narrowly defined places, so that her place will remain superior. Unlike Marion, (in Mrs. Leicester's eyes), Robert is innocent and superior because of his circumstances, not his actions. Even Robert's gender assures his role as a "good" character in his mother's eyes; Victorian men are more legitimately a part of public acts than women, so any scandal that touches him must have a more private nature. This is what Mrs. Leicester is afraid of when she dismisses any rumors -- that private scandals might ruin her family name. Mrs. Leicester, in fact, is quite representative of Alcott's portrayals of the average upper-class woman of her time; we can see women like her in virtually all her novels, women whom society views as good but whom Alcott shows us are two-faced, giving to charity one weekend and turning away orphans the next because that orphan is disturbing teatime. Therefore, any assertion, despite its social popularity, that comes from Mrs. Leicester, is questionable for Alcott. She negates its "truth" by putting it in the mouth of a woman whom society calls proper but whose actions reveal her as immoral and self contradictory.
     The next two scenes are contrasts: Marion is drawn as the empathetic, perfect "angel" of a woman, while Mrs. Leicester, in direct opposition, is revealed as unkind and uncompassionate. Mrs. Leicester's lack of kindness is meant as a foil to Marion's virtue. Mrs. Leicester responds with cold-hearted skepticism when a very young mother appears at the Leicester home seeking refuge. The young mother claims that Mrs. Leicester's son is the child's father, and that he has made promises and then abandoned her. The story that follows is that of the innocent young woman who is seduced into a romantic entanglement and then dropped by a frivolous young man, who cares nothing about taking care of his responsibilities. By showing us these two scenes, Alcott reverses our expectations of the "society woman" and the "public woman" and, in so doing, asks us to question appearances and definitions.
     Mrs. Leicester responds first to the private revelations by denying her own role in "this old story, which I neither believe nor desire to hear" and then offering hush money (Whispers 136). One suspects that Alcott means to imply that Mrs. Leicester may on some level believe the story-- she is worried that where there is smoke, there is fire, and is afraid of the consequences of a public revelation. Thus she tries to silence the gossip she knows she would perpetuate by using her favorite tool-- money. To this ill-intentioned offer, the girl replies, "I did not sell my love" and rushes away "with a warning gesture" (136). The girl is angry because accepting the much-needed money where there is no public confirmation of a legitimate relationship would make her a prostitute.
     The next scene contrastingly features Marion Earle, the supposedly morally inferior actress, in an encounter with the same girl, Agnes. Alcott uses this scene to show us the need for fair and open discussion of the things society does not speak of, and to discourage preconceptions. Whereas Mrs. Leicester disbelieved and turned away, Marion offers sympathy, forgiveness, and friendly compassion. Mostly, Marion offers the young mother nonjudgmental financial support and urges her to seek public union with the child's father. Marion, then, is shown to be superior in moral character to Mrs. Leicester, the so-called "respectable" woman. In this manner Alcott shows us that, contrary to popular belief, actresses are sometimes more virtuous than their society counterparts. In so doing, she challenges our ideas of both the role and the role-player.
     There is a duality between social classes that is described throughout the short story; the poor are shown as more moral and the rich are shown as forever inflexible. Mrs. Leicester continues to be stubborn and cold while Marion offers help and even sacrifices her own marriage, and eventually her own life, for the young mother. Marion is supposed to marry Agnes's errant lover and instead, upon learning that he is the wayward father, insists that Robert Leicester marry the woman who bore his child. Marion uses the wedding altar as a stage that she controls; she publicly asserts Agnes and Robert's relationship and in so doing, grants Agnes her part as "bride." The act becomes the reality. Finally, Marion, "having bestowed all she possessed to give, her life, her love, and earthly valuables," dies of a contagious fever that Robert (whom she selflessly nurses back to health) exposes her to (Whispers 149). This woman, whom society has labeled as of questionable virtue, is willing to die to help Agnes, to whom she is not related, and even Robert, who has publicly humiliated her. With her last act, Marion reforms by public example, rather than the corruption that public acts are supposed to lead to. She shows anyone who is "watching" that the best behavior is that which helps others, even if it hurts the actor.
     While this plot twist is reminiscent of Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth (1850), in which a reformed illegitimate mother nurses her ex-lover through a fever and dies after saving his life, refusing marriage, there is an interesting difference that reveals something of Alcott's attitude toward Marion. In Alcott's story, the self-sacrifice is made by a woman who is not sexually fallen, a woman whose only "crime" is her profession.(7) Marion's role implies that to work outside the home, especially if that "work" required any kind of "act," meant that a woman would somehow be deemed the equivalent of a prostitute. In Alcott's story, it is obvious that any woman whom society views as "fallen" because of a simple need to work is wronged. The typical attitude that these melodramas take toward their heroines is that they are fallen angels, harshly punished and judged as sinners because of their public acts and resulting auras of rampant sexuality. Perhaps, by eliminating the sexual question, Alcott wanted to make her audience focus instead on their prejudices concerning women who, in her eyes, were not necessarily committing any wrongdoing. Alcott's feeling that she must bear the responsibility for her family's well-being in the absence of Bronson as provider clearly shows through in this sympathetic portrayal of Marion. Women must take care of women in this story, just as in Alcott's life, and as a result, the story seems to judge the women more severely for their lack of care than the men-- Robert is forgiven for his economic and sexual frivolity far sooner than Mrs. Leicester is for her adherence to her narrow and limiting role of scornful mother.
     Marion leaves her fortune to Agnes's child and a summer home to Mrs. Leicester, who, apparently as a natural result of her cruelty and refusal to support another woman in need, has fallen upon hard times. There seems to be nothing that Marion would not give up to help others who are in need. In short, Marion is so far from being the typically sinful woman that actresses are assumed to be in the nineteenth century that she is almost too kind to be believed. Through her unselfish example, Marion even convinces Mrs. Leicester to forgive and forget. In fact, this story depicts the exact opposite of accepted opinions to such a degree that it seems as though Alcott wants to challenge public opinion. Perhaps Alcott wants to vindicate her own need to work for a living by illustrating how much more virtuous working women can be than their moneyed, selfish counterparts, who can afford to stay at home, in private. Even after Marion retires from the stage and does not need to support herself publicly any longer, she maintains her willingness to help others, rather than retreating into the privacy of home like a hermit.
     The next of the "handful of stories in which Alcott uses actresses or actors to express a theme that recurs in all her thrillers: people are not what they seem" (Whispers 150) is in "La Jeune; or, Actress and Woman". Like Marion Earle's drama, this one begins as a conversation in which one character defends actresses to another, disparaging character, both of whom eventually become pivotal to the story's progression. Again we are meant to question the motives of the speakers because they are engaged in hurtful and impolite behavior-- gossip. This story's narration is in first person, and, just like Mrs. Leicester in "Marion Earle," the skeptical narrator displays the typical Victorian attitude about actors. Although he still finds them interesting and has been in the past a frequent if blasé theatergoer, he now claims indifference to the stage. However, it does not take much to get him interested once again. He is easily swept up by the appearance of intrigue; we learn the extent of his curiosity about the apparent mystery by virtue of the story being told from his point of view. While the first-person narration seems somewhat awkward at first, it allows the reader to see into the narrator's private thoughts, revealing the extent to which even a skeptical and world-weary man can be caught up in what he "sees" as opposed to what he "knows." The rich, according to Alcott's depictions of them, can afford to be deceived by appearances in a way that working women cannot, and Ulster, the story's narrator, is no exception to this rule.
     The story's plot is quite simple. Ulster, as the older and wiser of the two men, at first seeks to discredit the faith his protégé has in La Jeune, and to show her as unfit for marriage. Eventually, though, Ulster is as swept away in La Jeune's illusions as the man he seeks to save. Ulster thinks he discovers, through a series of intrigues and half-truths, that La Jeune is hiding secrets. He eventually believes that one of these secrets is that La Jeune actually loves him, rather than his young friend, Brooke. La Jeune dismisses Ulster's declaration of love and tells him all her hidden secrets, which are the opposite of what he thinks they are, including that she is dying of a wasting disease. By allowing La Jeune the power of revelation, as opposed to the male narrator discovering hidden truths, Alcott allows her actress to control this scene completely, rather than being controlled by it.
     Early in the story, Ulster argues, "I know her class; they are all alike, mercenary, treacherous and shallow," and he curses his young friend's "folly in wasting time, money, and the love of his honest heart on a painted butterfly" (153). Ulster, then, at first shares the typical nineteenth-century belief that women who perform publicly (thereby making a spectacle of themselves) must be hiding private, unscrupulous acts; the actress's hidden "heart" must be dishonest. He condemns La Jeune as a gold-digger even after she returns an expensive bracelet, because he believes her reluctance to accept the gift is an act of reverse psychology, aimed at guaranteeing her the highest victory one of her class might achieve. He feels that she is betting that, by appearing virtuous, she might gain a socially acceptable marriage and home, and that this is why she refuses the "money" that is implied in expensive jewelry. She does not, he believes, want to play the role of mistress, but prefers the more acceptable role of wife. Of course, actresses are not suitable to mix with the upper class, of which Ulster and his friend are representatives.
     While Ulster, as the wealthy aristocrat, can label and define others without self-doubt, the reader is assured that Ulster's truths are possibly suspect when he is shown as someone whose own moral character and certainty wavers to suit himself. In fact, since Ulster's own "act" is one that he is free to change (he can play the part of the mentor, or the concerned aristocrat, or the friend of the actress, or even of the detective ferreting out secret information, at his leisure), Alcott seems to compare the parts the male and the female characters play. Ulster, as a wealthy male, is not trapped in his role, because society will not condemn him for changing outwardly. He can go from being the disinterested theatergoer, bored with life, to being the concerned friend who is hanging around a beautiful woman (and attempting to deceive her) with his friend's welfare in mind, and no one questions his moral character because of his ability to play numerous parts. Ulster is free to be the spectator or the actor, and he feels no doubt of his own right to play either role.
     As a spectator, when Ulster catches his first glimpse of La Jeune, he admires how well she acts the part of a French marquise. She enters the scene "not as most actresses take the stage but as a pretty woman really would enter her room, going straight to the glass to see if the effect of her costume was quite destroyed by the vicissitudes of a bal-masque," but he then dismisses the effect as "paint, dress, wine or opium" (154). Ulster flip-flops between what he believes is true and what his eyes tell him. He knows, or thinks he knows, that she is a poor, unscrupulous actress. But he allows himself to believe temporarily that she is naturally the royal woman she performs, because that belief entertains him. In this way, Alcott reveals the inconsistency of educated gentlemen, especially those who believe themselves morally superior to working women without knowing the details that have caused them to need to support themselves. Men, especially wealthy ones, can be more changeable than any actress/woman. The supposed gentleman and pillar of society is indecisive and untrustworthy, depending on his whim and mood-- a clear reversal of social moral codes wherein it is the poor who cannot control their emotions.
     What is most interesting about this, and other gothic stories, is Alcott's awareness of the difference, or lack thereof, between a "natural" woman and an actress, or even between a gentleman and an actor. It is in the moments of unexpected observation that Alcott reveals the most about her own attitudes toward women's roles. If, through necessity, a woman must sometimes be deceptive, what is the so-called "truth" worth?
     There are a number of places in the brief story where, through the narrator's deviations between awareness and cluelessness, Alcott discloses her own awareness of the illusion, and artifice, of all womanly affectations. The actress is simply a more skillfully practiced woman; she represents the ultimate caricature of male expectations, and if she does it properly, even men like Ulster forget her profession and believe in their own cherished illusions. La Jeune is described as "petite and piquant, fair hair, dark eyes, a ravishing foot and hand, a dazzling neck and arm. . . . rosy, dimpled . . . gay, arch, and full of that indescribable coquetry which is as natural to a pretty woman as her beauty" (154, my italics). Even in the midst of his description of those traits that make her most artificial-- she is on stage, playing a French marquise from the reign of Louis XIV -- he still forgets and calls her act "natural." If a man who is aware of the artificial nature of her act can be so caught up, what happens when he is not aware that she is "on stage"? It is in the cleverest managements of the male narrator's beliefs that he can catch her "off-stage" that La Jeune is most efficient, and there are several scenes that Ulster takes as indications of well-hidden secrets that are reminders of the difference between "on" and "off" stage. He declares, "I never am deceived; I read men and women like books, and no character is too mysterious for me to decipher" (159). He is, however, quite easily deceived, because he does not realize that women can play roles even when they are not in a theater.
     Four private "scenes" convince Ulster, who believes he is observing an actress "off stage," that he knows La Jeune's "true," or private, character. The first of these includes a bit of acting on Ulster's part-- he finds out, through gossip with one of La Jeune's neighbors, that there is "one room in mademoiselle's suite that none of the servants . . . was allowed to enter" and that "several times a week . . . the maid admitted a man, who came and went as if anxious to escape observation" (161). Ulster decides that this mysterious man is a lover, and that there is some sort of illicit deal between this mystery man and the actress. Ulster creates a "role" for the mystery man that fits into his preconceived notion of what La Jeune's "part" is. The second scene is one that La Jeune stages for Ulster's benefit; she declares, "I have been playing for a high stake, but I have won." Ulster believes he is overhearing this without her knowledge, and when he hears "the clink of money," he decides, "She gambles-- so much the better" (161). In reality, the "stake" is economic control over her own life-- the game she is playing is acting, not roulette. A third scene is when Ulster encounters La Jeune's maid purchasing a flask of what he believes is laudanum, and he leaves the shop "convinced that La Jeune was an opium eater, like many of her class," even though the flask could be for anyone (162). The last of Ulster's investigations during his role of detective is when he notices a change in her appearance. He sees that "her spirits were variable, her cheek lost its bloom, her form its roundness, and her eyes burned with feverish brilliancy" but he believes that her change is the result of "secret anxiety or grief" rather than the illness that is actually plaguing her (162). His role shifts yet again as he believes himself the capable doctor here, diagnosing symptoms of illness as those he thinks he understands-- that of lovesickness for him. Because he casts himself in the role of "lover" to La Jeune, he begins to believe his own act, and falls in love with the actress he previously called fake.
     The significance of these tableaux, in the context of Alcott's other writing, is realized when Ulster confronts La Jeune with his suspicions. Ulster believes that his scrutiny of La Jeune has been done without her knowledge, but she lets him know immediately after he confronts her that she has been quite aware of what he has been doing. La Jeune is an actress who is always on stage, and as such, she controls every scene. She tells Ulster that she overheard his boasts about how he would not be deceived about her character, and declares that she has deliberately shown him details that he would misconstrue in order to show him "the bitterest contempt" (164). She adds that "you know nothing of my past; that my heart is a sealed book to you, and that you have only seen the . . . side I show the world" (164). In this way, La Jeune shows herself to be the type of woman that appears in many of the gothic stories-- one who is willing to expose herself to the public eye, which is never really gone, in order to be independent. She might even be willing to let someone believe complete untruths in order to convince that person of her own reality and thus to control and define that reality.
     Here Alcott demands that we question what we know as true-- what truths might instead be a role that is being played, what events that we believe we understand might really be cleverly staged performances? La Jeune then reveals to Ulster that she does not want anything from either him or his young friend. She is actually married and relatively wealthy; even though she is dying, she does not need anyone else to aid her survival. In one brief scene, the more skillful actress destroys all of Ulster's role playing. However, unlike the men, in this story La Jeune has labored for her wealth. Her life is not a game wherein roles switch based on whims; she has become an actress, "hid [her] name . . . grief . . . and feigned both youth and gayety [sic], that [she] might keep [her husband] from want" (166). La Jeune's heart is indeed hidden, and what is hidden there is not what Ulster expects. Nevertheless, La Jeune lets his expectations lead him into her power. She has sacrificed her privacy because her husband is losing his mind and she does so to support him, to make sure he is "secure against want" (167), whereas the wealthy men in the story have not had to struggle for anything. By controlling the scene, La Jeune defines for herself even her act of dying, sending a black rosary to Ulster as both a memento of her and a reminder of his own sins.
     Throughout these four scenes and their subsequent revelation of La Jeune's true character, Alcott demonstrates the extent that women will go to in order to sacrifice their own lives for the support of others and for the right to define the self in their own terms. Rather than describing the type of actress that her society has such contempt for, Alcott describes several actresses who are willing to sacrifice everything for the benefit of others, from their youth to their health to their honor, whereas so-called respectable men and women turn a blind eye to everything but their own pleasure. With her sketches of the "off-stage" and the "on-stage" events in these actresses' lives, such as Ulster's misread scenes and Marion's wedding scene, Alcott calls into question the definition of the word "actress." Alcott's actresses remind us that all acts might be public performances: "the 'personations' that an actress performs on the stage reiterate the ways in which women, even in private, enact roles; hence the distinctions between . . . spheres dissolves, and the ideological prohibition against women's public activity is inevitably thrown into question" (Keetley 188). Marion's portrayal of "bride" casts shadows on all brides, and La Jeune's portrayal of young actress calls into question the ability of the observer, here represented by Ulster, to comprehend the true nature of the observed.
     In other words, when actresses are revealed as women who play a deliberately sketched, carefully crafted role, on stage or off, in order to secure a stable financial place in a world that declares anyone who must work must be unworthy of any outside aid, they throw even non-actresses' roles into question. Alcott's actresses play the role of "angel" so well, despite their public persona of "sinner," that they make it obvious that the "natural" affinities of all women, not just actresses, are easily mimicked and therefore, probably fake. Not only are these roles only roles, they are imposed from the outside, often without reason. Alcott's actresses' profession, which disguises their innate goodness as a result of the social prejudices against them, demands that we re-evaluate our own preconceptions about real women both off stage and on.
Real Women vs. Acting Like One
     In two of Alcott's other gothic stories, she further links the idea of the professional actress to the roles that women in general have to play, especially when they are poor. Women from "good families" in reduced circumstances, Alcott argues, must sometimes play certain carefully controlled parts in order to secure either financial or emotional independence. If "good" women are often called upon by circumstances to perform unacceptable roles, couldn't all women be performers at one time or another, for one reason or another? Alcott sketches women who are not publicly acknowledged to be actresses but who nonetheless undertake carefully thought out "roles," and what were once easily perceived "differences" become ever more blurred. Dawn Keetley points out that "the mid-nineteenth-century ambivalence about women who perform . . . affected not just that anomalous woman, the actress, but every middle-class woman" (187). Is the woman in question living out a role, or is she pretending to do so in order to obtain another role? In the first of these stories, Pauline is not by any means a professional actress, but she carefully performs a number of roles in order to get what she wants, which is revenge. That she also gets other things from her "acting" is also apparent. What roles will "natural" women play in order to succeed in achieving their goals?
     "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" was published in 1863, in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, during what Madeline Stern calls "A.M. Barnard's heyday" (Mask xxi). Alcott noted in her journals that she received one hundred dollars for the story and that she "was glad that . . . winter bore visible fruit" (qtd. in Mask xxi). At the time she received the money for the story, she was in Washington, D.C. working as a Civil War nurse. Her experiences as a nurse were published in serial form, and later, all the sketches were published in one volume as Hospital Sketches (also in 1863). The novel sold for 50 cents a copy, "which Louisa and her friends thought steep. Later, she blamed the relatively small sales of the volume on its cost" (Saxton 263). Alcott declared that the book "showed me my style" (qtd. in Saxton 264). It did not put her very far into what Abba called "an honorable independence for herself-- and much comfort for us" (qtd. in Saxton 265), but it was another reinforcement for Louisa of the connection between the writer's role and financial independence. The book received some critical praise and, as Saxton points out, it is in this volume that "the no-nonsense, slightly self-mocking, undeniably preachy tone in [Alcott's] later works" first emerged (264).
     Despite her discovery of an authorial voice in the slightly autobiographical pages of Hospital Sketches, the most significant result of Alcott's traumatic stay in Washington was a wasting illness, which was treated by the mercury cure that eventually cost Alcott her freedom as the effects of the lingering poison slowly destroyed her body. Thus the lessons Alcott described in her gothic stories about the consequences of actions were reinforced in her later life.(8) Because Alcott tried to be independent and make her own destiny, volunteering as a nurse, she eventually lost her own ability to control her life, as the act of writing eventually became immensely painful to her. While Alcott was ill she seemed to encounter a number of her own personal demons, courtesy of the delusions and hallucinations caused by the mercury raging through her body. One of the "demons," in fact, seems very much like Manuel, the romantic lead in Pauline's drama: "Louisa was tortured with strange visions. She imagined a wicked Spanish husband, a grandee in black velvet who said, 'Lie still my dear.' He startled her by leaping out of closets, in at her from windows, and threatening her night after night" (Saxton 257).
     Saxton hypothesizes that Alcott's poisoning, combined with encounters during the war with hundreds of strange men, generated her fears of being "wicked" and out of control, and that the hallucinated appearance of a controlling and sinister husband was only one, of many, problems:

At the hospital her duties collided with her fear of men. She had to repress her terrors and be physically intimate with many males. In her ravings she uncovered hideous fears of rejection and violence . . . the Spanish grandee, a character Louisa had used since childhood dramas, was a romantic but fearsome scoundrel, full of vitality and sexuality, who worked his way with women . . . tamed, these fantasies were material for stories. Untamed, they were expressions of Louisa's deepest sexual and emotional horrors. (258)

Pauline's taming of Manuel is obvious in the story, written before Alcott's war experiences, but one senses that her illness and subsequent hallucinations brought out her fear that she might not be able to control her own emotions, represented by this dark and forbidden lover. This feeling of losing control over her fantasies could explain why "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," with its Latin lover, so much like her hallucinated husband, was one of Alcott's last gothic stories. In fact, her later romantic leads are much less dangerous than even Manuel, characters like Laurie who is capable of being married off interchangeably between sisters because the passion he feels is easily mistaken and easily replaced.
     Pauline is very successful in accomplishing her less than admirable goals, and she is unfortunately complicit in a double murder, making her one of Alcott's most villainous villains. Pauline's story could just as well have come directly from the plays that Jo, March, Amy and Beth perform during Little Women, and it is probably quite similar to the plays Alcott's own siblings performed at home. It is not Alcott's best work, or even the best example of her gothic stories. It is a departure from the "norm" of the melodramatic tradition Alcott was working with, and as such, it reveals Alcott's need to challenge the expected roles her women characters played. There are some rather thin characterizations, and the plot is generally formulaic, but the one major difference between what Alcott wrote and what she saw in print next to her stories is the story's outcome.
     The story is a turgid romance, complete with tropical settings, a dark, impetuous Cuban lover, a vengeful and powerful woman, and a shockingly abrupt ending, sans moral. The readers of the pulp magazine where it appeared were probably quite familiar with the type of story that Alcott gave them-- there are certainly a number of character stereotypes present in the pages of the story. For example, Manuel is Pauline's husband and her fellow actor in the vengeance she seeks upon Gilbert, a man who had promised to marry her before he left her for a richer woman. Manuel is constantly referred to as "swarthy," "passionate," a "southerner" who is half boy/half man, yet also a "tame antelope" at Pauline's feet. In short, Alcott typecasts Manuel as the passionate Latin lover who lets his heart rule and who might do anything for the love of a pretty face. This "type" would be inherently satisfying to the reading public, playing not only on their prejudices but on their romanticized ideals as well.
     Alcott was quite aware of the prejudices people would have regarding coloring; we should recall Bronson's preference for blondes (like himself) and his theory that brunettes like Abba and Louisa were lower, even "demonic" types. That Alcott clearly associates darker coloring with passion and uncontrollable emotions is apparent in Manuel's character in this story. But it is also clear that Alcott revels in the power these characters gain in thwarting the expected connections between coloring and passion, as Saxton argues:
In her lurid stories she didn't need to be responsible for a morality, an expected metaphysic, or a righteous ending . . . she identified with Pauline and believed that passionate, sexual women like herself were wicked and grotesque members of her sex. She saw the energetic Pauline as herself let loose. Her understanding of the character is profound and her disapproval is mixed with compassion. (261-62)
     Even though Pauline is a blonde, which in Bronson's eyes would have made her more angelic, her behavior is more in tune with the passion and depravity that Bronson associated with darker coloring, as though Louisa is deliberately mixing these types to deny the validity of his claims.
     Like Manuel, Pauline is sketched with a number of favorite "types" in mind. Pauline is beautiful and young, with golden curls and an "infinitely sweet" voice. "Passion" burns in her "deep eyes, changing their violet to black" and "all a woman's sweetest spells touched the lips . . . and in the spirited carriage of the head appeared the freedom of an intellect ripened under colder skies" (Mask 109). In short, Pauline is the ice queen, quite familiar to readers of romance novels, both today and in Alcott's time.(9) Despite her icy appearance, the story's opening scene describes Pauline pacing "to and fro, like a wild creature in its cage" (107). We know immediately that she has strong passions, but we also believe that, true to the stereotype, she will suffer for them. As a caged animal, she could not be free to act. But does Pauline live up to our expectations, or her own?
     In addition to the anticipated stock romance characters, Alcott at first does not disappoint our expectations about what this type of story is supposed to do. The plot appears to be lifted straight out of the history of romantic tradition-- the jilted lover seeks revenge and comes to a bad end. In reality, Alcott's femme fatale does not receive the usual punishing "end." Whether Pauline really suffers dire consequences for her passions is debatable. What Alcott adds to this oft-told tale of the revenger's bad end is a woman character who is very much in control of herself and her situation, and who ultimately achieves her intended goals. Pauline is a woman on stage, just as much as Marion Earle or La Jeune. As such, she is quite powerful; she uses her powers to gain not only revenge, but economic stability as well. Again like La Jeune and Marion, Pauline employs both carefully planned, seemingly off-stage, innocent, and private "tableaux" along with carefully crafted public scenes to pursue her intent and gain power over her own life. She is quite conscious that her success as a woman depends on her ability to actlike a successful woman. Though she is not in a publicly acknowledged drama, Pauline knows that her life is just as dependent as that of any professional actress on her ability to convince others of her truth. She must convince her audience, the men who are in control of her economic success, that she is what she appears to be. Pauline is a clever actress, and her drama, sketched in theatrical terms throughout, is a moral tale full of contradictions. It is Pauline's most rehearsed act that gains her both her ultimate success and her so-called "punishment."
     Pauline realizes that she is a "solitary woman who earned her bread and found it bitter" (112) and that she must take up "a new task in a new scene" in order to find revenge for the betrayal she has suffered. She declares that she "will not rest till Gilbert [the man who has broken her heart] shall pass though an hour as bitter as the last" one that Pauline has spent (113). She wishes that the "lover" will play the part of "the betrayed" just as she has. She enlists Manuel's help in her role, on "a stage whereon . . . [she] could play a stirring part," because she "cannot make it . . . alone" (113). Pauline knows that the only way she can achieve revenge and successful role reversal with Gilbert is if her status is seemingly more powerful than his, saying to Manuel in her attempt to convince him to play the role she needs him to enact: "Beauty, grace and talent you tell me I possess; wealth gives them luster, rank exalts them, power makes them irresistible. Place all these worldly gifts in my hand and that hand [in marriage] is yours" (114). This stunning and quite liberated act, where the poor woman asks a younger, richer man to marry her, is just the first of Pauline's aggressive acts, and it is the first of this story's reversals of melodramatic convention.
     Just like any femme fatale, Pauline is willing to do whatever it takes to secure the status that can cripple Gilbert. However, unlike other femmes fatales, who typically suffer the consequences of their actions, Pauline alone defines the acts she will perform. She says that she cares for Manuel as a friend and promises him a wife in the future, but she is honest with him, confessing that she does not love him and that what she wants is "wicked, and unwomanly" (114). She knows that pretending love for Manuel could grant him some control over her, in that he could demand that she prove her love to him by denying her revenge to Gilbert, so she instead defines him as husband on her own terms. She even turns Manuel into an actor in order to accomplish her own goals, saying, "You possess dramatic skill. Use it for my sake, and come to your reward when this night's work is done" (119). Pauline is willing to trade her "reward" of sexual fulfillment to Manuel in exchange for his help in enacting the successful dramatic performance of a young honeymoon couple. She knows that Gilbert, for whom she displays her act, will be crushed by the knowledge that not only has Pauline apparently forgotten him, but she has married better than he could ever have hoped to do and gained respect, power, and money. Here, then, it is what the woman shows the outside world, not what she feels inside, that makes her truly powerful. Pauline's "act" is her best offense, a sign not of weakness but of strength.
     After a scene of publicly flaunted sexuality in which Pauline and Manuel skillfully dance an erotic valse (or tango), Pauline taunts Gilbert. "Have you no power, Gilbert?" she asks as she "silently accepted his challenge to the tournament so often held between man and woman" (131). This first scene has been cleverly planned; Pauline has dressed carefully and worn all of her jewels in order to flaunt her superior role (that of the wealthy heiress), and she "parades her handsome Manuel and their sexuality before the unhappily married couple" (Saxton 260). This opulent display, combined with her and Manuel's public sexuality, taunts Gilbert's marriage to a childish and petulant woman called "Babie," who is far from sexual and is, in fact, the opposite of Pauline in many ways. Babie is born rich, seems to possess all of life's advantages, and is passionless, yet she is the one who ultimately suffers for Pauline's passions. This is not as gothic conventions would have it.
     Following this deliberately public scene, Pauline crafts several days of supposedly innocent privacy, dramatized because she knows that Gilbert is watching her every move. She tells Manuel that she has "been all devotion and made this balcony a little stage for the performance of our version of the honeymoon for one spectator" (Mask 135).(10) In the illustration from the original tabloid, Pauline lounges languidly in a hammock while Manuel reads to her, and we imagine that Gilbert is peeking through a partially obscured window. Pauline, despite her apparent nonchalance, is carefully making these few days of quiet scenes into a public display. She has played the role of happy honeymooner in order to convince Gilbert that her marriage to Manuel is a legitimate love-match, and so to convince him that he has lost everything. Pauline's power, then, is sex, money, youth, and the appearance of living her role. She uses all of her powers effectively. (Click this link to see figures one & two)
     All of these carefully acted and deliberately thought-out scenes, which are designed to drive Gilbert into a rage, are topped off by Pauline's most carefully rehearsed drama, one in which she both gains and loses everything. Pauline and Gilbert have gone ahead of Manuel and Babie on a hike to see a waterfall. Pauline becomes aware that the final scene when she will punish Gilbert's betrayal is about to be played out, and she feels "every power under full control, every feature obedient to the art which had become second nature" (148). No stage-fright catches her; by now she is a skillful and practiced actress. She declares that he is wrong in believing she loves him, that he is contemptible in her eyes, and that she truly loves her husband. The tabloid illustration shows Pauline standing victoriously over the begging and submissive figure of Gilbert, who almost looks as though he is proposing marriage.(11) Her hand is raised, her face is angry, and she has turned her body away from him as he begins to weep, hands clasped. She is, in Alcott's prose, "as stern as an avenging angel" (150). The illustration clearly shows Pauline as the powerful figure, and it fits exceptionally well into Alcott's characterization.
     This act of vengeance, so carefully in Pauline's control until this moment, becomes even more dramatic and shocking when Gilbert, wrathful and insane, suddenly, "with a single gesture of his sinewy right arm . . . swept Manuel to the verge of the narrow ledge, saw him hang there one awful instant, struggling to save the living weight that had weighed him down [this weight is Babie, who is clinging to Manuel in fear at Gilbert's apparent rage, and] heard a heavy plunge into the black pool below" as Manuel and Babie fall to their deaths (152). Gilbert's loss of control further seals Pauline's victory over him. Alcott declares that this is when Pauline's "long punishment began" (152), but it can be debated what the punishment is, and who is being punished. Is the punishment the expected one for a sexually voracious woman? Alcott seems to say "no."
     Typically, the Victorian melodrama linked sexuality in women to moral decay, and in many of the plays and tabloids, "sexuality-- especially a woman's sexuality-- often results in or is connected to homicide" (Kalikoff 29). Usually, the sexual woman is the victim of that homicide. Pauline is not inherently sexual for herself, but her willingness to use her sexual charms to gain her revenge (which is her true passion) is what Alcott's society would want us to believe is her downfall. Pauline's punishment for allowing herself to feel passion is supposedly her connection to the double murder that she inspires Gilbert to commit. Perhaps the reader assumes that, in the last moments, Pauline realized that she truly did love Manuel and that her punishment is the knowledge of her part in his and Babie's death, but there is no textual evidence of this. The story ends in an abrupt yet ambiguous declaration that really does not say much. This non-ending would surely have titillated her readers' curiosity. By not telling us outright what happens after Gilbert's desperate act, Alcott leaves it up to the reader to decide the characters' fate. Therefore, the reader must choose the right and wrong "roles" of the story-- Alcott, as writer, relinquishes her own power and so makes her story more powerful. Definition is in the hands of her mostly female audience, and one wonders what that audience would decide.
     If we read the story carefully, we see that Pauline's fondest wish has been to punish Gilbert, and this wish has been realized. She now has complete control over him, for she has seen him commit two murders, and she holds his life in her hands, as surely as he briefly held his wife's and rival's. Pauline, who has declared earlier in the story that she feels no remorse over any pain, and that "such as I live years in an hour and show no sign. . . . shed no tears, uttered no cry, asked no comfort" (113), has the freedom to show or not show emotion. She also has the power to define Gilbert's situation-- she could call him murderer or lover. She has claimed to feel no womanly emotion, has in fact been so in control of those emotions that she has managed to achieve her goal of humiliating Gilbert. She is now a wealthy widow who has incredible power over one who has humiliated her in the past. That Gilbert's humiliation and sin are private makes it even more rich, because Pauline has the choice of whether to reveal his murderous act or to pretend that Manuel and Babie's deaths were accidental. Alcott grants Pauline the control of definition here, both for herself and for Gilbert. Pauline has all the power in this last scene, and Gilbert has relinquished it all with one act of "passion." Unlike the typical female of Victorian melodrama, who is pushed from tragedy to tragedy until her final suffering end, Pauline has been cold and calculating, while the males and one childlike woman have been the victims of their emotions. Pauline, then, is not the typical woman of melodrama because Alcott portrays her not as a monster, not as a victim, but as one in control of her own circumstances. In other words, Pauline's punishment may not be the one that is inflicted upon her; rather, it may be the one that Pauline inflicts.      On the other hand, if we assume that Pauline suddenly realizes that she does love Manuel, and that her punishment is his death and her complicity in it, we find that acting has become truth-- what Pauline has pretended to be she has become. Again, even this possibility leads us to question truths and to doubt appearances. Because the story's ending is ambiguous, readers must make the decisions based on their own experience and desires.
     It can be argued that Alcott knew what sold best, and therefore left off any moralizing that might have turned readers, and therefore editors, off her story. But if we assume that Alcott could have shown us the real punishment Pauline was to face-- years of sorrow or even a court battle-- and that the trial of a murderer's "accomplice" might have been fodder for the readers of the tabloids, and then realize that she did not give us any of these details, we have an ambiguous ending that blurs the form of melodrama and our expectations of those "types" of roles. If the female of melodrama is the victim "whose murders are centrally connected to [her] sexuality and demands for power" (Kalikoff 33), and in Alcott's drama Pauline is victor, not victim, then is Pauline truly punished for her manipulation of people and her part in causing two people's deaths? It is up to the reader to decide, because Alcott does not tell us. A typical melodrama probably would have shown Gilbert sweeping Pauline, victim of her passions, off the cliff as well. Alcott leaves this detail unwritten, preferring instead to sketch Pauline in a final moment of victory. In fact, the ambiguity of the title "Pauline's passion and [whose?] punishment" is clear upon closer examination-- does Pauline suffer the punishment or does she inflict it?

The Masks We Wear: Jean Muir and "A Woman's Power"
     Similarly, in Alcott's most famous and skillfully crafted gothic story, another femme fatale, Jean Muir, manipulates situations in an attempt to achieve power, and receives, really, no obvious punishment. From the first line of Alcott's "Behind a Mask" (1866), the reader is aware, as the story's characters are not, that the ability to hide what is "behind a mask" is, as the subtitle predicts, "a woman's power." Jean Muir, unlike Marion and Pauline, has lost her most powerful asset-- her youth. Like the aging actress La Jeune, she must make up for her disadvantage by a willingness to change the rules. Jean must push her act to its limits, and must appear to be unaware of those limits, or she will suffer the consequences. Also like La Jeune, she must ensure that the existence of her "role" is never suspected by her audience.
     Even more carefully, Jean must guard the fact that her lost youth and her poverty have led her to marriage and lost "virtue." The attitude of accepting the inevitability of lost virtue because of her poverty and its direst consequences is one that Alcott does not allow Jean to play. The role of victim of circumstances beyond her control is one role Jean refuses; instead, Jean plans to control all of her circumstances by hiding exactly how much of her virtue has been lost to poverty and time. The reader is admitted behind the scenes and seems to learn that Jean is actually a much older woman, pretending to be younger. Being granted a backstage view into Jean's private room allows the reader to know that the woman is not who she appears to her new employers to be. If those employers were aware of the true face Jean Muir is hiding, they would fire her instantly. But Jean, and Alcott, are both keenly aware of the theatrical nature of society's expectations for women, and neither lets too much of what is behind Jean's mask slip too soon. Like La Jeune, Jean must mix public and private drama to achieve her goal of financial success.
     In Jean Muir's first public appearance at the Coventrys', she seems an interesting and enigmatic figure, in her dark, "nunlike" dress, and is somewhat older looking than the nineteen years to which she admits. In fact, Jean is already on stage and in control, as each action in these early scenes is carefully aimed at the Coventrys' prejudices. Jean is as convincing to the Coventrys as La Jeune is to Ulster -- they believe she is natural because she pretends a little bit. Even the apparent disadvantage of appearing "twenty-five" is actually an advantage for Jean. When she claims, "I should like to appear older," she shows that she is not a gold digger, as they suspect she might be, even though she is aware that "for a woman without means, the only way out was marriage" (Peterson 16). With her disclaimer about her age, Jean proves to the Coventrys that she is not concerned with her beauty, the one asset of a poor and powerless girl. Thus Jean confesses one role while really performing another. Jean lets the Coventrys believe she plays one part in order to distract them from her true mystery. Her professed wish to be older indicates that she has accepted her role and is as ready as any nun to live a chaste, virtuous, and virginal life, as befits a woman of little financial means and low social status. Jean's sleight of hand here becomes as effective as La Jeune's performance on stage as a Marquise and her performance off-stage as a gambler.
     Jean, aware of the social stereotype of the governess who is supposed to "be a homely, severe, unfeminine type of woman" (Peterson 15), claims to wish herself closer to this stereotype than she appears, because she knows her pretense will cause the Coventrys to let down their guard. If they can believe that Jean has accepted her role so completely that she regrets not matching the part physically, they can feel safe in their own role as judge of her character. They clearly think Jean is acting, pretending that she does not know her own attractiveness, and so are firmly placed as judges who can afford to admire her, because doing so will give them even more power over her. Like Ulster, the Coventrys are the perfect spectators to Jean's act; they do not question their own role so they cannot question someone else's. They want Jean to be miscast as a friendless and poor orphan, because that makes them all the more discriminating and liberal in their acceptance of her. They can be a generous family welcoming a good person for her own benefit rather than a wealthy family taking advantage of someone else's misfortunes. They already think they know her secret, and are not upset about it until they find out that her real secret is much more complicated than they thought, and that she has controlled them the entire time.
     Victorian niceties and pretensions keep the Coventrys from checking her references and examining her qualifications, beyond a brief and interrupted musical audition and three or four reluctantly asked questions. Indeed, as Jeanne Peterson notes, there is an awkwardness in allowing a governess into the house because the ideal governess should be a woman of equal class to her employer, who "was born and bred in comfort and gentility and who, through the death of her father or his subjection to financial ruin, was robbed of the support of her family and was driven to earn her own living" (6). The awkwardness of this situation comes from the awareness that if financial ruin and the inevitable need for its daughters to work for a living happened to one "respectable family," it could happen to another. The Coventrys are embarrassed by Jean's servitude because of their own awareness of the uncomfortable truth that Jean is engaged to teach their own daughter in the same way that someone else was engaged to teach a younger Jean. Because of this reluctance to admit the truth of the situation, they allow Jean to manipulate the circumstances, and they let their guard down very easily. Where they could have averted near-tragedy and considerable embarrassment by simply checking up on Jean's credentials, they instead assure themselves that they know all of her secrets already, and that they are being open-minded in accepting them. To assume that she is not what she appears to be might open doors for questioning the way everything appears to be, and these people are not ready for that. They are firmly entrenched in the role of genteel society, which Alcott seems to portray as frivolous and, at times, less admirable than the working class. We have seen this attitude in "La Jeune" and "Marion Earle" with their negatively portrayed aristocrats, and the Coventrys fit the same pattern.
     Jean's dramatic fainting fit after playing a successful turn on the piano intrigues the romantic nature of the new governess's young charge, Bella, much as Ulster's curiosity piques following La Jeune's stage performances. In fact, following this first clever performance, Jean fascinates her employers and gets what she wants out of them with a series of other carefully planned domestic dramas. Although some members of the house become suspicious, it is only during the last scene, which Jean herself has predicted "shall be better than the first" (11), that Alcott reveals the true extent of Jean's playacting. Of course, the letters that can prove Jean's true nature are destroyed by the woman now in economic control of her own life as a wife and socially superior "Lady," but along the way, the reader finds subtle hints about the woman "behind the mask" and the consequences of believing her. Even after the Coventrys discover Jean's "acting," they are unwilling to step out of their own assigned roles of polite aristocrats to accuse her in front of their uncle, and Jean escapes most, if not all, of the anticipated consequences of being "false." Alcott shows us that both social roles are potentially harmful to those who are unwilling to question them. Karen Halttunen argues that Jean's "power lies in her ability to hide her illicit passions and ambitions 'behind a mask'" (241); consequently, the Coventrys' power must lie in supporting appearances.
     The story's introductory scene reveals the two-faced prejudice that nineteenth-century middle- and upper-class society showed to women who were forced through poverty and circumstance to become governesses. Alcott indicts the falseness of the roles that she observed in her own life, where she and her mother were often forced, because of her father's distaste for making money, to make a living with a number of schemes, including taking in boarders. The introduction of a governess into the home, shown in this first scene, plays on what Kalikoff identifies as the Victorian fear "of crime hidden within respectable citizens . . . [and the] fear of passionate, independent women. Women earn suspicion because of their capacity to hide" (120). Jean Muir pretends to be respectable while hiding behind her female role of the lower-status woman in need. Still, unlike other authors who portray immoral women who lie, cheat, and dissemble, Alcott does not make her readers dislike or fear Jean, suggesting that the author identifies to some extent with her creation.
It is important to remember that Jean's circumstances are very much like Alcott's, and that at several points in her life Alcott, too, was a governess, including her six-month stint working for Alice Lovering, and a number of other periods when she had up to ten students at a time (Saxton 228). Governesses were supposed to be of a higher class than other servants, since usually they were from "good families" and were educated enough to teach debutantes the proper graces of French, music, art and etiquette. As such, governesses were supposed to be well-treated members of the family, rather like dependent spinster aunts. However, the reality that Alcott encountered was that, despite the money that she could make (up to $250 a year), the job was not worth sticking with for long periods of time. The attitudes that people had concerning governesses were intolerable to the proud Alcott, and she illustrates her lack of respect for the employers of the governess when she shows us their own inappropriate "behind the scene" behaviors.
     Just as in "Marion Earle" and "La Jeune," the story begins with gossiping aristocrats who are judging an unknown person based on superficial appearances. One character in "Behind a Mask" says what is proper for him to say concerning the "stranger" about to enter their home: "As for the governess, she is a woman, and should be treated with common civility. I should say a little extra kindness wouldn't be amiss, either, because she is poor, and a stranger" (4). However, the family's actions reveal how they really feel about the woman coming in "to service" for them. In fact, they really are being very unkind to her before she even appears because they have already decided what she will be like. As Peterson notes, there were a number of contradictions inherent in Victorian society's treatment of governesses; the Coventrys expose them all. While there is supposed to be more honor in a poor gentlewoman's being a teacher than if she sold her skills in other ways, the attitude was really more like that which Gerald's words reveal: "I have an inveterate aversion to the whole tribe . . . I'll give her three days' trial; if she proves endurable I shall not disturb myself; if, as I am sure, she is a bore, I'm off" (3). As we have seen, governesses received low pay for an incredibly complex job, were often the objects of abuse, and were generally distrusted as being "gold diggers" only concerned with finagling a marriage in a home they were not worthy of (Peterson 12). Another common fear was that the governess "to whom the care of the young has been entrusted . . . has been the first to lead and to initiate into sin, to suggest and carry on intrigues, and finally, to be the instrument of destroying the peace of families" (qtd. in Peterson 14). Thus the attitudes families had toward governesses were inherently contradictory. Governesses fit as neither servant nor family member, and so were difficult to place in a role. There is a constant barrier between the natural family and the stranger introduced into it and it is the nature of her job that makes them dislike and distrust her: "The fact that Jean must labor outside of her own kitchen and nursery is in itself 'unnatural'" (Smith-Rosenberg, qtd. in Elliot 303). This is the ultimate crime in a society inherently conscious of the natural roles for everyone. Alcott is quite aware of these attitudes toward governesses, and she carefully works all of these considerations into Jean's story, causing us to question all that is "natural."
     The group we meet at the novel's beginning is hardly admirable; their gossip about someone they claim to mean kindness toward belies their professions of good will, and the lazy younger son who is charged with sending off a carriage to pick the new governess up from the train station cannot be bothered to stir himself. This circumstance carries through a pattern that appears in many of Alcott's gothic and even domestic stories-- gossipers show their moral weakness while the person who is being discussed is aware of the things being said about her, and eventually uses the gossipers' weakness against them. Edward is not reprimanded for neglecting to arrange for the woman to have a ride from the train station, although Mrs. Coventry must know that she too has fallen short of an easy kindness as an employer. Despite knowing that the carriage was not sent, Mrs. Coventry even complains of Miss Muir's lack of punctuality "in an injured tone" (5) when "the woman" would be on time had the carriage been sent for. In fact, Jean Muir still manages to arrive "at the stroke of seven" as if she knows that she is already guilty of the crime of having to earn her own money and therefore must make up for any wrong suppositions the group may have about her. However, they are not completely won over by her punctuality; Jean must still prove her competence at being a middle-class, well-educated woman capable of teaching another future parlor angel her duties, while herself staying put in her role of poor, working woman. Since Jean knows exactly what is expected of a governess, she is up to the challenge, even though she is not a young, middle-class angel of the parlor but a middle-aged, divorced actress. So Jean, by playing her role perfectly, casts doubt on what appears to be truth.
     We are told several times that Jean has a "soft, sad voice" and that she is "meek" and "resigned" (5). All of these traits are those a governess is supposed to exhibit, and Jean knows her public part perfectly. But in order to captivate her audience, Jean knows she must be morethan a governess-- and so she falls into a faint after playing a "sweet . . . sad" Scotch melody (7). She thus surrounds herself with an attractively foreign and mysterious aura, and is not at all boring, despite Edward's prediction. She must make it seem that her real truth, although private, is one the Coventrys can find out through clever scrutiny. Gerald, instinctively realizing the drama inherent in this act and distrusting it, whispers, "Scene first, very well done" (7). The reader senses Jean's anger at Gerald's glimpse into the true character of the scene, anger that is confirmed in the series of letters that reveals the truth of Jean's character at the end of the story. By snapping at him and making him appear to be in the wrong, Jean quickly defuses the danger that he will discover the real truth instead of the one she wants him to believe. She knows that her acknowledgment that she has "a quick ear" and can hear things said in the same room (9), which of course servants are not supposed to do, embarrasses Gerald "for the first time in his life" (7). By stepping out of her submissive role of "seen but not heard" servant into an accusatory one, Jean manipulates the roles to her advantage. His anger at his own embarrassment works against him by distracting him from his intuition about her. In one night, she establishes herself as an intriguing private mystery, as a public object to be pitied, and as more polite than the supposed gentry who employ her. That the "role" of mystery is even truer than the Coventrys suspect only makes her act more convincing. Since she appears to have minor secrets, it becomes easier for Jean to hide her slip-ups, because the Coventrys assume that any odd moments or actions are just part of the mystery they believe they already know.
     Throughout her tenure in the Coventry household, Jean manipulates the emotions of its men and women through their expectations of what women and poor governesses should be. She is especially careful with the men of the household, and portrays herself as a demure female, beautiful yet uninterested in marriage and the financial security it would provide. As Judith Fetterley observes, "The role of little woman demands that the person playing it appear to be totally un-self-conscious and even unconscious, completely 'natural,' weak, timorous, out of control, and passive . . . yet she must never seem to have the slightest intention in respect to marriage" (7). Jean knows this unwritten rule by heart, even though she plans to break it. She may need to be married, and this may be her last chance at financial success, but one whiff of desperation and the game is lost. Jean must never appear to be seeking any role but that of governess.
     Alcott illustrates her knowledge of these social rules through her depiction of Jean's careful scrutiny of her employers and the narrator's assertion that "having caught a hint of the character of each [she tries her] . . . power over them" (99). Jean eventually uses that power to gain a secure place for herself as Sir John's bride, which is quite a step up. Alcott does not seem to judge Jean as evil because of this clever manipulation. In fact, Alcott's narrator reminds the reader that Jean "had been lovely once, happy, innocent, and tender" and that some bitter "disappointment had darkened all her life" (12) in a clear attempt to drum up sympathy for Jean rather than scorn and contempt. During the times when the family believes Jean unaware of their scrutiny, she plays various "roles," all carefully designed to captivate each individual by giving them what each thinks they want.
     Jean has a busy morning on the second day she is there as part of her drive to find the role that will make her most happy. First she wanders into the garden of "the ancient hall where Sir John Coventry lived in solitary splendor" (13). We find later, in the revelatory letters at the end of the story, that the picturesque "stately old place, rich in oaks . . . befitting the ancestral home of a rich and honorable race" (13) that is the scene of her first encounter with Sir John is the one that clever Jean most covets. Jean writes to her friend: "Early in the morning I ran over to see the Hall. Approved of it highly, and took the first step toward becoming its mistress" (99), a comment that reveals a large supply of eventually successful ambition on her part.(12) She flatters the old man and pretends to be girlishly shy and confused. She is, in fact, perfectly playing the part of a governess who has talked "out of turn" to her employer. Jean knows what Sir John expects and gives him exactly that. She follows this "very well done beginning" (15) by taming the "spirited" horse that Edward Coventry most values. In taming the horse, which Edward calls her "subject now" (16), she begins the process of taming Edward. Jean has already figured out that he loves his horse more than anything, and knows that by seeming to value the animal, she flatters its owner. This maneuvering with the horse assures Edward's susceptibility to her manipulations in the future. Next, she charms Bella with her ability to arrange flowers-- the proper task for a young woman, and one that Bella admits she cannot do-- and follows this up with carefully considered praise of Lucia's mother, the one and only way to thaw her distrustful rival. She finishes the beginnings of her enchantments by completely ignoring the petted firstborn son, who is instantly attracted to this unaccustomed coldness from a woman. He is used to being spoiled and is intrigued by any different treatment from one he expects to be servile to the house's young "master."
     In short, Jean keenly observes each person's weakness and prejudices and plays the role that most efficiently capitalizes on that weakness. Unlike her employers, Jean can read behind the mask of public persona, and she does so to her own advantage throughout the story. These carefully coordinated manipulations of the truth behind the personality show us what is possible for a woman willing to change the rules that society has written for her. Alcott's depiction of Jean's plans for every move (with an eye for future benefits to her situation) is a way of illustrating that, in the absence of any real power, a woman must be deceptive. Halttunen contends that Alcott "too was assuming a mask of propriety, which concealed her own illicit ambitions and desires" and that Alcott recognized her gothic heroines' "sense of theater as a disguise for the demonic self [as] her own . . . her inner demons were not defeated but only masked" (242). Jean's power is the "mask" that Alcott too feels she must wear, the mask that hides anything that might seem like personal drive.
     Jean caps her manipulations of each person through a number of carefully acted scenes. Her observers believe that they are seeing a pure and innocent young woman in these moments of revelation, but the moments are calculated to draw attention. For example, following "a pleasant little scene" (24) in the chapter titled "Passion and Pique," which Sir John thinks he observes without her knowledge, Jean "threw her arms across the table, laid her head down upon them, and broke into a passion of tears" (24). This scene causes him to "puzzle his brains with conjectures about his nieces' interesting young governess, quite unconscious that she intended he should do so" (24). Jean pretends to be having a "private" moment, but what she is really doing is acting out a public role. As Fetterley argues, "Jean knows that in a world inherently suspicious of women the most successful impressions are those made when the observer thinks the observed is not aware of being seen, for this fosters the illusion that one is seeing the woman as she really is" (6). It is much worse to admit to sneaking up on someone's private times than it is to have private scenes, and in this way, Jean makes sure that the men do not discuss her and potentially find out her game too soon. Thus her apparent secrets hide her real ones. In staging this scene for Sir John, as the title suggests, her secretive passion piques his curiosity and casts him in a specific role. Jean's role is the damsel in distress, and Sir John eventually responds appropriately by rescuing her. By allowing herself to be seen in a vulnerable part, Jean assures that the strict moral code of the Victorian gentleman will be in effect. She also appeals to his vanity when he believes that he, as an older man "past his prime," can still play the role of "Prince Charming" usually reserved for much younger men.
     The true "little woman" that Jean plays skillfully is not what she appears. Rather, she is a thirty-year-old divorced actress with a drinking problem, who, when alone in her room, removes all the trappings of young beauty as she takes off the "long abundant braids . . . wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth, and . . . appeared herself indeed, a haggard, worn, and moody woman" (12). This is no innocent young governess, but a smart and manipulative woman who eventually gets what she most wants-- the title Lady Coventry and the hand in marriage of a man who believes her to be something else. Just like Pauline, Jean is successful and victorious in her control over the melodramatic situation. Neither woman is a victim of her sexual power manipulations, in direct opposition to most gothic heroines, who suffer judgment, ostracism, and even death.
     What Alcott reveals in her depiction of Jean Muir's deliberate manipulations of expectations and constant awareness that she is on stage, which also shows up in many of her femmes fatales, is that nineteenth-century "women are powerful in proportion to their success as artists . . . [and that] women's survival [depends on] their artistic ability" (Fetterley 12). Alcott illustrates that in a world where a woman who has no status in relation to a man is powerless, all women must capitalize on the status of physical beauty. They must be adept at hiding any hint of mental wiles as they constantly play one role or another, from "virgin" to "bride" to "mother." Alcott herself is just as aware as Jean is of the double nature of actresses, who are one person on stage and another when "the curtain is down . . . if actresses are ever themselves" (11), when Jean warns Gerald, "I am a witch, and one day my disguise will drop away and you will see me as I am, old, ugly, bad and lost" (95). In a culture in which women are supposed to be ambitionless yet beautiful, and in which beauty can gain them power, any woman who wishes to seize power (like Jean, Pauline, Amy, or even Alcott) is as much a social pariah as any witch. Alcott's femmes fatales are aware of the "enchantment" that a woman must enact to fool men into believing their fondest wishes, and therefore, to gain power over those men. In analyzing "Behind a Mask," Fetterley comes to the conclusion that "Alcott provides us with a frighteningly prophetic vision of the act she will eventually perform: in order to survive economically, Jean Muir . . . adopts the mask of femininity and impersonates the character of a 'little woman'" (1).
     The perfect little woman would be one who is completely self-effacing for the good of her family. What Alcott's nineteenth-century society endorses is woman as an moral and angelic force, the woman as guide to the rampant desires and poor impulses of men. Society claimed to value the self-sacrifice of a woman in a situation like that of Nurse Periwinkle in Hospital Sketches, but when she wrote her gothic stories, Alcott learned that what society values, it pays for. Fetterley assures us that "out of the anger generated by such disparity between the wages of encouraged virtue and those of proscribed vice come the exposures of 'Behind a Mask'" (2). Alcott received ten dollars and a dose of mercury poisoning that haunted her the rest of her life for partially completing the womanly task that she was supposed to do, and then received one hundred dollars for the work that she assumed Bronson and Concord would have been shocked at, writing, "What would my own good father think of me . . . if I set folks to doing the things I have a longing to see my people do?" (qtd. in Carpenter 37). Presumably, she then realized that if she must bear the burden of the family's success in her father's place, financial success was much more important than being the perfect weak and passive little woman.
     This realization may account, in part, for her dislike of the novel that later granted her that first financial success; through necessity, she felt she was perpetuating the same myth of perfect little women that she herself found stifling. Society did not really want its little women to be perfect. In fact, as Fetterley shows us in her analysis of Jean Muir's successful portrayal of the perfect little woman, what society really wanted was for women to fail at this immense task. Yet Alcott's gothic villainesses succeed brilliantly at getting what they want. As a woman trapped between what she was supposed to be and what she was forced to be through economic necessity, Alcott understood their desperation. We do not only find this ability to use roles to gain power in Alcott's gothic stories. Also in sketching her domestic characters, Alcott blurs those distinctions between little woman and successful actress so much that the distinctions almost seem to disappear.

On To Chapter Three

 Notes (numbering begins in intro)



For more on this topic, it would be useful to examine Alcott's Work, (1873) in which Alcott discusses the sexually fallen woman sympathetically and also examines acting as a profession for women.


These lessons will be converted into later domestic fictions in which women who sacrifice everything for others, including identity (such as Beth in Little Women), lose everything.


Later, Alcott's Amy displays many of the same physical and personality characteristics as Pauline, which will be discussed further in the chapter on Little Women.


See Figure One.


Figure Two.


Jean's behavior here and her letters to her friend are quite similar to Amy's epistolary declarations in Little Women.