Behind A Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott
by A.M. Barnard
(Morrow, 1975, 277 pages)
and Plots & Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers by Louisa May Alcott by A. M. Barnard
(Morrow, 1976, 315 pages)
I must admit to having a lack of interest in Gothic literature. Tales of revengeful heroines living in desolate, bleak landscapes who indulge in drug abuse, jealousy and blackmail aren’t usually the type of reading I enjoy. But when the author is someone held up as one of the finest providers of wholesome family entertainment, I do take notice.
Such is the case with Behind a Mask and Plots and Counterplots, two short story collections by none other than Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, Little Men and many other classics of American literature. Unknown to most, the noted author was forced to support herself and her family by writing a number of lurid “potboilers” for popular publications under the pen name “A.M. Barnard.”
Alcott was the daughter of a famous Transcendentalist, Amos Bronson Alcott, and grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where she often dined at the tables of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her father, although a popular writer and public speaker, was not successful financially and the young Louisa was forced to take steps to bring in more money for the family. Like Jo in Little Women, Louisa started out writing plays and short pieces for publications of the time. Her real success came, however, when she began penning sensationalist stories of incest, murder and revenge that were so popular at that time.
These tales feature some of the standard plot elements of this genre of literature. The heroines are willful, determined women who lie, steal and kill to right a past wrong, seek revenge on someone who crossed them and misrepresent themselves to achieve a better “position” in society. The short stories contain references to drug addiction, incest, kidnapping and blackmail, something the March sisters of Little Women would definitely be shocked at.
It is easy to see how Alcott used these early writings to develop her own writing style. Although the female characters in these stories are not always likeable, Alcott gives them a personality that is not soon forgotten. While the loveable character of Jo March was largely autobiographical, these women display a determination and vindictiveness completely unlike the author. Because she wrote under a false name, it would be many years before the real author of these thrillers was revealed. With the publication of these two collections, however, it is possible to look behind the mask and appreciate the full range of Alcott’s writing skills. Although your children will still no doubt enjoy her classics of family literature, you might want to wait until they get a little older to expose them to this side of the author.