Louisa May Alcott is having a moment. Another film adaptation of Little Women hits theaters this winter (a BBC production aired on PBS Masterpiece only a year ago), two separate Little Women-themed cookbooks were released in October, and a new essay collection, March Sisters, featuring work from Kate Bolik, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley, published just this past summer, attests to the novel’s enduring legacy.
Generations of scholars have examined Alcott’s personal life (Civil War nurse, “spinster,” possibly a lesbian), discussed ad nauseum her family’s radical political activism (her father was not only a transcendentalist and an abolitionist, but believed in absolute equality of all races); and marveled at her childhood milieu, surrounded by people like Emerson and Thoreau and her mother’s friends, Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters, as well as meeting Frederick Douglass and his wife. But far less attention is paid to her sensationalist “blood and thunder tales”—pulpy thrillers she wrote early in her career, often using the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.
This was the work Alcott was passionate about before the financial needs of her family forced her into writing what she called “moral pap for the young.”
“I think my natural ambition is for the lurid style,” she said in an interview. “I indulge in gorgeous fancies and wish that I dared inscribe them upon my pages and set them before the public. How should I dare interfere with the proper grayness of Old Concord? The dear old town has never known a startling hue since the redcoats were there. Far be it from me to inject an inharmonious color into the natural tint. And what would my own father think of me … No, my dear, I shall always be a wretched victim to the respectable traditions of Concord.”
Once Little Women catapulted her to fame in 1868, there was no going back to those “gorgeous fancies,” even anonymously. She wrote “moral pap” for the money, and the rest was left behind. Even if she wanted to continue, her time was taken up with her publisher’s requests and the demands of chronic illness (some believe she suffered the after-effects of mercury treatment; some believe she had lupus).
It would be nearly a century before the lurid stories of Alcott’s youth resurfaced. In 1942, rare book dealers Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg found a reference to pen name “A.M. Barnard” among Alcott’s papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The two women had suspected that Jo March’s secret “sensation stories” in Little Women revealed the existence of Alcott’s own, and they were right.
Over the next fifty years, more and more short stories and novels were discovered, forever altering Alcott’s reputation as a boring, matronly children’s author.
Her tales of forbidden love, manipulation, and murder allow us a rare glimpse into the darker side of 19th century women. Few had the time or means to write at all, let alone the psychological freedom afforded by Alcott’s unorthodox upbringing. Even fewer shared her gory war experience, which allowed her to conjure the type of salacious and violent scenarios her male counterparts did—except with a female gaze.
These works are basically the 19th century equivalent to today’s “domestic thrillers,” a somewhat pejorative term that relegates psychological thrillers written by women to lesser status than the implied “regular” thrillers. (This is often the case for anything categorized as “women’s”— “women’s fiction,” like “women’s work,” is never the real thing.)
Alcott, as A.M. Barnard, or simply “anonymous,” occupied the space that writers like Gillian Flynn, Ruth Ware, Rachel Howzell Hall, Paula Hawkins, Tiffany D. Jackson, Louise Candlish, Felicia Yap, Greer Hendricks and Sheena Kamal do now. She focused on the type of psychological terror that happens in the home, between friends and family members, and particularly to women, most acutely in the context of marriage or romantic relationships. Her characters weren’t only victims either. Many of them were scheming, unladylike, and ill-bred, simmering with wanton ambitions and desires.
Though the two are quite different, Alcott’s 1867 novella The Mysterious Key and What it Opened is reminiscent of Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key (which draws from Henry James’ 1898 The Turn of the Screw) in a number of ways: There’s a strange old house, a mysterious death, a perplexed young woman, a somewhat mysterious young man working on the estate, and of course, a key that reveals the secret truth. There are elements of Alcott’s anti-heroines in Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, too, and in the love triangle of Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s The Wife Between Us, or the way substance abuse can create danger or cloud judgment, like in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.
Like many women writing at the time, Alcott had to use a masculine, or at least androgynous, pen name to publish her shocking tales. Wouldn’t she be delighted to know that today, authors like Riley Sager and A.J. Finn are turning to feminine-coded names to sell thrillers?
Most of Alcott’s pseudonymous potboilers were published in the 1860s, but her earlier stories foreshadowed her fascination with forbidden topics. One of the most subversive, Agatha’s Confession (Saturday Evening Gazette, March 1857), republished in Frank Leslie’s Chimney Corner a decade later as Thrice Tempted, tells a horrific story of romantic obsession and revenge.
It opens a bit like a Jane Austen novel. Plain-faced underdog Ruth (named Agatha in the original) is set to marry Walter Strathsay, a man of “five and twenty” who has (of course) “come into the possession of a good fortune, is the last of the ancient Scotch family of Strathsay, has fought gallantly, received many honors; and, he loves me tenderly.” Ruth’s conventionally pretty, flaxen-haired friend, a proto-Mean Girl named Laura, puts Ruth down in every passive-aggressive way possible, saying the love match strikes her as “very droll” because Ruth is “odd and unlike most girls,” aka, unattractive, the worst possible sin…well, maybe.
Jealous Laura becomes increasingly antagonistic, especially when she finds out Walter is titled and that Ruth will become “Lady Strathsay” once they’re married.
Walter comes to visit. Laura immediately gets to work stealing him away from Ruth. Naturally he’s tempted, but oh-so-honorable, thus he tells Ruth he must leave for awhile, to avoid being ensnared by Laura’s feminine wiles.
A few weeks later Ruth discovers Walter and Laura have been writing letters to each other all along. The very next day, she is told a deadly fever has broken out in town. Conveniently enough, Laura is headed there on an errand. Ruth considers how nice it would be if Laura caught the fever and was out of the picture forever, but then she feels guilty and stops Laura just as she skips down the lane towards the village, her perfect tresses billowing behind her.
As luck would have it, Laura gets sick anyway; she’d already visited the infected town a couple days prior.
While sitting at Laura’s bedside, Ruth is once again tempted by evil thoughts as she watches the curtains drift perilously close to a burning lamp. “A dreadful calm possessed her, and when a sudden blaze lit the room, she only smiled—an awful smile—“
Her tales of forbidden love, manipulation, and murder allow us a rare glimpse into the darker side of 19th century women.
Laura wakes up and cries out for—who else—darling Walter. Reminded of her true love and what he might think of her if she becomes a cold-hearted killer, Ruth snaps out of it and carries Laura from the bed, then single-handedly puts out the raging fire.
Enough is enough, Ruth decides; Walter must choose between them. Even in her weakness Laura finds the strength to insult Ruth over this, calling her a “romantic child.”
Walter shows up again, looking sheepish, as a cad should. Ruth tells him he’s free of their engagement. Now he has to pick one of them, though she warns him that “a false friend may not make a true wife.”
Lo and behold, when he goes to see Laura, she is pale and cold. Dead.
The fever, doctors say, combined with the heart-stopping excitement over seeing her beloved Walter again, has killed her. Ruth feels bad for her old friend now, even though she wanted this to happen in the first place. It’s easy to be generous when the threat is gone.
She goes to bid her final farewell, conscience clear. “Rest in peace, Laura. I pardon you as I hope to be pardoned.” A lock of hair has fallen across Laura’ forehead. When Ruth brushes it away, Laura’s forehead is damp. She’s alive!
However, Ruth can’t detect a pulse. And the second time she touches Laura’s forehead, it’s cold. So probably she’s dead? Yet she feels in her heart that Laura is alive. Still, “Walter is my own again; she cannot separate us anymore.” Ruth takes a deep breath to gather her courage and closes the casket.
She gets her happily-ever-after, yet she isn’t happy. Every night she is restless and harassed by nightmares. (Shades of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.) Finally, the day of the wedding arrives, and Ruth believes this will calm her mind at last.
She waits and waits. The groom never shows up. Humiliated, she watches as all the guests whisper about her and disperse, eventually leaving her totally alone.
That evening, Walter returns. Ruth is overjoyed. However, his face is “haggard and wild” and his “eyes are dilated with some secret horror.” She begs him to tell her what’s happened, and he says that “a white figure with vacant eyes and pallid cheeks came gliding in” the night before and told him “a sad tale of deceit and wrong” and “confessed one crime which drove it like a restless ghost to betray its secrets when most fatal to its peace.”
“It was Laura come back from her tomb to wrong and rob me again!” Ruth cries out, somewhat comically.
“No,” Walter says. “It was you, coming in your haunted sleep to tell the secret that is wearing your life away.”
At this point Ruth throws her guilt back at Walter, saying, nah, “it was you who drove me to this. I loved you better than my own soul, and she came between us.” Then she lists all the times she resisted harming Laura, and says well of course she rejoiced when Laura finally died, because of all the struggles she endured, and anyway she’s dead now so it’s time to move on.
Walter gets that horror-stricken look again and says, “She is dead, thank God! But was not when they buried her.” Turns out he’d been suspicious of Ruth’s behavior since Laura’s death, so after the sleepwalk confession, he left early to check the tomb. “She had been buried alive! There was no doubt of it. She had turned in her coffin, and, too weak to break it, had perished miserably. May God forgive you, Ruth; I never can!” (To be fair, she tried to tell you “a false friend may not make a true wife.”)
Not only has this female main character committed murder, however passively, to rid herself of a romantic rival, she isn’t remorseful when confronted. “Oh! Be merciful, Walter. I had suffered so much from her.”
Though it isn’t a flattering portrayal by any means, Thrice Tempted can be interpreted as a feminist story in much the same way many of its 21st century counterparts can. The protagonist—an early anti-heroine for sure—defies gender expectations in multiple ways. She isn’t “nice” even if she pretends to be on the outside. She’s teeming with all those uncharitable, unladylike emotions and urges that women were studiously trained to suppress.
Unlike her literary contemporaries, she isn’t even punished for what she’s done, in order to make the story palatable. She doesn’t go to prison, or to hell; she isn’t left penniless in the streets, or locked in an asylum, and she isn’t even particularly sorry—except that she still doesn’t have what she wanted.
She did get her comeuppance to a degree, in that she doesn’t get the guy, but ultimately that means she simply suffers exactly the way she might have if Laura had lived, and in some ways maybe less. She’ll never have to witness a marriage between her ex-lover and her back-stabbing friend, even if she doesn’t get to marry him herself.
Most remarkably, the reader is almost compelled to sympathize, rather than condemn, her. This type of moral ambiguity is rarely found in Alcott’s time (or even now). Laura was awful, in the particular ways that women are often awful to one another, and in ways that a man in the 1850s would have been unlikely to understand, let alone write.
Laura’s crimes are subtle but relentless: constant put-downs, haughty arrogance, stealing her friend’s fiancé and then flaunting it, all while a guest in her house.
In fact Laura’s an aberration, too, because as much as we hate her, we must feel sorry for her as well, because the punishment greatly outweighed the crime. Being mistakenly buried alive was a common phobia; so common that there was an entire industry of safety coffins outfitted with breathing tubes and alarm bells. Laura’s fate was about as horrific as it got in 1857. (And another possible Poe reference, to his 1844 short story Premature Burial.)
Typically female characters of the time were pious or evil and nothing in between; Alcott presented a peculiar middle-ground for both the protagonist and antagonist, one where a reader might actually relate to the point of forgiving heinous behavior. It’s safe to say that in addition to Poe, she had also read and been influenced by Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
And the male character? He’s basically a plot device. He isn’t even present for much of the story; he’s just the object the two women are dueling over. He could basically be replaced with jewelry and the story would still work.
Thrice Tempted is also a biting commentary on the emphasis of marriage as a woman’s main goal and the lengths they would go to achieve it. It’s easy to picture Alcott reading Pride and Prejudice and thinking, “What if this got really dark?”
Some of Alcott’s work was so shocking, it didn’t go to print at all, like A Long Fatal Love Chase, a horror story/thriller Alcott wrote in 1866; it wasn’t published until 1995.
The heroine, Rosamond, maybe a reference to the opera “Fair Rosamond,” doomed mistress of Henry II, who died of poison, or the book Rosamond by Maria Edgeworth, which Alcott reportedly read as a child, lives with her cold-hearted, elderly grandfather, with only books for friends. She is completely unaware of the ways of the world. Therefore, she’s an easy target.
Philip Tempest (heavy-handed symbolism was all the rage) is a manipulative sociopath and one of her grandfather’s star students.
At their first meeting she looks at a painting in her front hall and says, “Why, you are the very image of Mephistopheles.” (Though why they have a portrait of a demon hanging in the front hall is anyone’s guess.) Rosamond quickly regrets her comment, feeling she has been rude, and apologizes. (Spoiler alert: she shouldn’t have.)
He grabs onto this opportunity—literally taking her hand, a forward gesture between strangers even now; unthinkably bold in 1866—and says he will forgive her if she “plays hostess for a little while.” Then he asks, “May I stay?” despite the fact that he’s already invited himself and knowing full well she’s obligated to say yes, not only because of social mores (he’s a guest) but also because she “owes” him for her gaffe.
There’s a lot of sassy love-hate flirting between them that slips into negging territory. When she asks him whether he wants to take his tea with her or upstairs with her grandfather, he says, “With you, if you are not afraid of my dangerous society.”
Some of Alcott’s work was so shocking, it didn’t go to print at all.
“I like danger,” she counters. Rosamond is at turns feisty and submissive; she seems to have a natural intelligence and independent streak that was tempered by her sheltered upbringing.
But she’s in over her head. Also, Philip Tempest is twice her age—thirty-five to her eighteen. Naturally they get married within a month.
Philip loves Rosamond in his own toxic, abusive way, but she starts getting wise to the fact that she doesn’t need to tolerate it. In one of the most memorable exchanges, Philip is quizzing her about how much of his nonsense she can tolerate, asking, would you hate and desert me if…? She keeps repeating she would be loyal to the marriage. Finally he asks, “Suppose I…made it impossible for you to stay. That I was base and false; in every way unworthy of your love, and it was clearly right for you to go, what would you do then?”
She changes her answer this time, saying: “Go away, and…”
“He interrupted with a triumphant laugh, ‘Die as heroines always do…’”
“’No, live and forget you,’ was the unexpected reply.”
Then—plot twist—turns out he was already married to someone else before he married her.
Rosamond takes off, planning to live and forget him, just as she said she would. Philip chases after her, because again, he’s an abusive narcissist. Everywhere she goes, he follows. He stalks her across the globe. Along the way she hooks up with a priest who tries to help her.
In the end (another spoiler alert) Philip crashes his ship into the boat carrying Rosamond’s protector, hoping to kill him so that he can get to her. He should be triumphant, but that night he can’t sleep. Some ghastly thing he can’t quite put his finger on is haunting his mind.
The next day he rushes to see Rosamond, and finds that “death has set its seal” on her. The old man stands to confront him, “Have you come to look upon your work? Here she is safe and free at last. You said you would hunt her to her grave and you have done it. Are you satisfied?”
But even this doesn’t stop Philip from pursuing Rosamond. Like a deranged Romeo, Philip Tempest drives a dagger into his own heart while holding on to Rosamond, declaring, “Mine first—mine last—mine even in the grave!”
The horror of this tale lies not only in the actual pursuit, but also in the psychological terror that Rosmond is subjected to, going beyond life into death. In a time when most people wholeheartedly believed in the afterlife, this is an even greater fright than it may first appear to a modern reader. It suggests that women are never safe, never free, even in death. And furthermore, that this type of obsessive pursuit is not romantic, but controlling and dangerous. It reads as a cautionary tale; one that holds up today.
This menace was ever-present for Alcott—the demands of men, being a woman in a “man’s world,” and the obligations of marriage; in this story, even for a woman who was willing to run to the ends of the earth. Even as a “spinster,” Alcott was trapped by the constraints of her era, feeling the pressure to marry (or at least marry off her popular characters). She wrote in her journal: “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life.”
Perhaps because Long Fatal Love Chase was rejected for publication, she revisits the theme later, writing A Modern Mephistopheles, an even more direct nod to Faust, in 1877. It was first published anonymously, and then re-released by Roberts Brothers the year after her death.
In the opening, a struggling writer named Felix Canaris (a mere nineteen years old), dooms his “first-born of heart and brain”—his manuscript—to the fire, and then resigns himself to death as well; in true romantic fashion, he simply refuses to eat and sits in a chair waiting to starve.
Before that happens, Felix meets Jasper Helwyze (zero points for subtlety). They make a deal: Jasper will make Felix rich and successful if Felix will promise to do whatever he says.
This is such a common theme in Alcott’s writing that one has to wonder whether she felt that she had made a similar pact: success in exchange for her soul. But interestingly, Alcott’s devil characters are real, actual people, not fallen angels or ghostly apparitions. She seemed endlessly attracted to exploring the banality of evil, rather than relegating it to the spiritual realm.
Alcott’s devil characters are real, actual people, not fallen angels or ghostly apparitions. She seemed endlessly attracted to exploring the banality of evil, rather than relegating it to the spiritual realm.
Jasper’s former lover Olivia says to him “the love of power is strong in men like you, and grows by what it feeds on.” Jasper, like Philip Tempest, is a narcissistic manipulator who preys on the vulnerable people around him.
Jasper isn’t totally one-dimensional, however. “Had he been a better man, he would not have sinned; had he been a worse one, he could not have suffered; being what he was, he did both, and, having no one else to study now, looked deeply into himself, and was dismayed at what he saw.” He’s wicked, but he’s conflicted about it.
He may be the villain, but the ultimate hero of this story isn’t Felix, the main character. It’s Felix’s wife, Gladys, who doesn’t behave the way Jasper expected her to. He thinks she’ll be easy prey but instead she thwarts him, ultimately dying after giving birth to Felix’s son, who also dies. Unlike Rosamond, she can escape, and her death releases her husband from Jasper. She is not nearly as active a character as Rosamond, though, and it’s worth asking whether that’s part of the reason this book went to print while the other did not.
Bundled with A Modern Mephistopheles, A Whisper in the Dark is about a woman who is gaslit and institutionalized against her will so that her uncle can steal her inheritance. She fights the whole way, at one point dumping a drugged drink into the fire and yelling at the doctor after he tells her to obey: “I am the best judge of my own health, and you are not bettering it by contradiction and unnecessary fuss. This is my house, and you will oblige me by leaving it, Dr. Karnac; this is my room, and I insist on being left in peace immediately.”
After the evil uncle and his doctor collaborator are killed in an explosion, she escapes the institution and has a happy ending, and yet, not entirely. Alcott subverts the expectation of happily ever after: “…but over all these years, serenely prosperous, still hangs for me the shadow of the past, still rises that dead image of my mother, still echoes that spectral whisper in the dark.”
Charlotte Brönte was one of Alcott’s favorite writers. The gothic influence is ever-present in her work, but is especially obvious in Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power, an 1866 A. M. Barnard novella about a femme fatale governess named Jean Muir (play on “Jane Eyre”) who goes to work at the wealthy Coventry family estate. We learn that Jean is pretending to be someone she’s not. Eventually every man in the family is besotted with her. All sorts of troubles ensue, until at last, her ruse is discovered. By then it’s too late—Jean already married the estate heir and became Lady Coventry, much to the rest of the family’s dismay. Literary critics interpret Behind a Mask as a commentary on social class, feminist agency, and a version of “Beauty and the Beast” in which Jean Muir plays both the hero and the villain.
Though not a thriller, the short story My Mysterious Mademoiselle is still subversive—and does have a twist ending.
A grown man is riding a train to visit his sick sister. A teenage girl is sitting near him. The man is far too old for the girl, but a flirtation transpires, complete with a kiss on the hand and a great deal of coquette-ish eyelash fluttering and the threat of demanding a bit more when they must part. The man clearly has lusty aims on the young woman, but pretends it’s all on the up and up: “My poor child, calm yourself. I am indeed a friend; believe it, and let me help you.” The girl asks how she can repay his kindness, and he says, “When we part, you shall give me an English good-by.” In other words, a kiss on the lips. The man is persistent, and all seems in accordance with social mores—he pushes his luck, she demures, he knows (without explicitly saying so) that he has the upper hand and can ultimately take or leave what he wants from her, at his pleasure.
Until they enter a long, dark tunnel. For awhile nothing in the car is visible. When they emerge, the girl is gone. Seated in her place is a dark-haired young man. The man demands to know where the girl has gone; of course the young man is the girl, simply without the disguise. And to make it more awkward, he is the man’s nephew, headed to the same destination. After the initial shock wears off, they have a hearty laugh over the “prank,” which not only exposed the man as a predator but made him sit with the fact that he made a pass at his nephew.
Alcott was an advocate for throwing off the corset and women wearing trousers; this may have been her exploring a similar principle for men, or simply playing with gender expectations to shocking effect. At the very end, “with the irrepressible impudence of a mischief-loving boy” the nephew asks, “Uncle, shall I give you ‘the English good-by’ now?”
Many of the plot twists and surprise reveals in Alcott’s stories may be considered cliché and predictable (or problematic) to today’s reader, but in the 1850s-1870s, they were far more effective. Her vision of women as sensual, hot-headed, and conflicted ran counter to acceptable norms, even acceptable feminist norms; her characters may seem tame by today’s standards but were unthinkable at the time.
There’s a long list of these stories: Doctor Dorn’s Revenge (anonymous, 1868), Countess Varazoff (anonymous, 1868), Fatal Follies (anonymous, 1868), The Abbot’s Ghost (A.M. Barnard, 1867), Plots and Counterplots (anonymous, 1865), Lost in a Pyramid, or, The Mummy’s Curse (as L.M.A., 1869), and many more. Because so much about Alcott was suppressed for so long, we are just beginning to understand her place in American literary and social history.
A woman far ahead of her time in every respect, she struggled with her true self versus her public face. She chafed, like many of her heroines and anti-heroines, against the restraints of her time, long before cerebral feminist classics like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour.
Yet many were published and sold so well that her publisher begged for more, and paid her handsomely. Her readers may have sensed they were reading something different than the usual fare. They may have believed they were reading the work of a fellow named A.M. Barnard, but because they were written with a female gaze, the perspective felt unusual, fresh, the way Gone Girl read to a 2012 audience. And they were obviously hungry for it.
One hundred and fifty years after Little Women, we need to finally claim Louisa May Alcott as one of America’s greatest writers alongside traditional canon favorites like Twain, Poe, and Hawthorne. We must respect her as a feminist trailblazer and pioneer of psychological thrillers, not simply as the celebrated author of a single children’s book. Alcott left a prolific body of work, even if her contribution was largely to popular fiction rather than literary fiction.
Louisa may have felt she was “a wretched victim to the respectable traditions of Concord,” but in the end, she subverted that, too.