Friday, September 12, 2014

419 (2014 #47). A Long Fatal Love Chase

by Louisa May Alcott

Remember those "sensation" stories Jo March writes in Little Women?  In chapter 27, "Literary Lessons," Jo decides to enter a competition in

that class of light literature in which the passions have a holiday, and when the author's invention fails, a grand catastrophe clears the state of one-half the dramatis persona, leaving the other half to exult over their downfall....Her theatrical experience and miscellaneous reading were of service now, for they gave her some idea of dramatic effect, and supplied plot, language, and costumes.  Her story was as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it...

Jo wins the competition (and $100), and keeps writing such thrillers to pay the family bills.  In chapter 34, "A Friend," Jo continues

writing sensation stories - for in those dark days, even all-perfect America read rubbish....Like most young scribblers, she went abroad for her characters and thrills could not be produced except by harrowing up the souls of the readers, history and romance, land and sea, science and art, police records and lunatic asylums, had to be ransacked for the purpose....she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes; she excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons; she studied faces in the street, - and characters good, bad, and indifferent, all about her; she delved in the dust of ancient times, for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed.

A Long Fatal Love Chase is the serialized "blood and thunder" story Jo March might have written.  Even more interesting, though, is the story behind the story.  After returning from a trip to Europe in 1866, where she served as a paid companion to an invalid, Louisa May Alcott sold her novella Behind the Mask (or, A Woman's Power) to editor James Elliott for the Boston weekly The Flag of Our Union for $75 in August. (It appeared in four installments in October and November of that year).  Incorporating settings from her trip, in September, Alcott's journal indicates she "finished the long tale A Modern Mephistopheles.   But Elliott would not have it, saying it was too long & too sensational!  So I put it away & fell to work on other things."

After Alcott's death in 1888, the manuscript wound up in a Harvard library archive, where it was described as "A modern Mephistopheles, or The fatal love chase. ... A completely different novel from that published as A modern Mephistopheles in the No Name series, 1877. This novel apparently unpublished. ... NOTE: This item returned to family, 1991."

According to a September 1995 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Alcott's grandnephews put the manuscript on the market to raise money for the Louisa May Alcott Foundation, which operates Orchard House, the Alcott home in Concord, Masssachusetts, where she wrote Little Women.  It languished unsold for a few years until a New Hampshire private school principal named Kent Bicknell purchased it (with the help of a financial backer) in 1994.  He restored the much-revised text to the original (as submitted in 1866), and the profits from its subsequent publication were shared with Alcott's heirs, Orchard House, and Bicknell's school respectively.  

Elliott had requested a novel of 24 chapters, with every other chapter ending with a bit of a cliffhanger, for serialization purposes.  That is what Alcott has written here. The title and the cover blurb kind of give the plot away, but it's an easy and fun (and rather dark Gothic) read nonetheless.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This paperback was purchased at a Friends of the Library book sale and will likely remain in my personal collection.]

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