Salma's Reviews > Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Behind a Mask by Louisa May Alcott
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's review
Jan 28, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: classic-lit, mystery-must-reads, romantic-suspense
Read in January, 2009

These stories are delicious.

But with "Behind the Mask," Alcott veered from her traditional path of 'wholesome' writing. The book consists of four novellas, most of which were published anonymously at the time as what Alcott called her "Blood-and-Thunder Tales." Modern 'literary' readers might consider tales like these potboilers and trash. Certainly, Alcott's primary goal in writing them was for financial gain.

But one wonders whether Alcott's own shadow, her frustration at the plight of the poor, and particulary of women, brought these four tales to blossom.

The first one is the best- "Behind A Mask" follows the story of a young governess appointed to serve the Coventry household. You can tell something's not right as soon as she walks in- her peculiar behavior toward the young, good-looking men of the house coupled with the hint of a muddy past makes for a page turner with a brilliant ending.

Although the story is interspersed with melodramatic dialogue and prose that turns a bit purple in a couple of scenes, the overall effect is quite nice. Perhaps if Alcott had created a more superficial story, it wouldn't have stayed with the reader as long. But the issues of class and the plight of women (marriage and 'saving' reputations being the primary goals of life) are so subtlely interwoven throughout, that this ranks higher than a simple 'blood and thunder tale.'

"Pauline's Passion & Punishment" is a classic tale of woman's revenge against a false lover. Well-paced writing- an ending that probably made those nineteenth-century readers gasp with shock. Well-written, but lacked enough depth and too drawn out to be my favorite. Melodrama at its peak.

"The Mysterious Key." Ah...just the title brings images of a raven hovering outside a library on a rainy night. Here, we have the Lady of the house widowed at age eighteen, and the secret of her husband's death casting gloom over the castle for over a decade. The question is, what's the secret? More importantly, what are the repercussions of such a secret?

"The Abbot's Ghost" is the last of the tales- here we have two good-looking bachelors- sadly, one is left crippled after an accident and is no longer 'marriageable' as a result (this was the very un-PC 1800s). Maurice is his name, and yes, he's got a terrible secret too.
This one drags a little, though. I'm actually cheating writing this review, because I haven't finished the last few pages.

As wonderful as these tales are, as a whole, one thing struck me- bothered me, to be more specific. The characters' lives revolved around three things- fame, money, and lust. Nothing outside of these things matter to any of them- nothing higher than themselves appeals to them. I wonder if Alcott was making her statement on society right here by characterizing this way. She did a good job.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Salma Yeah- lol- I can't wait to start reading it- I just got the book in my hands so far.

I read The Long Fatal Love Chase by her in college for a Women Writers class. Melodrama at its finest.

Salma Thanks! Hope you like it.

Salma Oh- forgot to mention- some of the main characters' names in these stories are Bella, Edward, and Jasper. Guess Ms. Meyer's an Alcott fan as well.

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