“Behind a Mask” with Louisa May Alcott

As you may be aware, Greta Gerwig is filming her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 masterwork Little Women. This version is set to star Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, James Norton, Florence Pugh, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep, and is slated for a Christmas 2019 release.

In the last couple of years alone, there’s already been a TV miniseries and a feature film, and in my opinion, it will be difficult to improve on (the best) Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version.

No matter… Little Women is a perennial springboard for many imaginations.

Gerwig has been involved with this production for two years or more, having been consulted to rewrite a draft just as she was finishing up her own script for Lady Bird, and the producer of the ’94 installment, Robin Swicord, is convinced she can innovate. Word is, Gerwig’s take will concentrate on the March sisters’ adult lives — not so much as girls, more as young women. So possibly less Concord with Marmee, and more Europe with Aunt March for Amy and New York City for Jo, say. (No word on whether she’ll be able to make Amy any less of a selfish, vain brat.)

Perhaps if this version does well, Gerwig or someone else will be interested in other Alcott works…such as a fascinating short story called “Behind a Mask.” I first became aware of Alcott’s short fiction while watching a PBS documentary on her and her family. Turns out, her life was no picnic. Much like the March girls, the Alcotts were broke a lot of the time (both families had four daughters, and a lot of Little Women seems to have been autobiographical). Her father was a Transcendentalist like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and although he wrote and spoke about that ideology all over the U.S., in addition to establishing an experimental school, he failed to consistently support the family. So what’s a nice girl from a good family supposed to do for money in mid-19th century New England? While still a teenager, Alcott worked at a variety of jobs: teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and, most often, writer. And the most lucrative writing was pulp fiction, or what was in the 1860s referred to by Alcott herself and others as “blood and thunder tales.”

Under the name A.M. Barnard, she wrote stories with somewhat opposite themes as Little Women. Gold-digging, revenge, adultery, murder, stealing, deception, betrayal, blackmail…you name it, A.M. put it in a story. This is stuff that would have given Professor Bhaer an attack of the vapors. Much like Jane Austen and the “horrid novels” she loved 70 years before, Alcott had a taste for less rarefied stories — and was able to make it pay. In 1862, she wrote in her journal, “Rewrote the last story, and sent it to L., who wants more than I can send him.” “Behind a Mask” is among the most interesting of this melodramatic oeuvre.

The story takes place in contemporary England and concerns a penniless governess who arrives at a great house and ingratiates herself with its inmates, the wealthy Coventry family, except for the oldest son and his cousin, who don’t trust her from the beginning. Only they can sense — spoiler alert: rightly so — that the demure young woman is nothing like what she seems.

When alone, Miss Muir’s conduct was decidedly peculiar. Her first act was to clench her hands and mutter between her teeth, with passionate force, “I’ll not fail again if there is power in a woman’s wit and will!” She stood a moment motionless, with an expression of almost fierce disdain on her face, then shook her clenched hand as if menacing some unseen enemy….Kneeling before the one small trunk, which held her worldly possessions, she opened it, drew out a flask, and mixed a glass of some ardent cordial, which she seemed to enjoy extremely as she sat on the carpet, musing, while her quick eyes examined every corner of the room….Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth, and slipping off her dress appeared herself indeed, a haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least. (11)

Soon enough, this unassuming yet devious personage puts the household in chaos, and brother is pitted against brother:

He looked at her with a despairing glance and stretched his hand toward her beseechingly. She seemed to figure a blow, for suddenly she clung to Gerald with a faint cry. The act, the look of fear, the protecting gesture Coventry involuntarily made, were too much for Edward, already excited by conflicting passions. In a paroxysm of blind wrath he caught up a large pruning knife left there by the gardener, and would have dealt his brother a fatal blow had he not warded it off with his arm. (34-35)

I’m not going to say much more about the story, other than it’s short enough to be effectively adapted as a feature film and twisty enough to keep people guessing until the last scene. It ought to be helmed by a woman, in any case, someone who can portray the 19th-century social/class differences without bogging the story down, as they are integral to the world Alcott writes about. Perhaps Gerwig, Sofia Coppola, or Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) would take it on.

Quotations from Behind A Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Edited and with an introduction by Madeleine Stern. Harper Collins Perennial, 2004.

Little Women (1994) stills from Movie-Screencaps.com

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