Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Behind A Mask by Louisa May Alcott
Anyone familiar with Little Women (the book or the movie) will recall how Jo March took to writing "sensational" or "blood-and-thunder" tales under the assumed name of Joseph March. So many aspects of the character Jo March are reflective of her creator, Louisa May Alcott. Case in point, in addition to the numerous novels penned under her real name, including Little Women, Alcott also wrote a few thrillers under the masculine sounding nom de plume, A. M. Barnard.
And she fared quite well. At one point Alcott's novels (both the sweet and the sensational) were in such demand among readers and by publishers that she taught herself to write with her left hand so she could write twice as much and for twice as long. (I leave it to another reader to determine if this was a bad idea or one of pure genius. I have not read enough of Alcott to form an opinion at this time.)
Behind A Mask (a.k.a: A Woman's Power) is a thriller novella that was published in 1866 and originally credited to A. M. Barnard (but now republished under Alcott's real name). I first came upon this book last summer while browsing the local library's online catalog and blogged about it during a Friday Finds post.
I found Behind A Mask (a total of 128 pages) to be a fast paced read -- one that I could hardly put down once I had begun. From the opening lines the reader is swept into a tale of mystery, love, betrayal, and deception. Jean Muir, a demure and somewhat pretty young Scottish governess, has come to stay with the Coventry family and tutor the only daughter, Bella. Almost immediately she wins over the affection and loyalty of Mrs. Coventry, Bella, the youngest son Edward (or Ned), and Sir John, their uncle, with her sweet nature and many talents. But not everyone is beguiled. Miss Muir is met by suspicion and haughtiness in Gerald, the lazy elder brother and master of the home, and Lucia, his cousin and assumed fiance...
"For several weeks the most monotonous tranquillity seemed to reign at Coventry House, and yet, unseen, unsuspected, a storm was gathering. The arrival of Miss Muir seemed to produce a change in everyone, though no one could have explained how or why..." (Chapter iii)
To some Behind A Mask is a multi-layered story. Yes, there is the thrilling plot with twists and turns and a surprise ending, but also throughout the story are lessons learned and an underlining of what was considered in the 19th century as "forward thinking" or feminist ideology. Personally, I viewed Behind A Mask as pure entertainment, more of a Gothic tale than a social commentary. As is the case with most "blood-and-thunder" tales, Behind A Mask involves a willful and narcissistic protagonist who causes emotional and relational injury to those encircling them.
Although not quite the same it is a little reminiscent of the more happily ending Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon or perhaps even more modern works like Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel that leaves the reader a little mystified.
For a reader who enjoys a story of mystery and mischief Behind A Mask is a great little read. And oddly enough, even though I'm usually the type that prefers happily-ever-after endings, I actually liked this story!
On a scale of one to five, one being horrible and five being excellent I would rate Behind A Mask a 3.5. It was an intriguing read that I enjoyed and would recommend readers borrow from their library. For those curious, a free downloadable version is available online and inexpensive paperback copies can be found at Amazon.
P.S. If you like the sound of Behind A Mask you might also like: Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, or Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel. All are excellent reads.