Behind a Mask of Beauty: Alcott's Beast in Disguise

By Butterworth-McDermott, Christine | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), March 2004 | Go to article overview

Behind a Mask of Beauty: Alcott's Beast in Disguise


Butterworth-McDermott, Christine, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


Since Leona Rostenberg's 1943 discovery of Louisa May Alcott's pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, and Madeline B. Stern's subsequent publication of Alcott's blood-and-thunder fiction under that name, several critics--Elizabeth Keyser, Judith Fetterley, and Sarah Elbert to name a few--have discussed the connections and divergences among Alcott's realistic children's fiction, her serious fiction for adults, and her suspenseful tales for popular magazines. Yet, generally in this re-assessment of her creative output, Alcott's use of fairy tales has not been connected to the sensation fiction she produced in the 1860s. In his introduction to Louisa May Alcott's Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories, Daniel Shealy reveals that Alcott's "thirty-eight fantasy tales ... [have] largely been ignored by both the reading public and literary scholars" (xv). Although Alcott told her mother that she hoped "to pass in time from fairies and fables to men and realities," she continued to write fairy tales for children until the end of her life (Selected Letters 11). While the fantasies and fairy tales she wrote for children are interesting in and of themselves, what might prove provocative is how the influence of fairy tales in Alcott's work may add a new perspective to the pseudonymous fiction.

Alcott alluded to and "re-told" the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm in both her children's fiction and her work for adults, but aside from Adele Tintner noting the fairy tale "underpinnings" in Alcott's children's novel Eight Cousins, "the seven boy cousins [are] equivalents for the Seven Dwarfs, and Rose, a modern Snow-White" and that one of her mainstream short stories is titled "A Modern Cinderella" (266), there have been few discussions of what purpose Alcott used fairy tales. Perhaps Alcott hoped her sensation tales would do for adults exactly what Shealy claims her fantasy tales did for children: "stimulate ... imaginations ... give recognition to their problems, and ... offer solutions or suggestions that would make them better individuals in a society" (xxxvii). In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner claims that the main purpose of fairy tales is to "encipher concerns, beliefs and desires in brilliant, seductive images that are themselves a form of camouflage, making it possible to utter harsh truths, to say what you dare" (xxi). For example, in Behind A Mask, Alcott's heavy reliance of fairy tale themes, specifically those of "Beauty and the Beast," force the reader to question nineteenth-century British and American ideals of womanhood.

Critics like Stern, Fetterley, Keyser, and Mary Elliot have noted that Behind A Mask partially responds to issues raised in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Alcott was incredibly influenced by Bronte both on the surface of her writing (she borrowed plots) and in the deeper thematic constructions of her work. In a recent book-length study, Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte, Christine Doyle extensively discusses the connections between the two authors, and shows how Alcott continually revised plot-lines and characters from Bronte's novels. Doyle also emphasizes how the main character in Behind A Mask, a governess named Jean Muir, echoes Jane Eyre's physiology and habit in order to ingratiate herself to her employers until she eventually wins the heart of Sir John Coventry, the fifty-five year old master of the manor, securing herself a fortune and the title of Lady Coventry. Doyle and other critics mention this "fairy-tale ending" of the novella, but no one has yet connected specific fairy tale themes to the whole of Behind A Mask. As Elizabeth Imlay and Karen Rowe have shown, Jane Eyre can be read as a sophisticated re-telling of the French version of "Beauty and the Beast" by Madame le Prince du Beaumont, with Jane acting as the "Beauty" figure, who must rescue and transform a "Beast" (Rochester) into a prince. A close textual analysis of Behind A Mask reveals that the "Beauty and the Beast" themes evident in Jane Eyre are deliberately echoed and revised throughout Alcott's novella.

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