Domestic Conspiracy: Class Conflict and Performance in Louisa May Alcott's "Behind a Mask"

By Schewe, Elizabeth | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), December 2008 | Go to article overview

Domestic Conspiracy: Class Conflict and Performance in Louisa May Alcott's "Behind a Mask"


Schewe, Elizabeth, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


Although it is now recognized that class conflict reaches into all spheres--not only politics and labor, but also family and private life--until recently scholars of nineteenth-century America have tended to reinforce the sentimental fiction of separate spheres, understanding the middle- or upper-class home not as a site of potential conflict, but as "a refuge from the city," a place "to escape from work" (Kleinberg 142-43), "a refuge from the fluctuations of men and markets," and "a bulwark against social strife" (Lang 15). When domestic spaces have been analyzed as loci of social class, they have sometimes been understood in terms of "the feminization of consumption," through which "equivalences [are constructed] between material and subjective 'refinement'--between commodity and psychological forms" (Merish 2). However, as Moira Donald has argued, "the extent to which work was separated from the home environment during the industrialisation process has been overestimated" (103-04). In fact, middle- and upper-class homes of the nineteenth century were dependent upon both the paid labor of domestic workers and the unpaid labor of "millions of unwaged workers, the wives, daughters, aunts, and nieces who also laboured daily in the home" (104). Thus, a complex understanding of class conflict in nineteenth-century America must take into account domestic space and women's bodies as sites of both labor and conspicuous consumption.

There are few nineteenth-century American writers more aware of domestic class conflict than Louisa May Alcott, who explored women's work and consumerism in many genres, from sentimental novels such as Little Women to the farcical "How I Went Out to Service." Nonetheless, it might be tempting to dismiss Alcott's gothic thriller "Behind a Mask, or A Woman's Power," as mere escapist fantasy, published serially in The Flag of Our Union in 1866 under the penname A. M. Barnard (Stern xxxi) as a way to earn money for Alcott and to help United States readers forget about the race and class tensions building at the close of the Civil War. (1) However, as many critics have pointed out, although "Behind a Mask" is set among the British aristocracy and focuses on the disguise and unmasking of a con-woman femme fatale, this unlikely story exposes American class-related anxieties about sentimental womanhood, domestic theatricality, and women's labor and sexuality.

"Behind a Mask" tells the story of Jean Muir, a thirty-year-old divorced actress who takes a job as governess for the aristocratic Coventry family. This is an acting job like any other for Muir, and she decides to play this one in the "meek ... pathetic" style (195), pretending to be a bashful nineteen-year-old girl. Muir plays the sentimental true woman so well that she wins the hearts of both of the family's sons and then goes on to marry the old titled uncle, Sir John. Alcott portrays Muir luring the family into her performance through intrigue and seduction, and by marrying into the family Muir finally draws all of the Coventrys into a conspiracy to hide the secrets of her past in order to protect their family name.

Previous criticism of "Behind a Mask" has tended to emphasize Alcott's feminism, focusing either on her critique of women's economic dependence or her demonstration of the performativity (and hence inauthenticity) of women's sentimental roles. Madeleine Stern and Judith Fetterley, for example, have argued that "Behind a Mask" grew out of Alcott's own desperate economic circumstances and that Jean Muir's story demonstrates how hard it was for women to earn a living. Teresa A. Goddu takes this economic reading one step further, arguing that Alcott's sentimental and gothic fiction "participate[d] in a shared market economy" (119) and served to reveal "the economic witch behind the sentimental woman" (123). Critics such as Mary Elliott, Melanie Dawson, Alan Louis Ackerman, Jr., and Isabell Klaiber have emphasized Jean Muir's theatrical performance of "true womanhood," exploring the ways in which theatricality undermines sentimental notions of feminine authenticity. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Domestic Conspiracy: Class Conflict and Performance in Louisa May Alcott's "Behind a Mask"
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.