Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Plots and Counterplots: The Defense of Sensational Fiction in Louisa May Alcott's "Behind a Mask"

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Plots and Counterplots: The Defense of Sensational Fiction in Louisa May Alcott's "Behind a Mask"

Article excerpt

Louisa May Alcott is now well known for having led a sensationally double literary life: the author of the demure Little Women was also the author--anonymously and pseudonymously--of such thrillers as "AMarble Woman; or, The Mysterious Model," "V.V.: or, Plots and Counterplots," and "Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power." Of all of Alcott's many potboilers, her four-part novella "Behind a Mask" has received perhaps the most contemporary critical attention. Madeline Stern and other critics have pronounced "Behind a Mask" Alcott's "most extraordinary" story; Elaine Showalter has hailed the tale as the "most skillful" of the lot; and, since the story's twentieth-century republication, a number of persuasive and contrasting positions have been taken regarding the motivations, limitations, and powers of the story's remarkable heroine, Jean Muir. (1)

Jean Muir captures critical attention largely for her entertaining and protean abilities to operate behind an extraordinary variety of masks. She initially appears in "Behind a Mask" as a sweet, wan nineteen-year-old Scottish governess who, newly arrived at her post in the sylvan English countryside with the titled Coventry family, proves well able to delight her employers with her graceful attentions and abilities. By the end of the first chapter of the story, however, the reader discovers a radically different view of the governess. Alone in her room, as she takes off makeup and false hair, Jean's "mobile features settled into their natural expression, weary, hard, bitter," and she is revealed to be "a haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least" rather than the guileless ingenue she initially seems (12). As this opening transformation suggests, Jean is a consummate master of disguise with a troubled past. She is also an impressive master-observer who uses the details she discerns in her new environment to both play to the patrician family she serves and to skillfully "play" them, manipulating them to achieve her own ends. As Jean beguiles both the widowed Mrs. Coventry and her young charge Bella, she also effortlessly enthralls the family's two sons, Ned and Gerald. Her many poses--noble but destitute orphan, world traveler, horse-tamer, accomplished nurse, wronged victim, humble servant, romantic heroine, and, in an evening of tableaux vivants entertainment, alternately a damsel in distress and the Virgin Queen--drive both sons to distraction, and they fall madly in love with her (the younger, Ned, even attempting fratricide in a moment of desperate jealousy). Jean's rousing of the Coventry men, however, does not stop with the two brothers; she also works her artful charms on the family's wealthy, unmarried uncle, Sir John Coventry, who lives in the great manor house nearby. Sir John, as captivated as the rest by the accomplished actress, becomes Jean's final conquest. By the time the two duped brothers come to their senses and discover the scandalous history of the "real" Jean, it is simply too late. In the closing scene of the story, Jean triumphantly reveals to the family her ultimate metamorphosis: no longer a lowly governess, she has become the proud, newly-married Lady Coventry.

Most critics of "Behind a Mask" attend closely to the tale's radical gender and class dynamics: the way Alcott overtly aligns operating behind a mask with female power; the way Jean's many masquerades serve to expose readers to the idea that "natural" womanly tendencies to nurture, or to be modestly self-effacing, might simply be acts; the way working-girl Jean is well able to manipulate her powerful, moneyed employers and inexorably achieve her class-aspirant goals. Many critics also note, however, that Jean's final transformation into the role of wife to Lord Coventry potentially problematizes the story's radical message. For while Jean's assumption of the title "Lady Coventry" does help destabilize certain class biases such as the idea of aristocratic birth-privilege (an idea most of the other characters in the tale unthinkingly endorse), her marriage to Sir John also places her squarely in the position of sanctioning the hierarchical class entitlement that her earlier actions worked to critique. …

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