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. …