Monday, April 14, 2014

Fortnightly Book, April 13

It might well be a busy two weeks -- I'm already behind on quite a few things -- so I need a re-read or something relatively unchallenging. So I've decided to go with something I haven't read for some years.

You might remember from the latter part of Little Women some of the story of Jo's struggles to write. One of the more vivid parts of that story consists of Jo writing 'potboilers' for newspapers, which intersects with her early interactions with Professor Bhaer; he provokes and encourages her to think of herself as capable of more, one of the signs that he is very good for her. Alcott knew something of potboiler-writing, both why one would do it and why it might drag one down, because she had by that point been a potboiler-writer, usually under the pen-name "A. M. Barnard", for quite some time. The fortnightly book is one of these potboilers: A Long Fatal Love Chase.

Alcott had been asked by her publisher to write a sensational work of twenty-four chapters in which the end of every second chapter introduces some hook to keep the reader reading. She wrote A Modern Mephistopheles: or The Fatal Love Chase in two months, drawing on her recent year-long trip to Europe. It was rejected, however, as too long and too sensational. It certainly does hit all the marks for sensationalism for the day, whether it be bigamy or suicide or a handsome Catholic priest who isn't a villain. Alcott worked on revising it, eventually using the main title for a completely different work, one which is essentially a retelling of Faust, The book was never published, however, until Kent Bicknell published it in 1995, in its pre-revision form, as A Long Fatal Love Chase. I picked it up shortly after it came out; it was a quite vigorous story, and it will be interesting to reflect on it here in two weeks' time.

One often finds people contrasting the work with Little Women and commenting on its strong, independent heroine. I think this is a point on which contemporary values end up distorting the reading, somewhat as if one were to read Pride and Prejudice and conclude that Lydia is the strong, independent woman rather than Elizabeth. Rosamond, the main character of A Long Fatal Love Chase, is on practically every score weaker and more dependent than the March sisters. She is strong-willed, yes, but her primary free choice consists of putting herself entirely into the power of a very dangerous man, a situation from which she stands no chance of extricating herself without the help of very brave men. Her 'year of freedom' is the Faustian bargain intimated by the repeated echoes of Goethe throughout the work: she receives nothing from Phillip Tempest but an illusory freedom and status as a pet and a toy. Her entire story is of moving from depending on one man to depending on another. For all that, she is a vividly written character in an interesting story, in which she learns the importance of "the serenity of a true heart strong to love, patient to wait" (p. 346). It is love and patience, however, not the impetuosity and self-will, that holds the key to strength and independence, and it is learning it, however slowly and tragically, that makes Rosamond stand out from legions of sensational women characters coming to tragic ends.

If it turns out that this next two weeks is much less busy than I'm expecting, I'll add Alcott's Faust retelling, A Modern Mephistopheles, to this one. But I'm not promising anything on that score.

***

Louisa May Alcott, A Long Fatal Love Chase. Dell (New York: 1995).

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