Saturday, April 26, 2014

Louisa May Alcott, A Long Fatal Love Chase


Opening Passage:

"I tell you I cannot bear it! I shall do something desperate if this life is not changed soon. It gets worse and worse, and I often feel as if I'd gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom."

Summary: So speaks Rosamond Vivian, the heroine of our little tragedy. Ahwhe has been raised by a grandfather who does not really love her, and, as it turns out, is only raising her because a fortune is coming her way. She's a goodhearted girl, but it is unsurprising that when Phillip Tempest shows up, she can't help but see freedom in this handsome man with a dashing scar, a yacht, and infinitely more experience of the world than she has. After sounding her out a bit, Tempest essentially kidnaps her. She insists at first on being taken back, but when he produces a parson and asks her to marry her -- well, the option is going back to her grandfather, and she has certainly had a more interesting time with Tempest than she has ever had before. So she gets her year of freedom. But Tempest is her Mephistopheles -- that was originally title of the book, A Modern Mephistopheles: or The Fatal Love Chase, it is remarked early on that he even looks like a picture of Mephistopheles -- and her bargain was a Faustian one. Her freedom was the illusion of freedom in a cage of gold, and except for the friendship of Ippolito, Tempest's servant boy, she in reality gains nothing from her deal with the devil. When she discovers this, she flees from Tempest and his extraordinarily resourceful servant Baptiste; but Tempest is not a man to give up a possession and pursues her all over Europe. Her only advantage is a knack for making good friends -- first Ippolito, then Honorine the actress, then, most important of all, Father Ignatius, who becomes her protector.

The book was deliberately written to have a major upheaval and cliffhanger every second chapter, so that's about as much as can be said without giving away massive amounts of plot -- it's very difficult to summarize a plot built almost entirely on the principle of surprise. For all that, the story does not lose its coherence. The actions of the characters are plausible and 'in character' throughout, and we see in the title itself that there is a looming destination.

There are a number of striking features to the book. The characterization is excellent -- this is some of Alcott's best character-work. The book exhibits throughout Alcott's consistent authorial quirk of allegorizing characters in the middle of telling the story; and her literary allusions are all quite explicit, as they are in her other works. They are often less obvious here, however, because they take a backseat to the constant twists of action and while it would be impossible to miss many of the Faust allusions, one might not immediately recognize how much of Shakespeare's The Tempest is in the book.

For a novel written by a non-Catholic in the 1860's, it is striking to have a hero like Father Ignatius, the Catholic priest, whose celibacy is portrayed not (as so often in Protestant works of the period) as unnatural but as something noble and even uplifting. One of the things that I've never seen remarked -- although I don't read a vast amount of Alcott scholarship -- is the recurring symbol of the rosary in Alcott's works. I know of at least three distinct works by Alcott in which the rosary shows up in a favorable light -- Little Women, this work, and A Modern Mephistopheles -- despite Alcott indicating clearly in each case that she doesn't hold the Catholic view of it. And Catholics associated with it, like Esther in Little Women or Father Ignatius here, are also presented very positively. It's a symbolism that might be worth looking into.

Alcott wrote two Faust stories, of which this, the first, was not published in her lifetime. The second was published in her lifetime, although anonymously; it stole its title from this work, and was published under the title A Modern Mephistopheles. The works are very different -- Rosamond, personality-wise, is a very different person from Felix Canaris, although they are both Faust, and while Felix has Gladys to play Gretchen, Rosamond plays Gretchen as well as Faust. Further, A Long Fatal Love Chase is all action, while A Modern Mephistopheles has very minimal action.

Most interesting, however, is the contrast between the two figures playing Mephistopheles, Phillip Tempest and Jasper Helwyze. Tempest is a dashing man of action who never stops moving. Helwyze is a bookish invalid who is slowly becoming paralyzed. Tempest has inherited his Mephistophelean character by blood and upbringing; he even has a physical resemblance. Helwyze is playing Mephistopheles; he is quite literally copying Goethe's character, and translating those actions into new circumstances. Tempest is Mephistopheles almost despite himself; Helwyze deliberately and explicitly aspires to be Mephistopheles. Both men are predators, but Tempest seeks to possess while Helwyze seeks to corrupt. They present two different ways you could see the devil: as something that can pursue you to the ends of the earth and show up just when you've thought you've finally lost it, like some cunning lion, or something that, spider-like, sits at the center of the web in which the fly catches itself. The lure of the Tempest-like devil is freedom, but your freedom turns out to be the novelty (for a while) of a new kind of slavery or imprisonment. The lure of the Helwyze-like devil is success, but your success turns out to be empty plagiarism that gives you the externals of success without any of the substance. Alcott can tell you a lot about how human beings fall into darkness.

But Alcott also insists on the hope of escape. Both Rosamond Vivian and Felix Canaris escape Mephistopheles, as Faust escaped Mephistopheles. It is not the escape one would have though, or could have hoped; but the devil can only promise happiness, whether in the form of freedom, or success, or any other form, because happiness is something human beings can actually achieve. All temptation is merely a trap built by twisting that in us which tends toward it. Ensnared by that temptation, we have guaranteed a tragic end -- but the tragic end may bring as well the first true glimpse of what happiness actually is. In a true Faust story, there is a power making it possible for us to rise above the temptation that snares us, and the devil's own machinations can bring us to the first steps on the way to salvation.

Favorite Passage:

Tempest needed one more lesson and he received it when Ignatius turned on him a face full of love and longing, full of a man's dearest and strongest passion, yet answered steadily though his cheek paled and his eye darkened with intensity of feeling, "I shall love her all my life, shall be to her a faithful friend, and if I cannot remain loyal to both God and her I shall renounce her and never see her face again. You call this folly; to me it is a hard duty, and the more I love her the worthier of her will I endeavor to become by my own integrity of soul."

With that they parted, and Ignatius left Tempest sitting on the lonely moor, twice conquered in an hour. (pp. 324-325)

Recommendation: It is not as timeless as Alcott's better known works, but Alcott quite clearly has a lot more fun writing in the 'lurid' style. The characters are interesting, the plot never palls, and if you ever start reading it you will find yourself carried along by it in a rush. Highly recommended.

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


  1. Enbrethiliel3:50 AM


    I once reread Little Women, a novel I already knew fairly well, after reading a critique which described Louisa May Alcott as "anti-Catholic." Upon further consideration, as disgusted as she was by Boston's new Irish immigrants (LOL!), she seemed pretty tolerant of Catholics. And the part when Esther and Amy talk about Catholic prayer, and then Amy practices what little of it she feels fitting for her, was so beautiful that . . . well . . . that it got me writing FF about Amy considering converting to Catholicism while in Europe. =P

    As I got older, I found Alcott's children's books a little too preachy for my tastes. But now you've made me curious about A Long Fatal Love Chase. I know that Jo Bhaer (nee March) admired Charlotte Bronte--making me deduce that Alcott did, too--and your description makes it sound like Jane Eyre meets the Puritans. So it should be fun! ;-)

  2. branemrys6:51 AM

    Alcott herself calls her children's works 'moral pap'; she tends to insult her writing in one way or another, so one can't put a huge amount of weight on that. But she wrote it because it made serious money, not because she always enjoyed writing it. She always has a very moral side to every story she writes, and will always occasionally hit you over the head with it, but in this work it takes backseat to the rush of the action.

  3. Jason Zarri10:29 AM

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Brandon. I need to read it when I can. Also, Happy Divine Mercy Sunday! :-)

  4. Jason Zarri1:05 PM

    Also, I will be chaste and/or childless if that is What God deems necessary for me.

  5. branemrys5:41 PM

    Have a good Divine Mercy Sunday, yourself.

  6. Enbrethiliel12:46 PM


    That reminds me of the chapter "Calls" in Good Wives. Jo pays some visits with Amy and is on her best behaviour at one house until someone compliments her on one of her stories. She says something like, "I'm sorry you couldn't find anything better to read," and explains why that particular story had been particularly bad. Amy is mortified, of course. (LOL!) Although I had known about Alcott thinking her children's books were "moral pap," I hadn't thought until now that Jo's "blunder" (as the March girls would call it!) might be autobiographical! And how interesting that she tells herself off and punishes Jo at the end of the chapter. But do we read this as real acknowledgment of a mistake or as a case of "do as I say, not as I do"?

  7. branemrys12:57 PM

    I had forgotten about that; you're right. And it's a tough question. It's like the fact that Professor Bhaer basically saves Jo from wasting herself on 'rubbish' for the Weekly Volcano, but we know that Alcott herself enjoyed writing that kind of work. So how seriously do we take the fact that she has the 'pap' explicitly criticizing the 'rubbish', given that she writes both?

  8. Enbrethiliel2:08 PM


    You're giving me an idea for a post . . . Thanks! =)


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