Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Louisa May Alcott & the Feminine Ideal

I was recently browsing through a library, when I came across what I thought was an enormous treasure: Louisa May Alcott's never-before-published first novel, The Inheritance, that she had written when she was seventeen. I love Alcott's work and I am fascinated by her upbringing among the Transcendentalists of New England in the 19th century. My young life was forever marked by the four March sisters and their lives; I even named my cat in honor of the author, Louisa May. I also love the idea of reading something that is relatively new and rare to the literary world. An early work by a now-beloved author seemed like the perfect way to delve back into my 19th century literary studies.

The book is charming and idealistic, not unlike those carefree teenage years. Yet the idealism is taken too far, and the sentimental prose, in addition to the one dimensional characters, makes the reader unable to relate to the underdeveloped characters or their story. They are either all bad or all good. The sweeping pastoral scenes of a gothic romance are reduced to a cliché plot that is entirely predictable. Still, the novel has passion and is incredibly ambitious for a teenage girl.

The story centers around Edith Adelon, a poor Italian orphan who is taken in by the prestigious Lord Hamilton when she is a child. Raised alongside his own children, she becomes as much beloved as one of the family, but her birth and rank forever separate her from being their true equal. She feels this separation, and like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, her natural purity and humility make her strive to always keep her position in mind while maintaining an ever grateful attitude. Although she is dearly loved by the family, she still senses herself an outcast. Never one to complain, however, she is a faithful friend and servant to the family. Still she feels her loneliness keenly, and a kind or attentive word directed towards her brings tears of gratitude to her eyes. Edith is all inherent goodness, but it is not just her. Consider this opening description of the two Hamilton children:

Arthur, the young heir of his dead father's name and wealth, was a frank, warm-hearted youth, kind, generous, and noble. All loved and honored him as one who well became the name he bore. His gentle sister Amy, a gay and lovely girl whose life was all a summer day, he loved most truly; and she returned his love with all her heart, looking up to him and admiring him with all a sister's pride and fond affection.

Arthur and Amy, though somewhat minor characters, never change in the whole course of the book. In contrast, the antagonist, cousin Ida, is a jealous and bitter young woman. She has always disliked Edith for her inherent goodness, but when the handsome and eligible Lord Percy arrives, her dislike turns to active animosity. Although Edith does nothing consciously to win his ardent affection (besides looking and singing like an angel, risking her life to save Amy from falling off a cliff, giving her money and time to the poor and sick, and being all around perfect in humility and grace), Ida watches with growing hatred as Lord Percy falls in love with the unsuspecting Edith. In a wicked attempt to entrap Edith in a plot of theft against Lady Hamilton, Ida plans to banish Edith forever from the estate and to send her back into the penniless situation from which she came.

Oh look, a 1997 film adaptation. Looks promising.
Meanwhile, a mysterious old man appears and gives Edith a package and letter that, much like Jane Eyre, sheds light on her true parentage. To the shock of Edith (we never saw this coming!), she discovers that her father is none other than the deceased Lord Hamilton's older brother, thus making her the rightful heiress of the Hamilton fortune on which she has been a dependent for so long. Not wanting to claim her inheritance and take it away from those who freely shared it with her, she plans to burn the letter and will. In a not-so-random coincidence, a servant boy steals the will before she burns it. Lady Ida's scheme to frame Edith is exposed when the same servant boy confesses all (he was the true thief) and produces the will that declares Edith not only their cousin and equal, but also their benefactress. Now restored to her rightful place, Edith is free to love and be loved by Lord Percy as his equal.

To say that the novel is a great literary classic would be a stretch; however, it is valuable to see the evolution of Alcott's writing career that apparently began at such a young age. The fact that she was able to write such a complete novel at the age of seventeen is certainly impressive. Clearly, this is the inspiration for the other female writer, Jo March, and her manuscripts in the same genre of gothic romance. The plot has the melodrama of the theatre written all over it. There is even a scene where all the characters, bored of being stuck indoors on a rainy day, perform a tableau of mythological and biblical characters complete with ancient-inspired costumes.

While this is not technically a “Victorian” novel simply because its author is American, there are many similarities to the Victorian ideal of femininity, which was prevalent in both American and British cultures in the 19th century. Certainly, Edith is a prototype of the angel in the house. What is most inspiring to see, however, is how Alcott outgrew Edith's one-dimensional characteristics and how she went on to create one of the greatest literary heroines to resist social expectations of femininity. I could launch into a full analysis of Jo March, but now is not the time. Suffice it to say that the character who willfully declared, “It's bad enough to be a girl anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy...” is in no way near the timid beauty and unrealistic perfection of Edith Adelon.

 So, keep writing, young writers. Your first story, while being a great personal achievement, will certainly not be your best.  So, don't make it your last.

The handwritten manuscript of The Inheritance was found by editors Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy in 1988 in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. They were researching for their book, The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, when they came across the manuscript originally written in 1849. It was eventually published in 1997.

Alcott, Louisa May. The Inheritance. Dutton Books: New York, 1997. Print.