Jo March’s Twisted Sisters: The Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

by Sara Farmer
published in Reading

Web Editor’s Note: Hey there Word Nerds! I am SO excited to introduce Sara Farmer, our newest columnist, and her column, From Cozies to Cold-Blooded. She’ll be talking about all things mystery, suspense, thrillers and more! For her first article, she’ll be discussing the lesser-known and absolutely fascinating thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. 

— Bess

In 1996, the publication of a new Louisa May Alcott novel called A Long Fatal Love Chase caused a stir. It was obvious from the title alone that this wasn’t another tome about the March sisters. But the subject matter was astonishing. In the novel, a man falls in love with a young woman, whisks her away on a world tour, and stalks her after she leaves him. Although Alcott’s “blood and thunder” tales (the inspiration for Jo March’s) were discovered by Alcott scholars Madeleine B. Stern and Leona Rostenberg in the 1940s, it wasn’t widely known in 1996 that Alcott wrote anything besides what she once termed the “moral pap” for the young for which she became famous. 

But she most certainly did. She wrote tales of passion, deception, and revenge under a pseudonym. (Rostenberg actually whooped in the Houghton library at Harvard when they finally proved that A.M. Barnard was actually Louisa May Alcott. The librarian wasn’t pleased.) 

Her characters avenge themselves against lovers who abandon them, play men off each other to gain an advantageous marriage, and have fiery tempers that put Jo and Amy March’s to shame. For this article, I focused on stories in the collection The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman’s Power edited by Madeleine B. Stern. Reading these stories recently, I was struck by their similarity to the main characters in the wildly popular domestic thriller genre of today. 

Although the Alcott family’s activities as abolitionists, feminists, and proponents of equality for all are well known to Alcott scholars and die-hard fans, those who are more Little Women fans might not know about these unorthodox (for the nineteenth century) attitudes or the fact that Alcott wrote thrilling tales in order to support her family. She wrote under the aforementioned pseudonym, in order to spare her family from embarrassment over the salacious subject matter. But these tales weren’t just salacious. They were blatantly subversive. 

How does this connect to mysteries and thrillers? These stories are examples of sensation fiction, which was a precursor to those genres. Sensation fiction is a combination of Gothic and Romantic literature, meant both in the sense of causing a physical sensation and attracting the attention of readers with wild material. In fact, one of the most famous examples of sensation fiction The Woman in White was written by Wilkie Collins, who also wrote The Moonstone, widely considered to be the first detective novel. 

In these sensational stories, Alcott subverted gender and class expectations much more overtly than in Little Women. And unlike in Little Women, there is no criticism by a male character of these tales that helped her earn a living and in which she found secret satisfaction. 

“I think my natural ambition is for the lurid” — Louisa May Alcott 

Pauline’s Passion and Punishment

The first story in the collection is titled “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.” Pauline Valary is the very definition of a woman scorned. She enlists the help of her admirer Manuel to get revenge on her former lover Gilbert. Gilbert led Pauline to believe they would marry, then left her for a young heiress named Barbara (tellingly nicknamed Babie). Manuel and Pauline marry and proceed to stalk Gilbert and Babie on their travels. As you can tell from the title, Pauline might just get her revenge, but if she does, it comes with a price. 

Pauline is a compelling example of a femme fatale. While she has obviously let bitterness and vengeance have too much sway in her heart, it’s satisfying to see her go after what she wants and be as dark and complicated as she pleases. In fact, her dogged commitment to her twisted plot of revenge reminds me of Amy Elliott Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. 

V.V.: or, Plots and Counterplots

In “V.V.: or, Plots and Counterplots,” Alcott introduces us to Virginie Varens (same last name as Adele Varens, Mr. Rochester’s ward in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre), a “mercenary, vain, and hollow-hearted” actress who seeks money and security through marriage to a Scottish peer. Her plan tragically thwarted by her cousin, fellow actor, and jealous lover Victor, Virginie assumes a new identity and seeks security by any means necessary. 

Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power

Jean Muir, the main character in “Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power,” is an incredibly complex character. In this twisted, suspenseful tale, she borrows the mask of traditional womanhood to get back at a society that victimized her. She does this by almost literally wearing a mask. We discover on her first night with the Coventry family that she wears a costume to make her appear nineteen rather than thirty. After she goes to her room for the night, she vows “I’ll not fail again if there is power in a woman’s wit and will!” She then removes several false teeth and her makeup. Like Virginie Varens, she is an actress seeking security through marriage, no matter how much cunning and even outright deception she must employ.

In her guise as a young governess, Jean proves strangely magnetic. Despite some initial distrust from a few family members, she speedily wins over everyone. She is an astute judge of character, finding the exact route to each person’s affections and following it. Once she gains their affection, she plays the three Coventry men against each other. She is ruthless with nerves of steel, but the darkness of her character is leavened by moments of true empathy and compassion. While I won’t spoil the ending and tell whether Jean achieves her aim of safety in an advantageous marriage, I will say she is not punished for her tempestuous emotions as Pauline was. “Behind a Mask” was published two years before Little Women and is one of the last and many think the best of Alcott’s thriller tales. The difference between Pauline and Jean shows the growth in Alcott’s skill as a writer. 

Taming a Tartar

In the collection’s final story “Taming a Tartar,” Alcott subverted traditional roles by having Englishwoman Sibyl Varna tame the Russian prince Alexis Demidoff rather than the other way around. Sybil takes a position as companion to the prince’s sister Nadja. In the course of this position, she gets to know both very well and uses her confidence and good sense to help Alexis tame his temper and Nadja stand up to her brother. It’s very satisfying to see a sexist story in the vein of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew turned on its head. Although there are elements that are hard to take (namely Alexis’s occasionally aggressive behavior to Sibyl and one instance of cruel behavior to his dog Mouche), it is overall a worthy read, due to a heroine very similar to Jo March (no darkness in Sibyl) and a memorable (for the nineteenth century) exchange between Alexis and Sibyl at the end.

Alcott’s sensation fiction adds a fascinating facet to the beloved author. These stories are dramatic, tempestuous, and just plain interesting. They are also a drop in the bucket from a very prolific author. If you are a fan of Little Women, intrigued by Greta Gerwig’s groundbreaking adaptation, or just a fan of thrillers and Gothic fiction, I encourage you to explore Alcott’s dark side. 

Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at and on Twitter @avonlea79.

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