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The Inheritance
Louisa May Alcott
Penguin Books, 177 pages

The Inheritance
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1832. When she was about 10, her family joined the all-vegetarian Fruitlands commune and her experiences there were later related in Transcendental Wild Oats. From youth she helped support her family by writing, sewing, teaching, and providing domestic services. She was a nurse during the American Civil War and wrote of her experiences in Hospital Sketches. She also worked for abolition and women's suffrage. She is best remembered for her classic novels of the March family: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys. Alcott died in Boston in 1888. Recently there has been an upswing in interest in Alcott's works, particularly since the discovery by Madeleine Stern and others of the dime-novel Gothic thrillers and romances she published anonymously or under the pen name A.M. Barnard. A few years ago, Joel Myerson, Carolina Research Professor of American Literature at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and Dan Shealy, Associate Dean of the Graduate School, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, doing research in the Harvard Library, with a view toward a book collecting Alcott's correspondence, rediscovered the manuscript of her first novel, The Inheritance. Written when she was 17 but never submitted for publication, it is now published for the first time in paperback.

L.M. Alcott Tribute Site
L.M. Alcott Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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Some, having only read Little Women in an American literature class or seen the recent film version with Winona Ryder (or the old one with Katherine Hepburn), might question the inclusion of a 150-year-old novel by Louisa May Alcott at such a place as the SF Site. Consider how even today science fiction, fantasy and horror, which account for between 20 and 25% of book sales, are considered poor cousins to mainstream fiction by most of the literary intelligentsia.

Roughly 100 years ago, when H. Rider Haggard was publishing his hugely popular and now classic She (1887) and King Solomon's Mines (1885), he was torn apart and trivialized by the literary critics. Similarly, a great deal of cheap but immensely popular Victorian fiction was published in the British penny-dreadfuls and in the American equivalent, the dime-novel. Authors like G.W.M. Reynolds (Wagner the Wehrwolf) and Frederick Dey (Nick Carter Detective series), reviled as hacks in their day, are now forgotten before the literary lights of Charles Dickens and the like.

Similarly, while icons of modern fantasy and science fiction from Asimov to Zelazny are popular, few if any have received much attention in conventional literary fields -- which is one reason why a place like the SF Site exists.

I am quite convinced that had the SF Site existed in the mid-1840s (now there's a plot line!), many of Alcott's books would have shown up on it. They would have appeared under the byline A.M. Barnard or simply anonymously, and would have fit in nicely with the numerous action-packed dime-novels and late-Gothic potboilers of the era. For Alcott lived a double life, at least from the literary point of view, publishing her "serious" novels under her own name, and those romantic Gothic dime-novel thrillers she wrote to support herself and her family, under the veil of anonymity.

Apparently Alcott was quite good at keeping the two worlds apart, as it is only in the last 25-odd years that research on Alcott, particularly on her correspondence with her publisher, has unearthed these long lost works. The titles Behind a Mask and A Marble Woman collect much of this material, and another recently discovered novel, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was published last year. Though never submitted for publication, The Inheritance is also one such Gothic romantic thriller.

If you listen to the current literary critics, they will tell you that The Inheritance is ridiculously over-romantic / over-melodramatic, and is only of interest to Alcott scholars or her most rabid fans. While this may be true by today's or even 1840s' standards, one must remember that this was a book that Alcott wrote when she was 17 and probably an avid reader of the popular literature of the time. I also think that many young women at that age tend to have a rather romantic and melodramatic view of life. This trait is certainly evident in Marjorie Bowen's great historic novel The Viper of Milan (1906), written when she was 16, and more recently in the early work of the author of the excellent Atlan series, Jane Gaskell, whose Strange Evil (1957) and King's Daughter(1958) were written when she was 16 and 17.

Besides all this, Alcott chose not to have it published, so it is quite likely that she knew it wasn't the best thing she had ever written. Perhaps the huge media hype the book is receiving -- a movie is supposedly in production and the book has had a huge printing in a format designed to lure the average Harlequin Romance-reading, soap opera-addicted housewife -- has soured critics of "serious" literature.

So what's it all about? The story centres on the young Edith Adelon, an orphan whose parentage is lost in mystery and has been taken in as a companion to Lord Hamilton's daughter. She is young, beautiful, talented, innocent, and a Dr. Laura poster-child when it comes to morality. The aging niece of Lord Hamilton, Ida Clare, is insanely jealous of Edith, particularly when the dashing young Lord Percy comes to visit and ignores Ida in favour of Edith. Edith meanwhile has to deal with the unwanted advances of another aristocrat, while her unknown parentage precludes any thoughts of happiness with Lord Percy. Incredible coincidence turns the tables on the nefarious Ida, and all ends in the best possible way.

Is the book dripping with sentimentality and melodrama? Of course. Comparing it to the early Canadian novel Belinda or the Rivals (1843) by Abraham S. Holmes, it has most of the same plot devices and methods for portraying morally good and bad female characters. Thus, while perhaps a bit unpolished, The Inheritance would apparently have fit in quite nicely in 1840s North American popular literature. Is it a good pulp thriller? It certainly isn't as good as her later thrillers, but has plenty of dangling from cliffs, wild horse rides and similar thrills. While the character development and plotting are fairly good, it actually had some interesting plot devices. In particular, at one point Edith confronts her tormentor, Ida, asking her why she is being so nasty with her. Rather than simply continuing to torment Edith and leaving her in the dark about her motives, Ida tells Edith specifically that she resents her youth, beauty, grace and the interest she elicits from Lord Percy. While Ida subsequently frames Edith for a crime she did not commit, it does give Ida a smidgen of humanity.

Some of you may point out that in some of my recent reviews I have deplored the use of obviously incorruptibly good or unrehabilitably evil characters, and that Edith, if not Ida, appear to fall exactly into one of these categories. I could weasel out and say that times and literature were different in 1847, but I would rather address this issue. Edith certainly is impossibly moral and nice, but unlike "good" characters depicted in other books I have recently reviewed, she is presented with difficult and heart-wrenching moral dilemmas which she must work out herself. The type of one-dimensional good character I deplore is the one who blunders along being good just because he/she is too stupid to do evil.

This is naturally a book that will appeal more to a feminine readership, as men like me who actually enjoy 150-year-old pulp-Gothic thrillers with heavy romantic overtones are probably fairly rare. Besides the weaknesses of the book, I would recommend it as a fairly short -- I read it over lunch -- pain-free introduction to this period and genre. To Alcott fans and researchers it will certainly give an insight into her early literary influences and the development of her literary skills, particularly with respect to her body of dime-novel fiction.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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