Shadows in Louisa’s Garret: Louisa May Alcott’s Thrillers and Her Call for Readerly Reform

Author’s Note: This is part of my filed Master’s of Literature Thesis, submitted to Ball State University in April of 2006.

In the 1860s, a genre of literature slunk into the flickering lamplight of Victorian England and the Civil War-torn United States, veiled like Carmilla herself.  Taboo, frightening, and yet alluring at the same time. Tales of murder, drug abuse, violence, greed, secrets, conspiracy—all the things that polite society would sweep under the rug and forget existed. This genre was sensation literature. The tales of Gothic fiction unfolded against the backdrop of old castles, abbeys, and manor halls; however, sensation literature took these elements and crossed a boundary, transferring them into even more dangerous territory: that of the domestic circle, the home. Within sensation fiction, the dangers (and sometimes the pleasures) of the Gothic lived on and flourished, but they were much closer to home than one expected…or was perhaps comfortable with. Sensation literature thrived on mystery, danger, and secrets and their terror within the domestic realm.[1] And the thrillers of Louisa May Alcott were certainly composed in this vein. Her stories were written to titillate, shock, surprise, and even appall the populace with their prolific use of revenge plots, subterfuge, poisons, murder, blackmail, etc. These stories, mostly published anonymously, were never associated with the name of Louisa May Alcott as she was known as the “Children’s Friend” and her great fame was acquired through the publishing of Little Women. Therefore, these thrillers were lost to history, known to have existed only by their authoress and those gentlemen who published them, now all long dead. First re-discovered and reported by Dr. Leona Rostenburg in 1943 and then edited and published by Madeline Stern and Daniel Shealy in the 1975 volume Behind a Mask, Alcott’s ‘blood-and-thunder’ stories can be considered one of the long lost treasures of nineteenth-century literature. Their rediscovery and subsequent publishing elevated Alcott from the position of exclusively an author of juvenile fiction and poetry to that of an opinionated, educated contributor to the sensational fiction of the age. Alcott’s fiction portrays her concern over an unequal society where the rights of men and women were woefully skewed, the laws bending great favor to men and often leaving women with no recourse. As such, in her novella Behind a Mask and short story “Betrayed by a Buckle,” Alcott undertook to portray the woman that she envisioned arising out of this inequality. These women are what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen calls “culturally created monsters.” They are dangerous but only because they are the product of the society that has attempted to repress and deny them.

Alcott’s thriller stories deal with issues that raised anxieties regarding respectable femininity and the domestic, as well as issues pertaining to a woman’s lack of legal identity and social rights. The women of sensation fiction are often strong-minded, strong-willed, intelligent, knowledgeable about their sexuality, and in possession of the will and skill to use it to their advantage. These qualities flew in the face of the Victorian ideal of a woman and in the face of those characteristics (reservation, quiet, submissiveness) valued by strict nineteenth-century society. Dr. Lynn Abrams discusses the Victorian woman in her online article “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain.” Quiet, reserved, sweet, the ideal Victorian woman was subservient, accepting of her place within society. Dr. Adams cites Mrs. Frances Goodby as what the ideal Victorian woman must have resembled:

Mrs. Goodby exemplified the good and virtuous woman whose life revolved around the domestic sphere of the home and family. She was pious, respectable and busy; no life of leisure for her. Her diligence and evident constant devotion to her husband, as well as to her God, identifies Frances Goodby as an example to other women. She accepted her place in the sexual hierarchy; her role was that of helpmeet and domestic manager. (Adams, emphasis mine)

The ideal Victorian woman was regarded as the ruler of the household. She was the moral force behind her husband’s strength. She was to be the keeper of the home, demure, gentle, and selfless. Men stood in position to acquire money and property, to advance themselves and their material condition. Women, conversely, were to be protected from the vice of the world and to exert their calm, gentle nature upon men and correct their missteps. They were to make home a haven for their husbands, be contented and free of sensual desire and temptation, and make sunshine and happiness for others at the expense of their own bliss.[2] Sarah Strickney Ellis, in her Women of England, asserts that

it is necessary for her to lay aside all her natural caprice, her love of self-indulgence, her vanity, her indolence—in short, her very self—and assuming a new nature, which nothing less than watchfulness and prayer can enable her constantly to maintain, to spend her mental and moral capabilities in devising means for promoting the happiness of others, while her own derives a remote and secondary existence from theirs. (45)

Sensation fiction allowed for central female characters to transgress against these social and aesthetic limits and revel in excess—in beauty, in sexuality, in intelligence, in revenge, in subterfuge. According to Lyn Pykett, “even when its final inclination was to uphold conventional morality, the sensation novel also probed and questioned Victorian moral and social orthodoxies (Sensation Novel, 13).” However, the sensational transgression in these stories was often utilized as a means of strengthening conventional morality by pointing out the potential for great danger within the excessive female body. In the nineteenth century, for the restricted and reserved ‘angel in the house’, it has been postulated that stories such as these (just like the romance novels of today) provided a ‘release valve’ of sorts, allowing these women to experience the excesses and overflow of emotion, sexuality, etc., within a controlled situation. Thus, these sensation stories can be seen as freeing the female characters within these narratives—and in a measure, vicariously, their readers—from their restraints. Having experienced these excesses within the confines of a novella or full-length novel (such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret), a Victorian woman could then safely return to her duties as the proverbial Sally Homemaker.[3] After this safe experience, she could pay her full attention to loving and caring for her husband and her home as well as those housed beneath her roof as her only concern. Therefore, no more of her time would be wasted worrying about those excesses of emotion or sexuality.

However, a somewhat different theory has been proposed in reference to Alcott’s work in her thrillers; this theory focuses not on a woman being able to experience sensation safely but is concerned with sensation itself representing an unsafe experience. In her article “Louisa May Alcott’s (Con)Temporary Fiction”, Cheri Ross puts forward that Alcott strays from the traditional path of the sensation story by not only providing a scandalous story but also layering, beneath it, her ‘real’ story. However, Alcott’s technique does not fully deviate from the traditional; a great deal of sensation fiction cries out vehemently against patriarchal domination and sexual inequality. Alcott’s stories do not turn aside from but, instead, fully embrace this cry for social and gender reform. Ross’s argument declares that Alcott carved two messages into her thrillers: one for the powerless and one for those in power. For the powerless: “Women are not bound by the rules of a society that oppresses them simply because they were born female”; and for those who held the power: “Society as it is can breed dangerous women, such as those in her thrillers who will stop at nothing to get what they want” (912). Tucked in beneath the formula of sensation fiction, Alcott’s cries for gender equality were held in the hands of men and women alike as they read the newspapers and magazines that published her thrillers. My question then is this: were Alcott’s thrillers participating in sensation literature as a release valve or, according to Cheri Ross, were they ‘masking’ a message—a social critique—against and warning of the dangers of an unequal society? I believe that Ross’s theory is correct. She focuses on the “actions of the protagonist” as she battles against an androcentric society, but I will focus on specific instances that push these women to become dangerous and render them monstrous. I view these characters as representing Cohen’s culturally-created monster. In his article “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, the existence of the monster and its purpose is outlined; this monster is a culturally-created entity, not autonomous in and of itself. Through his seven theses, Cohen discusses the monstrous body as composed of the repressed feelings, ideas, or fears of the society in which it rises. This monster defies easy categorization because of its culturally-repressed composition; it stretches the boundaries of possibility and propriety as well as that of desire. Because of its repression-basis, the monster is feared but, simultaneously, desired. “Escapist delight gives way to horror only when the monster threatens to…destroy or deconstruct…category and culture (Cohen 17).” Alcott’s readerly reform is embodied in her female characters, in their cunning, in their alluring charm, and in their absolute danger. They are the children that she fears becoming reality, the “monster at the threshold of becoming” (20).

In order to discuss Alcott’s call for readerly reform, I will first discuss several specific ideas of sensation fiction, as well as Alcott’s appropriation of those ideas to achieve her ends: its encouragement of vicarious emotional experience, warning against an unequal society, and its bringing terror across the safe border into the home. Sensation fiction encourages the reader to mimic a highly physical and emotionally responsive state; the characters flush, pale, faint, rage, etc. Thus, the sensation novel encourages its reader to participate, if only vicariously, in the emotional heights and depths of its characters (Droison). Although sensation fiction encourages its readers to participate in feeling, I do not believe that it encourages participation in the specific actions depicted. With that in mind, I intend to extend and redefine Ross’s theory of Alcott’s social critique in opposition to the sensation tradition. In addition to her ‘real’ message, Alcott was not only plying the sensational formula to achieve a different purpose but also a different response to her thriller stories. Rather than readerly pleasure through her sensation fiction as release valve and vicarious participation, Alcott was striving for readerly and social reform through the message that her thrillers were conveying. Through their sensation and their ability to shock society with their candidness about the abilities and will of the female character involved and the sympathetic nature present in her situation, these stories would alert society to needed change. Just as the reader should vicariously experience the physical and emotional states of the characters, he or she should also be able to experience the indignation of Alcott’s characters at the injustices they have endured.

[1] See Botting “Gothic Excess and Transgression”; Punter and Byron “Victorian Gothic”

[2]Further reading, see “Ideals of womanhood in Victorian Britain” by Dr. Lynn Abrams; “1848” by Antony H. Harrison

[3] This idea of prevalent in Janice A. Radway’s study of the popularity of romance novels amongst women in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. See also Botting (“Gothic Excess and Transgression”) and Hogle (“The Gothic in Western Culture”).


One thought on “Shadows in Louisa’s Garret: Louisa May Alcott’s Thrillers and Her Call for Readerly Reform

  1. Kenny Cole says:

    How delightful! An easy read, through and through. While informative and speculative, I was entirely engaged not only by the information being presented but by your regular citations and your ability to present them as something factual and worth the reader’s attention. Your writing has the feel of authenticity on it’s side, even while postulating and speculating.

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