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November 28, 2007

CAAF: Reconstructing the whole monstrous shape

Lately I've been dipping in and out of Louisa May Alcott's first novel, Moods. The novel was published in 1864 (four years before the publication of Little Women made Alcott famous), and it's one of a handful of books that she wrote for an adult audience.

The plot deals with a love triangle, and it seems to be commonly accepted that Alcott modeled the novel's tomboy heroine after herself, and the two men she's torn between after Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don't why the idea of this love triangle tickles me so, but it does. Infinitely. I only regret there was no sequel in which the heroine, now a contented old married lady, is jarred from her knitting by a knock on the door from Merman Helville, a man of quiet but manly disposition who after decades of sea-voyaging has come home to claim his bride.

The edition I'm reading is a nice one; put out by Rutgers University Press, it contains substantial revisions to the novel made by Alcott years after its initial publication (it was republished in 1882) as well as an early review of Moods written by Henry James. If you're a writer, I invite you to pause here to imagine what it would be like to have Henry James critique your first novel: To borrow from the language of Moods, an agitated spirit might fill your breast.

I adore Alcott -- she's a great hero of mine, has been since I was a kid (oh Jo!) -- so I feel a tinge of disloyalty in finding James' review wickedly funny. In this excerpt James first supplies some plot synopsis, then takes issue with a type of romantic lead he finds all too common in the work of "lady novelists" (note: the Warwick character is the one based on Thoreau):

The heroine of "Moods" is a fitful, wayward, and withal most amiable young person, named Sylvia. We regret to say that Miss Alcott takes her up in her childhood. We are utterly weary of stories about precocious little girls. In the first place, they are in themselves disagreeable and unprofitable objects of study; and in the second, they are always the precursors of a not less unprofitable middle-aged lover. We admit that, even to the middle-aged, Sylvia must have been a most engaging little person. One of her means of fascination is to disguise herself as a boy and work in the garden with a hoe and wheelbarrow; under which circumstances she is clandestinely watched by one of the heroes, who then and there falls in love with her.

Then she goes off on a camping-out expedition of a week's duration, in company with three gentlemen, with no superfluous luggage, as far as we can ascertain, but a cockle-shell stuck "pilgrim-wise" in her hat. It is hard to say whether the impropriety of this proceeding is the greater or the less from the fact of her extreme youth. The fact is at any rate kindly overlooked by two of her companions, who become desperately enamored of her before the week is ut. These two gentlemen are Miss Alcott's heroes. One of them, Mr. Geoffrey Moor, is unobjectionable enough; we shall have something to say of him hereafter; but the other, Mr. Adam Warwick, is one of our oldest and most inveterate foes. He is the inevitable cavaliere servente of the precocious little girl; the laconical, satirical, dogmatical lover, of abut thirty-five, with the "brown mane", the "quiet smile", the "masterful soul", and the "commanding eye." Do not all novel-readers remember a figure, a hundred figures analogous to this? Can they not, one of his properties being given,--the "quiet smile" for instance,--reconstruct the whole monstrous shape? When the "quiet smile" is suggested, we know what is coming; we foresee the cynical bachelor or widower, the amateur of human nature, "Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard", who has traveled all over the world, lives on a mysterious patrimony, and spends his time in breaking the hearts and the wills of demure little school-girls, who answer him with "Yes sir", and "No, sir."

Mr. Warwick is plainly a great favorite with the author. She has for him that affection which writers entertain, not for those figures whom they have well known, but for such as they have much pondered. Mis Alcott has probably mused upon Warwick so long and so lovingly that she has lost all sense of his proportions. There is a most discouraging good-will in the manner in which lady novelists elaborate their impossible heroes. There are, thank Heaven, no such men at large in society. We speak thus devoutly, not because Warwick is a vicious person,--on the contrary, he exhibits the sternest integrity; but because, apparently as a natural result of being thoroughly conscientious, he is essentially disagreeable. Women appear to delight in the conception of men who shall be insupportable to men.

The review does end with some praise for the novel, though one guesses it rang faint in the ears of the book's author. James allows that with one exception, the author "sympathizes throughout her novel with none but great things. She has the rare merit, accordingly, of being very seldom puerile. For inanimate nature, too, she has a genuine love, together with a very pretty way of describing it. With these qualities there is no reason why Miss Alcott should not write a very good novel, provided she will be satisfied to describe only that which she has seen."

Posted November 28, 2007 12:00 AM

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