My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I decided to read Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask for Transcendentalist Month, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The brief blurb claimed it was so unlike the usual Alcott-fare most people are familiar with — the likes of Little Women, Eight Cousins and An Old-Fashioned Girl. Apparently it was to be dark and mysterious…the kind of material that no one, not knowing Alcott except through her well-known works, would ever have suspected. The story is this. A young woman comes to the Coventrys as a governess, highly recommended by a family friend of theirs. However, she brings with her a mystery, a love affair everyone suspects she had with the elder son of this friend. Being a meek and lovely woman, though, more than half the family grows to love her. But the elder Mr Coventry is not convinced that Jean Muir is an innocent. He is quite sure she has ambitious designs, and we are very speedily assured that Coventry is right. The rest of the novella charters the course of Jean Muir’s plan to captivate the Coventry boys and the rest of the household.
When I began reading this story I was fascinated, because almost from the start we are given to understand that Jean Muir is not all that she seems to be. The hint is subtle but there:
Poverty seemed to have set its bond stamp upon her, and life to have had for her more frost than sunshine. But something in the lines of the mouth betrayed strength, and the clear, low voice had a curious mixture of command and entreaty in its varying tones. Not an attractive woman, yet not an ordinary one; and, as she sat there with her delicate hands lying in her lap, her head bent, and a bitter look on her thin face, she was more interesting than many a blithe and blooming girl.
A few paragraphs later we are made privy to the woman behind the mask. Not as young as she appears before the family, dark-haired as opposed to her fair wig, a face puckered with hatred and bitterness in sharp contrast with her mild, meek and gentle appearance — the effect is stunning. Really, I could not help but admire how such a woman could be the pretty governess she makes everyone believe she is. This side of her struck some sense of fear as to how diabolical her plans really were. I can’t say that I was for her throughout the story…neither can I say that I was particularly against her. But, at the end of it all, when I thought about it, I figured Alcott was really trying to say something. That the Victorian woman, for the most part, was only putting on a face to satisfy her patriarchal society. Jean Muir appears to us in the guise of what is expected of a woman…and in her case, not just as a woman, but as one from her lowly station. It is interesting to note how Muir rises in the esteem of her employers when they believe her to be an impoverished woman of genteel birth. I think it also significant that Muir wears a blond wig to cover up her dark hair. This did not convey anything to me besides the fact that fair hair was considered, not only beautiful, but angelic in that society. While this is an important point, it was only after reading Jillian’s post of Alcott that I understood this had a deeper significance. Allow me to quote from Jill’s post:
Can you imagine being an adolescent girl, trying to explore your feelings, yourself (yes, self!!), and having your Dad critique your introspection? Not only critique it, but pretty much forbid it? (PS – He thought that Louisa was evil because she was dark-eyed and dark-haired. Blonds were naturally good, he claimed.) — my emphasis
I was reminded of dark-haired and passionate Jo March, and now here was Jean Muir, a perhaps darker side of Alcott, representing, not just her natural looks, but also the fire within her. I believe Alcott was echoeing something that Wollstonecraft says in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman — that if one does not allow a woman to be educated, she is bound to resort to wiles in order to get her own way, for she is not allowed to do it honestly and openly. Jean Muir is an ambitious young woman, and perhaps it is most natural for her to want to better her situation in life. While courses are open for men to do so, the only way open to the likes of Muir is to capture the interest and attention of a rich son in the household she works for. One cannot, then, blame Muir for the tactics she resorts to. She must live. She fears continual poverty. Society will allow her no other means to grow. So, she chooses to take the course of deceit over dying in poverty. I take the following quote from an essay by Christine Butterworth-McDermont:
Doyle insists that despite “affirmations of women’s need for employment and warnings of consequences of its absences, Victorian culture on both sides of the Atlantic made it difficult for women to support themselves and to maintain respectability at the same time” (144). British society considered working so “fundamentally immoral” that governesses were often considered “morally suspect” (145).
Jean Muir’s case seems rather hopeless from society’s point of view. But she proves to be an independent, resourceful woman. At this point, though, I would like to point out that whenever it seemed Muir’s plan would not work there was a sense of sheer desperation in her…the kind that is hinted at in the factual tones of the above quote. She was always aware that this was her last chance — succeed or die starving.
In the course of my planning out this post, I came across Butterworth-McDermont’s essay titled “Behind a mask of beauty: Alcott’s beast in disguise”. This essay draws parallels between the fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” and Alcott’s writings. I learnt that Alcott had the tendency to rewrite this story in many ways through out all her story telling. The original story of “Beauty and the Beast” exalts beauty to the point where it can be the only thing that tames a beast. I believe Alcott tries to debunk this notion in creating a heroine that represents both beauty and the beast. Interestingly, the ‘beast’ is Muir’s true nature, while beauty, though not her true identity, is what she actually uses to ‘tame’ the men of the house. I really admire how Alcott brings about this duality, emphasising the wrong society has done to make women deceitful. At the end of the story Jean Muir tell Lucia, the jilted betrothed of the elder Coventry, that she should have resorted to wiles too…it would have been a sure way for her to have kept her man.
I love how Alcott brings out the contrast in this beauty and the beast theme where a few young people, including the Coventrys and Jean Muir, get together to act out various tableaux.
She was looking over her shoulder toward the entrance of the tent, with a steady yet stealthy look, so effective that for a moment the spectators held their breath, as if they also heard a passing footstep.
“Who is it?” whispered Lucia, for the face was new to her.
“Jean Muir,” answered Coventry, with an absorbed look.
“Impossible! She is small and fair,” began Lucia, but a hasty “Hush, let me look!” from her cousin silenced her.
Impossible as it seemed, he was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir it was. She had darkened her skin, painted her eyebrows, disposed some wild black locks over her fair hair, and thrown such an intensity of expression into her eyes that they darkened and dilated till they were as fierce as any southern eyes that ever flashed. Hatred, the deepest and bitterest, was written on her sternly beautiful face, courage glowed in her glance, power spoke in the nervous grip of the slender hand that held the weapon, and the indomitable will of the woman was expressed–even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the tiger skin.
“Oh, isn’t she splendid?” cried Bella under her breath.
“She looks as if she’d use her sword well when the time comes,” said someone admiringly.
“Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain,” added another.
“He is the image of Sydney, with that beard on.”
“Doesn’t she look as if she really hated him?”
“Perhaps she does.”
In this first tableau, Jean Muir actually reveals her true self. But none are aware of this, believing her to be an excellent actress (which she is, of course, but they have it all topsy turvy). She seems to put all her heart into this scene. And then comes the tableau where she plays a young lover, and in which many believe they see the true Jean Muir:
the picture was of two lovers, the young cavalier kneeling, with his arm around the waist of the girl, who tries to hide him with her little mantle, and presses his head to her bosom in an ecstasy of fear, as she glances back at the approaching pursuers. Jean hesitated an instant and shrank a little as his hand touched her; she blushed deeply, and her eyes fell before his. Then, as the bell rang, she threw herself into her part with sudden spirit. One arm half covered him with her cloak, the other pillowed his head on the muslin kerchief folded over her bosom, and she looked backward with such terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectator longed to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment Coventry experienced another new sensation.
Many women had smiled on him, but he had remained heart-whole, cool, and careless, quite unconscious of the power which a woman possesses and knows how to use, for the weal or woe of man. Now, as he knelt there with a soft arm about him, a slender waist yielding to his touch, and a maiden heart throbbing against his cheek, for the first time in his life he felt the indescribable spell of womanhood, and looked the ardent lover to perfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspect, the curtain dropped, and clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that Miss Muir was trying to escape from his hold, which had grown painful in its unconscious pressure. He sprang up, half bewildered, and looking as he had never looked before.
Jean Muir is in her element in this tableau! Excellent theatrics. But who is aware of it besides the reader?
I think “A Woman’s Power” as the alternate title for “Behind a Mask” is just as strong and fitting a title as the latter. I’m in awe of this side of Alcott, and I hope to read some more of her other dark stories. Apparently had Alcott been allowed to continue in this vein she would have preferred to stick to such women characters. This story has been an eye-opener of sorts.