Louisa May Alcott based her Little Women characters to a great degree on her own family. Just as Jo wrote both for a creative outlet and to support her family, so did Louisa. Louisa’s editor asked for a new novel to be published in installments in a magazine, and Louisa came up with A Long Fatal Love Chase. The novel was rejected, however, as being “too sensational.” Two years later Louisa published Little Women, and according to Wikipedia, stayed with children’s stories after that. A Long Fatal Love Chase was set aside and eventually discovered at a rare book dealer’s, bought, edited, and published by Kent Bicknell in 1995.
The story involves teenager Rosamond Vivian, who lives alone with an aloof grandfather. Tired of her boring, confined life and lack of love, she declares, Faust-like, “I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” Right on cue, in walks her father’s old friend Phillip Tempest, who bears a striking resemblance to a portrait of Mephistopheles (why Rosamond’s grandfather has a portrait of Mephistopheles is not explained.)
Eventually Rosamond and Phillip fall in love and marry. She knows he has a past and is not a saint, but he has been nothing but kind to her. She feels love will conquer all. After while, however, she becomes aware of some of Phillip’s shady dealings. Unsettled, she becomes more wary. When she discovers that her marriage is a sham and Phillip already has a wife and son, she flees.
Thus the chase in the title ensues. Louisa wrote this not long after she had toured Europe as a paid companion to an invalid, and her experiences there inform her novel. Rosamond puts on various disguises, travels to different places, receives help from a variety of people, but somehow Phillip and his spy, Batiste, find her every time until the tragic end alluded to in the title.
I was a little afraid of just how “sensational” this book might be, but it contains nothing explicit or lurid. Phillip is evil, but other classic villains are as bad or worse. Someone quoted on the Wikipedia page suggested perhaps in those times, a woman finding herself in a false marriage would hide away in shame even though the situation was no fault of her own, and the fact that Rosamond did not do that might have shocked some people.
Readers can tell this was originally written for magazine serialization, because every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Alcott was quite good at writing that way and crafting enough sudden twists and turns to give one whiplash. A few lines border on silly (“She…looked at the vigorous figure before her with genuine womanly admiration for a manly man”[p. 13]. “Tempest…[enjoyed] her innocent companionship with the relish of a man eager for novelty and skillful in the art of playing on that delicate instrument, a woman’s heart” [p. 36].) But, overall, though this kind of novel isn’t my usual cup of tea, it was interesting to see this side of Alcott. The book was certainly exciting and suspenseful. And, though, it wasn’t written to have a moral, it has one nevertheless. Tempest’s love is destructive because it is obsessive and selfish, whereas that of someone Rosamond meets later is completely selfless, giving though he cannot receive her love in return. Though Rosamond is more independent than Little Women’s females, she is of the same character and fiber.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)