Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Modern Mephistopheles

by Louisa May Alcott

I came across this book while looking in the adult stacks for a copy of Rose in Bloom. What I found, alongside multiple copies of Jo's Boys and Eight Cousins, were several books by and about the "other" Louisa May Alcott, who published many books pseudonymously, or anonymously, even after she had become a successful writer of children's literature. This particular book was published in 1877, anonymously, and was apparently considered pretty strong stuff. The blurb on the inside cover promises drugs, hypnotism, fraud, and deals with the devil -- in my opinion, the book doesn't really deliver. There is one scene where the innocent heroine is given hashhish by manipulative mephistopheles character, but it's not like anything particular unseemly ensues.

So if you read this book with an eye to illicit thrills, you're going to be disappointed. The scandals of the 1800s don't pack much of a wallop these days. And what really fascinated me is the way that whole passages could really have been lifted straight out of Little Women, if not that the literary allusions were to such dark works as Faust, rather than, say Pilgrim's Progress. The tone, however, was so clearly recognizable. I guess it's hard to describe, but if you've read a lot of her books, you'll know what I mean:

As she stood there, looking down the green vista, two figures crossed it. A smile curved the sad mouth and she said aloud, "Faust and Margaret, playing the old, old game."
"And Mephistopheles and Martha looking on," added a melodious voice, behind her, as Helwyze swept back the half-transparent curtain from the long window where he sat.

Sunset came, filling the room with its soft splendor, and he watched the red rays linger longest in Gladys's corner. Her little basket stood as she left it, her books lay orderly, her desk was shut, a dead flower drooped from the slender vase, and across the couch trailed a soft white shawl she had been wont to wear. Helwyze did not approach the spot, but stood afar off looking at these small familiar things with the melancholy fortitude of one inured to loss and pain.

For a book about the seduction of innocence, there really is a heaping dose of wholesomeness in this book. Which, now that I think of it, is probably its best quality. Because the story of innocence degraded, regrets that come too late, all that kind of thing, has really become cliched. The story of innocence that holds its own, barely, while engaging with the seducer on an ongoing basis, has a little more complexity.

Not having read Faust, I'm probably missing a lot, but even so I enjoyed reading Alcott's version. I'll be moving on to other books now, although a second reading would probably be rewarding (easy, too; this isn't a long book). You know what, though? If you like Little Women, I have a feeling you would like this book, too.



Blogger zelda said...

Excellent! Thank you. I haven't read "Faust" either. Might make room for this nonetheless.

3:40 PM  

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