Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, “The Inheritance”

Susan Cheever in her biography, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography briefly mentioned Louisa’s first novel, The Inheritance, written before she was twenty. Based upon the “gothic novel” formula of the day (poor orphan girl works on an English country estate for a fabulously wealthy family only to find out she is the true heir), Cheever felt the novel was significant, for although it is  “written in girlish sentimental prose, it is weirdly enlivened by the desperate feelings of its author.” (pg. 93 Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography).

The manuscript to The Inheritance was only discovered back in the 1990s by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Here is the story of their discovery: http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1997-07/alcott.html

Times certainly were desperate for Louisa and her family when The Inheritance was written. Living on High Street in Boston during the late 1840s/early 1850s, the family was as destitute as could be. Abba’s mission work supported the family and Anna and Louisa did their best too to bring in extra money. Bronson was showing signs of serious mental illness, something that surely couldn’t be missed in the cramped and dark quarters that the family lived in. Cheever mentions that the girls put on plays as a diversion and that Louisa dreamed of becoming an actress, as well as becoming a writer. It was at this time that she began to keep a record each week of how much she earned, the beginning of the emergence of the practical businesswoman Louisa would become.

Knowing the back story of The Inheritance, it’s easier to forgive the nature of the book for it is total escapism. It is an interesting read from an historical perspective, watching how the young author was developing. But Louisa was far from the accomplished author she would become with Little Women. I found The Inheritance to be tedious although a quick read.

To quickly summarize the story, the heroine, Edith Adelon, is a penniless Italian orphan taken in by the Hamilton family. She is of course, beautiful, pure and good, full of humility and kindness. She attracts the eye of two men, Lord Percy (who had lost his first love to his brother) and Lord Arlington. She also attracts the ire of Lady Ida who is jealous of Edith’s beauty. She hates Edith, wishing Lord Percy for herself, and plots to bring her down. In the end, however, Edith finds she is the true heir to the Hamilton estate and she wins the hand of Lord Percy.

I never was a big fan of gothic novels so that was the first strike against The Inheritance. I also have no appreciation nor true understanding of the social class system of the Victorian era and with people locked into their classes with no ability for mobility, even through marriage, without hardship or loss of reputation. But the major problem was the one dimensional nature of the characters who were either all good or all bad. There was constant reinforcement for the reader of how good, pure and beautiful Edith was (and how pale :-)) which added to the tedious nature of the book.

Edith was the prototype for Beth in Little Women, the perfect woman in her total humility, kindness and grasp of protocol. Like Beth, Edith knew her place and kept it no matter how great the sacrifice. She was going to be noble no matter what the cost might be. Beth, however ethereal, still seemed like a real person to me and had a mystery about her that made her interesting to me (how could someone be that good?). I could not, however, relate at all to Edith.

Still, The Inheritance showed Louisa’s promise. The writing style was far from perfected but the lovely descriptions and flow of language that would mature in her later writings was evident.

It amazed me, knowing the turmoil that Louisa was living through with her family, how she could have focused enough to write this book. She truly did lose herself in her writing. The setting of The Inheritance is so peaceful. Although there is conflict, it is never chaotic or desperate. Even when it looks like all is lost for Edith, still, the book is peaceful. Writing truly was the great escape!

I would only recommend the The Inheritance for those curious about Louisa’s first work. It helps to know what she was really living through at the time to gain a better understanding of what writing really meant to her.

UPDATE January 11, 2012

While reading Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson, I came across the following section which shed new light on the importance of The Inheritance. Matteson writes (bold type is my emphasis):

“Observed in the light of the author’s circumstances, The Inheritance is a fascinating piece of self-revelation. On the one hand, the story fiercely defends the virtue of loyalty and asserts a stout preference for family over fortune, very much in keeping with the Alcotts’ system of values. By the same token, however, Edith rebels against her father by scorning his “will” both literally and figuratively, rejecting his intentions in favor of her own higher moral sense. The Inheritance ingeniously argues a point that the stormy, self-willed Louisa would gladly have explained to her father that one can both be loyal to family and virtue and defy one’s parents wishes at the same time. Like much of her later fiction, The Inheritance is a covert plea for understanding the difficult process by which both characters and author must work out the ambiguities of personality and right behavior.” (page 230 of the ebook)


Your thoughts? Have you read The Inheritance?


19 Replies to “Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, “The Inheritance””

  1. Sounds nothing like Behind the Mask, where heroine is a true manipulator. Was Inheritance published under Louisa’s real name?

  2. I think that perhaps The Inheritance was dramatized on TV a few years ago. On PBS? What I do know was that I started watching it and it was so bad I quit after about 20 minutes. Nothing LMA wrote could have been as bad as that TV drama.

  3. Sorry for the interruption. I just went out Netflix and back. Here it is.

    The Inheritance(1997) NR

    Years before writing Little Women, Louisa May Alcott penned this “lost novel” chronicling the life of orphan Edith Adelon (Cari Shayne), a girl who’s taken in by a wealthy man (Tom Conti) and his wife (Meredith Baxter) to become their daughter’s companion. Despite her low status in England’s rigid class system, Edith’s winsome qualities tend to shine through — and she soon catches the eye of a handsome, wealthy suitor (Thomas Gibson).

    Genre: Made-for-TV Movies, Dramas Based on the Book, Romantic Dramas

    Format: DVD

  4. My bad! I should have included that information in the post. I’ve since updated the post with a link to the whole story of how the manuscript was found back in the 1990s by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Since it was published in 1997, it was published under Louisa’s name.

  5. I was so excited when it came out and begged my grandmother to buy me a copy for x-Mas. I still have it 🙂 It was a decent read, but I think I remember being let down most of all. You’re right the characters are so black and white.

    The movie is a nice tv movie for the family. No swearing, nice outfits and everything is nicely wrapped up with a bow at the end.

    I wonder what else could be out there that we dont know about!

    1. Can you imagine being Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, finding that card in the card catalog and then finding the red journal notebook with the story in it? Wow, that must have been amazing! Houghton Library is SO on my list of places to visit.

      1. Yes, that must have been wonderful. I love Lousia May along with Austen , The Brontes, and George Eliot. Louisa did have a hard early life which may explain the escapism as you’ve mentioned, though that was also the style of the day along with the “rags to riches” stories , think Horatio Alger or some of Dickens for example.. Though many stories at that time feature orphans (even Austen & Bronte among others have done so), there also were more orphans then too considering even just epidemics going on besides wars, accidents etc. I read the book when it first came out and enjoyed it , despite the formula, and the characterizations of all good or all bad. I have known some Idas in my life time , however I took from it that Edith forgave Ida (which she did and that TV movie leaves it out) because sometimes people , like in jealousy, can act petty or nasty , which doesn’t mean a person is rotten to the core either. It also shows how people change for the better when grudges aren’t held , like with forgiving Ida, which doesn’t mean Edith is a wimp or naive. Now of course my two favorite 19th. century heroines are Lizzie Bennet & Jane Eyre, OH and Jo March, but Edith didn’t annoy me and I have actually know some people like her too.

      2. Nice insights. As you can see from the date, this is an old post. I need to read it again and read between the lines more because some of her biographers think it is revealing of Louisa at that age.

  6. Oh, I’ve just read about this one in Reisen’s biography! Thanks for sharing – I want to read it now, too, along with a stack of other Alcott stories. 🙂

    (My DVD came yesterday. Thanks SOO much, Susan! Mom and I are going to watch it as soon as I finish reading the biography! I can’t wait!!)

    I hope GWTW is going well. 😉

    1. Oh it is! I just finished the chapter where Ashley and Scarlett share their passion and he finally admits he loves her. Again, so much more back story than the movie can tell which made the scene much more meaningful.

  7. GWTW is one of my favorite novels. The movie is fine, and Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Haviland, and Hattie McDaniel are perfectly cast, but it is a dull flat crepe compared to the rich, flaming fruitcake of the book!

    Similarly, after reading Little Women for the millionth time recently I re-watched the Winona Ryder movie version. What a disappointment all over again!

  8. I know I own it and read it but can’t remember what it was about. I’m not a fan of gothic novels though I do love 19th century English novels and understand the class system quite well. You should try some Georgette Heyer novels to better understand class structure in 19th century England.

  9. I remember reading this when it first came out, I have a nice hard copy. Though it uses a standard formula and the “rags to riches” stuff this was common think of Horatio Alger stories or even some Dickens. As for orphans, even Austen, Bronte, especially Dickens and many others used them in their tales. Of course back then if studying the period , and even up to the early 20th. century orphans were quite common, not just because of illegitimate births, or wars but even just all the epidemics going on then- TB, Typhus,the Flu (Spanish flu big killer in, I think it was, 1918 ?) so for the time period it’s relative : )

    As far as the characterizations true, but Edith didn’t bother me. I see you read GWTW, so Edith is a bit like Melanie. I have actually known some people like Edith and unfortunately some people like Ida, even worse. One thing I liked was how , unlike in the T.V. movie, Edith forgave Ida at the end , not simply because Edith is an angel, but because she realizes that sometimes jealousy, desperation (for a marriage) can cause some people to act petty & less honorable than one should. By forgiving Ida (which Ida appreciates) both are free and Ida can rise to the occasion and become a better person, Edith is not a wimp or naive concerning Ida , but realizes it doesn’t necessarily mean Ida is rotten to the core either, so I liked that very much. Maybe I’m not remembering it as well, I might have to reread it, but that is what I remember at least with Eddie & Ida.

    I love GWTW, even the movie and saw it two years ago on the big screen for it’s anniversary showing. My favorite 19th. century heroines are Lizzie Bennet. Jane Eyre & Jo March. I enjoy the novels of Louisa May, Jane Austen , The Brontes, and George Eliot.

    1. I came into reading late in life (starting in 2010) and I am a painfully slow reader so I will never be able to catch up. I also tend to focus on one person and read about that one person and read that person’s books. It makes me knowledgeable about the person (in this case Louisa) but the downside is I lack the kind of well-rounded reading background that you obviously had. Such a background would give me a better point of reference for this book. Someday I do hope to get to Austen and the Brontes. I did read Jane Eyre in school and remember it pretty well.

      Comparing Edith to Melanie in GWTW is a great comparison. I LOVED GWTW, such a sweeping, epic book. Most fun I’ve had reading (except for Harry Potter, book 5 :-))

      This post about The Inheritance is a popular post with readers. I will have to give this book a second look. Thanks for your great comments!

  10. I both read (and used to own a copy) or The Inheritance and I saw the tv movie, which can be found online at tubi, YouTube and I think freevee.

    Regarding the latter, much like Old Fashioned Thanksgiving, which was made into tv movie by Hallmark, it diverged a lot from the actual story. It suffered from a lot of things. One being that they set it in America, where a lot of story elements don’t work. While there was/is classism in America, the kind that the novel ran on is a European thing. The other thing about the movie, which is kind bothers me a bit about some of the adaptations of older stories, is the way they went way out of the way to make sure that Edith and the other females were the authors of their own destiny. There were conversations about the vote and other plot elements introduced that made me go, “That wasn’t a part of the story…”

    They convoluted what was a pretty straightforward story about an inheritance that a young woman, no not that young woman but THAT GIRL (apologies to Marlo Thomas) gets.

    While I found this adaptation can get tedious, I still wouldn’t completely kick it out of the rooms since it and Old Fashioned Thanksgiving are the only adaptations of Alcott’s work that is not Yet Another Adaptation of Little Women and the sequels.

    Regarding the novel itself: yes, it’s very much a first novel. I pointed out to someone when watching Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen that as her 1st published, it was good but overwritten. I’m sure if she lived long enough, she probably would’ve published a revised version that would’ve cut out a lot of extraneous prose.

    Alcott’s baby was light on some things-character development being one. Her early work also has some serious deus ex machina etc going on. It’s still entertaining in its way.

    In reading the comments on this post, it occurred to me that we sometimes forget that Alcott was a savvy writer even when young. What I mean by that is she knew enough to figure out what sells and wrote for those markets. At the time The Inheritance came out, gothic novels set in foreign countries were still a thing that paid cold, hard cash that the family needed. The main character, Edith herself is described as having olive skin because one of her parents is Italian. Characters have titles and they swan about in ancestral homes, where things most sinister happened.

    *Hands on my hips and shaking my head in awe and respect*
    Louisa Freakin May Alcott.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: