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)
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