Little Men: “The Naughty Kitty-mouse:” Goodness Gracious!

 “Daisy and Demi were full of these whims, and lived in a world of their own, peopled with lovely or grotesque creatures, to whom they gave the queerest names, and with whom they played the queerest games. One of these nursery inventions was an invisible sprite called “The Naughty Kitty-mouse,” whom the children had believed in, feared, and served for a long time. They seldom spoke of it to any one else, kept their rites as private as possible; and, as they never tried to describe it even to themselves, this being had a vague mysterious charm very agreeable to Demi, who delighted in elves and goblins. A most whimsical and tyrannical imp was the Naughty Kitty-mouse, and Daisy found a fearful pleasure in its service, blindly obeying its most absurd demands, which were usually proclaimed from the lips of Demi, whose powers of invention were great. Rob and Teddy sometimes joined in these ceremonies, and considered them excellent fun, although they did not understand half that went on.”

Children’s rituals

Me and my clubhouse

Me and my clubhouse

This has to be the most bizarre game I have ever heard of! Children do love rituals and secret societies (and so do many adults). As a kid I stole the idea of a secret password for my clubhouse (actually a log cabin) from a favorite book, Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary It began, “Fadada fadada fadada, beeboom baboom bah!” So I get it about rituals.

But my goodness, this was one sadistic game!

Enter Kitty-mouse

kitty-mouse with fireIn Chapter 8, “Pranks and Plays,” Demi solemnly proposes to the other children that Kitty-mouse is demanding a “sackerryfice” of something near and dear to each child. Each one would bring their favorite toy to the meeting, held secretly on the Plumfield grounds, to throw into a bonfire as a sacrifice.

A tough idea to swallow

I winced at the thought of Daisy sacrificing her precious paper dolls, hand painted by her Aunt Amy. This was no mere toy; it was a gift that was a labor of love. Yet she couldn’t even imagine denying Kitty-mouse anything he desired.

And yikes: Demi was going to sacrifice his boat, his best scrapbook and all his soldiers?

I have to admit, I really couldn’t understand what drove the children to do these things.

A peculiar power

SacrificeBull-lKitty-mouse (such an odd name as if to signify the master and the victim) allows Demi to lord over the other children with power he would not normally have. Having heard stories about the Greeks with their altars and sacrifices, he was intrigued and wanted to emulate them. Watching Daisy clutch her paper dollies especially the favorite blue one, before succumbing to the orders of Kitty-mouse, was a bit disturbing.

Blood and thunder

Louisa seemed to take a special delight in describing the demise of little Teddy’s favorite toys:

“The superb success of this last offering excited Teddy to such a degree, that he first threw his lamb into the conflagration, and before it had time even to roast, he planted poor Annabella on the funeral pyre. Of course she did not like it, and expressed her anguish and resentment in a way that terrified her infant destroyer. Being covered with kid, she did not blaze, but did what was worse, she squirmed. First one leg curled up, then the other, in a very awful and lifelike manner; next she flung her arms over her head as if in great agony; her head itself turned on her shoulders, her glass eyes fell out, and with one final writhe of her whole body, she sank down a blackened mass on the ruins of the town. This unexpected demonstration startled every one and frightened Teddy half out of his little wits. He looked, then screamed and fled toward the house, roaring “Marmar” at the top of his voice.”

ep.gho.intro.05It seems that her “blood and thunder” storytelling talents were on full display here. I remember reading somewhere that Louisa’s ghost stories were in great demand by her sisters and other children, especially baby sister baby sister Abby May, who although frightened out of her wits, knew they would make make her golden hair curl all the more.

Jo never forgets her childhood

When Jo found out about the sacrifices to Kitty-mouse, she found the whole affair quite amusing. It’s no wonder the children loved her so as she still possessed a child’s heart within her.

Ouch!

She then relayed a story from her childhood of putting pebbles in her nose after hearing a story about other children who had done it (this is an actual story from Louisa’s childhood). It was quite painful and required a visit from the doctor to extract the pebbles. Jo certainly understood where a child’s imagination combined with daring do could lead. It just makes her all the more endearing.

What did you think of Kitty-mouse and the children’s “sackerryfices?” What rituals and games did you play as a child and could they rival this one?

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Questions, questions … (part one)

Before I begin, thank you for your part in the extraordinarily successful launch of my new blog, Be As One: A Single Flow … The stats were encouraging and that’s a massive understatement! Thank you.

Involvement in my new blog dampened my passion for Louisa but only temporarily. It only takes reading a page or two in a biography to fuel the fire back up again.

A question

I am so enjoying reading Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography slowly, just a few pages at a time because of the amount of information within. Reading between the lines, I always come up with questions. After reading only six pages yesterday (pages 164-170), I came up with a couple that I hope you can answer.

Women authors and how they approached writing

Here’s the first question: Did other famous women authors such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton approach writing the way Louisa did, as a business?

From potboilers to children’s stories

Stern suggests the thought process Louisa went through before accepting the job as editor of a children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum. She had little or no experience writing literature for children (with the exception of Flower Fables and The Rose Family). How could “A. M. Barnard,” the potboiler author edit a magazine for children?

The build-up

The owner of Merry’s Museum in rolling out the new and improved version of the magazine touted his new editor as “the brilliant author of Hospital Sketches, who had hardly an equal and who had no superior as a writer for youth in the country.”

He had high expectations and Louisa would live up to them.

What was Louisa thinking?

Stern writes,

Perhaps the editorial work would extend her skill in writing and selecting material. It would at least give her a public that, with the exception of Flower Fables, her stories had never known. Children might prove fruitful critics, and possibly she might be able to combine her editorial responsibilities with writing for Mr. Niles [of Robert Brothers – she had already received his request to write a book for girls]. Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at the Orchard House. Besides, Louisa would have the opportunity of living in Boston to be nearer Mr. Fuller’s office on Washington Street [he is the owner of Merry’s Museum]. Washington Street had marked many a milestone in her varied literary career as “A. M. Barnard” and L. M. Alcott. Perhaps another milestone would be reached. (pg. 164, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Learning her trade

Her work on Merry’s Museum showed Louisa that she could learn to write for children and mastered the formula. It gave her the confidence to embark on Little Women.

All business

Stern presents Louisa as a hard-headed business woman with mercenary designs. Many have lamented how she did not want to write Little Women but she did, for the money. And that’s not all bad.

Great instincts

Louisa had an instinct for business even though she had no experience in the business world, nor did she actually known many in that world. Yet she made very smart decisions with regards to writing, trying any genre she could, hoping she would find the one she’d eventually master.

Mastery

Little Women proved that she could; she became The Children’s Friend.

I find it quite interesting that she seemed to know all the right decisions to make in order to make her “business” of writing successful.

And that’s why I posed the question of whether or not other successful women authors of that time and before, had approached writing in this way.

I admit that I am not well-read beyond Louisa May Alcott so I’d love to know, from you, about these other women and how they made a go of their writing.

In the next post, I’m going to pose the second question question regarding younger sister May, prompted by a single line in Madeleine Stern’s book.

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Work: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor” – what could women do?

Illustration by Flora Smith, The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

You’ve come of age and it’s time to strike out on your own.

How do you feel?

  • Excited?
  • Fearful?
  • Full of anticipation?

Will it be a grand adventure or a dismal failure?

In her mid-twenties, Louisa May Alcott was ready to strike out on her own, fueled by her obsessive desire to be a financial support to her habitually poor family.

What occupations could a twenty-something genteel woman aspire to?

In Work A Story of Experience, chapters 1-6 reveal through Christie Devon how such a woman could be gainfully employed:

  • Domestic servant
  • Actress
  • Governess
  • Companion
  • Seamstress

Throughout her twenties until she could make her writing pay, Louisa was employed in these various occupations. She pointedly left out two others: factory work and teaching, the former because she felt it was beneath her and the latter because she hated it.

As Louisa was fond of morality plays, Christie experiences a testing of her soul in each occupation:

Servant

As a domestic servant, Christy learns a lesson in humility from her co-worker, a runaway slave named Hepsey.

Lesson in perspective

When asked to blacken her master’s boots (deemed to be the lowliest of tasks), Christie protests, considering the task to be degrading. Hepsey, however, offers to do the job for Christie as she considers any job that paid worth doing if she could earn the money she needed to buy her mother out of slavery.

Christie immediately feels chastened as her small humiliation is put into perspective.

Real life connection

Louisa went out to service when she was seventeen and when she refused the overtures of her master, was given all the hard work plus the task of blackening his boots. She quit in a huff.

Chronicled in her short story, “How I Went Out to Service,” it proved to be one of the most humiliating experiences of her life. Usually able to dismiss such experiences with sarcastic humor, this was one time when her humor failed her.

Actress

Christie is cajoled by a friend to try acting. At first she resists the suggestion because acting is not considered a proper occupation for a genteel woman. Tales of glamor and glory and the adventure of it all persuade Christie to give it a whirl, and in the end, she makes a good living at it over the next three years.

Soul searching

Christie enjoys the applause of the audience and the praise of her co-workers but finds herself changing into someone she no longer recognizes. Hard, shallow and vain, Christie takes a hard look at herself and decides to walk away:

“Others might lead that life of alternate excitement and hard work unharmed, but she could not. The very ardor and insight which gave power to the actress made that mimic life unsatisfactory to the woman …”

Louisa’s love of acting

I found this particular section quite revealing about Louisa. She of course aspired to be an actress, wanting to be famous like Fanny Kemble or Jenny Lind. She and older sister Anna immersed themselves in theatricals, from entertaining the family through hard times to performing with acting troupes in Walpole, NH and Concord. It was the only occupation apart from writing that held any allure.

Not the right career choice

Louisa was a good character actress and comedienne; it proved to be a great way to vent her creative energy. She eventually dismissed acting as a career choice, partially because it was not considered respectable. But it’s obvious a lot of soul-searching went on as evidenced by Christie’s self-examination; Louisa felt acting would lead to a life she could not abide by:

“After being on the stage & seeing more nearly the tinsel & brass of actor life (much as I should love to be a great star if I could), I have come to the conclusion that its not worth trying for at the expense of health & peace of mind.” (pg. 149 ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen)

The better moral choice

Having been schooled in morality relentlessly since her birth (and reminded over and over how selfish she could be), Louisa could not justify the vanity and self-absorption that came with the pleasure of acting. Writing was morally more acceptable.

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

Ironies

It is ironic, however, that she could justify secretly indulging in lurid blood and thunder tales (using the name of A M Barnard) under the guise of making money.

Perhaps because the indulgence was temporary, ending with the story’s conclusion, she could do it without totally selling out her soul. With acting, Louisa feared losing herself entirely in the bargain.

In the next post, I will examine the other occupations, most especially the role of companion, for this chapter revealed a deep fear that haunted Louisa throughout her life.

Click here to read part one of this series on Work.

.
2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comReading Work  by Louisa May Alcott is part of my Louisa May Alcott Summer Challenge – are you a part of this challenge and if so, how are you doing?


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A Long Fatal Love Chase is definitely a “guilty pleasure”

A while back I got a recommendation from a reader’s blog, A Thing Called Joe, regarding one of Louisa’s potboilers, a book so sensational that her publisher, James R. Elliot of The Flag of Our Union refused to run with it! It was meant to be serialized in the magazine like so many of her other “blood and thunder” tales but this story was just too hot to handle.

That story is The Long Fatal Love Chase and the story behind this book is as interesting as the book itself.

First, the book

I rarely read fiction as I find real life a lot more interesting.  And I never read gothic fiction. I have avoided Louisa’s potboilers because of that very fact. But if they all read like A Long Fatal Love Chase, then I am in for some really fun reading!

It’s no wonder this book was rejected as “too sensational” – it’s got everything:

  • an obsessive lover who stalks his prey
  • a deal with the devil
  • a strong, independent woman
  • a tempted Roman Catholic priest
  • a mental asylum
  • twists and turns!
  • murder!
  • deceit!
  • mystery!
  • suspense!
  • and even . . . virtue!

This book is a page-turner and I couldn’t wait to see how it turned out.  It is tight and fast-paced. Just as it begins to feel predictable, Louisa would throw the curve ball. I thought of many scenarios for the ending and didn’t even come close!

Characters

  • Rosamond Vivian is the strong, independent woman although this independence is only hinted at in the beginning. As the story opens, she is a discontented, lonely 18 year old woman living on an island with her bitter grandfather. She is aching for escape, for fun, for adventure. Of course she is beautiful. In her despair she says, I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” Enter . . .
  • Phillip Tempest, handsome, resembling the image of  Mephistopheles that hangs on the wall. He lives on a yacht and travels the world, and to Rosamond, he is irresistible. He also heartless with no moral compass.
  • Father Ignatius, also handsome, is the opposite of Tempest in uprightness and virtue. Once a courageous warrior, he seeks to protect Rosamond for a myriad of reasons.

There is a host of minor characters including a mysterious “other woman,” a young boy with strong ties to Tempest, an actress, a mother superior, a police chief, and many more.

Drawing by May Alcott Nieriker

Setting

The story is set in Europe beginning in England, and spreading out to Italy, France and beyond. Written just after Louisa returned from her first trip to Europe (where she took care of invalid Anna Weld, and met her “Laurie,” Ladislas Wisniewski), the story is rich with scenes from the many places in Europe that she visited. You might even say that love was fresh on her mind as she wrote about Tempest and Rosamond’s first year together.

Not to give the story away . . .

And I won’t. You will have to read A Long Fatal Love Chase to find out what happens.

Suffice it to say though, this story could almost have been written today. Louisa again shows herself to be a modern thinker, willing to break out of the box and challenge the reader.

In 1852, a strong woman character like Rosamond was controversial in and of itself. A Long Fatal Love Chase, among many things, shows the desperate situation of women trapped in bad relationships. There were not a lot of options. Rosamond, however, is resourceful, creative and clever, always coming up with something when all options seemed off the table.

Story behind the story

The story behind A Long Fatal Love Chase is pretty remarkable unto itself.

As mentioned previously, the story was considered “too sensational” (and too long) even for an A. M. Barnard story.

After returning from Europe, Louisa was asked to write a story of 24 installments for serialization in The Flag of Our Nation. She wrote it in haste (292 pages in 2 months!) with the familiar motive of meeting the never-ending financial needs of her family. The original title was A Modern Mephistopheles, or The Fatal Love Chase*.

After the rejection, she sought to tone down and shorten the story, retitling it Fair Rosamond. It was rejected again and she put the manuscript away.

Then what happened?

Fair Rosamond ended up in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

The original manuscript was auctioned off in 1994 by the Alcott family descendants for nearly $50,000, to a rare book dealer, Kent Bicknell, headmaster of the Sant Bani School in Sanbornton, New Hampshire. He made the crack that he paid “more than his annual salary but less than $50,000.”

Bicknell undoubtedly felt like the luckiest man on earth, especially after reading the manuscript.  After carefully restoring it, he sold the publication rights to Random House in 1995, receiving an advance of $1.5 million.

He gave 25% to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, 25% back to the Alcott family, and 25% to his school. He still walked away with a fair sum of money. Nice gamble!

A Long Fatal Love Chase (as it was finally named by Random House) became a best-seller and is still in publication today, proving yet again the timelessness of Louisa May Alcott.

Critics gave it very favorable reviews and scholars dug in for analysis, extracting in particular the many feminist themes.

(information for the story of A Long Fatal Love Chase came from Wikipedia)

Some final thoughts

I don’t think of virtue when I think of potboilers but Louisa could hardly get away from her inner self and her upbringing. She balanced off the obvious evil of Tempest with Father Ignatius (and gave Catholics a fair shake, considering her known prejudice against Catholicism).

This was one of my favorite sections from the book, detailing an encounter between Rosamond and Fr. Ignatius:

She told him rapidly, for now she clung to this one faithful heart with a child’s confidence, forgetting for a time that he loved her and remembering only that he was “true as steel; firm as a rock.” He listened, detected the secret weakness of the girl’s love, and resolved to save her from it if he could. He had drawn her out of the  moonlight into the little room and still holding the hands that unconsciously clung to him he said, imploringly, “My child, never go back to this man. I know him and if I dared sully your innocence with such knowledge I would tell you the history of his life. You love him still and struggle against your love, feeling that it will undo you. He knows this and he will tempt you by every lure he can devise, every deceit he can employ. Sorrow and sin will surely follow if you yield; happiness never can be yours with him; doubt, remorse and self-reproach will kill love, and a time will come when you will find that in gaining a brief joy you have lost your peace forever. Oh, Agatha [aka Rosamond], be warned in time, do not listen to your own weak heart but to the conscience that nothing can bribe or silence. Child! child! You must be saved, listen to me and let me keep your white soul fit for heaven.

A pivotal moment in the story.

Read!

Find a nice hot tub. Or a fireplace. Or a cozy bed with a cat wrapped around your feet. Grab this book and enjoy a great winter’s read!

Have you read this book? What did you think? Did it surprise you?

*Louisa did end up using the title A Modern Mephistopheles, for another book in a Faustian vein. At the request of Thomas Niles, she wrote it for the author No-Name series for Roberts Brothers (and no one at the time could guess it was hers which gave her great pleasure :-))


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Listen to an interview with Roberta Trites regarding Louisa’s “blood and thunder” tales

Recently the Milner Library at Illinois State University hosted a series of programs as part of the ALA’s “Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women”; they were one of many libraries around the country that received grant money from the NEH and the ALA. The series is based upon the best-selling biography of the same name by Harriet Reisen, and the film by Nancy Porter and Reisen.

On October 11, scholar Roberta Trites presented “”Behind Louisa’s Mask: Discovering the Real Louisa May Alcott.” Thanks to WGLT.org, we are privy to excerpts from an interview with Trites by host Charlie Schlenker. This 4 minute and 37 second interview is well worth the listen with some tantalizing tidbits.


Here is some biographical information on Roberta Trites from the official press release of the Milner Library and Illinois State University:
Trites teaches children’s and adolescent literature and is the author of Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Her research interests include Louisa May Alcott’s role in various social reform movements and her literary influence on literature for youth in the United States. Trites received her Ph.D. in English at Baylor University.

A highly successful author best known for her novel Little Women, Alcott secretly wrote sensational thrillers, lived at the center of the Transcendentalist and Abolitionist movements, campaigned for women’s rights and served as a Civil War army nurse.


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“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”

I’m currently reading chapter 6 in Susan Cheever’s book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography which focuses on the years of 1863-65 when Louisa would serve as a nurse in the Civil War, and taste her first literary successes. Louisa had been writing her “blood and thunder” tales to earn money for “the pathetic family” and many believe these stories provided escape and pleasure for her as well, even as she referred to them as “rubbish.” I just read my first one, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” winner of the $1oo prize in 1863 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a pulp weekly similar to the National Enquirer today (minus the TV and movie celebrities).

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” is pretty mild stuff if you read it from the perspective of a 21st century reader. It helps to have some idea of what life was like and what was expected of men and women in the 1860s to truly appreciate this story. I know some but found myself wishing (as I did while reading Little Women) that I knew so much more so that I could feel the full impact.

However, I still found it to be a satisfying psychological thriller and marveled yet again at how carefully Louisa lays out the story so that it achieves the maximum effect. It requires some preliminary details which I found a bit boring, but I knew they were necessary for the “good stuff” later on. What I liked was that I never was really sure how this story would end up (and I had to avoid reading the ending in Cheever’s book and in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask, where this story is found.) As I read on, I became more and more interested and found the very last page of the story to be very satisfying. In one sense the ending was surprising but in another, very typical for Louisa. I’ll leave it for you to find out. 🙂

You can find “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” in Behind a Mask and you can also download it online for free.

As a side note: reading Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask reminded me again of why I love her treatment of Louisa.  It’s so balanced. It maintains that Louisa did have many good moments in her life and was not continually miserable despite her burdens (some self imposed). Martha Saxton’s biography was so depressing, making me feel like Louisa never had a happy day in her life. Cheever’s biography leans that way and often Reisen’s does too. I find it hard to believe that Louisa never found consolation in doing what she was meant to do. Sure, she had a martyr complex from time to time and yes, she suffered from many physical ailments that had no cure, but she also had a spirit bigger than life, a spirit that lived in her writing even if she couldn’t always express that spirit in her daily living. It could be that because Louisa was an actress at heart, she might have been melodramatic sometimes in her perception of things (and she poured a lot of that into her “rubbish”). I also find it hard to believe that there was never a moment of pleasure in writing Little Women. Perhaps there wasn’t, but the story flows so well that it’s hard to believe it was all drudgery. There are so many parts of that book that to me seem truly inspired.

Pardon my indulgence as a fan, having the audacity to hang out my shingle and analyze when likely, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Wouldn’t Louisa be horrified! I can’t help it, she is just so very interesting to me.

Incidentally, one last thing: I posted some links on the corresponding Facebook page to this blog that I think you would be interested in. One of our readers posted on her blog about a book based loosely on Little Women, and there’s a fascinating article about Hannah Ropes, the matron in charge of the hospital where Louisa served as a nurse.

 


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