Places that are redemptive, and damning: Monday presentation by Stephen Burby at the Summer Conversational Series

Note: Mr. Burby kindly gave me his presentation (handwritten notes and all) in lieu of the fact that I was unable to attend the Monday session of the Summer Conversational Series. I thank him for doing so.

This is a longer post than usual as I found his presentation to be quite thought-provoking.

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Before attending this series, I was woefully ignorant of the concept of “place. ” Intuitively I understand about the need to create sacred spaces, whether it be places for prayer and contemplation, or rooms where I can create writing and music. I go to great lengths to create these spaces, considering every last physical detail such that entering these spaces immediately puts me into the “zone” where I can accomplish what I wish to do. Inhabiting such spaces brings me a great sense of happiness, peace and accomplishment.

A wider concept

I never understood however, the wider concept of place and sacred spaces; the speakers at last week’s Conversational Series have opened up a new world for me, a fresh lens from which to contemplate what I read in books and see around me.

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Louisa and place

560 steve burby1Mr. Burby’s presentation, “Out into the World:” Louisa May Alcott’s Sense of the World Beyond Concord.” continues to prime that pump. He begins by citing two classics by which he frames his discussion: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. He maintains that Louisa’s writing,

“frequently deals with the transfer of the sacredness from good individuals, most often in the form of the sacred feminine, to the spaces they come to inhabit.”

The place of home

Bachelard states that

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home …”

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

We see this time and again in Louisa’s works, particularly in Little Women, where the home is central to the development of the characters. Bachelard points out the positives (“We shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection…) as well as the negatives (“tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the stanchest ramparts.”). He also writes, “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” This is played out to perfection in Little Women.

Burby illustrates both sides of Bachelard’s notion of home, first through Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, and then through A Long Fatal Love-Chase.

Redemptive spaces

In Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, Burby shows how Louisa uses the Eternal Feminine (in the forms of nurses Tribulation Periwinkle and Faith Dane), to transform space from profane to sacred by injecting goodness, mercy, empathy, kindness and understanding.

hospital sketchesA woman’s influence

Burby cites Louisa’s description of the hospital in Hospital Sketches where she describes the “vilest odors” and chaotic atmosphere. Nurse Periwinkle seeks to transform that space:

“After bathing and dressing wounds for a number of them [the wounded soldiers], the scene is partially transformed.”

When she takes over the night shift, Nurse Periwinkle is given greater control over her environment, thus completing the transformation:

“By eleven, the last labor of love was done; the last ‘good night’ spoken; and, if any needed a reward for that day’s work, they surely received it, in the silent eloquence of those long lines of faces, showing pale and peaceful glances that lighted us to bed, where Rest, the sweetest, made our pillows soft, while Night and Nature took our places, filling that great house of pain with a healing miracles of Sleep, and his diviner brother, Death.”

Dual vocations

hospital sketches illustrationIf I might digress for a moment: in reading Burby’s citations and his analysis of Louisa’s transformation of space, it made me wonder about about Louisa. We know she had a vocation as a writer, but she also sensed a vocation for nursing. She was aware of her talent in both areas. She had had the opportunity to live each out, by nursing her sister Elizabeth which led to her ability to serve as a Civil War nurse, and by writing about such experiences and more. Both vocations served others well, one by healing and the other by providing.

As a nurse …

In each case Louisa could play out the role of Savior, a role both satisfying and burdensome to her. Yet which vocation was the most satisfying and which the more burdensome? Nursing brought her face to face with life at its core: brutally authentic, vulnerable and poignant. She could see the immediate consequence of her ministrations, whether it was to bring healing, comfort, consolation or just her presence as Death loomed. It was Lizzie who told Louisa how much that presence brought her strength as she faced her own painful end.

… and as a writer

Louisa_May_AlcottSuch life experiences were then expressed through Louisa’s writing, especially in Hospital Sketches and Little Women. Those of us who are writers know how cathartic, even exhilarating it can be to process feelings and get them down on paper, sometimes in poetic prose if we’re lucky. Writing brought its benefits to Louisa, relieving the chronic poverty and bringing material comfort and security at last to the “Pathetic Family.”

The costs

Both vocations exacted their costs. Nursing brought on the typhoid pneumonia which robbed Louisa of her good health for a life time. It sobered her greatly with memories that could never be forgotten.

Writing stole away Louisa’s cherished privacy and free creative expression, while too exacting a cost on her health.

So which vocation most satisfied Louisa? Which one was more worth the cost? Likely both were equally important and worked in tandem with each other. But these were questions that came to my mind as I read Mr. Burby’s presentation. There is no doubt that some of Louisa’s finest writing comes from her nursing experience.

Transformation of space brings redemption

civil war mulattoIn My Contraband, Burby shows how that same chaotic and dark space, the hospital, is transformed by presence of Nurse Faith Dane. Yet in this case, it is more about the transformation of persons within that space: Bob, the recently freed and wronged slave and his vicious white half brother who had killed Bob’s lover. While the half brother is not redeemed, Bob turns away from doing his brother harm thanks to the efforts of Nurse Dane. Burby writes,

“And it is here that the protagonist is able to assert her influence in the most positive way possible, turning the man–her contraband [to whom she was deeply attracted], the former slave, Bob–away from tragic revenge.”

The transformation is complete when Bob consummates their relationship in a symbolic and spiritual way, taking on her last name as his own; he would now be known as Robert Dane.

A place of damnation

long fatal love chase2Burby then turns to A Long Fatal Love-Chase to demonstrate how a beautiful space does not always denote goodness. He notes in particular a long description of the setting of Valrosa, Tempest’s villa in Nice. Burby believes that since Louisa had visited Nice during her first trip to Europe, it was likely she was describing a real place. He goes on to write,

“The description of Valrosa … suggests that is the finest setting for Rosamond, the protagonist … She is unconsciously the fairest and most striking ‘object’ in the setting.”

He points out that the beauty of the setting was illusory as Rosamond’s lover Tempest turns out to be her Mephistopheles.

Evil dominating

In this case, despite the presence of a female protagonist, Valrosa changed from a sacred to a profane place because of the domineering power of Tempest and the false premise upon which the space was based. Rosamond could not turn him.

Triumph of the Eternal Feminine

Thus Burby demonstrates Louisa’s realism yet again: life does not always turn out right. Goodness does not always prevail. In Louisa’s thrillers, goodness rarely prevails.

Yet the writing of hers that survives through the ages in the imaginations of many are the ones where the Eternal Feminine does in fact, triumph.

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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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