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A Woman of Independent Means : NONFICTION : LOUISA MAY ALCOTT: A Modern Biography, By Martha Saxton (Noonday/Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $27.50, cloth; $15, paper; 428 pp.) : BEHIND A MASK: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, By Louisa May Alcott; edited by Madeleine Stern (William Morrow: $23; 281 pp.) : A LONG FATAL LOVE CHASE, By Louisa May Alcott (Random House: $21; 242 pp.)

February 25, 1996|Andria Spencer | Andria J. Spencer teaches English at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco

With the recent spate of Victorian literary biographies, from a reassessment of the Brontes to an examination of Christina Rossetti, it comes as no surprise that a newly introduced edition of Martha Saxton's fascinating 1977 life of Louisa May Alcott should appear, especially considering the renewed interest in the New England writer. What with the recent release of a new film version of "Little Women" to the discovery of her charming "lost" thriller, "A Long Fatal Love Chase," to the reissue of a collection of her pseudonymous "blood and thunder" tales, this indeed seems the year of Louisa May Alcott.

If you're only familiar with her "Little Women" trilogy (the sequels are "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys"), Alcott's persona seems a paradigm of New England virtue and respectability: spinster, loving aunt, writer of virtuous novels and guides to good living. It is the usual assumption that Alcott is her most famous character Jo March--the reformed tomboy, the wild girl who learned the joys of restraint and sacrifice while being the center of a happy family. It is only with Saxton's thoroughly engaging and finely detailed research that one discovers that the perennial bestseller is less an interpretation of the Alcott household than a fantasy fabricated for the delight of Alcott's parents, and in the final analysis, simply written for money. The phantoms of the ideal March family fade away under the dour, perverse reality of the Alcott home. Standing in contrast to the fiction, the revelations are, if not shocking, at least heartbreaking.

Born and raised in a life of poverty, Alcott's biography rightly begins not with her birth, but with her parents' courtship. Bronson and Abba's personalities so disfigured Louisa's life, comprehension would be impossible without the extended account Saxon gives of the young couple. By the time Abigail May ("Abba"), a well-bred Bostonian, had met Bronson, he had renounced labor for a life of the mind, falling in with the region's transcendentalists and contributing to the movement his own progressive theories on education reform, (one of which equaled Christ's divinity with his own).

This is the man, passive to a fault, with stringent ideals and strange ideas, that Abba fell in love with, would come to worship and would eventually jeopardize the well-being of her children to support. Their life together reads like a pauper's tale of New England, moving from one set of rooms to another, subsisting at times on apples and bread, and as Bronson refused to seek regular paid work, surviving on borrowed money.

Into this debacle the four girls were born. They followed Bronson's whims around New England, mainly back and forth from Boston to Concord, living on the generous cash gifts of faithful friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and from Abba's brother Sam, who more than once wondered why Bronson wouldn't support his family like any other. Abba remained devoted, and agreed with her husband that he was far to noble to labor.

Childhood was not all Dickensian gloom for Alcott. When in Concord she was free to roam through the natural beauty of Walden Pond while admiring her father's famous companions, Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. Though Bronson repeatedly attempted teaching, he always ended up in debt, relying on Abba to support the family through a series of business opportunities, from running a domestics agency to, ironically, being paid to hand out goods to the poor. Abba, martyr of the home front, instilled in Louisa the need of feminine self-sacrifice for the good of the man, and aroused in her daughter the desire to assume the role of savior.

Considering her father's circle, the literary life was not a novelty to Alcott, and soon she was sending off her own stories for publication. The idea of financial independence was alluring: "Though an Alcott I can support myself. I like the independent feeling; and though not an easy life, it is a free one, and I enjoy it. I can't do much with my hands; so I will make a battering ram with my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world."

These pieces, written under various pseudonyms, were her "blood and thunder" or "lurid" tales. They not only helped support the family, they were Alcott's passion. Unlike the March family trilogy that was to later make her an American icon, she enjoyed the writing of her grandiose fantasies; they exorcised her demons, the heroines dared what she could only dream of. The newly reissued collection, "Behind a Mask," offers four of her thrillers, giving a more accurate indication of Alcott's taste when away from the enforced piety of home.

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