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Feature

Louisa May Alcott's Long-Lost Novel

By Ellen Marsh | HUMANITIES, July/August 1997 | Volume 18, Number 4

"Like most young scribblers, she went abroad for her characters and scenery; and banditti, counts, gypsies, nuns, and duchesses appeared upon her stage . . . " Louisa May Alcott is describing the young writer Jo in Little Women, but she could just as well have been describing her own early efforts.

A long-lost novel of Alcott's, The Inheritance, written when she was seventeen, has now resurfaced and been published for the first time. In many ways, with its romanticized plot and extravagant flourishes, it underscores the autobiographical nature of the character Jo.

The handwritten manuscript was found in Harvard's Houghton Library by two scholars working on her letters.

"We were looking through the card catalog for anything pertaining to the Alcotts," says Joel Myerson of the University of South Carolina, "and there, on a three-by-five card, was a reference: 'Alcott, Louisa May. The Inheritance. A.M.S.; Boston, 1849. 166p. Unpublished; her first novel.'" (A.M.S. means "autograph manuscript," a handwritten manuscript.) In an afterward to the new book, Myerson and fellow scholar Daniel Shealy of the University of North Carolina tell the story: "Hurriedly, we scribbled down the library call number and submitted our request to the attendants. Then we walked outside to the steps of the Houghton Library so our discussion of this possible find would not disturb other researchers. In the glare of the hot July sunlight, we rapidly asked each other questions. Did this work actually exist? Was it complete? Wanting to temper our excitement, we recalled that just a few days earlier we had requested a collection of family letters only to receive an empty ledger with the notation that the letters had been destroyed by Louisa. We hoped this work had not suffered a similar fate."

This time the outcome was happier: "When we returned to our table, there among the Alcott letters we had been reviewing was a red notebook, about the size of a student's journal. The handwriting on the flue pages was unmistakable; it clearly matched the letters written by Louisa during her teenage years. We eagerly turned the pages and began to read to story of young, orphaned Edith Adelon, knowing that Alcott herself had once held this very manuscript in her hands."

The manuscript had been lent in the 1930s by the Alcott heirs to Orchard House, the Alcott home and museum in Concord, Massachusetts. There it remained until 1974, when it was given to Harvard. The manuscript was cataloged and forgotten until 1988, when Myerson and Shealy rediscovered it in the course of working on The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. They transcribed the text, and the Alcott heirs auctioned the publishing rights to Dutton Books. The Inheritance came out this past February and is to be a made-for-TV movie.

The Inheritance is set in in a noble house in England. This is the plot: While traveling in Italy, the lord of the house, Lord Hamilton, happens across the orphaned Edith Adelon, and struck by her excellent qualities and her beautiful singing voice, takes her back to England to be a companion to his daughter.

Lord Hamilton dies, and Edith stays on with Lady Hamilton and the children. "With an angel's calm and almost holy beauty," Alcott writes, "Edith bore within as holy and as pure a heart -- gentle, true, and tender." She withstands the jealousy of a Hamilton family cousin and the attentions of an unwelcome suitor to find true love in the character of the noble Lord Percy, an event that coincides with the exciting discovery that she is the true heiress of the estate.

Apparently Alcott never submitted The Inheritance to a publisher. It must have been important to her, however, for she tucked it away, in later years pasting in the red notebook a slip of paper that read, "My first novel written at seventeen High St. Boston."

Shealy speculates as to how the manuscript fell from sight although several Alcott biographers refer to it in passing.

"At the time Alcott wrote the novel, in 1849, her family had fragmented and was moving from place to place, from one part of New England to another. Her journals from this period are missing, and the letters and journals of family members don't mention the novel."

Life with Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson, could sometimes be difficult. His strict notions about diet at one point kept his family half-starved on apples and squash. His moral scruples about earning wages forced them to beg friends and relatives for money on which to live. At the same time, the Alcotts were deeply involved in the transcendental movement. They were friends of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Nathanial Hawthorne -- the intellectual aristocracy of New England. Louisa visited Walden Pond and tramped the woods with Thoreau looking for berries; she visited Emerson's library for books. For all of his children, Bronson introduced the delights of literature. Each member of the family was encouraged to keep a journal, which the others read and criticized.

Louisa was a tomboy who loved to play in the countryside, and book-loving as well, reading Dickens, Maria Edgeworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Charlotte Bronte. For fun, the Alcott children acted out scenes from books. Louisa and her older sister Anna also wrote original melodramas, with Louisa playing the male roles. She dreamed of fame, and wrote that she would accomplish something grand someday. "Don't care what -- teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I'll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won't."

Two years after she wrote The Inheritance, Alcott had a poem published in Peterson's Magazine. Her first story, "The Rival Painters. A Tale of Rome," appeared in 1852. Later that year, "The Masked Marriage," which draws upon elements of The Inheritance, was published. From that time on, Alcott earned money through her writing, including "blood and thunder" stories for Frank Leslie's newspapers. She achieved fame and wealth at last in 1868 with the printing of Little Women. Other novels for young people followed. When she died in March 1888, just two days after the death of her father, she was one of the most successful American authors of her era.

Myerson and Shealy say that Alcott's early fiction was inspired by the melodramas of the nineteenth century theater, and by the gothic and sentimental fiction popular at the time. This juvenile work presages themes that the author would develop in her mature writings. In the afterword, the two write: "In The Inheritance, Alcott also focuses on relationships among a family of young women, even naming one of her characters 'Amy,' a name she would later use for the artistic March sister in her famous novel." The virtues of honesty, trust, fidelity, and self-sacrifice appear here, as they do throughout Alcott's fiction.

"It is very good," Meyerson says of The Inheritance, "especially for someone who's seventeen. Her talent in devising a plot is apparent -- the novel has a gripping sense of movement. It's a good read."

Joel Myerson is Carolina Research Professor of American Literature at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Daniel Shealy is Associate Dean of the Graduate School, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.