Behind a Mask Summary

Louisa May Alcott

Behind a Mask

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Behind a Mask Summary

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Although she is now best known for the novel Little Women and its sequels, Louisa May Alcott also wrote a series of popular psychological thrillers under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. One of these is Behind a Mask, originally serialized in the weekly paper Flag of Our Union in 1866. Behind a Mask is a radical reworking of one of the classic figures of mid-nineteenth century literature: the governess. Because they were educated and genteel women who are nevertheless functioning as servants, governesses were potent symbols of Victorian anxieties about class distinctions. In Behind a Mask, a devious governess is able to manipulate this anxiety to gain ultimate power over a wealthy family.

Jean Muir is an unsuccessful actress whose stage career in France is effectively over because she has reached the wizened old age of 30 – which is considered “over the hill” by Victorian standards. She decides to salvage her situation by applying for the position of governess with the upper-class Coventry family in England.

With her acting skills and her understanding of the power of self-presentation, she uses a wig and false teeth to disguise herself as a much younger woman, in order to appear modest, humble, and nonthreatening. She is initially met by Mrs. Coventry and her three children: 16-year-old Bella (whose governess Jean would become), oldest son Gerald, and younger son Edward. Upon meeting the family, Jean pretends to be so overwhelmed by their importance that she faints. This immediately endears her to Mrs. Coventry and Bella, and Jean is hired.

Jean takes on her new job like a role, performing the part of a meek and good-hearted governess in order to win over all of the family members, with the eventual intention of getting her hands on the Coventry money. Most of the family is quickly duped: Jean charms Bella with her sweet temper and interesting lessons, delights Mrs. Coventry by daintily arranging flowers, and entices Edward by being interested in the wellbeing of his horse. She also manages to appeal to Sir John Coventry, the elderly uncle of Bella, Gerald, and Edward, with her witty repartee.

However, she does find some resistance. Gerald, who snobbishly dismisses her as socially beneath him, seems much more aware of the show that she is constantly putting on. His cousin Lucia, who would like to marry him, is jealous of Jean’s attractiveness. But for Jean’s plan to work, she needs all the men in the family to start fighting over her – which means that she needs to successfully get all of them to fall in love with her.

Edward is in love with Jean from the very start. She doesn’t want him as a husband because he is the youngest son and his chances of landing a huge inheritance are slim. But she is happy to manipulate him as a way of reaching Gerald.

Getting Gerald to come around takes all of Jean’s acting prowess. First, she rejects Edward’s advances, and then she asks for Gerald to protect her from Edward. When the two brothers fight, Edward stabs Gerald. Jean jumps in to protect Gerald and then sees to his wound, changing his view of her somewhat.

Jean completes the mission to attract Gerald by staging three tableaux vivants during a party in the Coventry house. Tableaux were a cross between skits and charades, where participants would dress up in costume and then act out very short scenes of historical or literary figures for the audience to guess and identify. This entertainment is of course right up Jean’s alley, and with her acting training she masters her roles. In one of them, she plays the damsel in distress to Gerald’s heroic soldier. In another, she plays Queen Elizabeth I, showing Gerald that she could be socially equal to him.

Jean tells Gerald and Sir John a made-up story about her background – that she is actually a noblewoman who has lost her family and fortune after rejecting the advances of a lecherous Lord. According to her, only marriage can now save her from a terrible fate. As Gerald is contemplating his changed feelings toward Jean, he makes the decision to ask her to marry him. But even as she leads Gerald on with meaningful glances, Jean has in fact outsmarted him along with the rest of the family.

In the novel’s final twist, Jean reveals that she has married Sir John and has thus becomes Lady Coventry. She thus has control over the entire Coventry estate and the family’s fortune. Stunned by the ruthless manipulation of this woman, Mrs. Coventry and her children have no other recourse than to manage as best as they can with her at the head of the family.

This novella, which was for a long time overshadowed by Alcott’s other writing but was brought back to prominence in the middle of the 20th century, has been read as a radically feminist text. Using a somewhat edgier version of the kind of striving, ambitious woman she had created in Little Women’s Joe March, Alcott creates a protagonist who refuses to accept her class position and rejects the subservience expected of her in Victorian patriarchy. At the same time, Behind a Mask also can be seen as a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast myth – a version in which these two seemingly opposite characteristics are embedded in the same character. Jean is beastly, but she hides this true nature under a mask of beauty – reversing the conception of the Beast’s kind-hearted ugliness.