“Blood and Thunder” and (Finally) Learning to Love Louisa May Alcott

I don’t like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I can’t help it! When it comes to the lives of the uninspiring March sisters I just don’t care. I lack the keen nostalgia that the novel evokes in so many people, and in fact, I find it off-putting and disappointing. Maybe it’s because I didn’t read Little Women until I was in my teens, and my taste in books was already fixed. Maybe I just can’t relate to any of the characters, even Jo who honestly should be The Most Relatable of the novel’s cast. But whatever the reason, I just don’t like Little Women. Which of course means that I didn’t give two figs about any of its sequels, and just assumed that I would never have a place in my reading life for Louisa May Alcott.

Wow am I glad I was wrong about that last bit.

Back in January this tweet popped up in my feed:

And look, anyone who has been around my reading life for even a short time, be it here or via social media, knows that I am absolute 110% trash for fictional beautiful, melodramatic, evil assholes with severe abandonment issues. I don’t apologize for that; it fills my life with dramatic delight. So of course I did the only logical thing when presented with the promise of such Gothic splendor: Reader, I ordered the book.

The History of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase

Thankfully, the editor of the Dell 1996 edition of A Long Fatal Love Chase, Kent Bicknell, wrote a fabulous afterword detailing the history of A Long Fatal Love Chase’s writing and publication. If you do end up buying a copy, make sure to flip to the back and give that a read before starting the actual novel. The condensed version is that Louisa May Alcott wrote A Long Fatal Love Chase in 1866 after being visually inspired by her 1865 trip across Europe.

On her return from Europe, in response to an ad for pulp fiction for magazine serialization and as a means of supporting her financially unsteady family, Alcott wrote A Long Fatal Love Chase, which was then rejected by its prospective editor for being “too long and too sensational” (always a good sign). A Long Fatal Love Chase, which was written before Little Women, shares the same theme with the novel that would eventually make Alcott famous. Both are (incredibly different) examinations of the “quest for physical, financial, intellectual, and spiritual independence.” But A Long Fatal Love Chase deals with more serious issues than its successor, confronting things like “a woman’s right to be free and independent, the healing power of female/female friendships, the psychological dynamics of abusive relationships, priestly celibacy, divorce, bigamy, suicide, murder” and more.

Rosamond lives on a remote island on the coast of England with her cruel, uncaring grandfather. She is alone, unloved, and longs for freedom. When a dark, mysterious stranger shows up on the island one day, a supposed friend of her Grandfather’s know as Philip Tempest (which is supposedly his real name but who knows!), Rosamond is seduced by his kindness towards her, and the glittering life he leads. She agrees to marry him (though only after he tries to get her to go with him as his mistress) and takes off for Europe. But their idyllic marriage is cut short when Philip’s lies begin to unravel and the dark truth about the man Rosamond has married is revealed. This kicks off a high stakes chase from Italy to France to Germany, from chateau to convent to asylum, as Philip ruthlessly stalks a fleeing Rosamond, intent on reclaiming his bride at any cost.

So why this Louisa May Alcott book?

Like most Gothic novels, on the surface the plot of A Long Fatal Love Chase sounds horrific. Jessica, you might say, why would I want to read this book? This cannot end well (spoiler alert: it does not). And I honestly don’t know if I can explain to you why I adore this book so much, except to say that this is exactly the sort of dramatic, over-the-top nonsense that I love. This novel lacks almost any semblance of realism. True Alcott is working with some serious real world issues, but they’re couched in this gorgeously Romantic, Gothic dream of a novel. Look at this:

“A stone balustrade ran round the roof and in the angle which overhung the sea stood the girl, her dress fluttering in the wind, her hair blown back from cheeks rosy with its keen breath, her eyes intently fixed upon the horizon where the ocean seemed to meet the sky.”

This book is gorgeous. All the descriptions are like this, and the imagery throughout is just as lush. It’s like being inside a painting by one of the English Romantics. So moody and atmospheric.

And can we talk about Rosamond? Because I…

“Suppose […] That I was base and false; in every way unworthy of your love, and it was clearly right for you to go, what would you do then?

“Go away and—”

“Die as heroines always do, tender slaves as they are.”

“No, live and forget you.”

Love this woman.

“If my grave stood open on one side and you on the other I’d go into my grave before I would take one step to meed you.”

So much. Will of iron.

If Little Woman had been like this, more powerful and so vividly alive, I might have liked it better. But Alcott herself called the novel “moral pap,” and while I think that the novel’s legacy has surpassed its creation through critical reinterpretation over the years , to the point where it—and particularly Jo—are now mostly interpreted as a feminist text, in a lot of ways Little Women still cannot escape its own staunchly pro-domesticity themes and its “moral guide for young ladies” feel. In comparison, A Long Fatal Love Chase is unapologetically political, violent, and frightening, and while there is a moral vein to the story, it is not the sort of moral narrative that was (and still is, let’s be honest) used like a cudgel to beat independent, bold women about the head with.

Jo (Little Women) and Rosamond (A Long Fatal Love Chase) are all but the same person. They’re both young women with rich imaginations, both seeking something beyond the limitations of their current existence. They even seem to seek the same elevated spaces, as though to rise above the mundanity of her lives: Jo has her attic and Rosamond has the rooftop of the island castle she calls home. The difference, however, is that Jo is part of an admittedly loving family, and most of her choices in the book are dictated by her love for and/or responsibilities to her family. It would be a bad moral choice for her to, for example, run off to Europe with a mysterious older man in order to escape her responsibilities. Bad things happen to girls who make bad moral choices in 19th century novels. But of course the March sisters are meant to be models for their young readers, so Jo would never do the irresponsible, bad thing that might result in something tragic happening to her.

Alright, Jessica, but wouldn’t you say that “bad things” pretty much sums up what happens to Rosamond when she runs off with Philip Tempest? Yes, on the surface A Long Fatal Love Chase would seem to be just as much a moral novel as Little Women. Be a “bad woman,” suffer bad things.

But the thing is, if you read A Long Fatal Love Chase you’ll see pretty quickly that, despite Rosamond’s determination to “do penance” for her accidental bigamy, and to avoid Tempest in order to live a more honest, upright life, the novel itself never blames her for anything that happens to her. Nor does anyone she encounters except for the occasional character we’re meant to dislike. She blames herself, but it’s clear throughout A Long Fatal Love Chase that everything that happens to her is because of Philip. Even when she dies at the end, it is not Rosamond’s punishment for her moral failings but rather Philip’s punishment for his villainy. And even though it is Philip who has killed her, in dying she has, as promised, spited him entirely by going to her grave rather than be returned to him. Because despite Philip’s claim that Rosamond was “Mine first—mine last—mine even in the grave!” the reader knows that in whatever afterlife exists for these characters, Philip will never see Rosamond again.

Rosamond is a boss. Though in many ways she’s the quintessential “blood and thunder” 19th century novel heroine—orphaned, blushing, and pale—she’s also a subversion of the sort of swooning, helpless novel heroine in need of saving. She takes a beating in this novel, physically and emotionally. A Long Fatal Love Chase is a harrowing examination of the horrors of emotional abuse and stalking, and Philip’s intensity, which when they are together is so attractive, morphs into a terrifying possessiveness the moment Rosamond slips from his grasp. But no matter how hard Philip pursues her, she never stops trying to escape him, and she confronts him boldly with the evil of his treatment of her. What’s more, though she could return to Philip at any time in the novel (he makes that very clear) and to their beautiful life of luxury, Rosamond proves again and again that, like Alcott herself, she might love luxury, but she loves “freedom and independence better.”

Hey Jessica, maybe you just like books where awful things happen and maybe that’s why you don’t like Little Women.

Well I do read a lot of horror…

But all joking aside, I’ve spent a good deal of time since I finished A Long Fatal Love Chase thinking about why I’ve ended up with such a marked preference for one book over the other. And I’m still not sure I’ve come up with a satisfactory answer.

It could be simply that I like more drama than domesticity in my plots, which is actually something I’ve noticed about my romance novel preferences. I always prefer romances where there’s some sort of vital external action taking place: cross country flights, murder mysteries, abductions, battles, etc. There have been popular new romances, and even romances by authors that I’ve enjoyed in the past, that I just haven’t responded to because all the action was internal, and all the conflict based one two people not talking (if you’re going to have your hero and heroine be incapable of speaking to each other, make it because they’re running for their lives, at least!). Domestic novels, romance or otherwise, feel too much like life. I’ve got plenty of life, how about some adventure instead. I’m sure Alcott could relate.

But it could also be, as a sort of an extension of that first point, that when I first read Little Women teenage me picked up on the novel’s pro-domesticity propaganda, and even Jo’s determination to flout her domestic fate couldn’t get me past the literal “marry or perish” narrative. Particularly given that Jo still ends up married in the end, and to a man who belittles her own “blood and thunder stories,” resulting in her giving up writing altogether and I just??? Talk about an ending that looks happy on the surface but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Why would you marry a man like that? Is it the umbrella? Because you can buy umbrellas, Jo. With the money you make from writing the stories he hates. Buy a spite umbrella, Jo.

I’m sorry; as you see, I can’t even take this plot seriously. I’m afraid that all the critical reinterpretations in the world are not enough to save Little Women for me. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that the Little Women has been given a sort of second life through the application of modern literary analysis. By all means let’s dig deep into the conflicted nature of this novel, and probe the distance between Alcott’s own feelings about the novel and its themes and popularity. Let’s analyze its status as an American Classic, in particular, because I have a feeling much of its early success had to do a gross obsession with “picture perfect domestic life” that still permeates American culture.

But in the meantime, I’ll be over here rereading A Long Fatal Love Chase.

Death before umbrellas.