Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Chase by Louisa May Alcott

Like every other bookish young girl, I dutifully read Alcott's other works, Little Women and Good Wives and Little Men and Eight Cousins and a few others, and enjoyed them quite a lot. However, as I began to get older, I began to see things I didn't like about Alcott. An article in an old copy of Chalcedon Magazine alerted me to Alcott's Transcendentalist strain of Unitarianism, and once I'd seen that I began to see other things. Alcott's characters often have absent fathers, and their religion is a feminised version of the real thing—a protofeminist herself, Alcott paints a picture of religion in which women are the spiritual teachers and examples to be set on pedestals; when her male characters become more pious, they often also become less manly.
I also lost a lot of my regard for Alcott when reading Eight Cousins, when she inveighs against GA Henty-style stories for boys. Oh, sure, you need discernment reading Henty—as much as you need reading Elsie Dinsmore, and probably less than you need reading Rafael Sabatini. But to say that boys shouldn't read Henty-style stories, in favour of the kind of story the author obviously prefers and is writing—romantic stories about idealised women—seems both hypocritical and cruel.
All of this is not to say that one shouldn't read Alcott. It is to say that one shouldn't read her books uncritically.
In the same chapter that Alcott discusses Henty-style stories, she also dismisses sensational pulp fiction. Any of my gentle readers who know Chesterton's defence of pulp-style fiction will be unsympathetic. Whatever your stance on sensational stories of blood and thunder, you'll be interested that Alcott wrote a lot of highly sensational fiction herself, for a female market.
These books aren't as good as her classics, but they are way more fun. A moral about the dangers of unwise love is a lot more interesting than a moral about the dangers of tobacco or billiards or whiskey—and a whole lot more important.
Of these books—I've read a number—the best is probably The Chase. Excuse me, I'll give the original title: A Long Fatal Love Chase.
It tells the extremely melodramatic story of a girl named Rosamond, who lives in gothic splendour with her old grandfather, and begins the novel rather ominously with the words,
I tell you I cannot bear it! I shall do something desperate if this life is not changed soon. It gets worse and worse, and I often feel as if I'd gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

Rosamond's wish for freedom renders her an easy target for Phillip Tempest, a mysterious and handsome stranger who comes to visit her grandfather. When Tempest spirits her away aboard his yacht and asks her to marry him, Rosamond thinks all her dreams have come true. All too soon, however, Tempest's past begins to catch up with him, and Rosamond cannot but learn the terrible truth of her happiness. Devastated, she flees from his house—only to find that she has become his obsession; an obsession only death will break...
(Roll on the timpani, please...tha-a-a-at's right).
This is in some ways an unusual book. The cover says it's “daring”, but to be honest Rosamond's harsh awakening and long penance hammers home the moral—don't run off with mysterious, handsome strangers—with never a whiff of impropriety on the author's part. A really bad book would show 'true' (read: stupid unholy) 'love' conquering all, and Tempest rewarded for his obsession with Rosamond's love and forgiveness. This book avoids that.
But I can't recommend it for the immature or those seeking great literature. It's one of those “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too” books that Christians seem to love writing, in which the main characters indulge in the most wild and gaudy vices leading up to their sensational redemption and happy ending. The life of vice depicted in the first half, or three-quarters, of the book is far more interesting than the character's actions after redemption. Maximum angst and thrills are milked out of the main character's tortured struggle between alluring evil and inexorable good.
The Chase falls roughly into this category, and while I don't believe it's a poisonous or even a terribly bad book (mediocre is the word), it makes me think. Where is the line between showing a character's conflict between good and evil—even alluring evil—and voyeurism? How can you avoid glamourising evil when writing about the slow dissatisfaction and redemption of a vice-ridden main character?
The moral of The Chase—don't marry a pig in a poke, even if the poke's incredibly good-looking—is not terribly groundbreaking. The reason The Chase exists is because Alcott wanted to make some money out of an old-fashioned potboiler. And if her other books—Little Women, for instance—are anything to go by, then the way to make quick money back then was through cheap thrills.
Books are food for the imagination, for the heart and the will. Some books are like dining in the most expensive Paris restaurant you can imagine—some are like a cleansing diet—some are good plain everyday food—some are deadly poison—some are sugary treats—some are like popcorn. The Chase is the literary equivalent of a fish and chips dinner—strictly speaking, fish and potato are good for you, but this stuff has been deep-fried, and though it makes a nice treat it shouldn't be confused with real food.


Bryn Hottman said...

Great Post!! I absolutely agree!! I'm currently writing a post on Little Women and as I'm now reading it as an adult I've noticed some alarming underlying beliefs she may have had. I love your statement, "It is to say that one shouldn't read her books uncritically." This is true in my opinion for all books. And personally, I'm only now beginning to read books critically. Thank you for posting :)

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Bryn! If you get the chance, do have a poke around my Review Index--I have lots of material here to help readers interact critically with their books!


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