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Little Women and Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power - October CC Book Club Selection

Mary13Mary13 4000 replies83 threads Senior Member
Our October selection is a duo of 19th century classics: We will be reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott along with Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power by A.M Barnard, also known as...Louisa May Alcott. Come join us as we examine the two sides of this beloved author.

Little Women is generally recognized as one of America’s best-loved novels. It tells the story of the four devoted and loving March sisters growing up in 1860’s New England. The Mask, or A Woman’s Power is a lesser-known novella, the dark tale of Jean Muir, a deceitful governess who manipulates the wealthy family for whom she works. The book is one of several thriller-mysteries penned by Alcott under a pseudonym. “I can’t afford to starve on praise, when sensation stories are written in half the time and keep the family cozy,” she wrote in her journal.

The protagonists and plots couldn’t be more different, yet both novels are considered feminist works, illustrating the tension between cultural expectations for women and their personal and artistic freedom.

Love Little Women? Then this is the time for a re-read! Prefer a femme fatale to a virtuous woman? Then introduce yourself to the sinister Jean Muir. Discussion begins October 1st. Please join us!
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Replies to: Little Women and Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power - October CC Book Club Selection

  • thumper1thumper1 75228 replies3300 threads Senior Member
    I may have to join you all on this one. Little Women is far and away one of my favorite classic books, and I’ve read it more than several times!
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  • Mary13Mary13 4000 replies83 threads Senior Member
    Me, too @thumper1. I read it aloud to my children during their formative years (son included). It's a favorite in our house.
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  • kiddiekiddie 3455 replies217 threads Senior Member
    This will prepare us for the new movie version coming out this Christmas.
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  • Mary13Mary13 4000 replies83 threads Senior Member
    ^ I know, I can't wait! It'll be hard to beat Christian Bale as Laurie though...
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  • bookwormbookworm 8950 replies72 threads Senior Member
    I just finished Behind a Mask.
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  • VeryHappyVeryHappy 18578 replies325 threads Senior Member
    I'm about a quarter into Little Women. Upon reflection, I don't think I ever actually read it before or, if I did, I didn't understand enough to absorb it.
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  • mathmommathmom 32459 replies159 threads Senior Member
    Our library had several collections of Alcott's short stories. They also have a short novel titled The Inheritance her first novel written at age 17 and never published.
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  • HImomHImom 34452 replies392 threads Senior Member
    OK, spurred by this thread, have just reserved the two books and am 1st in the waiting list. I should get them soon but won't be able to read them until after my big project in the middle of the month.
    I also have to read Hamilton (original source, score & listen to the music), which is also in my house from the library and awaiting my spare time. So many books & other media, so little time!
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  • Mary13Mary13 4000 replies83 threads Senior Member
    It’s October 1st! Welcome to our discussion of Behind A Mask, or A Woman’s Power and Little Women.

    These two books were a pleasure for me to read / re-read -- a fun, relaxing way to end a busy summer. There were no official discussion questions for Behind a Mask, but I crafted a few from an excerpt of Literature and Gender that I found on Google Books:
    Discussion Questions - Behind A Mask, or A Woman’s Power

    1. What is the significance of the title in relation to the subtitle, “A Woman’s Power”?

    2. What is the central metaphor of the story, or the frame of reference within which the action of the story is most often described?

    3. Can you locate the scene where Jean “"removes her mask" for you, the reader? What is the “mask”?

    4. Financial considerations are both a theme of the story and a reason for its having been written. Jean’s duplicity is, at least at one level, spurred by the need to make ends meet. Does Alcott reveal any sympathy for the character she has created?

    5. Elaine Showalter has called Behind a Mask “a tale of female revenge.” How does Jean Muir's behavior subvert the traditional female role? Is Alcott’s writing subversive or conventional, i.e., is she making a supportive or a damning statement about women such as Jean?

    6. In Literature and Gender, Lizbeth Goodman writes, "It is only in the ‘unknown thrillers’ that Alcott allowed her characters to get away with all manner of unfeminine, irresponsible, active, sometimes even wicked behavior.” What classifies this novella as a “thriller”? Can you see influences from other literary works?

    Discussion Questions - Little Women

    1. In the first two chapters, the girls use John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress as a model for their own journey to becoming "little women." What was Alcott trying to say by using such a strongly philosophical piece of literature as the girls' model?

    2. What purpose does Beth's death serve? Was Alcott simply making a sentimental novel even more so, or was this a play on morality and philosophy? Do you think Beth was intended to be a Christ figure?

    3. Consider the fact that Beth will never reach sexual maturity or marry. What do you think this says about the institution of marriage and, more important, about womanhood?

    4. Consider Jo's writing: While we are treated to citations from "The Pickwick Portfolio" and the family's letters to one another, we are never presented with an excerpt from Jo's many literary works, though the text tells us they are quite successful. Why is this?

    5. Do you find it surprising that once Laurie is rejected by Jo, he falls in love with Amy? Do you feel his characterization is complete and he is acting within the "norm" of the personality Alcott has created for him, or does Alcott simply dispose of him once our heroine rejects him?

    6. Some critics argue that the characters are masochistic. Meg is the perfect little wife, Amy is the social gold digger, and Beth is the eternally loving and patient woman. Do you believe these characterizations are masochistic? If so, do you think Alcott could have characterized them any other way while maintaining the realism of the society she lived in? And if this is true, what of Jo's character?

    7. The last two chapters find Jo setting aside her budding literary career to run a school with her husband. Why do you think Alcott made her strongest feminine figure sacrifice her own life plans for her husband's?

    8. Alcott was a student of transcendentalism. How and where does this philosophy affect Alcott's writing, plot, and characterization?

    9. Do you believe this is a feminine or a feminist piece of work?

    https://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/fiction/634-little-women-alcott?start=3
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  • Mary13Mary13 4000 replies83 threads Senior Member
    Behind a Mask. or A Woman’s Power definitely made me think of Jo’s “scribbles.” I imagined as I read Little Women that this was the very sort of thing she submitted to Mr. Dashwood.

    As for the story itself, I didn’t find Jean Muir all that bad! In that day and age, a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do, am I right? She is no worse than Scarlett O’Hara, and in my estimation, rather better. She admits in the end, without sarcasm, that she is not worthy to be Sir John’s wife and intends to make him happy. And apparently, she succeeds: “She paused an instant, with a pale, absent expression, as if she searched herself, then looked up clearly in the confiding face above her, and promised what she faithfully performed in afteryears” (p. 112).
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  • mathmommathmom 32459 replies159 threads Senior Member
    What a ride that was! I started reading Little Women first, a copy lovingly inscribed to me by my Grandmother in 1967 - for my 9th Christmas. I know at the time I loved it, identifying both with Jo and Amy. (Jo for her rebelliousness and tomboy ways, Amy for the painting/artistic endeavors.) I've probably reread it a few times, but not in a long, long time. I found the unending preachiness with a moral in almost every single chapter rather hard to take, so turning to Behind A Mask, or A Woman’s Power a rather delightful surprise.

    That story begins with the trope regarding governesses ("Marry the Nanny" as it's described in TV Tropes), but we the mask comes down almost immediately after the first scene where each character reacts to her slightly differently - all charmed but one. I thought she was a fascinating charcter - sympathetic even though she is dissembling all along. The worst thing she does is get the suspicious maid fired - one hopes that restitution is made for that deed. The ending completely took me by surprise, but I liked it.

    I went back to Little Women in a better mood and on to the second half which I've always thought was more interesting than the first one. I was curious if I would be less disappointed by Jo settling for Mr. Bhaer, and for the most part I was, though I think his criticism of Jo's writing was probably warranted, I think he underestimates her need to write, but is correct that she could write better things than what we she was writing while in New York. I do think Alcott was right not to pair her up with Laurie - the easy solution.
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  • VeryHappyVeryHappy 18578 replies325 threads Senior Member
    I found these two books to be a fascinating juxtaposition.

    Little Women was sooooooo sweet that I from time to time wanted to throw up and then brush my teeth. It was a woman's nature to get married, have babies, and serve them all patiently. Mr. Lawrence (the grandfather) loved the March girls so much he gave them lots of goodies. Marmee had the patience of a saint. Father was injured seriously, but of course he recovered fully. Laurie was a delightful young lad whose interests added significantly to the March girls' fun. It was a fantasy of perfection.

    But there were some unfortunate facts that Alcott skims over -- that the Hummel family's child died from scarlet fever (a fact which was scarcely mourned, although Beth's decline from the same disease was mourned ad infinitum). Even though the March family was supposedly "poor," they could still provide charity to the Hummels and still have a servant (who, I finally realized about two thirds of the way through the book, was undoubtedly African American). And of course the servant could take care of the girls when Marmee was nursing Father, pack meals for the Hummels, and just be jolly and helpful. Whenever any convenience threatened to spoil the plot, Hanna was dropped in to p eliminate all discomfort.

    Behind a Mask was much more fun and suspenseful. I enjoyed it very much -- especially the early scene when we discover that she isn't 19, she's 30, and that she isn't a sweet innocent but a scheming bitch. I found it odd, however, that except for that one scene, her behavior was exemplary -- until about 80% through the book, when the narrator's veiwpoint changed and it started to be from her perspective, and it started to become more suspenseful.

    I also find it fascinating that, back in the day, people tried to marry each other after knowing each other for about 20 minutes.

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  • stradmomstradmom 5041 replies50 threads Senior Member
    Oh my - it never occurred to me that the servant might be African American.
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  • HImomHImom 34452 replies392 threads Senior Member
    Sorry, I haven’t read but will join once I have. Still on waiting lists.
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  • mathmommathmom 32459 replies159 threads Senior Member
    I've seen speculation that she was Irish, which for Boston in that era seems much more likely to me. Not sure if the text ever describes her, she's drawn as an older white woman in my Illustrated Junior Library edition right in the endpapers. (Illustrations by Louis Jambour done in 1947.)

    I'm not sure what you can tell from her letter in Chapter 16:
    Dear Mis March,

    I jes drop a line to say we git on fust rate. The girls is clever and fly round right smart. Miss Meg is going to make a proper good housekeeper. She hes the liking for it, and gits the hang of things surprisin quick. Jo doos beat all for goin ahead, but she don't stop to cal'k'late fust, and you never know where she's like to bring up. She done out a tub of clothes on Monday, but she starched 'em afore they was wrenched, and blued a pink calico dress till I thought I should a died a laughin. Beth is the best of little creeters, and a sight of help to me, bein so forehanded and dependable. She tries to learn everything, and really goes to market beyond her years, likewise keeps accounts, with my help, quite wonderful. We have got on very economical so fur. I don't let the girls hev coffee only once a week, accordin to your wish, and keep em on plain wholesome vittles. Amy does well without frettin, wearin her best clothes and eatin sweet stuff. Mr. Laurie is as full of didoes as usual, and turns the house upside down frequent, but he heartens the girls, so I let em hev full swing. The old gentleman sends heaps of things, and is rather wearin, but means wal, and it aint my place to say nothin. My bread is riz, so no more at this time. I send my duty to Mr. March, and hope he's seen the last of his Pewmonia.

    Yours respectful,

    Hannah Mullet
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  • bookwormbookworm 8950 replies72 threads Senior Member
    Math,I’m, that was very helpful. It does read like African-American.

    I too enjoyed Behind the Mask. I liked that jean picked a familiar role for herself and kept it up. From the time she spotted the patriarch, she formed her plan. I’m so glad I didn’t live in that century
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  • Mary13Mary13 4000 replies83 threads Senior Member
    Hannah is not portrayed as African-American in any of the film adaptations and most sources I've found online say she's of Irish descent; however, I'm still looking for a definitive answer. One poster on a LW site noted that the cook in Little Men, Asia, is African-American and identified as such by Alcott, which suggests that if Hannah were black, Alcott would have noted it.
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  • VeryHappyVeryHappy 18578 replies325 threads Senior Member
    Of course I could be wrong about my assumption that she was African American. But @mathmom's quote makes it feel that way to me -- the "she don't stop to cal'k'late fust," especially.
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  • Mary13Mary13 4000 replies83 threads Senior Member
    edited October 1
    ^ It's true, the letter really does make it feel that way, but maybe Alcott was just trying to convey that Hannah was poorly educated. I wonder what Henry Higgins would make of the dialect. :smile:

    Here's the gutenberg edition of an early printing: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/37106/37106-h/37106-h.htm

    The pictures show Hannah as white, but I'm not pushing that point in particular -- I just thought everybody would enjoy the drawings (by Frank Merrill, 1880). See the List of Illustrations right after the Contents. There are so many!

    You'll find Hannah in "One of them horrid telegraph things" (p. 197) and "Yours Respectful, Hannah Mullet" (p. 214).

    (My own well-worn, beloved hardcover is a 1947 edition illustrated by Louis Jambor.)
    edited October 1
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  • mathmommathmom 32459 replies159 threads Senior Member
    edited October 1
    Speaking of accents, I would have like Professor Bhaer a lot better without his annoying accent - which is a reasonable approximate of a German accent.

    I've gone down the rabbit hole of how accents were depicted in 19th century novels. There's also just the issue of educated vs. less educated.

    I did find it funny that the too poor for Christmas present Marches still had a full-time servant. The Alcotts, from what I gathered did not, and one biographer speculates that it was mostly so that the girls would have more time to be out doing things and not just doing housework. (Though I do think the chapters about housework are quite funny.)
    edited October 1
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