Sitting on my shelf has been A Double Life, thrillers written by Louisa May Alcott (anonymously) and collected here by Madeleine B. Stern. I don’t care much for this sort of thing but, in the interest of research, I needed to sample one and I share my findings with you
The story “A Pair of Eyes” was written in 1863, five years before Little Women, and published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Alcott had returned from her first trip abroad and found finances were “behind hand when the money-maker was away.” Her story was illustrated with wood cuts and the publisher asked for more.
Reading it now, I can see why. The plot is melodramatic and improbable, the language unnaturally high-flown, but the people are surprisingly real and the setting is timely, as Alcott combines her own love for the theater and Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the popular interest in mesmerism and spiritualism. Her characters don’t just talk, they act . The “pair of eyes” are those of Agatha Eure, who exercises her powers on the artist she wishes to control. Alcott doesn’t explain exactly how it is done, but the results are dramatic, and the clear triumph of woman over man is striking:
I saw a smile break over the lips, something like triumph flash into the eyes, sudden color flush the cheeks, and the rigid hands lifted to gather up and put the long hair back; then with noiseless steps it came nearer and nearer till it stood beside me.
There ensues a struggle between the two for control of the artist’s will. As Stern comments,
Any observant woman of the time was aware of the inequality of the sexes in the economic world, in government, in law, in marriage, and in the home. Taxed but not represented, the woman in mid-nineteenth-century America lived in an antifeminist world in which the war between the sexes could be carried on far more successfully in fiction than in life. Most of the narratives in A Double Life are basically exercises in that struggle.
While the magazines of Alcott’s day were looking for melodramatic stories to draw readers, perhaps the readers — the female ones at least — were looking for a vicarious satisfaction that Alcott understood because she also wanted it for herself.