Moods was Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, written and published before Little Women. Alcott had published stories and sketches by that time and wanted to make her mark as a novelist. She was never happy with the version published in 1864 and reissued it, heavily revised, in 1882. My comments here are based on the first version, and my edition of the novel also includes an Introduction by Sarah Elbert which is very helpful in understanding what Alcott was trying to accomplish and why she was so frustrated with the published result.
I was frustrated also, feeling that Alcott could do much better than this somewhat confused novel. She appears to be combining two stories: a romantic tale similar to the Gothic “blood and thunder” productions that had put food on the Alcott table during some very lean years and a proto-feminist account of the development of a willful and impulsive young woman. This young woman, Sylvia, meets and loses the one man she could have truly loved. The author is discrete, but I think their mutual attraction was sexual because the otherwise eminently satisfactory man Sylvia does marry never measures up: she finally tells him he must be a friend rather than a lover. One loses patience with this, as Henry James did in his review which is also included in the American Women Writers edition:
The two most striking facts with regard to “Moods” are the author’s ignorance of human nature, and her self-confidence in spite of of this ignorance. Miss Alcott doubtless knows men and women well enough to deal successfully with their every-day virtues and temptations, but not well enough to handle great dramatic passions.
These are cruel words, but there is something is what he says. The opening chapter especially, with its evocation of the beautiful tropical beauty whose character does not measure up to the hero’s demands is full of improbable posturing.
For once in your life you shall hear the truth as plain as words can make it. You shall see me at my best as at my worst; you shall know what I have learned to find in you; shall look back into the life behind us, forward into the life before us, and if there be any candor in you I will wring from you an acknowledgement that you have led me into an unrighteousness compact. Unrighteous because you have deceived me in yourself, appealed to the baser, not the nobler instincts in me, and on such a foundation there can be no abiding happiness.
No woman should marry a man who talks like that.
As I read, I was able to look past the love triangle to find something much more interesting: this book heavily prefigures the themes of Little Women. We have a girl entering into womanhood with little idea of what she wants to do with herself. The family is wealthy (unlike the struggling Marches) so she has no need to work. She has a practical older sister and a shallow rival (the tropical beauty). It is terribly important for her to grow up.
“I am so young, you know; when I am a woman grown I can give you a woman’s love; now it is a girl’s, you say. Wait for me, Geoffrey, a little longer, for indeed ti do my best to be all you would have me.”
For lack of proper guidance, she agrees to her mistaken marriage.
A wise and tender mother would have divined her nameless needs, answered her vague desires, and through the medium of the most omnipotent affection given to humanity, have made her what she might have been. But Sylvia had never known mother-love, for her life came through death; and the only legacy bequeathed her was a slight hold upon existence, a ceaseless craving for affections….
Since Sylvia’s mother died at birth, her older sister is entirely conventional and her father is damaged goods emotionally (he married for money), she is a victim of her moods. She needs a Marmee and does, in fact, find one late in the book, too late to save her.
The long dialog in which cousin Faith Dane lays out the right course of action to Sylvia, her husband and her lover, is as improbable as the opening chapter of the book. Yet there are echoes. Through renunciation and suffering, we develop character. The hero renounces the beautiful fiancee who did not measure up, Sylvia renounces her husband, the lovers renounce each other. It is all very noble and also subject to rather inflated writing.
It is fascinating how these same themes are transformed into a believable story only four years later in Little Women. Again, we have a family with divergent personalities who manage to pull together, without the fantasy of great wealth. Jo is moody and impulsive but her rebellion is guided by a wise mother. She renounces the man who would not be right for her and directs her energies to her need for self expression and to the economic struggle. The high-flown language (“the most omnipotent affection given to humanity”) and inverted sentences are smoothed out in favor of shorter, more direct expression. Although Alcott objected to writing a book for girls, the publisher did her a favor, focusing her attention away from demon lovers and onto the real-life problems of growing up female.