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Performing Womanhood: Fictions of Love in Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask

Stéphanie Durrans


This article discusses Louisa May Alcott’s novella Behind a Mask in the light of Melville’s last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), arguing that, behind the mask of a sentimental novel that appears to conform to stereotypes, Alcott depicts a true-to-life heroine and shows how fiction can actually uncover the truth of life, how the many parts we play obfuscate our deeper nature and how a woman’s life in particular is nothing but a continuous performance on the social stage. In Behind a Mask, Alcott subtly reinstates “a woman’s power” (its subtitle) over and against a male-dominated novel and a male-dominated society.

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1. Introduction

1Alcott’s short novel Behind a Mask (1866) features a fascinating female protagonist whose ambivalence arouses mixed feelings in readers. Jean Muir has just been employed as a governess by Mrs. Coventry, a wealthy widow who lives in the English countryside and needs someone to look after her young daughter, Bella. When Mrs. Coventry asks her to play a piece on the piano, the young woman complies with good grace but suddenly faints out of weakness and can be heard mumbling a few words in Scottish when she regains consciousness. We soon realize, however, that this is all part of a highly elaborate role play. Under this façade of innocence, submission and vulnerability, the cunning young governess turns out to cherish evil designs. She has set her heart on deceiving the whole family and marrying the richest of them all, Sir John Coventry, the uncle who lives next door. We actually witness her metamorphosis into a sinister character at the end of the opening chapter. Alcott depicts the fallen state of the young woman in a terrible and highly disquieting scene where she is fully exposed, sitting on the floor in her own bedroom, almost prostrate as she reflects upon her desperate straits and the limited options available to her:

‘Come, the curtain is down, so I may be myself for a few hours, if actresses ever are themselves.’
Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth, and slipping off her dress appeared herself indeed, a haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least. The metamorphosis was wonderful, but the disguise was more in the expression she assumed than in any art of costume or false adornment. Now she was alone, and her mobile features settled into their natural expression, weary, hard, bitter. She had been lovely once, happy, innocent, and tender; but nothing of all this remained to the gloomy woman who leant there brooding over some wrong, or loss, or disappointment which had darkened all her life. (12, emphasis mine)

2Alcott makes it clear that the governess’s innocent, hopeful nature has been dramatically twisted by unfortunate circumstances. Interestingly enough, Alcott positions this disclosure in the early stages of the narrative. Readers thus become accomplices of sorts as they are made privy to the real character of the wily governess, though they naturally expect her to get her just deserts at the close of the novel. Alcott adroitly complicates this plot, however, and she frustrates these expectations by rewarding her villain and elevating her to the rank she has been yearning for instead of having her banished, eliminated, or punished in whatever way possible. A new order comes to replace the old order that has been upset for good. Two conflicting readings therefore come into play as morals are undermined by a more subversive intent. In the end, cosmic irony works at the expense of the supposedly good characters who have been fooled by the young governess while the latter turns into a respectable lady thanks to her marriage just as we are given substantial evidence of her crime.

3What makes the novel so intriguing is that it is both highly predictable and unpredictable, combining as it does the stock-in-trade conventions of melodramatic novels (sibling rivalry, exchange of letters, improbable coincidences, a train accident, etc.) and a more unusual approach to love and morality. As pointed out by Doris Lessing, Behind a Mask is “sharp and unpleasant” compared with works like Little Women and Good Wives (vii). Behind the mask of a sentimental novel that appears to conform to stereotypes, Alcott depicts a true-to-life heroine and shows how fiction can actually uncover the truth of life, how the many parts we play obfuscate our deeper nature and how a woman’s life in particular is nothing but a continuous performance on the social stage. This line of analysis will be discussed in the light of Melville’s last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), whose main protagonist may have served as a template for Alcott’s shape-shifting governess. The intriguing network of echoes and correspondences that links the two works suggests that Alcott’s novella might have been written as a manner of response to a novel that makes short shrift of women and of their predicament in the fast-changing U.S. society of the late nineteenth century. In Behind a Mask, Alcott subtly reinstates “a woman’s power” (its subtitle) over and against a male-dominated novel and a male-dominated society.

2. The Confidence-Woman: Her Masquerade

4Jean Muir’s power of fascination derives from her extraordinary ability to adapt herself to her circumstances and make it look so natural that she can pass for whoever she is trying to impersonate. This is precisely what throws the reader into confusion as this complex character elicits mixed feelings of revulsion, compassion, empathy, and even sympathy, depending on the role she plays at any given moment. It is my belief that, in portraying such a character, Alcott might have found inspiration in Herman Melville’s most puzzling novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, published on April Fools’ Day 1857 and set on the same day of the year, as if to emphasize the constant interplay between truth and fiction. Unaware that he will himself fall into the trap laid by the governess, Gerald sets the tone for another April Fools’ Day at the outset of Alcott’s narrative when he warns his mother and Lucia: “Ned is just at an age to make a fool of himself for any girl who comes in his way. Have a care of the governess, Lucia, or she will bewitch him” (4); and a few minutes later, the new governess justifies her rejection of a previous suitor by surreptitiously dropping these words into the young man’s ears: “Because [I] had the utmost contempt for a titled fool” (10).

5Melville’s valedictory novel unfolds as a reflection upon the values of trust and charity in mid-century America and features a protean protagonist, an impostor “from the East” (9) who assumes various disguises to fool his fellow passengers on board a Mississippi steamer. In the process, he turns from a poor, self-effacing, deaf-and-dumb traveler jostled by the hostile crowd into a flamboyant incarnation of the man of the world—a Cosmopolitan—thus moving up the social ladder with each of his successive avatars, as does Alcott’s heroine. Jean’s first appearance in the middle of a family who “dread[s] the coming of a stranger” (Behind a Mask 3) recalls the weary traveler whom some critics regard as the Confidence-Man’s first avatar, the Mute in Cream Colors. Like him, she is “pale-faced”, “small, thin, and colourless” (6), and obeys others’ commands with “meek obedience” (6) only to lose consciousness and come back onto the stage after going through a first metamorphosis (“Miss Muir came back to her seat with a faint color in her cheek which improved her much,” 8).

  • 1 This is how the Cosmopolitan introduces himself to his first acquaintance on board the Fidèle in Ch (...)
  • 2 The expression is actually borrowed from another novel by Alcott, Rose in Bloom, in which Rose advi (...)
  • 3 Doris Lessing opines that “a more cynical tale there never was. Money and security are the goals, l (...)

6Like Melville’s Cosmopolitan (the last incarnation of the Confidence-Man who dominates the second half of Melville’s novel), Jean is a stranger to whom “no man is a stranger”1: she is supposed to be Scottish but she can speak French, sing beautifully in Italian (20), and she appears to be well-acquainted with other foreign parts as we learn about “her travels in Russia when governess in Prince Jermadoff’s family” (18), which foregrounds her own association with “the East.” Throughout the novel, Melville’s Confidence-Man puts his victims to the test of Christian love (agape or caritas) by cajoling them into giving him a few dollars, and then he disappears and assumes another disguise to trick his next victim. Likewise, Alcott’s confidence-woman puts her own victims to the test of love as Eros by leading all the young men around her to fall for her, only to punish them for their naivety and self-centeredness. In propounding such a cynical view of love, Jean stands out as a modern Diogenes,2 the Greek philosopher and founder of the cynic school who claimed to be a citizen of the world and often went about carrying a lamp during the day as he was searching for an honest man, he said. In Melville’s novel, the connection with Diogenes is established by the Confidence-Man’s most formidable opponent, Pitch, the only one who manages to identify the same crook under three successive disguises: “You are Diogenes, Diogenes in disguise. I say—Diogenes masquerading as a cosmopolitan” (144). In Behind a Mask, Jean’s cynical3 or—some would say—pragmatic views on love are first evidenced when she chooses to read to Bella from history books, not romances or novels (118-119). She is more interested in actively “charming prince[s]” than she is in passively waiting for Prince Charming (119), as suggested by the twist given to the expression by Bella when she exclaims: “Wait for me a minute, I must run to Mamma, and then we will go on with this charming prince” (25). The whole scene is significantly overheard by Sir John, the prince whom Jean endeavors to charm, and the young woman’s preference for history over romanticism is not lost on him.

7In the “last scene” (108), as Jean herself calls it, the young woman’s apparition mirrors that of the Cosmopolitan’s first entrance onto the narrative stage of Melville’s novel: “A soft voice uttered the words, and an apparition appeared at the door, which made all start and recoil with amazement—Jean Muir leaning on the arm of Sir John” (Alcott, Behind a Mask 106, emphasis mine); “From these uncordial reveries [Pitch] is roused by a cordial slap on the shoulder, accompanied by a spicy volume of tobacco-smoke, out of which came a voice, sweet as a seraph’s… ‘Hands off!’ cried the bachelor” (Melville 135-136, emphasis mine). She eventually leaves the baffled company in complete disarray now that they realize she has achieved her aims, and she exits the room in the company of “the old man” (as he is recurrently called), the honest, gullible husband who remains blind to her guiles and whom she leads away into the darkness in a scene which ironically brings to mind the final chapter of Melville’s novel, a chapter which concludes with the Cosmopolitan fooling an old man into believing that a mere chamber-pot could save him from drowning before “kindly” (251) leading him away to his state-room as the steamboat (significantly called the Fidèle) is now plunged into the dark. The intertextual connection is also reinforced by the echoes between the new bride proudly entering the room in the last chapter and Melville’s comparison of the Cosmopolitan with a “bridegroom tripping to the bridal chamber” (240) as he walks into the cabin where the old man is reading the Bible.

  • 4 Jean’s powers as a mesmerist have been remarkably analyzed by Theresa Strouth Gaul who argues that, (...)

8Like the Confidence-Man, Jean launches a charm offensive with all the people she meets. The word “charm” occurs on almost every page and comes to denote an actual power to cast spells and bewitch all the people around her: when Jean starts playing the piano, “she charm[s] them all by the magic of this spell” (6); she then assumes “a charming air of maidenly timidity and artlessness” (13) to lure Sir John into her trap; after the tableau vivant scene, Gerald’s “distrust [melts] under the new charm” when Jean reminds him of her status as a servant under the beautiful “dress [and] borrowed splendour of [her] jewels” (57); when Gerald is wounded by his brother, Jean ministers to the needs of the sick man and sits by his bedside holding his hand while mesmerizing him (41-42).4 At one stage, Jean tells a woeful tale to Gerald in order to elicit his compassion, a tale whose details are withheld from the reader, however, as the narrator focuses on the visual aspect of the scene instead (75). In doing so, Alcott employs a narrative device that Melville had used most effectively before her when reporting the conversation between the Man with the Weed (one of the Confidence-Man’s avatars) and Mr. Roberts, the good merchant who ends up being fooled by the crook while the reader can only ponder the contents of a tale that had such a powerful effect. That her charm results from a highly self-conscious strategy is made clear in one of the letters she sends to her friend Hortense to tell her of her early achievements: “His estate is his idol; I praised it with a few artless compliments to himself, and he was charmed. The cadet of the family adores horses. I risked my neck to pet his beast, and he was charmed. The little girl is romantic about flowers; I made a posy and was sentimental, and she was charmed” (102, italics in the original).

3. An Original Character

  • 5 The novel was first published in 1866 under the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser (...)

9The lexical field of acting, performance, art, and drama is so pervasive that one might be tempted to see Jean as a mere impostor whose talents as an actress allow her to hide her true evil nature. I would argue, however, that such a reading would not do justice to Alcott’s much more complex characterization process. Taking her cue from Melville, maybe, Alcott chose to probe the interaction between truth and fiction with a view to exposing women’s predicament in the society of her times: Is there any “true self” behind the mask or can the mask itself show the true face of the character? As they have no choice but to resort to role-playing throughout their lives, can women ever be themselves? Who is “behind a mask”? And why “a” mask? Does it suggest that there are many varieties of disguise, many costumes that we put on and take off depending on the occasion or circumstance? Can it also be read as Alcott’s reference to her own status as an author hiding behind the mask of a pseudonym5? As implied by Melville, trust is enough to turn the fictional self into an actuality. All it takes is an act of belief. This is what Lord Coventry does in the end, and the omniscient narrator provides proleptic hints that his young wife will indeed care for him and do her utmost to make him happy in this new role of hers. When Sir John proposes to Jean she asks him:

“Promise me to be faithful to the last—to believe in me, to trust me, protect and love me, in spite of all misfortunes, faults, and follies. I will be true as steel to you, and make your life as happy as it deserves to be”… Her solemn air touched Sir John… and, taking the hand she gave him in both of his, he promised all she asked, and kept that promise to the end. 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 after-years. (86, emphasis mine)

10This rare instance of narrative intrusion highlighting the performative function of both promises clearly foreshadows the ultimate victory of the governess while testifying to Alcott’s desire to deflect her reader’s attention away from the storyline towards the mechanism of performance itself. The fine line between truth and fiction is sometimes hard to draw. When Jean assumes the role of the angelic nurse caring for Gerald, she does turn out to be an expert and to have a soothing effect on her patient. Her many accomplishments stand out in her interaction with others: singing, playing music, reading, teaching, caring for others, etc. These are not fake. She even “shrug[s] her shoulders with a true French shrug” (11) and speaks French to herself when alone in her room, undisguised, so is French part of herself or a mere disguise? One would be hard pressed to pinpoint the true nature of the governess who does not only perform many roles that work like a charm but who also comes to fully embody the part she has cast herself in. At the same time, she turns into a nemesis when she avenges wronged women whose unfaithful lovers have been lured by temptresses, in this case the temptress that she was herself impersonating when pretending to seduce Gerald. She is expert at creating pictures, bringing to life typical feminine attitudes for which the men around her inevitably fall. For instance, as she strikes another pose embroidering leaves and flowers when sitting in the recess of the main room, she makes “a charming picture of all that is most womanly and winning; a picture which few men’s eyes would not have liked to rest upon” (73). Interestingly enough, one of her main functions also appears to consist in helping others drop their own masks, as acknowledged by Gerald when he claims that his “indolent indifference is but the mask under which [he] conceal[s] [his] real self” (59). Her mere presence produces indefinable changes in all the people around her. She consequently stands out as an original character, as defined by Melville in Chapter XLIV of The Confidence-Man:

The character sheds not its characteristic on its surroundings, whereas, the original character, essentially such, is like a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it—everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it…, so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things. (237-238)

  • 6 Melville scholar Tom Quirk argues that Melville “transform[ed] his confidence man from a simple kna (...)

11Although one might be tempted to think of Jean as the intruder who comes to disrupt the peace and order of the place, she actually uncovers the seamy side of a family whose perfect harmony is no more than a sham. Instead of bringing about destruction, she leads each of the Coventrys to confront the truth of their own self and thus creates a new order instead.6 In her first scene, for instance, the drab, “colourless” (6), plain-looking young woman has the power to bring out colors in others by revealing their true selves beneath the artificial veneer of their hypocritical lives: “[Gerald] colored and, for the first time in his life, looked abashed” (7). As pointed out before, she also acquires colors at each stage of her adventure and the metamorphosis from a drab caterpillar to a gorgeous butterfly (one of Melville’s structuring metaphors in The Confidence-Man) appears to be complete when Ned tells his brother of his love for the governess, though the transformation admittedly operates on the level of representation only, through the eyes of a bewitched lover: “Jean Muir’s character was painted in glowing colors” (38).

12In doing so, Alcott initiates a reflection upon performance in both life and art. While she admittedly employs highly conventional devices (mistaken identities, incriminating letters, a grand finale gathering everybody to uncover the identity of the culprit, etc.), she also skillfully highlights the artificial nature of such devices by drawing her reader’s attention to the epistemological implications of the performance in the three key scenes mentioned above (the premature disclosure of Jean’s real intent in Chapter One, the tableau vivant scene in Chapter Four and the double promise performed by the future bride and groom in Chapter Seven). Jean herself turns sentimental conventions (a romantic setting, a lovers’ tryst in the moonlight, roses) to her advantage as she manipulates Gerald: “To make sure that he received my version of the story first, I told him a romantic story of S.’s persecution, and he believed it. This I followed up by a moonlight episode behind a rose hedge, and sent the young gentleman home in a half-dazed condition. What fools men are!” (104). The first part of this passage reveals her to be a crafty storyteller who is adept at imposing her own narrative authority and directing the course of the plot. Her conclusion nicely encapsulates the sum of her teachings while pointing to the ultimate aim of her self-appointed mission: to expose the stupidity, naivety and gullibility of men. Ironically, this fragment is part of a letter which Ned, the younger son, managed to retrieve and which he is now using to disclose Jean’s real face to his whole family. He thus self-importantly poses as a storyteller himself (“let me finish this story,” he says, 105), unaware that Jean has once more superimposed her own master narrative onto this one and that she will soon triumphantly enter the same room leaning on the arm of her husband.

4. Conclusion: “Something further may follow of this Masquerade”7

  • 7 These are the last words of The Confidence-Man (251), an ambiguous statement in which some critics (...)

13A number of literary critics have explored the performance of femininity that lies at the heart of Alcott’s novella. Historian Karen Halttunen specifically connects this masquerade with “a rebellion against the cult of true womanhood” (242), implying that there is such a thing as a true self that can be uncovered beneath the mask. Judith Fetterley argues that Jean’s story “articulates a radical critique of the cultural constructs of ‘femininity’ and ‘little womanhood,’ exposing them as roles women must play, masks they must put on in order to survive” (2). Melanie Dawson contends that Jean can be seen as a “subversive social agitator wielding her power in what often appear as problematic and even reprehensible ways, a figure who, in her disruptive potential, challenges the normative role of a ‘domestic’ little woman by pointing out that all women’s roles are assumed” (“A Woman’s Power” 22). In her analysis of the story as a subversive re-telling of “Beauty and the Beast,” Christine Butterworth-McDermott posits that Jean incarnates both Beauty and the Beast, with the latter showing through under the disguise of the demure, devoted governess (“The initial scene does hint… that the Beast exists behind her disguise”, 34). She goes on to argue, however, that “[what] seems to be a happy ending is actually a trap in which Jean loses her ‘woman’s power.’ Perhaps she gains a sense of greater power through her wealth and position, but this does not seem likely. In fact, the opposite seems true as Jean is actually transformed into the weaker vessel she used as a disguise” (43). Lennox Keyser assesses the ending along similar lines: “the prize [Jean] wins, marriage to Sir John Coventry, condemns her to play in earnest the part she assumed in bitter jest” (57).

  • 8 Worthy of note is the fact that Jean’s most powerful impersonation in the tableaux vivants is actua (...)

14As we have seen, however, Alcott deconstructs any such possibility of uncovering the “true” self behind the mask. Instead, she delineates a character who has no stable core to speak of, a character whose only identity lies in the succession of postures and poses that she adopts, right until the end of the novella and possibly beyond since Alcott makes it clear that Jean’s later life as Lady Coventry is only another performance that might be followed by many more after Sir John’s death. While the members of the Coventry family all think they have now gained insight into the true nature of the confidence-woman thanks to the letters Ned managed to get hold of, we might still ponder the portion of fictitious truth that this new identity contains, exactly like the old man who, at the end of Melville’s novel, proudly explains to the Confidence-Man the meaning of apocrypha: “‘Ah!’ cried the old man, brightening up, ‘now I know. Look,’ turning the leaves forward and back, till all the Old Testament lay flat on one side, and all the New Testament flat on the other, while in his fingers he supported vertically the portion between, ‘look, sir, all this to the right is certain truth, and all this to the left is certain truth, but all I hold in my hand here is apocrypha’” (241).8

  • 9 Jean writes to her friend Hortense that Lord Coventry “is a worthy old man, simple as a child, hone (...)
  • 10 Such a reading is substantiated by a number of clues scattered throughout the novel, ranging from J (...)

15It seems to me that, instead of imprisoning her heroine within the role of the “kindly little woman” (41), Alcott paves the way for more scheming and manipulation under the disguise of Lady Coventry. After all, Jean’s invisible friend Hortense is still there, behind the scenes, waiting to reap the fruits of Jean’s victory.9 Far from being a mere artificial instrument of revelation, the character of Hortense creates a shadowy zone at the heart of the narrative, one which might account for Jean’s complete lack of interest in the young men around her, for her choice to marry an (impotent?) elderly man instead, and for the castrating gesture she is clearly associated with when impersonating the Biblical Judith beheading Holofernes.10 Jean’s final impersonation of Queen Bess in the last tableau consequently mirrors her own “last scene” (108), as she calls it, one in which she not only “emphasizes the potential of female leadership for the building of a better society” (Stojanovic 95) but also proudly assumes the power of a Virgin Queen who will have nothing to do with the male sex. One may therefore safely assume that something further may indeed follow from Jean’s “last scene.”

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Alcott, Louisa May. Behind a Mask or a Woman’s Power. 1866. Foreword by Doris Lessing. Hesperus Classics, 2004.

---. Rose in Bloom. Hart and Rawlinson, 1876.

Butterworth-McDermott, Christine. “Behind a Mask of Beauty: Alcott’s Beast in Disguise.” American Transcendental Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, 2004, pp. 25-48.

Champion, H.J.E. “Seductive Snakes and Asexual Angels: Queer Undercurrents in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ‘Desert Sands.’” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 2019, Accessed 15 Oct. 2021.

Dawson, Melanie. “A Woman’s Power: Alcott’s Behind a Mask and the Usefulness of Dramatic Literacies in the Home.” American Transcendental Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 1 1997, pp. 19-40.

Fetterley, Judith. “Impersonating ‘Little Women’: The Radicalism of Alcott’s Behind a Mask.” Women’s Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 1983, pp.1-14.

Gaul, Theresa Strouth. “Trance-Formations: Mesmerism and ‘A Woman’s Power’ in Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask.Women’s Studies: An Inter-disciplinary Journal, vol. 32, no. 7, 2003, pp. 835-851.

Halttunen, Karen. “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott.” Feminist Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 1984, pp. 233-254.

Lennox Keyser, Elizabeth. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Tennessee UP, 1993.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. 1857. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Quirk, Tom. Melville’s Confidence Man: From Knave to Knight. Missouri UP, 1982.

Stojanovic, Nevena. “Like Eliza Rachel Félix: Enacting Change in Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask.” Otherness: Essays and Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2014, pp. 71-103.

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1 This is how the Cosmopolitan introduces himself to his first acquaintance on board the Fidèle in Chapter XXIV of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade: “A cosmopolitan, a catholic man; who, being such, ties himself to no narrow tailor or teacher, but federates, in heart as in costume, something of the various gallantries of men under various suns. Oh, one roams not over the gallant globe in vain. Bred by it, is a fraternal and fusing feeling. No man is a stranger. You accost anybody. Warm and confiding, you wait not for measured advances” (137-138).

2 The expression is actually borrowed from another novel by Alcott, Rose in Bloom, in which Rose advises Mac to “be a modern Diogenes going about with spectacles instead of a lantern in search, not of an honest man, but a perfect woman” (224).

3 Doris Lessing opines that “a more cynical tale there never was. Money and security are the goals, love doesn’t come into it” (Alcott, Behind a Mask x).

4 Jean’s powers as a mesmerist have been remarkably analyzed by Theresa Strouth Gaul who argues that, “By collapsing the roles of mesmerist and sentimental women into one figure… Alcott revises normative heterosexual pairings and experiments with a sexually powerful female character” (835).

5 The novel was first published in 1866 under the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser draws interesting parallels between Jean and Alcott: “Both Jean, as little woman, and Alcott, as the creator of little women, are revealed as consummate actresses—the one posing as angel in the house, the other as angel in the house of fiction” (56).

6 Melville scholar Tom Quirk argues that Melville “transform[ed] his confidence man from a simple knave to a sort of knight-errant of confidence” (4-5). To those who thought that the novel expresses Melville’s scathing denunciation of Christian values, Quirk contends that it “is not altogether dark and bitter. The object of its consistent scorn is neither confidence men nor gullible humanity nor religious faith, but complacency” (149-150). Much the same could actually be said of Alcott’s protagonist in Behind a Mask.

7 These are the last words of The Confidence-Man (251), an ambiguous statement in which some critics have seen the promise of a sequel which Melville might have had in mind at the time he was writing his novel.

8 Worthy of note is the fact that Jean’s most powerful impersonation in the tableaux vivants is actually inspired by a story from Apocrypha, that of Judith and Holofernes as related in “The Book of Judith.” Alcott’s playful use of so many intertextual layers leads the reader to wonder about the possibility to pinpoint the “true” identity of the young woman: are we entitled to find “certain truth” (i.e. absolute truth) in some of these masks or only “a certain truth”?

9 Jean writes to her friend Hortense that Lord Coventry “is a worthy old man, simple as a child, honest as the day, and generous as a prince” and she concludes: “I shall be a happy woman if I win him, and you shall share my good fortune; so wish me success” (103).

10 Such a reading is substantiated by a number of clues scattered throughout the novel, ranging from Jean wearing a “fragrant posy of violets in her belt” (40)—a flower long associated with same-sex love—when she appears in Chapter III to the name of her mysterious friend, Hortense, in which one might see a hint at the scandalous Hortense Mancini who ran away from her abusive husband, dressed and behaved like a man, and had various affairs with both men and women, all of which were faithfully recorded in the autobiography she published in 1675. One might also better understand Gerald’s “inveterate aversion to the whole tribe” (3) if we consider the possible affinities “between the word ‘tribe’ and ‘tribadism,’ meaning ‘lesbian’ from 1600 onwards and implying ‘lesbian sexual activity’ from the 1800s onwards,” as noted by H.J.E. Champion whom I also wish to thank for drawing my attention to the historical figure of Hortense Mancini.

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Electronic reference

Stéphanie Durrans, Performing Womanhood: Fictions of Love in Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a MaskEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 26 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Stéphanie Durrans

Stéphanie Durrans is Professor of American Literature at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne, France. She is the author of The Influence of French Culture on Willa Cather: Intertextual References and Resonances (2007) and of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia: A Winter’s Journey (2016). She has published widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-century women writers, with a special focus on questions of intertextuality and transatlantic literary relationships.

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