A DOUBLE LIFE; By Louisa May Alcott; Little, Brown, 256 pages; $17.95.This five-story collection edited by Madeleine B. Stern contains stories not previously attributed to the author of "Little Women."
Published in literary tabloids during the 1860s, Alcott penned short fiction primarily to make money to support her father and family. Alcott's correspondence and her journal have helped researchers identify the melodramas in "A Double Life" as her own.
Exotic settings, intrigue and romance combine to make all of these pieces easy to read, but they are not without their underlying social messages.
In "A Pair of Eyes, or Modern Magic," Alcott reveals her feminist sympathies.
The protaganist, Max Erdmann, is mesmerized at first sight by the eyes of the woman he later marries, Agatha Eure. Ultimately their relationship is reduced to a series of telepathic commands through which Agatha controls Max.
Agatha dies but is able to continue her control, dominating Max's thoughts from the grave.
"Taming a Tartar" also reverses the convention that women should obey their husbands unconditionally. Heroine Sybil Varna uses her moral strength and common sense to "tame" the Russian barbarian Alexis who later becomes her spouse.
"The Fate of the Forrests" illustrates another such power struggle, but this time the male is victorious, at least on the surface. Ursula Forrest is compelled to marry Felix Stahl because she fears for the life of her cousin and lover Evan. But her heart remains aloof, a fact that leads Stahl to kill himself and frame Ursula for his death.
Alcott's lifelong admiration of the theater and of Shakespeare is evident throughout the collection.
A portrait of Lady MacBeth dominates "A Pair of Eyes," and the love relationship between Ariel March and Philip Southesk in "Ariel, A Legend of Lighthouse" parallels the love triangle in "The Tempest." In "A Double Tragedy," the narrative action mirrors "Romeo and Juliet." Finally, "Taming a Tartar" is obviously a parody of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew."
Alcott's skillful narratives make these stories timeless and at the very least a pleasurable read. And while their uncovering might not be earth-shattering for Alcott scholars, the stories do shed a little more light on her secretive life. - Heather Clancy (UPI).