When a French actress becomes a English governess, things go awry. Obviously.
Before Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (yes, I am talking about Little Women by Louisa May Alcott), there was Jean Muir - a professional French actress turned English governess, a main character of Alcott’s novella Behind a mask.
BEHIND A MASK is a delightfully twisted tale starring a governess who weaponizes sexism so effectively that nobody guesses her true aim.
The novella was originally published in 1866 under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. Many literary critics have taken interest in the novella because its material was controversial for its time, and Behind a Mask is considered Alcott’s masterpiece in the genre of sensation fiction.
III. PASSION A PIQUE
For several weeks the most monotonous tranquillity seemed to reign at Coventry House, and yet, unseen, unsuspected, a storm was gathering. The arrival of Miss Muir seemed to produce a change in everyone, though no one could have explained how or why. Nothing could be more unobtrusive and retiring than her manners. She was devoted to Bella, who soon adored her, and was only happy when in her society. She ministered in many ways to Mrs. Coventry’s comfort, and that lady declared there never was such a nurse. She amused, interested and won Edward with her wit and womanly sympathy. She made Lucia respect and envy her for her accomplishments, and piqued indolent Gerald by her persistent avoidance of him, while Sir John was charmed with her respectful deference and the graceful little attentions she paid him in a frank and artless way, very winning to the lonely old man. The very servants liked her; and instead of being, what most governesses are, a forlorn creature hovering between superiors and inferiors, Jean Muir was the life of the house, and the friend of all but two.
Lucia disliked her, and Coventry distrusted her; neither could exactly say why, and neither owned the feeling, even to themselves. Both watched her covertly yet found no shortcoming anywhere. Meek, modest, faithful, and invariably sweet-tempered—they could complain of nothing and wondered at their own doubts, though they could not banish them.
It soon came to pass that the family was divided, or rather that two members were left very much to themselves. Pleading timidity, Jean Muir kept much in Bella’s study and soon made it such a pleasant little nook that Ned and his mother, and often Sir John, came in to enjoy the music, reading, or cheerful chat which made the evenings so gay. Lucia at first was only too glad to have her cousin to herself, and he too lazy to care what went on about him. But presently he wearied of her society, for she was not a brilliant girl, and possessed few of those winning arts which charm a man and steal into his heart. Rumors of the merry-makings that went on reached him and made him curious to share them; echoes of fine music went sounding through the house, as he lounged about the empty drawing room; and peals of laughter reached him while listening to Lucia’s grave discourse.
She soon discovered that her society had lost its charm, and the more eagerly she tried to please him, the more signally she failed. Before long Coventry fell into a habit of strolling out upon the terrace of an evening, and amusing himself by passing and repassing the window of Bella’s room, catching glimpses of what was going on and reporting the result of his observations to Lucia, who was too proud to ask admission to the happy circle or to seem to desire it.
“I shall go to London tomorrow, Lucia,” Gerald said one evening, as he came back from what he called “a survey,” looking very much annoyed.
“To London?” exclaimed his cousin, surprised.
“Yes, I must bestir myself and get Ned his commission, or it will be all over with him.”
“How do you mean?”
“He is falling in love as fast as it is possible for a boy to do it. That girl has bewitched him, and he will make a fool of himself very soon, unless I put a stop to it.”
“I was afraid she would attempt a flirtation. These persons always do, they are such a mischief-making race.”
“Ah, but there you are wrong, as far as little Muir is concerned. She does not flirt, and Ned has too much sense and spirit to be caught by a silly coquette. She treats him like an elder sister, and mingles the most attractive friendliness with a quiet dignity that captivates the boy. I’ve been watching them, and there he is, devouring her with his eyes, while she reads a fascinating novel in the most fascinating style. Bella and Mamma are absorbed in the tale, and see nothing; but Ned makes himself the hero, Miss Muir the heroine, and lives the love scene with all the ardor of a man whose heart has just waked up. Poor lad! Poor lad!”
Lucia looked at her cousin, amazed by the energy with which he spoke, the anxiety in his usually listless face. The change became him, for it showed what he might be, making one regret still more what he was. Before she could speak, he was gone again, to return presently, laughing, yet looking a little angry.
“What now?” she asked.
“‘Listeners never hear any good of themselves’ is the truest of proverbs. I stopped a moment to look at Ned, and heard the following flattering remarks. Mamma is gone, and Ned was asking little Muir to sing that delicious barcarole she gave us the other evening.
“‘Not now, not here,’ she said.
“‘Why not? You sang it in the drawing room readily enough,’ said Ned, imploringly.
“‘That is a very different thing,’ and she looked at him with a little shake of the head, for he was folding his hands and doing the passionate pathetic.
“‘Come and sing it there then,’ said innocent Bella. ‘Gerald likes your voice so much, and complains that you will never sing to him.’
“‘He never asks me,’ said Muir, with an odd smile.
“She silently excepted his challenge to the tournament so often held between man and woman - a tournament where the keen tongue is the lance, pride the shield, passion the fiery steed, and the hardest heart the winner of the prize.”
― Louisa May Alcott