Until recently I hadn’t realised what a diverse writer Louisa May Alcott was. Like many people I read Little Women and its sequels as a child – and Little Women is still one of my favourite books – but I never thought about exploring her other fiction until now. A Long Fatal Love Chase is a suspense novel, written in 1866 but never published in Alcott’s lifetime (it was eventually published in 1995). I didn’t even know Alcott had written books like this, so I’m glad I have now been enlightened!
Rosamond Vivian, eighteen years old at the beginning of the novel, lives with her cold-hearted grandfather in a mansion on a remote island. Bored and lonely, feeling unloved by her grandfather, Rosamond longs for some adventure in her life. When she loses her temper with the old man one day and tells him she would gladly sell her soul to Satan for a year of freedom, it seems that her wishes are about to come true.
That same day, Phillip Tempest arrives (during a storm, of course) to do some business with Rosamond’s grandfather. Tempest, who we are told resembles a painting of the demon Mephistopheles, is handsome, charming and surrounded by an aura of mystery. Rosamond is instantly attracted to him and soon Tempest sweeps her away with him on his yacht. But Rosamond’s happiness doesn’t last for long. When she makes some shocking discoveries about Tempest she decides to leave him…but it seems Tempest is not prepared to let her go.
The rest of the story is, as the title suggests, a long and fatal love chase in which Rosamond flees across France, Germany and Italy from chateau to convent to asylum with Tempest never far behind. The tension builds and builds; almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger as Rosamond finds herself in danger yet again. With Tempest growing more and more obsessed and increasingly devious in the methods he uses to track down her hiding places, will Rosamond ever be able to escape?
As you’ll be able to tell by now, A Long Fatal Love Chase is not like Little Women at all, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’re not expecting it to be (which I wasn’t). Just be aware of its sensational nature and be prepared for something over-the-top and melodramatic. There’s a lot of symbolism too and as well as the Mephistopheles reference I mentioned earlier there are many other allusions to mythology, art and literature, particularly Shakespeare – with a character whose name is Tempest, I suppose that’s not surprising!
If you have read Little Women and remember Jo writing her novels, it’s easy to imagine Jo sitting in her garret writing a story like this and persuading Meg, Beth and Amy to act out some of the scenes with her! It wasn’t the best book of this type that I’ve read, especially in comparison to the more complex sensation novels written during the same period by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Ellen Wood, but it was still exciting, entertaining and also quite daring for its time, with its themes of obsession and stalking. It has a lot in common with early gothic novels by authors such as Ann Radcliffe too, though with the advantages that this one is easier to read and Rosamond is a stronger character than the heroines of Radcliffe’s books.
Apart from Rosamond, the other characters in the novel are less well-developed and tend to represent either the good side of human nature (the priest who becomes Rosamond’s friend and confidant) or the bad (Tempest). From the moment he first appears in the novel, Tempest is such an obvious villain and there are so many hints and so much foreshadowing, that it’s easy for us, as the reader, to know that he is not to be trusted. Rosamond is a young, naïve girl (though not without a lot of courage and spirit) being taken advantage of by a ruthless and manipulative older man, and it takes her a lot longer than it takes the reader to discover that something is not right. But despite so much of the plot being predictable, some of the twists did still take me by surprise and the ending was not quite what I had expected either!
If you’ve enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart – although they were written almost 100 years apart I thought they had a very similar feel.