Behind a Mask Discussion

picture of books on shelves, including several titles by the Brontes and Jane Austen

Following up on our earlier plan, the pseudo-romance book club held our discussion of Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask (1866) last night. You can relive the entire thing on Twitter via the #MuirFTW hashtag, but here are some (spoilery!) highlights:

  • Is Behind a Mask a genre romance? The general tenor was no, because Jean Muir is too crafty and selfish (too “unlikeable”) to be a romance heroine and because of the ending. While the novel’s conclusion is positive for Jean, it isn’t unambiguously happy. The ending has been brought about by her plans, not by love.
  • I mentioned I once had a professor who insisted we ought to at least consider whether Jean’s words at the end are sincere. He argued Jean was made into one kind of creature by her life to this point, but having achieved security, maybe she would be a good wife to Sir John–or maybe my professor’s point was at the very least, we’re too craven and jaded in the twenty-first century to ever believe in the power of sentiment. We can’t believe she’s being sincere, but that’s our problem/historical perspective. I found this eye-rolling, but I’m just throwing it out there.
  • We talked about parallels between Behind a Mask and Little Women. I initially asked if Jean was like Jo, but Clarissa pointed out Amy might be a better comparison in that they both perform femininity. Which Alcott was the “real” Alcott, the sentimental domestic novelist of Little Women or the sensationalist writing pot boilers like Behind a Mask?
  • The parallels to Jane Eyre also briefly came up: the governesses, the tableaux vivant scenes, and the use of master/slave metaphors.
  • Another text for comparison to Behind a Mask: Gone Girl (which I haven’t read, so no spoilers!).
  • We talked about Behind a Mask’s serialization and how that might have shaped the text. The pacing is fast, almost every chapter ends with a hook, and the point-of-view skips around to give us snippets of everyone’s interiority without developing one perspective.
  • When, if ever, does Jean tell the truth?
  • Is Jean a femme fatale? Yes, but someone pointed out Jean does have a positive influence on Bella and she forces Gerald to get Ned’s commission, so she isn’t wholly bad.
  • What is manipulation? Is trying to influence someone else manipulative? Is there anyone in the text who doesn’t manipulate?
  • Is Behind a Mask feminist, and if so, how so? The answer seemed to be yes, because Jean doesn’t die and she achieves her goal. She takes the limited tools available to a mid-nineteenth-century woman (the same tools Lucia is attempting to use to get Gerald), but uses them better.
  • We wanted to know what happened after the end, specifically if Gerald and Lucia would marry, if Jean and Sir John would be happy, and if Jean was going to make Bella’s season completely wild.

It was a very fun discussion! I’m in the middle of a bunch of writing goals, so let’s hold off on scheduling our next book club. But if anyone has suggestions, I’d definitely be up for another, maybe in the autumn. We’re looking for books that aren’t too long (350 pages at the high end), are in the public domain (so published prior to 1923), and touch on themes that would be interesting to contemporary romance readers, even if the book doesn’t technically have an HEA. We’d talked about reading Hannah Foster’s The Coquette, but it is depressing, so I’m not married to that idea.

2 thoughts on “Behind a Mask Discussion

  1. Since I missed the chat, I’ll post my thoughts here: Jean read to me as Becky Sharp if she were taking a page from the Jane Eyre playbook of snaring a husband. I really enjoyed how the test makes clear that she’s manipulating everyone, but doesn’t judge her for that. And I thought it was interesting that we don’t really get her deep POV until she’s very close to realizing her plans.

    As far as it being a romance, probably not, but I would guess that Jean and Sir John will be tolerably happy. She’ll play the doting younger wife, he’ll lap it up and shower her with affection, and when he dies, she’ll be a very happy widow. There are worse marriages. (And she does have a small, brief attack of conscience, so she’s not completely heartless.)

    But I did love Jean. She’s my kind of protagonist. :)

    1. I knew you’d love Jean! I can completely imagining her reading Jane Eyre backstage and plotting how to use the governess schtick to her advantage. And yes, I think she and Sir John will be fairly happy, even if she makes life for everyone around her uber dramatic.

      The interesting thing about the letters that gave her POV is that we don’t know if they’re accurate. We don’t know a thing about Hortense (or whatever the friend’s name was, I can’t remember). Ned and Gerald took the letters at face value, but maybe Jean felt more ambiguity than she was voicing, etc. The letters themselves need to be rhetorically situated. At the very least, in that scene with Gerald where Jean says she’s a monster, I think she’s being honest. That’s how she sees herself.

      I really would love for someone to write a romance novel based on Behind a Mask and/or to write a sequel in which Jean coaches Bella on the marriage market. Oh, it would be **delicious**.

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