I found this refreshing novella by chance at the library, and I nearly missed it, because the cover was so shockingly pink, with girly boa feathers and a Carnival mask with fake diamonds that even in an airport novel I would have found clichés. Yet inside, even if there were clichés galore, there was nothing pink at all, but rather dark. It’s one of Alcott’s lesser known gothic novellas, where a Scottish governess deceives the entire family where she works, making the sons abandon their virtuous girlfriends and eventually marrying their uncle, an old Lord, by the only power of her lies and stratagems. It’s really refreshing, because we’ve all read of virtuous governesses, starting with Jane Eyre, making good marriages by sheer strength of character, despite having no money. Jane Muir, Alcott’s governess, draws a cynical, yet perhaps more realistic portrait of the situation. It’s not as witty as Austen’s Lady Susan, but it’s just as amoral. I found it rather comforting from Alcott, whose Little Women I indeed loved as a child, but which I found a tad too virtuous and Victorian “angels in the house” for my adult taste.
I didn’t really see Behind the Mask as a feminist manifesto, that women without money or connections could seek fortune and power through whatever cunning they had. I rather took it as a slight raillery of the Victorian British, for whom the notion of class is so important that they’re ready to forego any sincere judgment of someone if she pretends to be of aristocratic descent. The Victorian governess is the archetypal woman with a blurred social position, intermediary between servants and masters. Only because she has a good breeding and an education, can she claim not to be just another servant. She’s bound to be suspected of loose morals. Alcott just exaggerates all the fears linked to the governess figure. Yes, Jane Muir has bad morals, yes, she’s not even as beautiful, educated, and young as she pretends to be, yes, she’s in your home to steal the men’s hearts and take all the money, and she wins in the end, ah ah! Not exactly the kind of tale that a Victorian mother would like to put in her daughter’s hands after she’s finished reading Little Women!