Published by Penguin on 1998
Goodreads | Buy on Amazon
Louisa May Alcott, who spent much of her childhood amid an intellectual circle that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, embarked on her own literary efforts at an early age. Her recently discovered first novel, The Inheritance, written when Alcott was just 17, offers readers a fascinating look at the birth of a remarkable career.Influenced by the melodrama of the contemporary theater, the sentimental romances she read as a child, and the popular gothic novels of the time, Alcott weaves a tale far removed from the reality of her everyday life in Boston. The Inheritance, set in an English country manor, is the story of Edith Adelon, an Italian orphan brought to England by Lord Hamilton as a companion for his children. With a charm reminiscent of Jane Austen's novels, Alcott's plot sets love and courtesy against depravity and dishonor -- and with the help of a secret inheritance, allows virtue to prevail.In their Introduction, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy relate their fortuitous discovery of Alcott's manuscript draft of The Inheritance (preserved at the Houghton Library of Harvard). They explore the forces -- both literary and personal -- that shaped the novel, and study how it foreshadowed Alcott's later work.
This is Louisa May Alcott’s very first book, written 20 years before Little Women. it reminds me a lot of Jane Austen’s first novella, Love and Friendship. I think Alcott was very much influenced by the sentimental genre because The Inheritance is very much a sentimental kind of text.
The Sentimental Novel
What is the sentimental genre, you ask? It’s a genre of novel very popular in the eighteenth century that focuses on sentiment and sensibility. It often focuses on the “underdog” characters, mostly orphans. Oh my, the orphans. I’ve come across some that focus on criminal but the orphan is by far the most popular, especially in English sentimental texts. American sentimental literature focuses a lot (and I mean A LOT) on seduction. Susanna Rowson’s novel, Charlotte Temple (1792) is perhaps the most famous sentimental novel about seduction. Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette is a close second. The sentimental genre evolved into “domestic fiction” and the conduct novel in the nineteenth century. Conduct novels were often meant for young women to read because people feared novels in general. They were afraid women reading seduction novels would succumb to seduction themselves. Conduct novels helped rally the rise of the novel because they attempted to debunk that myth. Women could and often did read without running off with the first rake who nodded in their general direction. Fiction could teach as well as entertain.
I could keep going here. This is basically what I study in my PhD program so I have a wealth of knowledge on the subject if you’d like to chat. But, there’s an overview of the sentimental genre.
Why The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott Doesn’t Suck Despite it Being Her First Novel
I’ve seen a few one and two star reviews of this book calling it garbage. I think if we can recognize that Alcott is imitating a very specific and very popular genre for the time-period, the text itself becomes a bit better.
With that being said, the story was surprisingly well crafted for being Alcott’s first foray into fiction. It’s about a wealthy family who takes in an Italian orphan named Edith, who grows up with the family and is young Amy’s companion and teacher. Edith is modest, sensible, smart, beautiful, and good-hearted. Cousin Ida hates her. When Lord Percy comes to visit the family and is instantly smitten by Edith’s charm and beauty. [Don’t be alarmed or stop reading here. This is a convention of the genre]. Ida vows to bring Edith down. Why should Edith get all the attention when Ida is clearly higher born? Like the description says, a secret inheritance allows virtue to prevail. I think you can get the picture here.
I think I might have enjoyed this novel a little more than others because of my interest in the sentimental. Yes, there are “convenient” plot-points but that’s not the point. The real reason the sentimental is so important is because at the heart of each novel there is a message. Alcott’s message is about greed, wealth, and loyalty. A few of her characters are shells: Amy and her brother, most notably. Ida is a stereotype but the story does need a villain. I found that Edith and Lord Percy are the most “full” characters. They have deeper motivations and feelings than the others.
There is drama and romance and betrayal, but there is also a happy ending that solidifies Alcott’s message about greed, wealth, and loyalty. Greed never wins. A loyal friend is worth more than any amount of money. A person can be more wealthy than they seem. Though basic lessons, Alcott presents them well. Though The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott is not her best work, it is, nonetheless, important when considering Alcott’s body of work. It may seem trivial that she started out in the sentimental genre, but I think it lays a great foundation for the rest of her writing career.
© 2012 – 2014, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.