In 1866, Louisa May Alcott toured Europe for the first time; being poor, she traveled as the paid companion of an invalid. Upon her return, she found her family in financial straits, so when publisher James R. Elliot asked her to write another novel suitable for serialisation in the magazine The Flag of Our Union (mockingly referred to as The Weekly Volcano in Little Women), Alcott dashed off a 292-page Gothic romance entitled A Modern Mephistopheles, or The Fatal Love Chase. She gave the novel a European setting and incorporated many of her still-fresh travel experiences and observations; Elliot, however, rejected it for being "too long & too sensational!", whereupon she changed the title to Fair Rosamond and undertook extensive revisions to shorten the novel and tone down its more controversial elements. Despite these changes, the book was again rejected, and Alcott laid the manuscript aside.
Fair Rosamond ended up in Harvard's Houghton Library. The earlier draft was auctioned off by Alcott's heirs and eventually fell into the hands of a Manhattan rare book dealer. In 1994, Kent Bicknell, headmaster of the Sant Bani School in Sanbornton, New Hampshire, paid "more than his annual salary but less than $50,000" for the unexpurgated version of the manuscript. After restoring it, he sold the publication rights to Random House, receiving a $1.5 million advance. Bicknell donated 25% of the profits to Orchard House (the museum of the Alcott Family), 25% to the Alcott heirs, and 25% to the Sant Bani School.
In 1995, Random House released the novel in a hardbound edition under the title A Long Fatal Love Chase. It became a best-seller, and an audiobook version soon followed. The novel is still in print (September 2007) as a trade paperback from Dell Books.
Alcott patiently drudged away at Little Women but found emotional release in scribbling her blood-and-thunder tales. The difference shows: in pacing, tone, and content, Love Chase is startlingly unlike its famous successor. The ostentatiously Faustian plot centers on Rosamond Vivian, a discontented maiden who lives on an English island with only her bitter old grandfather for company and who begins the novel by rashly declaring: "I often feel as if I'd gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom." Right on cue, a man named Phillip Tempest — a man who bears a more than trivial resemblance to Mephistopheles — walks in the door. Within a month, Rosamond is in love, and although she realizes that this man is “no saint”, she marries him, believing with the fatuousness of youth that her love will save him. She sails away from her lonely island in Tempest's yacht, the Circe, and begins her married life at a luxurious villa in Nice.
Much to his own surprise, Tempest, a heartless libertine, finds that he, too, has fallen in love. He tries to make Rosamond happy, and succeeds for a while; however, after a year in his company, she begins to realize how conscienceless and cruel he is. She then discovers that Tempest has a wife and son already, making their marriage a sham and Rosamond the unwitting mistress of a man who has grossly deceived her. That same night, she packs a few items, stealthily climbs down from her second-floor balcony, and catches the next train to Paris. Tempest pursues her, beginning the obsessive “chase” of the title.
Tempest hunts Rosamond for two years, telling her he enjoys the sport. To throw him off the track, she assumes a variety of disguises: in Paris, she's a seamstress named “Ruth”; next, she escapes to a convent, where she's known as “Sister Agatha”; after that, under the name “Rosalie Varian”, she travels to Germany as companion to a wealthy little girl. Each time, as she begins to settle comfortably into a new life, Tempest makes a sudden, funhouse-type entrance and ruins everything. Under this treatment, Rosamond learns to hate and fear her former lover. At the same time, a hopeless passion develops between Rosamond and Father Ignatius, a handsome, virtuous, high-born man who happens — unfortunately — to be a Roman Catholic priest.
The chase finally ends one night when Ignatius tries to help Rosamond return to her grandfather's island. Tempest follows them in his yacht and sails over what he thinks is the priest's boat, leaving everyone aboard to drown. It turns out that Rosamond was on the wrecked boat, while Ignatius followed in a different vessel. The next day, Tempest discovers his mistake when he goes to the grandfather's house and sees Rosamond dead and Ignatius still alive. The priest speaks of his own future union with Rosamond in the hereafter. At this, Tempest gathers the drowned woman in his arms, then stabs himself, declaring defiantly “Mine first — mine last — mine even in the grave!”
Although Alcott wrote the novel hastily while under considerable economic pressure and submitted it under the name “A. M. Barnard” — a pseudonym she used for several other Gothic thrillers — Love Chase received good mainstream reviews in 1995, 129 years after its intended appearance as an ephemeral potboiler.
Most contemporary critics choose to emphasize the strong feminist elements, fast-moving story, curiously contemporary “stalker” theme, and — most of all — the conspicuous lack of domesticity (in contrast with Little Women). The Booklist reviewer declares “Alcott's melodramatic but intriguing tale dramatises the tragic plight of women in her oppressive times“, while Katherine Powers of Forbes, exclaiming over the novel's unexpectedly exuberant violation of norms, recommends the audiobook version as “a real Gothic potboiler by a slumming Louisa May Alcott”. Phoebe-Lou Adams of the Atlantic Monthly, wondering why such an exciting and adjective-rich narrative was originally rejected, speculates “Could the objection have been simply that the heroine, on discovering that she has been duped into a false marriage with a murderer, fails to collapse and die of shame? Instead she scoops up the available jewels, flees by night through a window, and repudiates any guilt in the affair. Perfectly sensible of her–but perhaps not what readers of Victorian light literature were prepared to approve.”
Alcott's pseudonymous career as A. M. Barnard, successful writer of sensational fiction, was brought to light in the early 1940s by a rare book dealer, Madeleine B. Stern, and a librarian, Leona Rostenberg. Their discovery became widely known in 1975, when Stern dusted off some of the more interesting stories for Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Since then, several more such collections have been published, providing intriguing new material for literary scholars and biographers eager to reevaluate Alcott's career. The strongly feminist Love Chase seems likely to become a valued resource in this field of inquiry, with the added cachet that it was once judged too sensational for publication. In the words of reviewer Andria Spencer, “What proves so fascinating about Saxton's biography [a 1977 Alcott biography, reissued in 1996], A Long Fatal Love Chase, and … Behind a Mask is the reversal made in addressing Alcott's life and work — the solid, upright pedagogue melts away before the image of the ardent suffragette, sole support of family and home and rebel, despite herself.”
Phillip is quizzing Rosamond about how much she loves him.
"Suppose I broke away and left you, or made it impossible for you to stay. That I was base and false; in every way unworthy of your love, and it was clearly right for you to go, what would you do then?"
"Go away and–"
He interrupted with a triumphant laugh, "Die as heroines always do, tender slaves as they are."