In 1996, two professors going through Louisa May Alcott’s letters and journals discovered a previously unknown and unpublished manuscript. The Inheritance was Louisa’s first novel, written when she was 17. Neither the professors nor anyone else could find any other information about the novel. There was no record of it having been submitted for publication and rejected. Maybe Louisa just wrote it for fun or for her family. After the novel’s discovery, it was published in 1997.
The heroine of the story is Edith Adelon. She was discovered as a poor orphan in Italy by Lord Hamilton, who took pity on her and brought her home. There she became a companion to Hamilton’s daughter, Amy.
As the story opens, Edith is a young woman and Amy is a teenager. Edith teaches Amy “music, painting, and Italian, and better lessons still in patience, purity, and truth,” but she’s not exactly a governess. However, she is regarded by Lady Hamilton as “poor and lowborn,” and as such, she is not allowed to mingle with “noble” guests as an equal (p. 17). Lord Hamilton died years before. Amy’s older brother, Arthur, her mother, Lady Hamilton, and her mother’s niece, Lady Ida complete the household. A friend, Lord Percy, comes for an extended visit and the young siblings learn his background: he and his brother had loved the same woman, and once Percy found out, he stepped back for his brother’s happiness. “Careless of the wealth and honor that might be his, he prized far more the purity and worth of noble human hearts, little noting whether they beat in high or low.” He visited the “poor and suffering” and still kept a hope that he “might win a beautiful and noble wife to cheer life’s pilgrimage and bless him with her love” (p. 13).
Ida hopes to attract Percy’s attention for herself, but when she sees him favoring Edith, Ida’s latent jealousy comes to the surface. Between Ida’s verbal jousts, another visitor’s ignoble intentions, and a betrayal of her kindness, Edith has her hands full.
Yet there is a secret to Edith’s background that none of them knows. But will it be revealed or suppressed and forgotten?
The story is only 150 pages and has elements of both a Gothic novel and what were called sentimental novels. It’s a very sweet story, but a little overdone in places. Edith is too good to be true. Descriptions such as this one abound: “With an angel’s calm and almost holy beauty, Edith bore within as holy and pure a heart–gentle, true, and tender” (pp. 12-13). Likewise, Percy’s “calm, pale face and serious eyes are far more beautiful than mere comeliness and grace of form, for the pure, true heart withing shines clearly out and gives a quiet beauty to his face, such as few possess” (p. 5).
But even though Louisa’s writing is understandably not as mature as her later works, and the characters are a little two-dimensional, I thought it was very sweet and a good effort on Louisa’s part for her age then.
Several years ago I saw a film version of The Inheritance which I enjoyed immensely. It must have come out not long after the book was published. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it kept to the main points of the book. A few exceptions: it has Lord Hamilton as still living for most of the film; shows Lady Hamilton as warm and friendly whereas she is described as cold and haughty in the book; and it has Edith loving and racing horses, which was not at all in the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again some time now that I’ve read the story.
Thankfully Tarissa, who hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, told me about the Internet Archive, which loans copies of books that have been photocopied page by page. It’s not quite the same as an e-book, but once I figured out how to make the page fit my iPad mini, I read it quite easily. I’m glad to know this service exists! The edition I read included a lengthy introduction by the two professors who discovered this manuscript, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy.
I’m counting this book as my Classic Novella (250 or fewer pages) for the Back to the Classics Challenge.