A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott
Random House, 1st edition, 1995
Genre: potboiler, romance, Victorian pop literature
Synopsis & Review: Eighteen-year-old Rosamond Vivian lives on a remote island off the English coast with only her eremitic, indifferent grandfather for company. Longing for something, anything of note to happen in her life, she recklessly declares, “I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” And so she very nearly does, for on the heels of her declaration, Phillip Tempest enters her life, a thrilling and sinister, but devilishly charming, man enters her life. Rosamond soon succumbs to the temptations Tempest offers, falling in love with the first attractive, virile man she’s ever met–and with the visions he paints before her of sailing the world on his yacht Circe, and seeing everything she’s only read of in books. When she finally admits her love for him, Tempest dares her grandfather to wager her very being, and so wins Rose’s hand in a game of cards. Before they set sail, Tempest offers Rose one final chance to live with him and be his love, damning society, but she refuses and insists that he marry her or not have her at all.
A year later, in the pleasure gardens of Valrosa, Rose learns that those who dance must pay the fiddler as Tempest proves that he is the blackguard and libertine he always insisted he was with deceit, treachery, and even murder blackening his soul. Not only does Tempest do away with her little page Ippolito–who may be something else entirely–but he is married to another woman already. desperate, Rose hastens away through the night, unable to share her life with a man so heartless, as much as she may love him. And so begins the long fatal love across Europe, from convent to asylum, garrets to country manors. Each time Rose thinks she has escaped his grasp, Tempest appears once more in her life, beguiling her to join him again, and the farther and faster she runs, the more he desires her.
She took to writing sensation stories, for in those dark ages, even all-perfect America read rubbish. So wrote Louisa May Alcott of Jo March in Little Women, but she might as well have been writing about herself. To support her family, Louisa May, too wrote blood-and-thunder tales and thrillers under a nom de plume, and wildly successful ones, at that. A Long Fatal Love Chase was one of those, written after her European travels. Destined for serialization, it was ultimately rejected, even after extensive rewrites, for being “too long and too sensational,” and remained unpublished till 1995.
And oh, it is sensational and shocking, with every cliche of its type, but what magic they work! Unblushingly looking at bigamy, murder, suicide, adultery, it’s no wonder that her editor thought it a bit too much for his readers.
The plot is curiously contemporary, a sort of Sleeping with the Enemy (only with less punching) for the 1860s, and still relevant today in theme if not particulars. (I’m surprised no one’s optioned it for the screen yet, in fact.) At each stop along the way readers must wonder how Tempest will find her next as Alcott builds suspense up again chapter after chapter. A Long Fatal Love Chase‘s destiny as a serial is apparent in the chapter structure, for after a slow start on Rosamund’s island retreat, it rapidly gains speed until readers are hurtling through Europe. The quick pace remedies its few ills, as the story moves so quickly as to forbear any time spent dwelling on flaws. It’s not about tight plotting or character development, but rather story for the sake of story. Though the prose is sometimes too florid, the settings are so vividly imagined that it is easy to forgive that, especially when enjoying the many allusions and literary references Alcott uses in her tale.
What is strongest in A Long Fatal Love Chase, however, is Alcott’s own enjoyment of it, a story more titillating than the novels for which she is chiefly remembered. This sense of fun shines through stereotyped characters, stock settings, contrived plot points, and cliched turns of phrase, illuminating a fascinating story of love and desire, the darkness within the soul and how we can overcome it.
Though Rosamond is sometimes a bit insufferable, too brash and prone to viewing the world as black and white early on, then slightly too clingy, she does have her charms. Through her, Alcott denounces the immortality of love, cheering fortitude when Rosamond declares that if she must, she will “live and forget [Tempest].” And she does, though it takes time and pain. Rosamond suffers the pain of leaving someone she knows she must to save herself while still loving him, though she knows she ought not. The heart wants what it wants sometimes, and Alcott recognizes that. She also recognizes the worth of an unhappy ending, for the novel is unabashedly dark, probably another strike against it for her editor. Though Tempest sometimes resembles a stock villain, he evolves considerably through the novel; Alcott pulls no cheap maneuvers of a transforming effects of love upon him, but he gradually becomes the supplicant to his Rose’s unyielding stance, and by the novel’s conclusion is a figure of mingled pathos and malevolence.
I first checked A Long Fatal Love Chase out from the library about ten years ago, and could not get past the first chapter, but on a whim I decided to try it again. Exercising a bit of patience, it was well worth my while, an entertaining, quick read at well under three hundred pages. Best enjoyed either by those interested in what kind of stories Jo wrote, or those interested in sensationalist literature of the mid-nineteenth century, or even those who want to see how much–or how little–has changed in thrillers over the last hundred and fifty years. You might be surprised.
Read also: Dragonwyck by Anya Seton, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Cover: Simple, a rose tied into the twine binding a manuscript, evocative of Alcott’s and Jo’s own manuscripts. Effective.
In all those months nothing was heard or seen of Tempest, and Rosamond tried to feel that she rejoiced in the success of her last stratagem. But in the perverse heart of hers would linger a longing to know where he was, what he was doing and if he mourned her death with grief as strong as his love had been. She tried to forget but it was impossible, for since the knowledge of Lito’s safety had freed her from the dark fear, she could not conceal from herself that her affection for Tempest was not dead in spite of deceit and wrong. He was the first, the only love of her life, and in a nature like hers such passions take deep root and die hard. In vain she recalled his sins against herself and others; in vain she told herself that he was unworthy any woman’s trust and love, still the unconquerable sentiment that once made her happiness now remained to become her torment.
04 August – 05 August