I had planned, after my visit to the gym today, to write a little about my current treadmill reading. To my surprise, when I arrived at the gym, I found it closed, the parking lot entirely empty. I suppose perhaps the designated volunteer had not arrived to open it or had had to leave early. In any case that gives me a little extra writing time.
What I’m currently reading is Moods, by Louisa May Alcott. This was LMA’s attempt to write, if not the Great American Novel, at least the Great LMA Novel. When she began it in August of 1860, she wrote that “Genius burned so fiercely that for four weeks I wrote all day and planned nearly all night, being quite possessed by my work. I was perfectly happy, and seemed to have no wants. Finished the book, or a rough draught of it, and put it away to settle.” She added, “Daresay nothing will ever come of it, but it had to be done, and I’m the richer for a new experience.”
The new experience was that of writing a novel. As Harriet Reisen writes in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, “She had trained herself to succeed in genres of writing that had commercial markets—the children’s tale, the poem, the short story, the longer serial fiction, and nonfiction—but had yet to command the novel, the form that she and her readers she respected loved most.”
Moods was intended as a “romantic novel of ideas,” but every publisher she submitted it to insisted it be cut, and the cuts they suggested were the parts Louisa valued most—her ideas about marriage. In February 1861, she returned to the book: “Another turn at ‘Moods,’ which I remodelled,” she wrote in her journal. “From the 2d to the 25th I sat writing, with a run at dusk, could not sleep, and for three days was so full of it I could not stop to get up.” When she was satisfied with the revision, she read it aloud to the family, who of course pronounced it wonderful. “So I had a good time, even if it never comes to anything, for it was worth something to have my three dearest sit up till midnight listening with wide-open eyes to Lu’s first novel.”
Louisa returned to her manuscript from time to time, constantly revising it, but still with no real hope of publication. After the runaway success of Hospital Sketches, her thinly veiled account of her own experiences as a nurse in a military hospital in 1863, she found herself much in demand, with several publishers clamoring for more work. Publisher James Redpath took it in February 1864 but then pronounced it too long for a single volume, adding that “a two volume novel was bad to begin with,” that is, that two volumes would be inadvisable for a début novel. “Would I cut the book down about half? No, I wouldn’t, having already shortened it all it would bear.” So she took the manuscript back and continued to shop it around, but every publisher said the same—too long.
In October, “as I lay awake one night a way to shorten & arrange ‘Moods’ came into my head. The whole plan laid itself smoothly out before me & I slept no more that night but worked on it as busily as if mind and body had nothing to do with one another. Up early & began to write it all over again. The fit was on strong & for a fortnight I hardly ate slept or stirred but wrote, wrote like a thinking machine in full operation. When it was all written, without copying, I found it much improved though I’d taken out ten chapters & sacrificed many of my favorite things, but being resolved to make it simple, strong & short I let every thing else go & hoped the book would be better for it.” She sent the book to A. K. Loring, one of the publishers who had previously rejected it, and he proposed to “bring the book out at once.”
The book was published in December, and the first edition sold out quickly. In January 1865, Louisa writes, “Notices of ‘Moods’ came from all directions, & though people didn’t understand my ideas owing to my shortening the book so much, the notices were mostly favorable & gave quite as much praise as was good for me.” Actually, critical reception was quite mixed, and Louisa was still dissatisfied with the results of her drastic cuts. She was especially outraged when Loring, without her consent, reissued the book in 1870 to cash in on the success of Little Women. Louisa received a copy while traveling abroad and wrote from Dinan, France, on June 1, 1870, “I am so mad at Lorings doings and letter that I must begin a new budget to you, by way of frothing my wrath.” Loring owned the copyright on the book, and “The dreadful man says that he has a right to print as many editions as [he] likes for fourteen years! What rights has an author then I beg to know.”
She objected to the new illustrations Loring had commissioned, saying they did not look at all like her conception of the characters, and, as Harriet Reisen writes, “Her sense of violation was so powerful that she took umbrage even at the author’s photograph Loring had chosen for the back cover. She declared it ‘horrid’ and sent it ‘floating down the Loire.’” On June 9, she wrote, “I have blown Loring up and beg him not to say that ‘I think Moods’ as it is ‘my best work,’ but as it was.” She also instructed her family, “if Loring writes lies about ‘Moods,‘ put a notice in the Transcript contradicting him.” Loring “is a provoking man,” she wrote, “and ought in decency to have let me know his plan in time to change if I liked.”
Certainly the book could have stood some revision. Harriet Reisen gives this assessment of the book:
As literature, Moods has aged poorly. The heroine’s behavior, meant to be charmingly childish, feels forced and silly. Overheated trappings weigh down a clumsy plot. To a modern reader, the book seems little more than a nineteenth-century Harlequin romance, a fantasy about a young woman with a choice of two attractive suitors. But Louisa’s tale of the volatile young Sylvia Yule was written in all seriousness and meant to be taken at face value, and for no one did it have more value than for Louisa, who wrote, published, and rewrote it over a period of more than twenty years.
John Matteson, in Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, says much the same:
Even as she expressed pride in her accomplishment, Louisa knew that Moods was not all she had hoped it would be. It had been too aggressively poked, prodded, redacted, and rewritten to retain the freshness of its original conception. A subplot was cut back so severely that a once-central character now appeared only in the first chapter, and the relation between her story and the remainder of the novel was rendered vexingly unclear. Louisa had begun the novel as a psychological study of her heroine. By the time the editing was finished, the story no longer read like a nuanced meditation on an unbalanced mind, but like a tangled romance. A work of high ambition and extreme candor, Moods fell victim to the inexperience of its author and to the overly commercial sensibilities of its editor.
It is a pity that Moods ended up as such a compromise, for no book Louisa wrote ever mattered to her more intensely than this one. Louisa had worked on Moods off and on for more than four years. Even after the book was published, Louisa could not bring herself to leave it alone; she published the book, heavily revised, in 1882. Even then, it did not satisfy her. Rereading her journals a few years before her death, Louisa wrote commentaries to herself in the margins. All the marginalia dealing with Moods express regret and disappointment, mingled with a certain sad affection for the book she wanted to make great but, after more than twenty years and countless rewrites, was able only to make good.
Eventually Louisa was able to buy the copyright and printing plates from Loring and regain control of her work. In 1882, when she had become successful and relatively wealthy, she revised the book again and republished it. Harriet Reisen writes: “Of all her adult fiction, Moods had been her favorite, and she had never accepted the shortened version that she believed had spoiled the original work. Now she revised the book, but whatever intention she may have begun with, ultimately she did not restore Moods as an unconventional novel of ideas. Instead she reframed it for her teenage audience. In an introduction to the new edition she said she had cut some chapters, restored others, and trimmed ‘as much fine writing as could be done without destroying the youthful spirit of the little romance.’ She gave the story a new, happy ending.”
If I had been reading this book purely for pleasure, I would have stopped after the first chapter, which is unspeakably awful. But the second chapter takes an entirely new tack and regained my interest. It’s still mostly pretty dreary stuff, but here and there are flashes of the wry humor that enhances LMA’s best books, from Hospital Sketches to the eight novels she wrote for girls. Since I have read plot summaries of both the original and revised versions, the real suspense in reading this book comes from the fact that I’m not sure which version I’m reading! Someone will die in the end; I just don’t know who.