Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: A Long Fatal Love Chase By Louisa May Alcott

(Click here for information on the 2019 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature.  This week, the August selection, Louisa May Alcott’s postumously-published A Long Fatal Love Chase.) 

Like her most famous literary creation, Little Women’s Jo March, Alcott got her start writing sensational serialized novels for 19th century magazines and newspapers. Commissioned for publication in 1866 after Alcott’s first trip to Europe, A Long Fatal Love Chase includes a globe-trotting heroine on the run from an obsessive  husband, bigamy and sham marriage, secret sons, a sexy priest, cross-dressing, divorce, suicide and murder. Ultimately rejected by Alcott’s editor for being “too sensational”, the manuscript was referenced without fanfare and in truncated form under various titles after her death, before being rediscovered in Harvard’s archives in the mid-1990s and published in its complete form, going on to become a best seller.

While much of the content is indeed “sensational” and the plot is pure pulp potboiler, the intended serialization makes the structure something of a wonder (literally every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger) and features a heroine who asks us to accept her own insistence of her goodness at face value: while she is wronged by a man, it never crosses her mind that her virtue was compromised.

The novel opens on a desolate island off the coast of England, where orphaned 18-year-old Rosemond Vivian serves as the caretaker for her ill-tempered grandfather, and declares:

“I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

So summoned, Phillip Tempest, reckless libertine and former student of her grandfather, arrives for a visit, and he is immediately taken with Rosemond and she with him. After failing to convince her to run away with him without the benefit of marriage, he goes on to “win” her away from her grandfather in a card game and spirits her away to a hasty wedding and a year-long idyll at Valrosa, his villa in Nice.

But! Rosemond gets the first inkling that all is not well with the unexpected arrival of Willoughby, an English acquaintance who makes some veiled implications about Tempest’s servant-boy, Ipolito, whom Rosemond has come to love as a younger brother. Sent to the Mediterranean for his health, Willoughby is warned against “heat, ice, fruit and fatigue” and hotels with poor drainage that harbor cholera. Tempest immediately appoints himself tour-guide and takes him on an extremely taxing jaunt about the ruins, indulges his gluttony in all manner of fruit and wine ices, takes him to a stifling funeral service for an Italian royal, and finally drops him off at a hotel with bad drains. By evening’s end Willoughby has shuffled off the mortal coil, taking all of his disturbing inferences about Ipolito’s parentage with him.

But Rosemond spies a mysterious woman lurking about the villa, and when she eavesdrops on her being secretly received by Tempest, much expository dialogue reveals that she is Mrs. Tempest, and Rosemond’s entangled in a false marriage. After Ipolito disturbingly disappears at Tempest’s behest at the hands of his man-servant Baptiste, Rosemond takes her jewels and flees into the night. Thus, begins the chase.

Tempest and Baptiste first pursue Rosemond to Paris, where she has been working as a seamstress (and where Ipolito is found miraculously un-murdered). With the help of an actress-friend, (and swapping clothes with another servant-boy), Rosemond  next flees to a French convent, intending to seek refuges with the Sisters of St. Annunciatta. Along the way she happens upon a recent suicide, a young woman of roughly her physical characteristics and swaps the suicide note with one signed with her own name.

Taking up the veil, Rosemond distinguishes herself as “Sister Agatha” and noted throughout the region for her dedication to the poor and sick. She takes the kindly Father Dominic into her confidence, and through him she learns that the coldly handsome Father Ignatius is struggling mightily with his earthly feelings towards her. But! Father Dominic betrays her, delivering her to her bigamous husband. She again makes a daring escape, aided by Father Ignatius, who doffs his priestly duds to row her to safety:

Something in his impetuous manner, his vehement tone recalled to Rosemond’s memory the fact that this man loved her. Gathering her veil about her, she sat silently watching him as he plied the oars, and for the first time fully realized that he was both young and comely. The priestly garb was gone, for he had torn off the bands about his throat and left his hat behind him.

Yeah, pretty hot stuff for the 1860s.

Rosemond lands next in Germany, where she works as a governess for a widower nobleman’s young daughter and said widower nobleman soon proposes marriage. Rosemond tells him that she shall never love another, and the marriage would be for “friendship and protection”, but the Comte secretly believes that he can convince her to love him. Tempest arrives on the eve of the wedding and tries threaten/lure her back to him (as his divorce with Ipolito’s mother winds its way through the courts).

“I warn you to beware, Rose, I am in earnest and I always conquer.”

“I am in earnest and I never yield.”

Instead Tempest meets with the Comte, telling him that Rosemond suffers from “madness”, which is what did in the first Madame la Comtesse. When Tempest orchestrates a confrontation, Rosemond tries to warn him, but accidentally does so in English, which he takes as evidence of her “madness” and flees; when Tempest tries to claim her, she chooses suicide…

…Which is not successful, waking up in an insane asylum and watched over by the always-lurking Baptiste.  She eventually wins the trust of her keepers and effects another daring escape, determined to find sanctuary with the one person who will truly empathize with her plight: the ex-Mrs. Phillip Tempest.

Taken into her home (and again reunited with Ipolito), Mrs. Tempest shares Rosemond’s philosophy about using guile to achieve a greater good, and together the enact a somewhat complicated scheme to win custody of Ipolito (who is still presumed dead) in the almost-finalized case of Tempest vs. Tempest. Father Ignatius also turns up and pushes Tempest off a cliff and reveals himself to be a former French freedom fighter who took up the cloth after he was spurned by his True Love. While he insists that he is dedicated to the priesthood, it seems like there may be a future for these crazy kids after all…

Tempest survives being pushed off of a cliff, but sends word through Baptiste that he is near death and wishes to see Rosemond one last time and beg her forgiveness. When she arrives he’s not near death at all! Baptiste is also arrested by the Parisian Chief of Police for past crimes and sent to the gallows.

More jealous of Father Ignatius than ever, Tempest challenges his rival to duel, which Father Ignatius takes the trouble of showing up to, just to announce that he’s declining his challenge (sick burn!)

As I stated, Rosemond is never regarded as dishonored, or treated as a Fallen Woman.  Tempest? He’s not escaping so unscathed:

Tempest went back to London and tried to take up his old life again, but soon found that for him as for all sinners the inevitable hour of retribution had begun. The divorce had laid bare his past and honest men shunned him, modest women shrank from him as from the plague, old friends dropped away, the world condemned him, and he was set apart among the black sheep of society.

Really? Rosemond takes on a half-dozen identities, associates with actresses and divorcees, escapes from an insane asylum after attempting suicide, condemns her husband as a bigamist at every turn and is currently in a (chaste) romance with a sexy priest and it is the monstrous husband that is suffering socially for his past misdeeds? Nice.

She even learns that she has inherited her fortune at last, and sets out with Father Ignatius back to Cranky Grandpa Island to claim it, but Tempest (aided by an unscrupulous waiter) delays Father Ignatius, then contracts with an actual pirate to scuttle his ship. But somehow in the confusion the wrong ship goes down, and Tempest arrives to find Father Ignatius alive and well and Rosemond most certainly deceased.

As he stands over her lifeless body, he pulls a hidden dagger and stabs himself in the heart, declaring

“Mine first- mine last- mine even in the grave!”

Odds & Ends:
I feel like Rosemond made as convincing a nun as Alexis Colby did in a particularly bonkers season of “Dynasty”:

Availability: Currently in print.

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6 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: A Long Fatal Love Chase By Louisa May Alcott

  1. Julie says:

    I did reread it this summer, but your review is so thorough I don’t really have anything to add:) Except to say, it is so clearly LMA’s writing style, so much of the dialogue and the way she has her characters speak are reminiscent of her “regular” books (minus the drama and sensationalism of course).

  2. Susan says:

    I got this book from the library a couple decades ago but just couldn’t get through it. Now thanks to you I don’t have to 🙂 ! Interesting reference to Valrosa, since that’s where Amy and Laurie honeymooned in Little Women. I wonder if it was a real place?

    • mondomolly says:

      In the editor’s note for the paperback edition, he notes that Alcott wrote it after her trip abroad as a ladies’ companion, in whichshe had an unrequited romance with a man who she later based Laurie on!

  3. Westfan says:

    Somehow I never read this, even though I was a LMA fanatic when young. I tried to read this When it was first published and couldn’t, I think it’s time to try again.

    Here is a recommendation for you to read and review, a Girl Called Chris, by Marg Nelson, Scholastic,1962. I visited Alaska this summer and learned a lot about salmon and it brought back memories of this book, a bit better than the average teen girls book of the time, and actually a bit informative. I think it takes place in the Seattle area but close enough. I just re-read it on the Internet Archive.

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