Cut from the Classics brings your favorite novels to life as never before. Each month we present a profile of a character who originally appeared in the first draft of a major work of fiction, but was subsequently cut from the final draft. This insight into each author’s process brings a fuller, richer sense of their body of work. Previously: Dermott McDuck.
Book: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Publication Date: 1868 (Vol. 1) 1869 (Vol. 2)
Character: Monstra March
Written between 1868 and 1869, Little Women was initially published in two separate volumes by the Roberts Brothers press. Louisa May Alcott’s tale of the four penurious March sisters and their childhood and teenage years were chronicled in volume one (Little Women), and their emergence into adulthood was captured in the second volume (Good Wives[1. Tyler Perry’s ‘Good Wives’ Behind the Scenes Movie Collector’s Pamphlet, Chapter 1: The History of Good Wives from Marmee to Medea 2013]). Eventually released in 1880 as the book we know today, Little Women is a cultural touchstone in American literary history. Since its inception, it has come to represent the emergence of the ‘coming of age’[2. ‘Are You There God, It’s Me, Suicidal Ideation: On Teenagers.’ Dr. Loressa Bofait Davin, Hurtlebarge Press, Oxford, MS, 1987] genre and is thought to have widely popularized the romantic idyll of New England (in this case, Concord, Massachusetts) as a dramatic locale.[3. Leaf Peepin’ With Me, Leo!!”, Leo Kittinger, E-Mail Newsletter, Vol. VIII, 2001]
Little Women begins with a classic American trope – the family gathered at Christmas. We are introduced to homely but intelligent Jo, pretty but vain, Meg, saintly but frail Beth, and Amy, whose nose is large, a fact with which she is obsessed.[4. ‘Yo Cyrano, For Real Though: Lit’s Large Noses’, Dragon Equi Acton, Phoenix Publishing, Poote, IL, 1984] Overseeing the rag-tag gang of striking characters is their mother, Marmee, whose benign presence and earnestness centers the group of women, along with the practice of their faith. Notably absent from this tableau, is Mr. March. Raising the stakes from the start, Alcott has reversed an otherwise bland portrayal of a Christmas at home by sending the father figure off to active duty in the Civil War. Perhaps in deference to the sensibilities of her younger audience, we learn quickly that Mr. March is too old to serve actively, and is instead posted as chaplain.
As the book goes on, we begin to learn more and more about each of the four sisters. Their weakness, strengths, hopes, and dreams for the future become impossible not to root for. Writerly Jo and her plays, Meg and her passion for the tutor John Brooke, Amy and her keenly felt desire to assert her own path and identity, even the wealthy neighbor boy Laurie’s fight to be his own man and to win Jo’s hand become as vivid as any of our own struggles. The story is dedicated to examining the simple, personal details of its richly imagined band of heroes as they grow. It is almost impossible to imagine the book any other way. That is why its first draft is so compelling for our purposes.
In its original incarnation the novel was something else entirely. Inspired by the works of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, Louisa May Alcott was in a dark place when she decided to write the loosely autobiographical novel. In fact, she had become convinced that the Orchard House–the real-life setting of the novel–was riddled with an evil presence. She made it her mission to pen a novel that would accurately convey the sense of horror Alcott felt it instilled in her bones. “I feel the weight of the place all about me, in the haunted trees, the haunted lake, the haunted privy[.] Even the pantry offers no respite.”[5. ‘GhostProblems’’ Ghostproooblems.tumblr.com, Post 1]
Though skeptical, Alcott’s publishers were fond of her, and believed enough in her writing to encourage her on this task. That said, as Alcott began her first draft of the book (originally entitled The Demons of Orchard House) they also nursed her with traditional New England remedies for anxiety and depression, common for the day.[6. ‘Take A Walk Or Something: Transcendental Medicine in the 19th Century” Cuthbert Dillinger, Lemur Lions Publishing Collective, Saratoga Springs, NY 2013] None of this, however, dissuaded Alcott from penning one of the more ghastly tales in the American canon.
On the surface the first draft and the one we know were not that dissimilar. A Christmastime tableau, a mid-19th century family comprised of the same four, familiar girls, doting mother and absent father. But it was there that the similarities ended. For a chilling three hundred and fifty pages, Orchard House is under siege. The girls awake with bruises, possessions are shattered, feces are found in a cupboard. It is not immediately clear as to who (or what) is to blame. Initially concerned that spirits are at fault, Meg suggests a seance where the more spiritually susceptible Beth will act as a medium.
The seance ultimately proves unsuccessful–tragically unsuccessful. While no ghost can be found as the source of their torment, Beth does make contact with a spirit who eventually saps her mental and physical resources, killing her. It is Beth’s untimely demise that finally elicits a traumatic confession from Marmee. Their tormenter is not from a heavenly realm, but an earthly one.
This is how we meet Monstra March,[7. The 1962 smash pop hit “The Monster Mash” was written by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, a direct descendant of Alcott family, clearly in on the joke.] Jo’s identical, sociopathic and murderous twin sister who Marmee keeps locked in the cellar at the behest of Mr. March, who holds modern medicine and the prison system both in great contempt. The March women react as one would expect to such news, with equal parts terror, fascination and disgust.[8. ‘Meg fell about weeping, not minding what it did to her curls. Beth curled onto one side and became ill in her stomach, she could only moan. Jo could only point and scream, “WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE ME? OH MY GOD WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE ME? IS THAT WHAT I LOOK LIKE?”] This revelation originally marked the beginning of volume two, which was formerly titled Life With Monstra. From this point on, the events of the books unfold much as they had previously, though the tone is discordant and strange. Amy’s exploits at school, Jo’s homespun newspaper, and the poverty of the Hummels seem as milquetoast as anything when they are wedged in between accounts of Monstra’s quest to develop her human hand collection and eventually, to earn the love of a anemic solicitor named Brian.
It is clear that after having created Monstra, Alcott was at a loss as to how to proceed. To make matters worse for the text, if better for the author, the folksy mental health treatments of her publishers seemed to be taking effect: Alcott’s mood was steadily improving. It was in this eased state of mind that she relocated to Boca Raton, where she fought against the elements to build a homestead and do a brisk trade in rare orchids.
But through it all she struggled to finish the book. She was still troubled by dark thoughts, and this remains plain in the second volume. On the evening of Amy’s wedding to Laurie, she complains bitterly once again about the appearance of her nose. As her sisters soothe her and pin back her gown for last minute alterations, Monstra bursts into the room and with one vicious chomp consumes Amy’s nose directly from her face, leaving in its place a gaping, bloody hole.[9. ‘As Amy swooned and the blood pooled, Jo cursed quietly and tried to stop its flow. “Maybe now she will make something of herself – because everyone here knows that reading to an old lady and going to France did shit for her personality.” Monstra paused, concentrating her energies on a piece of gristle. “You know I’m right,” she added.’] Though the moral of the tale is clear, it is thought by scholars that it was the addition of this scene which finally prompted a confrontation between the book’s publishers and Alcott.
With the assistance of editors firmed by the firm, Alcott excised Monstra from the text, though the character remained close to her heart. It is thought that as a final act of rebellion against her patient publishers, Alcott chose to marry Jo to the elder professor Bhaer rather than Laurie as she originally intended. Though displeased, this storyline was deemed acceptable by her publishers in light of its harrowing predecessor, and a generation of mildly annoyed preteens was born.