But Alcott’s career as a writer was much more varied. From fairy tales to romances, didactic novels to sensational blood-and-thunder stories, Alcott, like any professional author, knew how to reach her reading audience and how to judge the literary marketplace. Aunt Nellie’s Diary, the beginning fragment of an early tale, now published here for the first time, reveals the influences that sparked Alcott’s imagination and shows us an emerging talent on the cusp of a promising career at age seventeen. Written in 1849, the same year as her first novel The Inheritance, which was not published until 1997, Aunt Nellie’s Diary forms part of what Alcott, in January 1850, called “The Sentimental Period” (Journals 61). By then, the aspiring writer, whose first story was not published until 1852, was reveling in the works of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Charlotte Brontë.
“I fancy ‘lurid things’, if true and strong also,” Alcott confessed in that same 1850 journal (63), as she declared her preference of Nathaniel Hawthorne over Fredrika Bremer. Aunt Nellie’s Diary shows hints of that love of darker fiction, and it points the way to future stories such as “The Masked Marriage” and “The Lady and the Woman,” both written in mid-1850s. Narrated by the forty-year-old Nellie, the unmarried aunt of the orphan Annie Ellerton, the tale pits the simple, loving, sunny-haired Annie against the beautiful, dark-haired Isabel Loving (shades of Scott’s Rebecca and Rowena), whom Nellie believes conceals “a darkness within.” There is, Nellie suspects, “something not quite true about her.” The two young women, both on the edge of adulthood at age eighteen, vie for the attention of the now-motherless Edward Clifford, who possesses his late “mother’s gentle heart beautifully blended with the calm and noble mind of his father.” But the sudden appearance of Edward’s friend, Mr. Ainslie, marks a dramatic turn in the tale. The unfinished narrative leaves many questions as to the outcome. Good stories always keep readers wanting to turn the pages, and Alcott, even in her late teens, knew this well. Aunt Nellie’s Diary, over 170 years after it was penned, now takes its rightful place among Alcott’s earliest works, revealing the promise and talent that would blossom in her celebrated literary career.
—Daniel Shealy, Professor of English, University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
My 40th birthday, and celebrated by the arrival of my orphan niece and her friend Isabel Loving. A bright beautiful girl she seems, and I trust her gay manners and lively conversation will be beneficial to my gentle Annie, whose solitary childhood and lonely life have thrown a shade of sadness over her, although ever full of quiet happiness yet lacking that buoyant spirit and careless joy which in a young person is so pleasant and attractive. Yet to me the perfect stillness that seems to dwell within her has something sacred in it, which her sweet innocent face and winning manners serve but to heighten.
The forty happy years that have passed have been darkened but by few sad hours. My life thus far has been full of joy. May the future be as much so. I have nothing to wish for, my own quiet little homemade dearer by the untiring love and care of Annie, surrounded by all that makes life happy, near those I love and venerate, possessing the means of giving joy and comfort to others, which is returned fourfold to me. What more can I desire? Nothing, but wait for what may come, hoping only I may see my child surrounded by the blessings she so richly deserves.
How often are we deceived by a bright exterior, little dreaming of the darkness within. Isabel is not what I thought her. I fear under a fine gay manner of a light laughing face she conceals a cold unfeeling heart, bent only on the accomplishment of her wishes. There is something not quite true about her and the absence of that frank simplicity which makes Annie so dear to us all, but time will show. Who indeed would look for much from a girl who from her youth has been allowed her will in everything, and now at the age of eighteen, the only child of a selfish worldly man, handsome, accomplished, and an heiress? Who can expect those domestic virtues which are found only in those over whom a mother has fondly watched and taught as only a mother can? Poor child, she has never known much care, and it shall be my duty to show her where she errs and gently strive to take away all that darkens and misleads her. Proud of her beauty and many accomplishments, she takes no interests in those quiet enjoyments which cannot bring into notice her powers of display. Had I not perfect confidence in Annie’s pure and unsuspicious nature I should fear to have her near one who is so far from truth and purity herself, but I will not judge hastily. She seems to love Annie and that is enough to make me tender with all her faults.
My good old friend Mr. Clifford has written asking as a favour a home for his invalid son for a few months. How gladly do I grant his request and how pleasant it is to feel it in one’s power to give happiness to those we love.
I well remember the pale, slender boy whom years ago I saw weeping in childish sorrow over his mother’s deathbed. How I longed to comfort and protect the gentle child, and now I look forward with delight to the joy of seeing him again.
Isabel too is longing for some new object to dazzle by her wit and beauty, and Annie gladly listens to my tales of his early days and thinks only of how she may give him pleasure and gather round him all that she can add to his health and happiness.
Last evening about sunset as I sat sewing, a carriage drove up the avenue and a gentleman came through the garden. I hastened down and to my surprise found it Edward Clifford. I had foolishly imagined that the child I had seen so long ago could not have changed, and when I saw before me a tall, noble-looking young man I felt rather embarrassed, till in the low musical voice that reminded me so strongly of his gentle mother, he said cordially shaking my hand, “This is the Aunt Nellie I am sure who is going to take such good care of me. I feel much better already, the soft air and kind faces are so pleasant.”
I welcomed him warmly and when the carriage drove away rang the bell for refreshments and then a quiet hour was most delightfully spent in talking over bygone days, and I grew more and more interested in Edward, in whom I found his mother’s gentle heart beautifully blended with the calm and noble mind of his father, added to which most winning manners and a fascinating power of conversation which made the time fly swiftly, and I began to look for the return of the girls, for Isabel had gone to ride and Annie to see blind Alice.
The sun was just setting behind the trees when I was startled from the pleasant thoughts in which I was indulging by a sudden exclamation from Edward, who stood at the window, “How perfectly lovely. It was worth coming this far if only to look on such a sweet picture.”
“It is indeed a beautiful sunset,” I said, going to his side, but what a pleasant surprise it was when I saw it was Annie instead of the sunset on which he gazed with such sparkling eyes. She had never looked so lovely. The walk had given a brilliant colour to her usually pale cheeks, over which her sunny brown hair fell in heavy curls that were fastened back from her face by a little white rose and, as she carefully led old Alice, one arm thrown round her, the other holding a bucket of flowers, it was indeed a lovely picture of youth and age.
“Who can it be Aunt Nellie, do you know?” said Edward, turning eagerly to me as they passed behind the terrace.
“It’s my niece Annie Ellerton. She has been gathering flowers for you and will soon be here with them,” I answered as composedly as possible, “so don’t agitate yourself.”
“I beg your pardon,” he replied, smiling and blushing slightly, “but when such visions of beauty appear in our dismal world we must be pardoned if we admire and exclaim. But who was that?” he asked as a horse darted by the window.
And the next instant we heard a gay laugh and light footsteps and Isabel danced into the room crying, “Aunt Nellie, has Mr. Clifford come? If not, I shall give him up as a false man who does not mean to keep his word.”
“Mr. Clifford is here and much flattered by the desire felt to see him, though sorely afraid the bright eyes will be disappointed at the shadow of a man they are doomed to look upon,” said he, coming out of the recess where he had stood unseen.
“Miss Loving, Annie’s friend,” I said by way of introduction. Isabel gave her hand with a deep blush and dropped her eyes with well-acted diffidence.
Edward was evidently struck by her brilliant beauty and graceful form shown to advantage by the little hat and tightly fitting habit.
“It was not fair not to tell me before I had committed myself. I shall not dare to show my face again,” she said, and with a merry laugh she left the room.
“Then shall she be deprived of our sunlight and all other earthly things,” he answered gaily, and then taking up a book, seemed deeply interested therein, at which I very much wondered till, as I passed to ring for tea, saw he held it upside down.
When we went to the library we found Isabel arranging fruit and Annie soon came in with a basket of lovely wildflowers. A smile lit up her face as she saw Edward and with the simplicity of a child held out her hand saying, “Ah, is it you Mr. Clifford? Welcome to Ferndale and own it most beautiful,” turning to the open window.
“I never looked on a fairer sight I do own, cousin Annie, for so I may call you, may I not?” answered he, looking not on the landscape to which she pointed but down on the gentle face that in its unconscious beauty looked so quietly out onto the twilight. “And you must not call me Mr. Clifford again, but Edward if you please, for I am rich and must have my own way in everything you know.”
“I should like it very much. I have often wished for a brother and you will be that to me, will you not?” said she, looking into his face, which bore no resemblance to a sick one just then.
“Most willingly, but I see Aunt Nellie is sitting in perfect despair listening to us while her nice supper is getting cold, and her romantic friends hungry, or one of them at least,” he answered her, leading her to a seat and taking one beside her, much to Isabel’s disappointment, who wondered what he saw attractive in Annie’s quiet ways, so to laugh off the frown she could not hide, she took a flower from Annie’s basket and a peach from hers saying, as she held them up, “Which will you have? This is Annie’s gift, this mine.”
“I may not have both, I suppose, so I will be very humble and content myself with this little flower as a token of the thoughtful care of its gentle giver. I will admire the peach and its mistress without daring to take.” Then seeing her mortified face, he added kindly, “But if I may have it, shall prize it highly as most welcome after a long ride. By the by, Miss Loving, I see you are quite perfect in horsemanship, and promise myself some charming rides among your green hills so, with your permission, place myself under your tutorship, for I am as yet a novice in manly sports. A sickly childhood ill fits one for such things.” And thus he talked on till the smiles came back to her face, and then sat as if perfectly happy by Annie, answering her simple questions and listening eagerly for her answers.
I sat joining now and then in the conversation and watching the various thoughts and feelings in the three young faces before me, and an interesting occupation I found it.
The evening passed rapidly away with gay conversation and singing, during which we discovered that Edward possessed a fine voice and a great taste for music, so I promised myself many pleasant hours listening to them. Even now, as I sit alone in my working room, the sound of their sweet low music comes stealing up, bringing back the days when I too, surrounded by gay young friends, sang in the joy of my heart, little dreaming of the sorrows that were coming to still those dear voices and leave me alone; but I am getting into a melancholy mood and must say goodnight to my sorrowful thoughts and the world also.
The days pass swiftly and pleasantly by. Edward is growing stronger but I suspect it is the gentle words and looks and gay society more than air or exercise. Though Isabel has taken him at his word, and they daily scour the hills and woods and find health and spirits therein, what has not a little surprised me was that Annie has not been once invited to accompany them. I however said nothing, and yesterday my curiosity was gratified by a little scene.
The horses were at the door waiting for Isabel, who had not yet made her appearance. I sat by the window, watching Edward as he placed some green leaves around their heads, wishing he might always be with us. He already seems as a son to me and I love him as such, for the gentle reverence and affection of man is ever pleasant to us women old and young.
While thus thinking, Annie came across the lawn with her arms full of flowers and offered him some to deck his favourite with. “He will feel more honoured if they are placed by your skillful hands, Annie,” he said. And then, as she stood on the bank above him weaving a wreath for the noble horse, who bent his proud head forward to her gentle hands, Edward said, “I wish you were going with us, for we are an exploring expedition today. Why have you never learned, when you love the woods and hills so much?”
“Oh, I can ride,” said she simply, “and love it very much, but here are only one or two horses with whom I dare trust myself. I love the garden and my flowers. Bella does not, so I lose no pleasure if she is happy.”
“Miss Loving told me you could not and were so timid nothing would induce you venture while entreaties only troubled you.” And a cloud formed over his happy face. “How strange and careless you must have thought me that I never asked you. It shall not happen again. Put on your hat and I will conjure up something to bear you, only have faith in my power.”
Then as she hastened away, her quiet face showing how pleasant it was to her, he caught a glimpse of me and held his finger up saying, “Tell no tales, Aunt Nellie, and let me be wilful this once and I’ll bring some mountain flowers to repay your indulgence.” And with the sunshine again on his handsome face, he ran down the terrace and left me greatly mystified as to his purpose.
Isabel, having at length arranged hat, habit and hair according to rule, came down and was greatly surprised to see Annie equipped for a ride also. We had just succeeded in satisfying her curiosity when the sound of hoofs drew us to the window, and Edward, waving his hat, came up the avenue at full speed and springing to the ground said laughingly, “Now ladies, am I not a gallant squire and a good pleader, for I have coaxed from old John his best horse in honour of the day. And now let’s be off, for the noon gets high!”
And taking no notice of Bella’s crimsoned cheeks and great embarrassment, he mounted them and said as he passed the window, “You are not afraid to trust her with me, are you Aunt Nellie? Look at her happy face and you cannot refuse.”
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Issue 60, 2020