cover image The Inheritance

The Inheritance

Louisa May Alcott. Dutton Books, $18 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-525-45756-5

Dutton compares Alcott's recently discovered, charming first novel (written in 1849, when she was just 17) to those of Jane Austen. The comparison is apt, even if Alcott, though impressively accomplished for her age, can't match Austen for smart dialogue or lived-in characters. In fact, the novel is pure romance and reads like a fairy tale. Set in a manor house somewhere in England, it tells of two virtuous lovers separated by rank and the machinations of a jealous interloper. Alcott's heroine is a lovely Italian orphan with a mysterious past (and the wonderfully un-Italian name of Edith Adelon). The hero, Lord Percy (""Would to heaven I were a peasant""), is chivalrous, handsome and resigned to a life of loneliness after the loss of an early love. Will fate bring them together? Of course it will. Meanwhile, Alcott trots her characters through a delightful series of vignettes: an overheard garden colloquy, a candlelight boating party, a revealing round of tableaux vivants, a discovered theft, a deathbed promise-and the inevitable unearthing of a missing will that explains Edith's lineage. Alcott handles all of this machinery with aplomb and winning earnestness. According to the scholars who recently found the manuscript in Harvard's Houghton Library, The Inheritance is the novel Jo March writes in Little Women. Whether this is true or not, The Inheritance proves that years before Alcott invented the young adult novel, she could already give voice to the preoccupations and fantasies of the ""little women"" who would become her most enduring subjects. (Feb.)