Young, beautiful Rosamund Vivian longs for adventure after years of being cooped up in a dreary house with her cantankerous and unaffectionate grandfather. So when the handsome and mysterious Philip Tempest pays them a visit, she is fascinated by his stories of adventure and his allusions to a dark past. Before she knows it, she's been swept away on his yacht, off to an exciting new life of romantic travels to exotic locales. However, it is not long before Rosamond discovers that her new love is not all he seems. She discovers, to her horror, that their marriage is a sham, and Philip is already married to another woman. In he shame, Rosamund tries to flee, but the deceitful Philip is not ready to let her go. From mountain monastery to secluded asylum, through France, Italy, Germany, and England, Rosamund wrestles with her own conflicting emotions as she tries to escape the clever and controlling Philip, but he is always close on her heels, and utterly unscrupulous in his pursuit of the woman he claims to love. Will Rosamund ever be truly free of this monster she once loved?
Apparently Alcott, best known for her more realistic novels involving the March sisters (Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys, etc.), also penned several outlandish adventure romances, including this little gem. Originally--and deliciously--entitled A Modern Mephistopheles, this book was ultimately rejected by publishers as being 'too sensational', even after Alcott tried to 'tone it down' and make it more palatable. It languished in unpublished obscurity until the headmaster of a New Hampshire school got his hands on the original sensational version and was able to finally get it published. And thank goodness for that.
Allow me to say: This book is hilarious. And I mean that in the best possible way. By the end of the story (and honestly, the title should be enough to tell you how it ends), Rosamund has been institutionalized by a corrupt doctor; concealed herself as a nun in a convent; masqueraded as a boy; climbed out at least two different windows; and befriended a wide variety of colorful characters. In the course of her adventures, no fewer than three men fall in love with fair Rosamund, including a Count, a war hero, and a Roman Catholic priest--in one of my favorite scenes in the books, Rosamund catches the priest reading Luther's reflections on marriage for clergymen, which she finds immensely promising. Priceless.
As much as Rosamund is a caricature of the endlessly good and beautiful (and courageous) heroine, Philip Tempest embodies the domineering and indefatigable villain perfectly. He is genuinely convinced that he loves Rosamund, and everything he does is 'for her own good'--including chasing her across continental Europe and falsely accusing her of creating his villainy out of her own insanity. He lies about her, kidnaps her, bullies her, controls her, and threatens violence to all who would help her (or try to take his place), all in the name of love. This selfish 'love' is nicely contrasted with the selfless devotion of Rosamund's priestly admirer, who is determined to honor her and his vows despite his immense attraction to her. His concern for her virtue strengthens Rosamund's own resolve to do what is right, and he shows himself her faithful friend time and time again.
For her part, Rosamund has a hard time moving past the love she once felt for Tempest. She is determined not to voluntarily engage in the dishonorable conduct in which she was previously an unwitting participant (that is, living with a man who is not her husband), but her heart is traitorous and she is still drawn to the vile and selfish Philip even after she learns of his deceit and wickedness--an attraction that empowers Philip greatly in his efforts to manipulate and control her. Fortunately, her interaction with other men gradually teaches her the difference between this corrupt and diseased 'love' and actual regard and concern for another.
Of course, ridiculous plots like this are a dime a dozen, and litter the romance aisle of any bookstore. However, this novel benefits from nineteenth century literary standards (which means scandalous behavior, though present, is not explicitly discussed) and Alcott's prodigious skill as a writer. Alcott, fresh from her own European adventure as the paid companion of
an invalid, describes the places and people with style and flair, and
manages to tell an outlandish story with a fair amount of subtlety and
restraint. I have no idea if Alcott intended this book to be funny or not, but I
like to think she got the joke. After all, this is a novel that Jo
March might well write, and Alcott mocked Jo mercilessly (though
good-humoredly) for her penchant for sensational writing in Little Women. I mean, the story isn't subtle--not at all. But the writing
is excellent, and never detracts from the preposterous events Alcott
describes. By writing so seriously (and well), the sheer bonkers quality of the plot shines through undisturbed.
I had a feeling I would enjoy this book--they had me at 'from monastery to asylum', and at the laughably obvious moniker of 'Tempest'--but I never expected it would be such an unmitigated pleasure to read. If you delight in the ridiculous and improbable and appreciate a crazy romance cocktail full of over-the-top characters and sensational plot developments, well, drink up, because this one's delicious.