Moods is Louisa May Alcott’s lesser known first novel, originally published in 1864. The novel and context surrounding its publishing present an interesting glimpse into the life and mind of Alcott. A romance that takes its cues from transcendentalist styles, Moods follows the story of Sylvia, a young woman caught between two men, modeled after Emerson and Thoreau, who are both in love with her. While she is in love with Warwick, she ultimately marries Moor, and must deal with the consequences of her own choices.
Described as odd and impetuous, readers get a unique glimpse of Sylvia through the eyes of Geoffrey Moor in the second chapter of the 1864 version of the novel. (Alcott significantly revised the novel before republishing it in 1882, with major changes to the beginning and ending of the novel). Seen in a boy’s clothing while working in the garden, Moor mistakes her for a boy until she takes off her hat. The reader is told “if she had seemed strong-armed and sturdy as a boy before, now she was tender fingered as a woman, and went humming here and there like any happy-hearted bee” (Alcott 30).
Early on, the narrative reveals that Sylvia, despite her natural charms, has little interest in marriage or conforming to the expectations for girls in her time. Sylvia’s narrative struggle in coming of age within the confines of a society that has strict rules for young women echoes with a unique familiarity for queer people. Growing up under the pressures of heteronormativity and cisnormativity, many queer people feel awkward or out of place, yet they are not always able to identify the source of their discomfort. Her androgyny alone creates an intriguing element to Moor’s attraction to Sylvia, especially considering his close relationship to Warwick. Warwick and Moor do share a surprising level of familiarity and affection, especially in the chapters after Sylvia’s feelings for Warwick are discovered and lead both men to travel to Europe for a time. They even share a kiss shortly before Warwick sacrifices himself in a stormy sea to save Moor’s life. It leads to questions about whether there is something in her androgyny that draws Moor to her or if, perhaps, the love triangle in the novel is a real triangle rather than a V.
Importantly, Sylvia is not the only character who brushes up against gender lines within Moods. The educated and domestic Geoffrey Moor is described, by Sylvia herself, as having the neighbor’s children “nestled to him as if he were a girl” (27) and, later, as having “the intuitions of a woman in many things” (291). Queer readings of Moods hardly stop here, another central character to the narrative is Faith, Warwick’s unmarried cousin, who scholars position as Sylvia’s true love interest or an acceptable proxy for her affection for Warwick once she is married to Moor. However, other readings of Moods may be possible, especially when taking into consideration some more recent scholarship on Alcott herself.
It has been suggested, based on writings within Alcott’s personal journals and quotes from interviews, that Alcott may have identified with an identity that would be more masculine, possibly a butch lesbian or straight transgender man. What labels exactly Alcott would have chosen for herself will never be known, but we do know that Alcott expressed both an inclination towards masculine self-expression and some form of attraction to women. This potentially queer identity, it can be speculated, may have played a role in Alcott’s connection to Thoreau, another writer whose identity remains the subject of speculation by modern scholars. Most certainly, Alcott’s own identity would directly tie into her seeming love of writing protagonists with tomboyish or unconventional personalities. Considering this, the relationships of the men and women around Sylvia may be open to interpretation that discards the idea of female characters acting as proxies for the male characters, but rather that the male characters could be proxies for the desires of Sylvia herself. Sylvia’s connection to Moor could become one of reflections, in Moor, she sees the masculinity she desires to be free to express and the elements of conventional femininity that elude her. This adds nuanced space for literary analysis in her decision to marry him, and the fate of their marriage.
Interestingly, the ending—and the fate of Moor and Sylvia’s marriage—is one of the key changes between the originally published version of the novel and the revision. In the original, Sylvia sends for Moor to return home so she can tell him that she is dying, having worn herself out. The 1882 revision instead concludes with Sylvia learning to love her husband as she should, reviving their fractured marriage and seeking to become a good wife. However, neither published version of the novel contains Alcott’s original and truest ending, in which Sylvia spends the rest of her life single and content to be so. Of course, it’s hardly a surprise that Alcott’s first ending had to be changed before publication, knowing that the 1864 version of the novel still managed to stir up controversy in its seeming attempts to undermine the institution of marriage by shedding light on the troubles many women faced when trapped in a marriage with no way to leave. Within the Rare Book Collection, we have the good fortune of holding a copy of the original version of the novel, with an unrevised beginning and ending and an author’s presentation inscription. Moreover, the Collection’s copy of the novel includes a tipped in page of handwritten notes—likely from a previous collector or bookseller— copying other critical sources about the revisions to Moods and Alcott’s clear fondness for the novel.