Read the official review at Tales Between the Pages
This is Louisa May Alcott’s very first book, written 20 years before Little Women. it reminds me a lot of Jane Austen’s first novella, Love and Friendship. I think Alcott was very much influenced by the sentimental genre because The Inheritance is very much a sentimental kind of text.
What is the sentimental genre, you ask? It’s a genre of novel very popular in the eighteenth century that focuses on sentiment and sensibility. It often focuses on the “underdog” characters, mostly orphans. Oh my, the orphans. I’ve come across some that focus on criminal but the orphan is by far the most popular, especially in English sentimental texts. American sentimental literature focuses a lot (and I mean A LOT) on seduction. Susanna Rowson’s novel, Charlotte Temple (1792) is perhaps the most famous sentimental novel about seduction. Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette is a close second. The sentimental genre evolved into “domestic fiction” and the conduct novel in the nineteenth century. Conduct novels were often meant for young women to read because people feared novels in general. They were afraid women reading seduction novels would succumb to seduction themselves. Conduct novels helped rally the rise of the novel because they attempted to debunk that myth. Women could and often did read without running off with the first rake who nodded in their general direction. Fiction could teach as well as entertain.
I’ve seen a few one and two star reviews of this book calling it garbage. I think if we can recognize that Alcott is imitating a very specific and very popular genre for the time-period, the text itself becomes a bit better and more important considering how prolific her writing career became.
With that being said, the story was surprisingly well crafted for being Alcott’s first foray into fiction. It’s about a wealthy family who takes in an Italian orphan named Edith, who grows up with the family and is young Amy’s companion and teacher. Edith is modest, sensible, smart, beautiful, and good-hearted. Cousin Ida hates her. When Lord Percy comes to visit the family and is instantly smitten by Edith’s charm and beauty. [Don't be alarmed or stop reading here. This is a convention of the genre]. Ida vows to bring Edith down. Why should Edith get all the attention when Ida is clearly higher born? Like the description says, a secret inheritance allows virtue to prevail. I think you can get the picture here.
I think I might have enjoyed this novel a little more than others because of my interest in the sentimental. Yes, there are “convenient” plot-points but that’s not the point. The real reason the sentimental is so important is because at the heart of each novel there is a message. Alcott’s message is about greed, wealth, and loyalty. A few of her characters are shells: Amy and her brother, most notably. Ida is a stereotype but the story does need a villain. I found that Edith and Lord Percy are the most “full” characters. They have deeper motivations and feelings than the others.
There is drama and romance and betrayal, but there is also a happy ending that solidifies Alcott’s message about greed, wealth, and loyalty. Greed never wins. A loyal friend is worth more than any amount of money. A person can be more wealthy than they seem. Though basic lessons, Alcott presents them well. Though The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott is not her best work, it is, nonetheless, important when considering Alcott’s body of work. It may seem trivial that she started out in the sentimental genre, but I think it lays a great foundation for the rest of her writing career.