Alcott examines both angel and monster, and in some locations deftly combines the two into one entire and affirmative character. She displays us that all functions for women, from angel to monster, are probably masks which may be beneficial for the women tricked in evidently limiting functions if those functions are utilised to the best advantage. Alcott transcends the angel by displaying us non-angels who are still loved and thriving in the characters. She furthermore displays us the limitations for the angel in the kitchen when her expert of the world denies to work inside that world’s male functions by permitting us a peek.
She does these things to farther characterise who her own "I" might be. If it is "debilitating to be anywoman in a humanity where women are alerted that if they do not act like angels they should be monsters, then Alcott’s denial to be controlled by this duality (so superior in her own dwelling through Bronson’s individual beliefs) displays her exceptional power of will. If that does not specify her as a large author then it certainly should specify her as a large woman. Louisa May Alcott was a woman who transcended her society’s and her family’s anticipated roles. She was an "actress and woman" to be considered with.
The public Self-masking and private unmasking of governess Jean Muir in Louisa May Alcott’s novella Behind a Mask, or a Woman’s Power (1866) reflect on a physical level the ideological possibilities for and limitations of women’s authenticity within the domestic culture of this period. Muir’s brilliant manipulation of her employers to secure her own economic and social survival deploys exaggeratedly parodic ("masked") performances of female virtue and charm. Her private "unmasked" moments, however, reveal the fatigue, despair, and rage which this performance and her economic situation cause her. In Alcott’s later, semi-autobiographical novel Work (1873), she provides additional accounts of the tensions between public and private female selfhood and the costs of professionalism. As Christie Devon, the novel’s actress-protagonist, states as she examines her fatigued and aging face, "If three years of this life have made me this, what shall I be in ten? A fine actress perhaps, but how good a woman?"
How "good" can a public working woman be within the conventions and expectations of prevailing mid-nineteenth-century social norms, today variously referred to as "the cult of domesticity," "the cult of true womanhood," and "domestic ideology"? Karen Halttunen and others have described a shift at mid-century from a sentimental feminine ideal in which women’s bodies and dress transparently reflect private thought and feeling to a splitting of public display and private affect. The separation resulted in an external performance of conventions of conduct protecting (no longer masking) a socially-illegible interiority. Alcott figures this bifurcation in quasi-gendered terms as the "soft" (masked), feminized persona and the "hard" (unmasked), masculinized female persona. I intend here to examine the gender implications of these presentations alongside such terms as "authenticity" and "selfhood," to suggest how social power and professionalism are constructed as "masculine" within this novella and within the context of mid-nineteenth-century theories of domesticity which existed contemporaneously.
To return to the question of "goodness," Alcott provides in Behind a Mask a particularly rich text for a study of the gendering of work and female authenticity because she separates the novella’s sensational content as a "thriller" from its possible moral intent: "’I intend to illuminate the Ledger with a blood & thunder tale as they are easy to "compose" & are better paid than moral . . . works’" (Stern, Introduction xiv). Having thus detached herself and Jean Muir from any formal need to rehearse the conventions of domestic ideology, Alcott could produce a "defeminized" and profoundly subversive figure in Muir. Although the governess’s public display before her employers is impeccably modest, virtuous, and intelligent (mitigated with skillful displays of humility), alone in her room, she removes her "mask" (wig, makeup, teeth, and modest expression), drinks alcohol from a flask, and plots her strategies for acquiring the maximum amount of benefit from her employers–social and economic security through eventual marriage to the wealthy and aged family patriarch (11-12).