Behind a Mask, by Louisa May Alcott, involves the thirty year old aging actress Jean Muir who’s quest to become a member of high society leads her to the wealthy Coventry family under the guise of being a nineteen year old Scottish governess needed for young Bella Coventry. In order to reach her end goal of marrying into the family, Jean must win over the family members and does so by showing herself to be the good woman each person in the family needs her or wants her to be. Furthermore, by playing the part of a good, pleasing woman, Jean proves herself to be a strong woman. Jean is able endure the task of pleasing others in order to ultimately please herself with financial security and privilege once she attains the title of Lady Coventry.
The Coventry family knows very little about Jean Muir before she arrives and they nervously hope she is a nice woman that will meet their needs. Sensing this, Bella Coventry does her best to put in a good word for Jean:
“Don’t be troubled, Mamma. She is a nice person, I dare say, and when once we are used to her, I’ve no doubt we shall be glad to have her…Lady Sydney said she was a quiet, accomplished, amiable girl, who needed a home, and would be a help to poor stupid me, so try to like her for my sake” (Alcott 2-3).
This passage illustrates the past precedent Jean has set for herself as a good woman with her former employer. This is important because having the reputation of an “amiable girl” is what sanctioned the referral to the Coventry family.
Having a good reputation is what gets Jean Muir in the door, but in order to stay, Jean must prove her reputation and credentials in person, as made evident by Mrs. Coventry’s prompt, “And you are fitted to teach music, French, and drawing,” to which Jean obediently obliges:
“Miss Muir played like one who loved music and was perfect mistress of her art. She charmed them all by the magic of this spell; even indolent Gerald sat up to listen, and Lucia put down her needle, while Ned watched the slender white fingers as they flew, and wondered at the strength and skill which they possessed” (Alcott 5).
This passage establishes Jean’s ability to be a good woman as well as demonstrates some of her credentials. Particularly, Jean illustrates the good woman’s trait of compliance to what is requested. Moreover, Jean not only does what she is told, she does so in a pleasing and humble manner. The fact that Jean instantly gets up to prove her skill and to please Mrs. Coventry is an indication of her future temperament when serving the family.
Towards the end of the performance, Jean shows the extent to which she will go to please by dramatically fainting, “But suddenly the music ceased, for, with a vain attempt to support herself, the singer slid from her seat and lay before the startled listeners, as white and rigid as if struck with death,” (Alcott 5) as if she has given her all to meet Mrs. Coventry’s request and in doing so, shows her dedication to please.
This fainting scene also shows a role reversal when the family rushes to help Jean, “Edward caught her up, and, ordering his brother off the couch, laid her there, whileBella chafed her hands, and her mother rang for her maid. Lucia bathed the poor girl’s temples, and Gerald, with unwonted energy, brought a glass of wine” (Alcott 5). Jean has turned the table so that the family is waiting on her. This shows Jean’s skill in using her good woman persona in various ways to control those around her.
Having proved some of her worth, Jean is revived and invited to join the family for tea where she observes the tea being ill prepared by Ned Coventry and, being a good woman, Jean steps in to make the tea correctly:
“’Allow me to assume my duty at once, and serve you all. I understand the art of making people comfortable in this way.’…Miss Muir performed her little task with a skill and grace that made it pleasant to watch her…she rose to take the sugar basin to Mrs. Coventry, who was quite won by the modest, domestic graces of the new governess” (Alcott 6).
This scene showcases Jean’s ability to please others even with the most seemingly small tasks. It also shows her to have a pleasing disposition of a good woman as she performs these tasks.
Jean Muir embodies the good woman that is so highly valued during her time period and knowing this value, Jean uses it to her own advantage. This proves her to be more than just a good woman; she is a strong woman who knows how to play the game of pleasing others in order to please herself. She may be serving others as a good woman, but these acts serve her better in the long run.
Alcott, Louisa May (2014-04-11). Behind A Mask. (Annotated) (Louisa May Alcott Collection Book 16). Kindle Edition.