When Louisa May Alcott was 17 years old, she wrote a short story about three young people under the care of an unmarried woman named Nellie: her sweet, innocent niece Annie; dark-haired, witty Isabel; and tall, dashing family friend Edward. The 40-year-old Nellie narrates the trio’s tale—love triangle and all—in a composition fittingly titled “Aunt Nellie’s Diary.”
Now, 171 years after the Little Women author penned this 1849 work, the Strand magazine—a 21st-century reincarnation of the prominent Victorian periodical—has published it in print for the first time. As Alcott scholar Daniel Shealy tells the New York Times’ Jacey Fortin, the previously unpublished story is a rare find, as many of the writer’s journals were destroyed by either Alcott herself or by family members acting at her behest.
“[Alcott] was ahead of her time in many respects, from being a feminist [to being an] abolitionist,” Andrew Gulli, editor of the Strand, tells the Guardian’s Alison Flood. “Fans will enjoy the idyllic life portrayed in the novel with picnics, and masked balls, which is a far cry from the life most of are leading today.”
Gulli first found a reference to the “Nellie” manuscript while searching Alcott’s archives, which are stored at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, reports Hillel Italie for the Associated Press. The Strand has a history of unearthing forgotten works: Previously, the magazine has published unseen pieces by the likes of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, J.M. Barrie and Tennessee Williams.
Alcott wrote “Aunt Nellie’s Diary” from the perspective of Nellie, a single woman tasked with caring for her orphaned niece, Annie. One summer, Annie’s friend Isabel comes to stay with the pair.
“Isabel is not what I thought her,” observes Nellie in the story, as quoted by the Guardian. “I fear under a fine gay manner of a light laughing face she conceals a cold unfeeling heart, bent only on the accomplishment of her wishes.”
At one point, Annie and Isabel attend a masquerade dressed as the morning and the night, respectively. Annie dresses in white with a pale pink veil, while Isabel arrives in a black robe and veil patterned with silver stars, per the Times. Both fall for the young, handsome Edward Clifford.
Alcott wrote the story during a time she describes as her sentimental period, according to the Guardian. But she had an interest in “lurid things,” and signs of that preference for darker fiction pop up in the short story.
“When I read it, I was thinking, ‘Wow, what maturity,’” Gulli tells the Times.
In 1849, Alcott and her family were living in a basement apartment in Boston and struggling to make ends meet. Despite these difficult circumstances, the young author was already demonstrating “the skills and the imagination that a professional writer would need,” says Shealy to the Times. “We can see her ability to give wonderful characterizations, and her ability to plot her story and pace it in a way that keeps the reader’s interest.”
Alcott also presented characters—like Nellie—that defied stereotypes of mid-19th century America. Soon after writing “Aunt Nellie’s Diary,” she wrote her first novel, The Inheritance, which was only published in the 1990s.
For all of the new story’s intrigue, Alcott fans don’t need to worry about spoiling its ending. Nine thousand words in, the author simply stopped mid-sentence: “I begged and prayed she would …”
To help wrap up the long unfinished tale, the Strand will open the floor to aspiring authors. The winning finale will appear in a future issue of the magazine.
“Clearly, this story is building to a big reveal, and we’re going to learn new things about the characters’ pasts,” Shealy tells the Associated Press.