When I was a girl, reading Little Women, I had heard it said that very much like her character Jo March, Louisa May Alcott had earned her family's income writing "Penny Dreadfuls", short stories with an element of sexuality and/or sensationalism that sold to a voraciously-reading public for the afore-mentioned penny: Little Women was a thinly-disguised autobiography, art imitated life. I got the ambition to imitate her career path. However, I never made any money writing other than the savings bond I won in an essay contest. There's a reason why Penny Dreadfuls went out of style: though Alcott's characters and descriptions are as good as ever, the stories do not soar as her books did, because rather than spend pages on character development or the build up of circumstances that reveal certain things about the people in the stories or cause them to react a certain way and touch off a series of events, in the interest of brevity, Alcott more often than not contrives a situation in which the chief characters narrate their own backstory or, as in movies or cartoons where the villain of the piece reveals his plan in a grand speech giving the opportunity for the hero(es) to escape and foil the plot,and alas, the stories suffer from it.
I must note that the book is interesting from a Disability Studies perspective, as some of the stories in this collection feature characters with disabilities of one sort or another and reveal Victorian attitudes towards disabilities:
In "A Pair of Eyes" the infant son of the protagonist by a visually-impaired woman is described as "dumb, blind, and imbecile". In "The Abbot's Ghost", protagonist Maurice Trehorne uses a wheelchair, having lost the use of his legs in a yachting accident. Though unassisted, his family maintains a high level of care. He is supported by his brother and has plans to marry his female cousin, though her mother advises her against marriage to a "cripple" and tells him he has to be "well" before he can hope to ask for his cousin's hand with her approval. He is included in family festivities, including an annual Christmas Ball. The problem of wheelchair accessibility in a gothic mansion which used to be a ruined abbey is solved by "two footmen [who] carried him up the great stairway chair and all". However, by saving his cousin Olivia by the quick thinking and quick action of leaping out of his chair and wrapping her in a tiger skin when her dress caught fire after she stood too close to the hearth, he is rewarded with an instant and complete cure, the theory being that a sudden mental shock would magically cure paralysis, as in _Heidi_. However, unlike other stories in the "instant cure" genre, Maurice has to undergo a period of rehabilitation, practicing walking on crutches, or supported by his brother, gradually increasing the distance, strengthening his muscles and regaining his balance. All ends happily when his rehabilitation is successful, he is able to marry his cousin Olivia as a well man, and it is revealed that the other potential impediment to marriage, a gambling debt, was really owed by his brother Jasper, rather than him.
This story collection also contains two instances of individuals who _pretend_ to have disabilities for the sake of larger social goals: in V.V., the femme fatale has an Indian servant who pretends to be "deaf and dumb", it is later discovered that he is playing a part in the deception she is perpetrating, and he is only pretending to be a native of India as well. Enigmas features a pair of Italian revolutionary refugees, two sisters, who elude pursuers by masquerading as other people; in one case, one of the sisters cross-dresses as a man, while the other pretends to be "an invalid", described as partially blind and suffering from some unspecified general physical weakness. The "invalid" tires of the masquerade, and regaining her former appearance, enters into a mock marriage with the sister who is dressing as a male!