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Unfinished story by Little Women author Louisa May Alcott published for first time

The Guardian logo The Guardian 25/06/2020 Alison Flood

An early story from a young Louisa May Alcott, in which the Little Women author writes of two teenage girls vying for the attentions of a handsome young man, has been published for the first time.

Written in 1849, when Alcott was 17, Aunt Nellie’s Diary is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old woman bringing up her orphaned niece, Annie. When Annie’s friend Isabel comes to stay, Nellie becomes concerned that the girl’s attractive exterior hides a “darkness within”.

Related: Being Jo March: Little Women finally has an ending grown women deserve | Josephine Tovey

“Isabel is not what I thought her. 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,” writes Alcott in the unfinished story, which appears this week in the Strand magazine.

The 9,000-word work, describes both girls fall for the motherless Edward Clifford, who possesses his late “mother’s gentle heart beautifully blended with the calm and noble mind of his father”.

It was written almost 20 years before Little Women was published. The Strand’s editor Andrew Gulli said the tale showed how mature Alcott was at a very early age. “She was ahead of her time in many respects, from being a feminist and abolitionist,” said Gulli. “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.”

Daniel Shealy, professor of English at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said the story showed “an emerging talent on the cusp of a promising career”.

Alcott would write her first novel, The Inheritance, the same year. The story of an Italian orphan who discovers that her inheritance is the English estate on which she is a paid companion, it was not published until 1997. Together with Aunt Nellie’s Diary, it is part of what Alcott described in her journals as her sentimental period. “I fancy ‘lurid things’, if true and strong also,” Alcott wrote of her literary influences at the time – Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Charlotte Brontë and Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Aunt Nellie’s Diary shows hints of that love of darker fiction,” writes Shealy in an introduction to the tale.

The Strand is calling for writers to put themselves forward to finish the narrative. “Unfortunately, after 9,000 words, the narrative was abandoned, leaving many questions unanswered,” said Gulli. “We’re now looking for authors who think they are up for the task of completing it.”

Shealy said: “Good stories always keep readers wanting to turn the pages and Alcott, even in her late teens, knew this well. Aunt Nellie’s Diary, over 170 years after it was penned, now takes its rightful place among Alcott’s earliest works, revealing the promise and talent that would blossom in her celebrated literary career.”

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