I picked this book up, containing two novels by Louisa May Alcott, with the understanding that the first listed story was a sort of first draft of A Long Fatal Love Chase, as its alternate title was A Modern Mephistopheles. However, despite sharing a similar concept, the stories actually diverge wildly enough in their characters and plot to be considered two separate works. This edition includes an introduction with an explanation of how Alcott altered her initial idea, somewhat according to her publisher’s recommendation, and came up with the more sensational, marketable version found in A Long Fatal Love Chase, with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. The original story was shelved without being published until it was found and published under the name A Modern Mephistopheles near the end of the twentieth century, I believe.
A Modern Mephistopheles then, is a more subtly suspenseful tale of a Faustian pact made by a struggling young writer on the brink of suicide with a rich older gentleman who promises to be his patron in return for his undying obedience. When his first book of poems turns him into an overnight sensation, the young writer fears that he cannot replicate the success without the continued assistance of his devil and must continue to concede to his every whim—even to the point of marrying according to his new benefactor’s wishes, against his own. The machinations of the Mephistophelian character, unlike that of his counterpart in Love Chase, turn out to reveal his own bondage to a passion he is unable to overcome, making the story the tragedy of the character assuming the role of antagonist. This is a claustrophobic tale, laid out almost like scenes of a play, with a few key characters making up the soul of the drama. The story is fairly slow, but really focuses on the atmosphere of these few people’s society and the psychology that each of them, particularly the Mephistopheles, reveals as their operating motivation.
Taming a Tartar is a different beast—shorter, snappier, and much more tongue-in-cheek. The protagonist of this novel is quite a modern woman with a quick wit and confidence that serves her well in her sparring matches with the gruff and unmannered Tartar of the title. It’s a simple tale of a man of rough exterior being challenged to change by a woman who doesn’t put up with his imprecations and intimidations. Despite the cliché premise, this an amusing story that handles its unlikely romance with charm and boldness, not stooping to excusing abusive behaviour, but not completely vilifying the strength and forcefulness of the man’s character, either. It rather matches its pair of lovers with similar temperaments and puts them in situations that force them to adapt to certain aspects of the other, and learn to compromise in a way that is acceptable to both and contributes to their ultimate happiness. It is generally a fluffy tale, with a little conflict of manners to give a bit of bite.