A beautiful but penniless governess discovers she is an heiress. Her pure heart wins her the love of a dashing English lord.
Louisa May Alcott wrote this romantic tale when she was 18, but few knew about her unpublished first novel until two Alcott scholars found the manuscript in the stacks at a Harvard University library.
“I’ve come up with a lot of nice things before, but none as good as this,” Joel Myerson, an English professor at the University of South Carolina, said Tuesday.
The manuscript, titled “The Inheritance,” was found along with a note from Alcott claiming authorship of the story. The manuscript was listed in the library card catalog for the last 22 years and had been checked out at least five times by other scholars who apparently never thought to publish it.
The card catalog lists it as “‘The Inheritance,’ a manuscript; Boston, 1849; 166 pages, unpublished; her first novel.”
Alcott’s journals never mentioned the tale, written in 1849, predating her first published novel, “Moods,” in 1864, and her most famous novel, “Little Women,” in 1869.
Myerson and his collaborator, Daniel Shealy of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said they first saw the manuscript in 1988.
It was handwritten and difficult to decipher, and they only recently finished transcribing it.
“When we read the first couple of pages we thought the novel was worth photocopying. When we finally got around to transcribing it, we realized how good it was,” Myerson said.
Myerson said he wasn’t surprised by some news reports heralding the manuscript as “newly discovered.”
“People would say they discovered it even if it was sitting on the steps of the White House,” he said. “No one is going to write a headline saying someone finally paid attention to a long-ignored manuscript.”
Now Hollywood producers are vying for rights to the story, and book publishers will get their first shot at it this week, said Todd Shuster, a partner in Zachary Shuster, a Boston-based literary agency.
Agents negotiating the deal have been flooded with calls since word of the manuscript spread among major studios, Shuster said.
“We knew we had a wonderful novel on our hands, but we didn’t expect it to produce … this breaking of the floodwaters,” he said.