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A previously unpublished story by Louisa May Alcott, the author best known for her novel "Little Women," has been made available in print for the first time.

"Aunt Nellie's Diary" is one of Alcott's earliest works. She hand-wrote it in a journal in 1849, when she was 17. At the time, she was living in a basement apartment in Boston with her family, and they were struggling to stay afloat.

Even then, her prose was impressive, said Daniel Shealy, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and an Alcott scholar.

"She already possessed the skills and the imagination that a professional writer would need," he said. "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."

"Aunt Nellie's Diary" was published by the Strand Magazine, a literary quarterly based in Birmingham, Mich. The magazine (available for $9.99 at strandmag.com) has previously unearthed pieces by Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler and John Steinbeck.

Andrew F. Gulli, the Strand's managing editor, said the Alcott manuscript came from Houghton Library, a repository for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard University. "When I read it, I was thinking, 'Wow, what maturity,' " Gulli said.

The story takes the form of a diary written by Aunt Nellie, a 40-year-old woman living in a place called Ferndale. She takes three young people under her wing: her orphaned niece, Annie; Annie's friend, Isabel, and a family friend, Edward.

The three young people fit neatly into archetypal roles. Edward is charming and kind. Annie is sweet and innocent. Isabel is witty and artful.

A precursor

Annie and Isabel see Edward as a potential love interest. This relationship structure — a triangle of affection — would be revisited in many of Alcott's later works.

At one point in the story, the girls attend a masquerade ball in costume as Night and Morning.

"Isabel in a black robe and veil spangled with silver stars and a crescent in her dark hair made a splendid Night, a little too cold and haughty but very beautiful notwithstanding," Alcott wrote. "Annie in snow white garments, pale rose-coloured veil, and wreath of dewy half blown buds was as fair a Morning as ever dawned in Ferndale."

Sincere and quiet heroines like Annie often appear in Alcott's work, said Harriet Reisen, author of "The Woman Behind Little Women." That Alcott cast Annie as an orphan also is important.

"She had distinguished relatives, and she was from an old, established family," Reisen said of Alcott. "I think this orphan thing had to do with having these wealthy relatives who couldn't give her what she needed."

Alcott's work did not always borrow inspiration from her own life. She wrote poems, fairy tales, romances and dark, sensational thrillers.

And then came "Little Women," a novel about four sisters that was published in two volumes, in 1868 and 1869. It has since become an classic and has been adapted for the silver screen at various times, most recently by Greta Gerwig last year.

Gulli was thrilled to find the "Nellie" manuscript, but he was in for a disappointment. Alcott did not finish the story. The piece cuts off abruptly, midsentence: "I begged and prayed she would …"

But Gulli saw an opportunity in those ellipses. He said the magazine is going to have a contest, inviting aspiring writers to send in submissions to finish the story. The winner's version, he said, will be published in the magazine.

The "Nellie" manuscript is valuable because so many of Alcott's journals were destroyed, either by herself or by family members at her request, Shealy said.