Anna Cora Mowatt and the Dickensian Link

Part of the fun of being a historian who focuses on a theatrical or literary figure from Victorian New York, London, or Boston was that these communities were all still so intimately small that unless your chosen person was extraordinarily reclusive to Henry David Thoreau or Emily Dickenson degree, you are probably going to have opportunities to name-drop most of the other headliners of the generation when your subject was in vogue. This tendency is so pronounced, if fact, that the version of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” for late Victorian American literati would be something more like “One Degree of Samuel Clemons” and would consist of tracking down an incident where either your subject got roaringly drunk with the author known as Mark Twain or was mocked, parodied, or merely severely inconvenienced by Twain and his drunken pals’ antics while they were on one of their many phenomenally popular lecture tours of the U.S.

However, as these things sometimes go, there are instances when either two figures never met, or it cannot be documented that they ever encountered each other face to face. Since the Christmas season is upon us and adaptations of Charles Dickens’ most famous work fill Netflix queues, I have decided to devote this blog to documenting my frustrated efforts to establish any sort of link between Anna Cora Mowatt and the creator of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

The first possible link that I am relatively sure is there but I just can’t establish is through William and Mary Howitt. Upon her arrival in London, Mowatt did not merely rely on her looks and talent to ensure a successful career on the English stage. She engaged in what we today would call “networking.” She was a believer in Swedenborigism, a sect of Christianity very popular among progressive thinkers at this time. Immediately upon her arrival in England, she got in touch with other New Church members and solicited their aid. At first, this tactic seemed to backfire. Critics and fellow cast members accused her of packing houses with friendly audiences. However, since she did have talent and personal appeal sufficient to draw crowds on her own merits as a performer, the boost of this positive word of mouth just did the work it was intended to do. Soon plenty of non-church members were buying tickets to see the little American.

The Howitts were also adherents of Swedenborgism with deep interests in spiritualism and mesmerism. It is unclear whether Mowatt was introduced to them by her request or if those fellow believers deputized in the furtherance of her career simply saw this potential connection as a logical next step. The Howitts were prolific authors who published an influential journal and were well-established figures on the London literary scene. Charles Dickens was not only a colleague, but a friend who might also be on the guest list when the Howitts and Mowatts began inviting each other to dinner parties. Dickens was acting and directing amateur theatricals in the mid-to-late 1840’s. In 1853, he launched his highly successful career as a public reader. These tours were very lucrative and seemed to be rather emotionally satisfying for Dickens. The physical strain of performing, however, may have hastened the author’s death. Anna Cora Mowatt was not the first, only or most famous person ever to have achieved success as a public reader. As I have said, I cannot establish if they ever even met, but who knows how the course of literary history may have been changed by a dinner conversation that began with, “Tell me a little about your career, Mrs. Mowatt.”

The next possible Dickens connection is definitely a miss. It comes through Mowatt’s acting partner E.L. (Edward Loomis) Davenport. In Dickens’ most theatrical novel, Nicholas Nickelby, the hero briefly joins a troupe of touring thespians managed by actor/director Mr. Crummles. The company features his aging child actor daughter “The Infant Phenomenon.” Some sources incorrectly identify E.L. Davenport’s daughter Fanny (whose middle names both refer Mowatt nicknames) as the inspiration for this character. This is chronologically unfeasible. Nicholas Nickleby was written in 1838-39. Fanny Davenport wasn’t born until 1850.The original “Infant Phenomenon” was probably Jean Davenport, daughter of T.D. Davenport, a Manchester theater manager who bluntly advised Dickens that when it came to acting talent, he’d be better off making his living as a writer. Since E.L. and his daughter made a good career starring in many popular stage adaptations of Dickens’ works, they may not have actively discouraged this confusion with the Manchester Davenports.

The last missing link between Mowatt and Dickens is via Walter Watts. An article titled “Convict Capitalists” in which Watts’ story features prominently appeared in the June 9, 1860 edition of Dickens’ weekly journal “All The Year Round.” Although he did not write the article himself, Dickens is reputed to have micromanaged the journal intensely during this time period. The piece, like the rest of the publication, was unlikely to have escaped his personal editorial review. Although uncredited here, “Convict Capitalists” was composed by John Hollingshead, one of the staff writers. Hollingshead later re-published the article in a collection of essays.

Several of the regular high-profile literary contributors to the journal, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Edward Bulwar-Lytton, and Anthony Trollope, had social and professional connections to Walter Watts. “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins was in final stages of pre-production at the Olympic at the time of Watts’ arrest. A chapter of Collins’ novel “The Woman in White” (in which Glyde, a “gentleman forger” plays a central role) leads off this issue of “All the Year Round.” There’s evidence that Charles Dickens himself ended up helping support the family of an actress named Mary Warner who had borrowed money from Watts and teetered on the edge of financial ruin after his financial house of cards toppled. Unlike the other notorious criminals whose careers were discussed in “Convict Capitalists,” Dickens, Gaskell, Bulwar-Lytton, Trollope, Collins, and others on the list of contributors actually either knew Watts or knew his friends. Many of them might have been to one or more of the manager of Marylebone’s recherché champagne dinners. In other words, if we converted the Watts scandal into an episode of “Murder, She Wrote” set at the office of “All the Year Round,” there would be lots of guest stars for Jessica to interview before we revealed whodunit.

Given the potential level of drama the story offered, freedom that other authors like David Moirer Evans had already demonstrated to present it luridly, and the potential lingering personal animus directed towards Watts among individuals associated with the publication, the article is remarkably bland in its approach to the subject matter. Most significantly for my interests, there is no mention of Anna Cora Mowatt or even either of the theaters Watts managed in the entire piece. Hollingshead leaves out the more interesting half of Watts’ double life in favor of presenting a close examination of how cleverly he managed to be a larcenous clerk by taking advantage of the boredom and inattention of everyone surrounding him. This is, of course, a significant part of Watts’ narrative, but in terms of compelling storytelling is a little on par with choosing to relate the events of the Jekyll and Hyde story by focusing on the difficulty Dr. Jekyll was having meeting regular office hours.

Of course, the article was not supposed to be about Watts alone. As I will discuss at more length in future blogs, one of the reason his story gained traction in England was that his crime was seen as the first in a chilling, new type of menace – the white-collar criminal. The article stresses similarities between the Watts case and those of Leopold Redpath, William Robson, and William Pullinger. All of these were men who Hollingshead felt had made a dark twist on the contemporary craze for self-help and instead helped themselves to other people’s money. They were all self-made men whose false identities were constructed out of insuffiently questioned reputations of the supposedly unimpeachable characters of the firms they were supposed to represent.

Placed in this sort of context, I can see why theaters and dressing rooms would be entirely extraneous to making the point the article was driving home. However given all the elements of the Watts scandal that have a distinctly Dickensian flavor – the sudden reversals of fortune, the mysterious locket, the vulnerable heroine with her brilliant grey eyes and waist-length auburn curls, the middle-aged husband lawyer husband who is literally and figurative blind to what’s going on, the antagonist with his barely-concealed double life threatening to destroy them all, a tragic-comic supporting cast of actors, actresses, chorus girls, and servants, and a roller-coaster of events all ending in arrest, ruin, trial, madness, and a dramatic suicide – it’s truly a shame that the master novelist didn’t try his hand at condensing it all into story form. One can’t help but wonder how Dickens might have taken the tragic fiasco of Watts scandal and found in it some glimmer of hope and redemption.

The Infant Phenomenon

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