Anna Cora Mowatt and Les Doigts de Fee

The last ten years of Anna Cora Mowatt’s life is significantly less well documented than the decades that preceded it. Her autobiography takes her life-story through only the mid-1850’s. Marion Harland’s interview and other biographical sketches associated with her work on the Mt. Vernon committee give us a fairly good picture of her activities until 1860, but when she leaves for Europe and the U.S. Civil War begins, traces of her life begin to be limited to the evidence we have from the few remaining copies of letters that she wrote and occasional mentions by Americans abroad who she encountered. Historians and biographers no longer have the convenience of being able to rely on the overarching structuring for her actions and choices provided by Mowatt in her autobiography and interviews. Thus when you read Marius Blesis’ Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt, Eric Barnes’ Lady of Fashion, and Imogene J. McCarthy’s Anna Cora Mowatt and Her Audience, there is a certain amount of ambiguity, gaps, and contradiction about what took place during those years as the authors make different interpretations from the source materials available to them.

The novel Fairy Fingers unfortunately was composed during this poorly documented phase of Mowatt’s life. I am certain there is an interesting story behind this novel that is lost to us now because the right set of correspondence did not survive.

Actually, let me be a little more frank – I have not been writing about Fairy Fingers for a very long time now. I got my degree in a field called Performance Studies (I won’t waste time explaining how that’s different from Theatre. If you’re interested, google it.) Very, very, very little was being written about Anna Cora Mowatt in that area when I was working on my dissertation and publishing. However, there was this one article by Patti Gillespie titled “Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s “Fairy Fingers”: From Eugene Scribe’s?”1 that essentially concluded that she was a plagiarist. Every time I would submit my paper to be published, some smartass would ask why I hadn’t cited Patti’s paper. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m talking about here,” I would write back. “This paper is about mesmerism.” But in the end, I would have to cave and cite Patti’s blasted article in my bibliography because that’s how academia works. (I’m not going waste time trying to explain. If you don’t believe me, google it.)

Because academic articles just seem long and actually have to be fairly short, I was always able to successfully fend off demands that I veer wildly from my topic and defend Mowatt’s honor as a writer. However, after a quarter of a century, I will finally buckle on my white armor and make my argument – which is not as strong as I’d like for it to be… but here goes…

For the bulk of the article, Gillespie carefully goes point by point stacking evidence of similarities between Scribe’s five act play and Mowatt-Ritchie’s 400+ page novel for an audience of readers who have read neither. She even includes a chart.

Doubtlessly, to you, this all sounds terribly responsible and reasonable. Well, Dear Reader, she could have saved a lot of time and just pointed out in the first sentence that both works have exactly the same title in two different languages, half the characters and places have the exactly the same names, Mowatt named her main character after the actress who played the lead in Scribe’s show, and a version of every single scene in Scribe’s play appears somewhere in Mowatt’s novel. So, yeah, if you’re familiar with both works – which to be fair, no one is – it’s like going to see a movie then walking into a bookstore with someone and having that person pick up a novelization of that movie and say, “I think we might have a case of plagiarism here!”

Les Doigt de fee and Fairy Fingers are more than similar. Mowatt’s Fairy Fingers is a four hundred and sixty-three page novelization of the one hundred and forty pages of dialogue that make up Eugene Scribe’s Les Doigt de fee. It is what we today would call a “derivative work.” It significantly expands upon the original while keeping much of the source material recognizably intact. There is no acknowledgement of Scribe or his play in the forward to the novel, but the similarities are so strong and undisguised that the legal advisers of her New York publisher, Carleton, had to have been aware of them before they decided to go forward with publication.

I doubt seriously that Mowatt was pulling a fast one on her publisher by trying to pass off a French play as her own work since in 1865, Carleton’s list of recent bestsellers included the authorized English translations of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Michelet’s L’Amour and La Femme, and several works by Balzac.2 This publishing firm was no fly-by-night operation blindly churning out paper. Carleton’s was fully staffed with persons fluent in that language and seemed to have a robust appetite for introducing French literature to the U.S. reading public.

As Gillespie asserts, Scribe’s play pre-dates Mowatt’s novel by two years. She was in Paris in 1860 and could have seen the production in revival at the Comedie Francaise or read the script. There are some references in letters to her working on a project titled “Fairy Fingers” in 1860, but the novel did not come out until 1865.

As Gillespie also notes, Mowatt was attempting to earn a living from her writing at this time. However, Fairy Fingers wasn’t her first novel. It was her sixth and last that she wrote. It was not her final publication, though. The novel, Mute Singer, which had appeared previously in serialized format came out a year later. A collection of stories and essays, Italian Life and Legends, would be published posthumously. Mowatt is not known as a novelist today, but her fiction sold well enough for her to maintain a certain amount of financial independence from her husband for the entire duration of her marriage. Unlike the impression Gillespie gives in the article, Mowatt did not wait until she was separated from William Foushee Ritchie to start writing. Her autobiography came out in 1854. They were married in June of that year. Mimic Life was released in 1856. Twin Roses was published in 1857. From 1859-61, Mowatt was publishing steadily in the New York Ledger. Her works included poems, essays, short stories, and the novel The Mute Singer published chapter by chapter in installment form. After Mute Singer finished its serialized run, it was published by Carleton as a novel, thus giving Mowatt multiple paydays for the same work.

I feel it is very likely the novelization of Les Doigt de fee was intended for serialization in the Ledger as well. Scribe’s five acts of dialogue are expanded into fifty-two neatly episodic chapters. Each contains a funny or dramatic scene designed to keep the audience coming back for more. American characters, like the noble Ronald Walton, the petty Mrs. Gilmer, or the hilariously frank Mrs. Gratacap were added by Mowatt to this very French story by Scribe that had scandalized Parisian audiences by suggesting that a noblewoman would debase her blue blood by turning to dressmaking in a time of need. Mowatt sprinkled hearty doses of Protestant work ethic into the mix as she padded out Scribe’s plot and detoured his Parisians to Washington in order to make her version of his comedy more palatable to the readers of a publication like the New York Ledger.

Still, I believe that rather than being plagiarism, there is a good possibility that Mowatt began the project intending to have Scribe’s blessing and cooperation. She was an established author. She had just finished a novel and a collection of short stories and would move on to work on another that would be published after she died just five years later. She never seemed to have a shortage of ideas. If she did want to use Scribe’s idea nefariously, why not disguise it better? Anyone who is familiar with both the play and the novel can see that there is a connection between the two. People in 1865 would not have needed Patti Gillespie’s chart to see the overlap.

My thought is that Scribe or his lawyers or the New York Ledger or their lawyers decided that they did not like the something about the arrangement being proposed and the deal fell through. Perhaps Scribe did not enjoy Mowatt’s new characters or her Americanization of his work. Maybe the New York Ledger could not put up enough money to pay both the novelist and the playwright. Maybe Mowatt didn’t agree with edits that Scribe demanded (She was notoriously lax about following up on edits). Maybe Mowatt’s publisher, Carleton, decided that the serialization would drain away too much of their profits (The book never appeared in the newspaper). Maybe the whole thing just got too complicated and expensive. We’ll never know, though, unless letters from her publisher or Scribe or the Ledger surface.

Money may have been a significant issue. This was 1865. Publishing in the U.S. had changed. The big, rich Southern market was gone. In New York, Anna Cora Mowatt was still a hometown girl. The press would comment eagerly on anything she wrote. In Boston, her friend Epes Sargent would take care of her. In Richmond, though, her books would no longer be guaranteed a prime spot in the shop windows of the most elegant bookstores in town. She wouldn’t automatically receive glowing reviews from all the papers which would politely be echoed by the critics in Charleston and Savannah. Inevitably, the Times Picayune in New Orleans wouldn’t be obliged to say something, if only to roll their eyes sardonically at the whole cozy arrangement. Mowatt was still a good potential money-maker for her publishers, but just half the money-maker she had been.

A second possibility is that Scribe wasn’t involved at all. Perhaps, under the copyright laws of the time, the work met the marks of being sufficiently different to be distinctive enough to be published without fear of a retaliatory lawsuit from Scribe. Being the honest person she was, Mowatt might have wished to acknowledge the playwright as her source, but doing so overtly in print would automatically give him half her royalties. Therefore, instead of completely erasing all traces back to Les Doigt de fee, she left certain character names and other blatant clues intact in homage.

When it came to publishing, Anna Cora Mowatt was no amateur. She had been supporting herself by her writing since 1841. James Mowatt had owned a publishing company for a few years. She lost money more than once due to unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of fast and loose Victorian international copyright laws. Given her highly developed sense of moral virtue, I can’t see her being comfortable with consciously doing the same to someone else. I only wish some kind of documentation would emerge that could let us hear her side of this story.

1. Gillespie, Pattie. “Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s “Fairy Fingers”: From Eugene Scribe’s?” Text and Performance Quarterly, Vol. 9, Issue 2. Pages 125-134.
2. Derby, James Cephas. Fifty Years Among Authors, Books, and Publishers. New York: George Carleton, 1884. Pages 204-242

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