Anna Cora Mowatt and The Mute Singer

At the end of the 1850’s, Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie experienced a creative renaissance of sorts. I qualify my statement with “of sorts” because there was no sustained period in her life where she really ceased to work creatively. Although plagued with ill-health and frequently paralyzed by attacks of what she called “her blue devils” (and we might today term chronic depression), Mowatt spent the early part of that decade touring the U.S. to the delight of adoring audiences in the last leg of her career of an actress. In the mid-1850’s, she wrote her autobiography and “Mimic Life.”

Although “Mimic Life” and “Autobiography of an Actress” are my personal favorites of all her texts, each has characteristics that make it unusual both for its time period and as a specimen of her work. I’ve written a great deal about both of these books elsewhere (for example, in this blog or in my book, The Lady Actress). I’m not going to re-hash all that here. Suffice it to say, I feel both these books were colored by personal tragedies she experienced in 1850. “Twin Roses,” published in 1857, was not successful on a number of levels. Perhaps the less said about that novel, the better.

In 1859, however, just as Mowatt’s personal life began to descend once more into chaos, she started to write essays, poems, letters, and short stories for Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger. Although her efforts are uneven, (In the early material there’s some items that I think are pretty wretched), by 1861, she had once more recaptured the light, confident, witty narrative style that characterized her writing when she was producing short stories like “The Colonel Abroad” or “Ennui and Its Consequences,” or the novel “The Fortune Hunter.”

Her chef d’oeuvre for the Ledger was serialized version of “The Mute Singer” published in ten parts from January 6 to March 30, 1861. The novel is a romantic melodrama. Sylvie de la Roche is the daughter of a destitute former nobleman and his wife living in the slums of Paris circa 1847. Her magnificent singing voice is discovered by the irascible, but equally impoverished, old musician, Maître Beaujeu. Under his guidance and training, she is well-prepared when an opportunity comes for her to sing with the great tenor, Lablanche. Overnight, aristocrat patrons are all at her feet – in particular a very intriguing young nobleman and his lady companion. On the eve of her greatest triumph, though, Sylvie loses her wondrous contralto voice. The rest of the book is devoted to her adventures in recovering (or partially recovering) her voice and suspense about whether or not she will be able to overcome the substantial class barriers barring a relationship between her and the Viscount de St. Amar as well as exploring the impact these dramatic changes in her life have upon her eccentric collection of friends, family, and neighbors.

Illustration of Chapter 1 of The Mute Singer
Illustration of Chapter 1 of “The Mute Singer” from The New York Ledger

As you can tell from the description, “The Mute Singer” is not a stinging indictment of social ills of that day. It is, however, a well-paced, dramatic little book, full of sweet and funny scenes and engaging well-drawn characters. Rather than reading silently, Victorians usually read stories like this aloud to each other. I recommend you listen to the audiobook in order to savor the narrative properly.

“The Mute Singer” was a perfect fit for Robert Bonner’s Ledger. If I describe the publication as a literary newspaper, you might picture something too academic and snobby. The New York Ledger was very much like McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, or Reader’s Digest used to be like when I was a kid growing up in the 1970’s and used to lounge around in my grandma’s basement thumbing through stacks of old magazines on hot summer afternoons. There were lots of advice columns and opinion pieces and corny jokes at the bottom of the pages and, best of all, long, serialized romance and adventure stories. Yes, Bonner did pay Charles Dickens to write his only U.S. exclusive publication, a short story titled “Hunted Down,” for the Ledger. Bonner was not shy about handing out cash to authors. However, you didn’t see names like Longfellow and Hawthorne gracing the masthead all that often. The Ledger’s superstars were Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, and Fanny Fern. While Ms. Fern, at an unheard of $100 per column, doled out piquant wisdom, Mrs. Southworth and Mr. Cobb earned their $10,000 per year exclusive contracts by cranking out marvelous melodramas about high adventure in far-off places like “The Lost Heir of Linlithgow,” “Mystery of Dark Hollow,” or “The Gunmakers of Moscow.”

Illustration of Chapter 4 of "The Mute Singer"
Illustration of Chapter 4 of “The Mute Singer” from The New York Ledger

I cannot find any direct correspondence between Mowatt and Bonner that establishes how much he paid her for “The Mute Singer.” The editor did, however, seem unusually excited about the amount of reader response he was receiving. On February 2, this note appeared,

“The Mute Singer,” by Anna Cora Ritchie, now publishing in the LEDGER, is exciting a degree of enthusiasm among our readers such as seldom greets the advent of any story.1

This might seem like a typical piece of editorial hype, but it was genuinely unusual for Bonner to make this sort of comment at that point in the run of the newspaper. Even more unique was this report of devoted interest of one particular reader,

We learn, through a private letter from Paris, that on a recent occasion, while the maids of Eugenie were preparing her toilette prior to her going to a grand ball, she amused herself with reading MRS. RITCHIE’S story of “THE MUTE SINGER,” in the LEDGER. So absorbed did the Empress become in this fascinating story, that she continued to read on after the maids had finished their work, without noticing that the hour had passed when she was to notify the Emperor of her readiness to depart. Napoleon, meanwhile, grew impatient at the delay, and finally sent his chamberlain to notify the Empress that he was “awaiting her pleasure,” whereby she was recalled to herself, and bade “THE MUTE SINGER” good-bye until she should return.2

Illustration from Chapter 8 of "The Mute Singer"
Illustration of Chapter 8 of “The Mute Singer”

How’s that for a celebrity endorsement? Short of getting a tip of the crown from Victoria and Albert, it was hard to get a more glamorous acknowledgement than one coming from Napoleon III and Empress Eugene in the 1860’s. Less glitzy, but more lasting was the tribute offered by this fan who wrote in to declare,

I have always admired the style of Mrs. Anna Cora Ritchie’s writings. Her last story, just completed in the LEDGER of this week, is a very excellent one. Indeed, I have never read a story with more delight and admiration than I read the “MUTE SINGER.” So attractive to me is her style of writing that I have named my little daughter, of a few months old, Cora, after the name of Mrs. Ritchie, of which I desire to inform her. Yours, &c., Mrs. M. Eliza Newcomer3

Illustration from Chapter 9 of "The Mute Singer"
Illustration from Chapter 9 of “The Mute Singer” in The New York Ledger

Although in 1861 Mowatt had lost her beloved father, her marriage would apparently begin to develop serious fractures, her country would break into civil war, and she would leave soon leave its shores never to return, at least her prose found a warm and welcoming home in the pages of the New York Ledger.

Anna Cora Mowatt and The Mute Singer

1. New York Ledger, February 2, 1861. Page 2.
2. “The Empress Magnetized.” New York Ledger, April 13, 1861. Page 4.
3. “Letters About Our Stories.” New York Ledger, April 20, 1861. Page 4.

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