Anna Cora Mowatt and Henry Spicer’s “Witch-Wife”

For the next two weeks, I’ve planned to write about a drama written expressly as a starring vehicle for Anna Cora Mowatt in 1849. Over the past few months, I’ve been working at Librivox.org with a group of readers from many countries to produce an audio recording of this play. As luck would have it, our recording is not quite ready for release today. I will post an update with a link as soon as it is available.

[Update: The recording is now available here.]

In June of 1849, the Marylebone produced a play written by the lessee of one of its primary rival playhouses, the Olympic. Unusual as the situation sounds, Henry Spicer had written the drama with Anna Cora Mowatt particularly in mind as the show’s star. The dedication page of the play reads,

To Anna Cora Mowatt, a name familiar to the English Public as that of an accomplished authoress and actress, but to which a more select circle annex the better title of dear and honored friend, this piece is dedicated with the kindest wishes of the writer.1

During the previous year, Mowatt had been employed by Spicer as one of the Olympic’s featured players and had starred alongside E. L. Davenport and tragedian Gustavus V. Brooke in the playwright’s drama, “The Lords of Ellingham.” The production had been a mixed critical success, but Mowatt had earned the respect of the cast and crew as a real trooper when she uncomplainingly finished her part after receiving a head wound backstage during a performance. She told of the “death” of her character Edith in her autobiography:

My head was hastily bound up, and I was laid upon the bier. The ghastliness of countenance produced by the accident was particularly appropriate to the (to me) solemn occasion. But when Dudley lifted the veil, and beheld the bandaged head and the crimson drops that still trickled amongst Edith’s hair, he uttered an involuntary exclamation of horror not set down “i’ the book.” The departed spirit of Edith must have returned at the sound, for she whispered reassuringly through half – opened lips, “It’s nothing — I’m not much hurt!”2

To create vehicle for his charming new American friend, Spicer looked to a sensational novel by one of his old chums that had taken London by storm the previous year – “The Lancashire Witches” by William Harrison Ainsworth. This three volume tome, serialized in the Sunday Times from 1847-48 was based on the true story of the so-called “Pendle witches,” women accused of witchcraft who were executed in 1612. Since he re-used character and place names in the play, Spicer scrupulously avoided charges of plagiarism saying,

The “Witch-Wife,” though including one or two characters of some notoriety, is based upon no circumstances of actual occurrence; neither was it suggested (as has been alleged) by my friend Mr. Ainsworth’s “Lancashire Witches” – a work I had purposely denied myself the pleasure of perusing, lest the stirring scenes it could not fail to embody, should exercise an influence destructive, at least, of the originality, however beneficial to the dramatic interests, of the piece.3

William Harrison Ainsworth
William Harrison Ainsworth

Although they come from the same source documents, the two works are of an entirely different character. Ainsworth’s novel treats the supernatural as an everyday reality. It sweeps reader back into the paranoid milieu of the 1600’s where a second world of witches and witch-hunters exits side by side with everyday reality, always ready to devour the unwise or the unwary should they stray too close. Spicer’s drama, although set in the 1600’s, is thoroughly imbued with a 19th century mindset. It’s the kind of script we frequently accuse today’s writers of period dramas of concocting – one in which a modern person finds themselves in a historical setting. “Witch Wife” has a serio-comic tone because Spicer’s characters are actually Victorians reacting as Victorian might should they find themselves in the 1600’s. In the very first scene, rather than taking an accusation of witchcraft as something deadly serious consequences for the entire community, the lead female character, a young woman with the rather masculine name of Cecil Howard, is able to waltz in and rescue the accused by essentially saying, “Oh, you silly men!”

Illustration from Ainsworth's "The Lancashire Witches"
Illustration from Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches”

Alison Device, who in Ainsworth’s “Lancashire Witches” is a beautiful, innocent, young woman who gradually evolves into the witch-queen, in this play is Cecil Howard’s old nurse and generally played for laughs. When her accusers demand why she didn’t protest her innocence more vehemently, she replies,

These good gentlemen
Were so resolved, I feared, sir, I might be
A witch, and didn’t know it.4

Illustration from Ainsworth's "The Lancashire Witches"
Illustration from Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches”

There’s a subplot about a luckless country gentleman named Gabb who has a crush on Cecil Howard. His friends, a pair of kibitzers from the local nobility, put him up to actually talking to the young lady instead of just sending his sappy love poems to her. This somehow winds up incorporating a scheme to pose as being drunk out in the forest to manufacture an excuse for a conversation and eventually leads to comic encounters with girls posing as witches…. So as you can see, there are some ridiculous characters and hijinks afoot.

Illustration from Ainsworth's "The Lancashire Witches"
Illustration from Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches”

A lot of time is also devoted the more serious and menacing main plot involving the witch-hunter, Matthew Hopkins, who makes for a very good melodramatic villain. He enters obsessed with the righteousness of his cause. This immediately puts him on a collision course with both Cecil and Marchmont Needham, the romantic leads, who believe that the hysteria over witchcraft is dangerous and the persecution of the innocent and vulnerable in their community is a clear and present danger they must combat.

Matthew Hopkins
Matthew Hopkins

The play and novel are so different that I truly believe Spicer’s claim that he had not read the book. What mattered was that his audience had read Ainsworth’s novel, were interested in stories about the Pendle Witches, and might buy a ticket just out of curiosity to see more. That was just smart marketing.

Illustration from Ainsworth's "The Lancashire Witches"
Illustration from Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches”

If the serialization had been printed with pictures, I might, however, accuse Spicer of taking a peek at those. One of the illustrations eventually printed with the book has the main character, Alizon Devise, being outfitted at the May Queen. In Anna Cora Mowatt’s play, “Armand,” the character she played, Blanche, also is crowned as a village May Queen in one of the show’s most popular and dramatic scenes. A germ of an idea may have sprouted in the playwright’s mind at this time. Stranger things have happened. At any rate, the role of Cecil Howard was tailor-made to Mowatt’s measure.

Illustration from Ainsworth's "The Lancashire Witches"
Illustration from Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches”

It’s my opinion that because this was a role that was written as a starring vehicle for her, looking at the character of Cecil Howard can give us an idea of the sort of image Anna Cora Mowatt projected to her public and give us insight into her strengths as an actress. A further examination can perhaps also give us an idea of what attitudes towards the early proto-feminists such as Mowatt were like among some upper class Victorians during this time.

So, read or listen to the play and look forward to more “Witch Wife” next week!

Anna Cora Mowatt and Henry Spicer's "The Witch Wife"
Images of Henry Spicer’s play, “The Witch Wife”

1. Spicer, Henry. “Witch Wife; a Tale of Malkin Tower.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849). Page iii.
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed, Boston: 1854) Page 298-299.
3. Spicer, Henry. “Witch Wife; a Tale of Malkin Tower.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849). Page ii.
4. Ibid. Page 5

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