I hope that by now you have had an opportunity to listen to our recording of Henry Spicer’s serio-comic 1849 melodrama, “The Witch-Wife; a Tale of Malkin Tower” at librivox.org (Click here to listen.) This is your spoiler warning. I am going to proceed assuming that you are familiar with all plot points. (Also, it is a delightful drama! I think you will enjoy it.)
Spicer created the part of the female romantic lead, Cecile Howard, especially for Anna Cora Mowatt. He went to some trouble to do so. Spicer was the manager of the Olympic theater. He could have produced the play there and used any one of his stars. Instead, he offered the script to Walter Watts at the Marylebone, a rival playhouse.
Mowatt and her acting partner, E.L. Davenport, had been under contract at the Olympic with Spicer for the 1848 fall season. Among the productions in which they starred was Spicer’s “The Lords of Ellingham” with tragedian G.V. Brooke. The tragedy, originally written for William Macready, (who rejected it) is rather grim. The action is set in the 1600’s – like “Witch-Wife” – and deals with the conspiracy to put Lady Arabella Stuart on the throne. The show only got lukewarm reviews. However the company who worked on the production must have had a pleasant experience because they all seemed to remain friends for a long time afterwards.
So what unique qualities did Mowatt bring to the table that Spicer would not have been able to find in an actress from his company? First, she was an American. From their portrayals in British popular culture, it seems young women from the U.S. were at this time imagined by the English to be more forward, less reserved and dignified in their manners their manners than their British counterparts. Amelia Bloomer, the U.S. Women’s Rights advocate, had come out with her infamous clothing reform costume for women which she promoted in her newsletter, “The Lily.”( Lily was also, by pure chance, Anna Cora Mowatt’s nickname.) A farce titled “The Bloomer Costume; or a figure of Fun,” written in 1851 by Edward Stirling lampooning the fashion reveals attitudes towards this innovation. At the end of the play, a shop-girl who has been conned into appearing in a bloomer costume and suffered all manner of comic misfortunes as a result, steps forward and confides to the audience;
“Ladies – (in a whisper) – permit me to whisper in confidence, ‘mind how you try these new notions,’ as our American sisters term them – they might laugh. I don’t mind it – in fact I rather like it, being used to it, and am always ready to make a Figure of Fun of myself, or assume any shape or dress that may prove acceptable to you, and raise a cheerful smile.”1
Amelia Bloomer’s pantaloons here, rather than being taken as a garment meant to free women to move about in a more sensible and healthy manner to put them on a more equal footing with men, is seen as a purposefully titillating costume that only makes women seem ridiculous. The play assumes that bold and spirited American women are in on the joke of the Bloomer costume and relish the attention the outfit draws.
Although not as brassy as a “Bloomer Girl,” Mowatt was bold and outspoken. She was not afraid of standing up for her beliefs. For example, a devoted follower of the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Mowatt did not believe in the accepted custom of wearing black for mourning. Just prior to the grand of the newly rebuild Royal Olympic Theater, Queen Adelaide, wife of the former King, relative to both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, died. All of London, including the Olympic Theater, was shrouded in black. Not Anna Cora Mowatt, though. After much spirited debate with the management and some dropped jaws in the audience that night, she delivered her inaugural comic monologue for the theater in a pure, unadorned, white dress.
Taking a cue from Mowatt’s independent, forthright attitude towards life, Cecil Howard is a much more assertive and resourceful heroine than you might expect to find in a play that I label as a Victorian melodrama. She is as brave and virtuous as the typical melodramatic maiden, but rather than being constantly imperiled, we are treated to scenes of her saving others and herself.
In the first act, when the male lead, brilliant young lawyer, Marchmont Needham, is faced with difficulty in defending one of the townspeople from the witch-finder’s henchmen, he’s the one who sends a messenger to fetch Cecile to back him up saying;
Hark, little Maggie!
Go seek out Mistress Cecil. Say she’s needed
To work a marvel…2
Cecil skips to the rescue in short order. She quickly sorts out the courtroom, confounds the apprentice witch-hunters, mollifies her uncle, and walks out triumphantly with the acquitted defendant in tow.
When confronted in the woods by the amorous Anthony Gabb and his friend Martyn pretending to be drunk, the young noblewoman firmly but politely sends them on their way. Later the two country squires say of the encounter;
Gabb: I confess
My nymph is somewhat of the panther kind,
As stern as beautiful.
Martyn: A pleasant beast
For semblance – that accepts her love with growls
Below all vocal divings, and soft pats
Would smash a human occiput!3
From the very beginning of the play, Cecile Howard is presented to us as a character who has a certain fierceness and ingenuity to her that in some ways makes her a narrative force equal to the male characters in the drama. Indeed, the heart of the play is the struggle between Cecile and Matthew Hopkins, the witch finder. I will go into this more next week, but despite a seeming rescue by Marchmont Needham, the play does not resolve until Hopkins finally acknowledges surrender to Howard’s point of view.
On the flip side of all this strength, Cecile Howard is also a rather fragile character in a manner that I think was also uniquely inspired by Anna Cora Mowatt. In March of 1849, the actress celebrated her 30th birthday. However, Cecile Howard, a role written specifically for her to play, was that of a girl so young that she was still in the care of a governess, who played with jump-rope, and sat on her uncle’s lap. Although no specific age is given, Cecile seems to be a teenager, probably between 15 to 18 years old.
When she came to London in 1847, Mowatt reports in her autobiography that she was very thin, weighing around 90 pounds. She was of a little above medium height and was so flat-chested that the wardrobe mistress, concerned that the audience would boo her, laced Mowatt into a tight corset with a padded bosom.4 At the time, a more voluptuous, fleshy appearance was preferred for starlets. Adding to a child-like appearance, the actress wore her waist-length hair in long curls instead of coiled into the sort of elaborate buns worn by adult women in the late 1840’s.
At 30, with her still youthful face and figure, Mowatt continued to play ingénues. She even passed on an opportunity to tour with William Macready, knowing that despite the opportunities and prestige of such exposure, the tragedian’s repertoire would force her to step into roles such as Lady Macbeth and Queen Constance. She doubtlessly took a lesson from Helene Faucit’s disappointments in those parts and wisely declined.
This is a situation that was novel for the Victorians, but is so standard today that if I start naming names like Natalie Portman, Sarah Michelle Geller, Sally Fields, Mary Pickford, Keira Knightly, Patty Duke, Kim Darby, Kristen Bell, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Alicia Silverstone, Amanda Seyfried, etc., you will be able to think of dozens of actress who played teenagers while they aged into their thirties and even beyond.
I think Spicer purposefully created Cecile Howard to play on the peculiar appeal of the child-woman character. When the audience views this type of character, I think we hold a subliminal awareness that we are not seeing a real teenager, but rather an adolescent played by an adult woman. This allows us to be a bit more comfortable accepting these characters as being more intelligent, resourceful, and sexually mature than the average teenager would be. These enhanced attributes do much to ease our tension about seeing these characters in potentially risky, dangerous, or intimate situations. There is a tensiveness to these characters. One never knows when glimpses of the adult woman will break through the child façade.
In “Witch Wife,” this duality results in a character that is not only inconsistent, but is quite aware of her own inconsistency. After a scene in which she demonstrates the self-possession and intellect to match wits with the deadly Matthew Hopkins, Cecile immediately comes up with a harebrained and doomed-for-disaster scheme to persuade the village girls to masquerade as witches to tease Gabb. It is she herself who characterizes her reasoning process as chaotic,
You’re right enough, I fear – for when at chess
I beat my uncle – dear old dreamer! Planning
Some wondrous game – with a quick though, at once
Conceived and executed – he cries, “Ah, psha!
Absurd… unscientific –“ So it was;
But then it won the game!5
Similarly, directly following an instance of demonstrating the cool maturity in managing relationships necessary to successfully rebuff the advances of both the love-sick Gabb and the more determined and aggressive Hopkins, Cecil is completely flummoxed by what seems like should have been a more expected declaration of affection from Needham. She reverts to full child mode, bitterly reproaching the lawyer for disillusioning her;
The calmest, sunniest, and most innocent dream! –
I thought I was a child… Oh love, — love – love!
If you enrich us, ‘tis but a debt repaid –
You robbed us first, therefore we owe you nothing.
I am a slave now – must be docile – grave –
Never climb trees again, nor care for skipping!
O, if you knew how I have nursed this dream –
This happy careless, thoughtless, tearless dream –
You would have spared it for a while – not plucked
This young old age upon me!6
In a split-second, though, after tearfully delivering this monologue, she drops the mask for an instant and is once more the mature woman in control of her emotions and the nuances of the budding attraction with Needham as she turns to the audience, winks and tells us that perhaps all this is going to make him come back to her sooner.7
Of course, the narrative strategy of casting Cecile as a child-woman was also a way of infantilizing a powerful female character. Victorians apparently could not be comfortable having a character who was simply capable of being assertive, saving those more vulnerable than herself, and ultimately being the best representative for the side of right, without having her be played by an outsider from the U.S. and making her into a young manic pixie goofball at least part of the time to excuse the fact that she didn’t seem to properly understand the rules of polite society yet.
I don’t have time and space to go into what it says about our culture that the child-woman is still one of the most popular character types for writers today.
Next week, we look at the witch versus the witch hunter!
1. Stirling, Edward. “The Bloomer Costume; or a Figure of Fun. An Original Farce In One Act.” (William Taylor & Co., New York: 1851) Page 19.
2. Spicer, Henry. “The Witch Wife; A Tale of Malkin Tower. A Drama in Five Acts.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849) Page 4.
3. Ibid, page 15.
4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field and Reed, Boston: 1854) Page 277-278.
5. Spicer, Henry. “The Witch Wife; A Tale of Malkin Tower. A Drama in Five Acts.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849) Page 22.
6. Ibid, 25