Anna Cora Mowatt and What’s In A Name

Anna Cora Mowatt signature
Anna Cora Mowatt signature

Part I: The Ties that Bind

Around this time last year, a well-meaning publishing company launched a line of books during Women’s History Month in which the works of female writers which had originally been printed under male pseudonyms were re-printed using the authors’ birth names. Probably much to the company’s surprise, this effort created a firestorm on social media. For many of these authors, respondents argued, the name they had chosen had been a liberating gesture packed with meaning and significance that the publishing company had failed to consider.  The upshot of the cross-discussion that took place was that we should respect the wishes of writers about how they wanted to be known by history.

This conversation caused me to reflect on Anna Cora Mowatt’s many names. I understand and agree with the reasoning behind the consensus advice from social media.  We should be careful to respect the preferences of historical figures when we chose how we name them in our scholarship.  Unlike most of the writers in the re-print series, Mowatt did not leave us with only one clear-cut preference that super-ceded all others.  She chose a number of different names for herself over the course of her lifetime.  Some of her names were public. Some were private. She even had a few secret names. There were names that were chosen for her. She had a birth name, her two married names, her stage name, her many pen names (male and female), the name of the person she became under mesmeric trance, the name she called her waking self in trance state, her childhood nicknames, and her adult nicknames.  She can dumbfound the bewildered researcher with her astonishing overabundance of identifiers.

Her name originated simply enough as Anna Cora Ogden.  She was born the tenth child of fourteen brothers and sisters. Perhaps having to fight for the attention of her parents among so many siblings is part of the reason why she collected such a great number of names over the course of her lifetime.  She seems hungry for identity.

Portrait once identified as a young Anna Cora Mowatt
This portrait, that once hung in Blair House, was initially misidentified as being the young Anna Cora Mowatt painted by J.J. Audubon. I think it may be an Ogden sister painted by C.G. Thompson.

In communications I have seen between herself and her immediate family, she usually uses or is called only by her first name, “Anna,” as in this excerpt from her autobiography;

One day I let fall a little “poem” — as I designated it — in the room of one of my brothers, and soon after perceived him coming out of his apartment with the paper in his hand. He went downstairs, and, unperceived, I stole softly after him. When he entered the drawing room, where my father was sitting, I dropped down on the last step, with my heart beating so painfully that I could scarcely breathe. I could hear him say, “Just read this, papa, it is some of Anna’s nonsense.”1

In this anecdote, Mowatt leaves her work unsigned.  Although she does not condemn him for it, the quote she uses indicates that her older brother is  dismissive of her poetry.  She herself is apologetic about the quality of her childhood literary experiments.  She relates this narrative because she is very pleased that her beloved father defends and encourages her efforts.  This story is the only time she includes a reference to herself as “Anna” in her autobiography.

Samuel Gouverneur Ogden
Samuel Gouverneur Ogden

In an undated, handwritten manuscript preserved with the Hawthorne Family papers at Stanford’s library, Mowatt signs herself “Anna” to the poem “To Mary.”2 This work was printed in Epes Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine in 1843.  The poem was addressed to her sister Mary Gouverneur, who was nicknamed “May” within the Ogden family.  In 1843, Mowatt was twenty-four years old.  She had been married for nine years.  The watermark on the paper on which the poem is written reads “ACM.”  The text was published under her full name – Anna Cora Mowatt.  If she wrote “To Mary” in 1843, this may indicate that her siblings were still calling her by her shorter “childhood name” rather than the longer, more weighty and adult-sounding double first name she began to use after her marriage.

Mary Gouverneur Ogden - portriat by Cephas Giovanni Thompson
Mary Gouverneur Ogden – portrait by Cephas Giovanni Thompson

“To Mary” is a very sentimental poem that recalls memories of childhood. For the Ogden sisters, the text could also be referencing the years that Mary Gouverneur lived with the Mowatts at Melrose after Anna Cora’s marriage to James. In the following verses excerpted from the middle of the work, the poet reflects on how the two sisters who were once so close are now on diverging paths.  The poem speaks of the comfort of still possessing a profound understanding of each other’s true nature and deepest feelings symbolized by knowledge of the other’s name;

Yet in those days so bright and blest,
My inmost thoughts were thine;
My wishes echoed from thy breast—
Thy hopes reposed on mine.
We wept together –felt no glee
The other could not share;
And side by side we bowed on knee,
Mingling our souls in prayer.

Apart our knees are bended now,
Yet is my prayer for thee;
Say, gentle sister, dost not thou
Still lift thy voice for me?
Though thou mayst smile when I may weep,
Our joys no more the same,
Yet sacred must each bosom keep
The other’s cherished name.3

Perhaps then, in the context of these verses, Mowatt’s signing the shortened childhood version of her name was another way of referencing pleasant memories from the past and a cumulative depth of understanding of each other’s true character.

Mary Gouverneur would later marry artist Cephas Giovanni Thompson.  The couple remained close to Mowatt who lived with them for some time in the early 1860s.  The Thompsons named their oldest child, born in 1844, Anna Cora.

Mary Gouverneur and daughter Anna Cora, painted by Cephas Giovanni Thompson
Mary Gouverneur and daughter Anna Cora, painted by Cephas Giovanni Thompson

The records contained in “The Ogden Family in America, Elizabethtown Branch” do not show ancestors named “Anna” or “Cora” from this side of Mowatt’s family.  The names may have derived from the ancestral line of her mother, Eliza Lewis Ogden, instead.  However, both these names became quite popular with the actress’ cousins after Mowatt became famous. For example, Captain Duncan Campbell Ogden named one daughter “Anna” in 1851 and another “Cora” in 1859.4

Cephas Giovanni Thompson, his children Edmund, Anna Cora, Hubert, and wife Mary, painted by the artist
Cephas Giovanni Thompson, his children Edmund, Anna Cora, Hubert, and wife Mary, painted by the artist

In 1834, Anna Cora Ogden married James Mowatt.  With this union came a plethora of new appellations.  First and foremost of her new identifiers was the title of “Mrs. Mowatt.”  She would bear this name for the next twenty years. It would become her professional stage name as well as how she was identified in society. The title of “Mrs.” enmeshed her in the complex web of cultural responsibilities and obligations expected of wives of this era.  To a certain degree, it also conferred connotations of wisdom and respectability that were sometimes at odds with the teen-aged bride’s experience and appearance.  In her autobiography, she reports a few incidents such as the following of encountering disbelief when she introduced herself as “Mrs. Mowatt;”

At five o’clock we drove to a court dressmaker, that I might be measured for a dress to be worn the next evening at the opera. In eight minutes (three of which were passed in astonishment at my giving my name as a married woman) I was fitted and in the carriage again!5

In James Mowatt, Anna Cora gained a rare asset possessed by few married woman of this era – a husband who actively supported her career as a creative professional.  James was genuinely impressed by his young wife’s intelligence and talent.  By her report, it was he who insisted on finding publishers for her early works such as “Pelayo” and “Gulzara.”  However, perhaps because of her youth and social rank, the Mowatts decided it would not be appropriate for her to openly claim authorship of her first efforts.  She gave the following explanation;

I loved to think that I possessed a household harp that would make pleasant music for the ears of kindred and friends; but I shrank from playing my part of imperfect musician before the world. Yet I was easily persuaded. The authorship of Pelayo was to be kept a profound secret. I assumed the name of “Isabel,” and the book was published by the Harpers.6

Title page of "Pelayo"
Title page of “Pelayo”

Harpers printed Mowatt’s book-length poem Pelayo when she was only nineteen years old. Female poets were not unusual in 1837.  However their works tended to be no longer than one or two pages and were usually (but not always) devoted to sentimental meditations on love or loss. Two hundred and four pages of epic verse that included not only the narrative of a tragic romance but descriptions of battles with Moorish armies from a debut author smacked of ambition.  Ambition was not a lady-like quality. Critics panned the work.

Mowatt received much better notices for her follow-up to this text, The Reviewers Reviewed.  This was another book-length poem.  In contrast to Pelayo, this outing by Isabel was acidly satirical.  Enraged by what she felt was the ungentlemanly treatment she had received at the hands of the press, Mowatt put her critics on trial, caricaturing and nicknaming each, then calling him out for his particular brand of hypocrisy. Although full-frontal poetic attack does not tend to fall within the bounds of the popularly accepted Victorian-era definition of lady-like behavior, the reviewers thought this work was hilarious.  Each picked out a passage where another critic was pilloried in a particularly piquant manner as being especially well-crafted by the young poet.

Title page of "Reviewers Reviewed"
Title page of “Reviewers Reviewed”

Mowatt does not reveal why she chose “Isabel” as an alias for these two publications.  There is no obvious connection between this name and her life circa 1837.  Perhaps it was the lack of a readily discernible connection that made the name a good choice. In that non-digital age, she may have felt this pseudonym would render her anonymous to those who might be offended by her foray into the literary world.

The Ogdens and the Lewis family were not merely well-to-do citizens. They possessed the kind of wealth and influence that caused them to regularly rub shoulders with New York’s upper-most tier of society, sometimes called the Upper Ten, or – my favorite – the Knickerbockerochracy.  Although Samuel Ogden is usually identified simply as a merchant, the family had a certain amount of both state-wide and national political significance.  Anna Cora’s great-grandfather, Francis Lewis, signed the Declaration of Independence.  Her step-mother, Julia Fairlie, also had a significant connection to the Revolutionary War.  Her father was Major James Fairlie, aide to Baron Frederic von Steuben, Prussian ally who helped train and organize the Continental Army.

Francis Lewis, signer of the Declaration of Independance
Francis Lewis, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Anna Cora’s step-sister Grace married Dr. Thomas Rainey.  Rainey was a scientist, author, and political activist who spent many years exploring in Brazil.  He was appointed U.S. Consul to Bolivia in 1853 and U.S. Consul to Brazil in 1856, but resigned from both of these posts to pursue his scientific interests.

Grace Priscilla Ogden Rainey

Dr. Clifford Smyth, son of Anna Cora’s younger sister, Julia, served as U.S. Consul at Cartagena, Columbia.  He had a career as a highly successful journalist, novelist, and served as editor of the International Book Review.  Smyth married Beatrix Hawthorne, granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Clifford Smyth, 1903
Clifford Smyth, 1903

Another nephew, Hubert Ogden Thompson, the son of her sister, Mary Gouverneur and Cephas Giovanni, who had been the childhood playfellow of the children of Nathaniel Hawthorne, grew up to be New York’s Commissioner of Public Works.  Young Teddy Roosevelt made a name for himself attacking Thompson as a Tammany Hall power broker.  Articles printed at the time of his death spoke of Thompson’s leadership in the New York’s Democratic Party.  Many claimed he was instrumental in securing the election of Grover Cleveland.

Hubert Ogden Thompson
Hubert Ogden Thompson

Samuel Ogden narrowly escaped becoming an unpleasant footnote in U.S. history when he agreed to help fund the General Francisco de Miranda’s expedition to invade Venezuela. Publicly, when writing her autobiography, Mowatt did not contradict the generally accepted story that this failed attempt to enter Spanish-held territory was conducted under the leadership of ex-Vice President Aaron Burr.  Privately, as the following letter from William Foushee Ritchie to his sister Isabella reveals, the Ogden family maintained that the action was directed by the White House;

Her regard for my dear Father’s opinion has guided her pen in a great degree.  For instance, her venerable Father, who has had a most romantic life – losing and gaining fortunes – was the leading merchant in furnishing vessels for the famous Miranda expedition to South America.  She tells me that he was invited to it by representatives from the Government at Washington – but that, afterwards, President Jefferson and Secretary Madison, to avoid public odium, had retracted from their grant and sought to make him alone responsible by a criminal prosecution.  She spoke very horribly of this canard of Jefferson and Madison; but Cora, in deference to my Father’s position, has carefully refrained from introducing these matters in this section of her Father’s history.7

Thomas Ritchie Sr. was a staunch supporter of Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, who said of the newspaper he edited, “I read but a single newspaper, Ritchie’s Enquirer, the best that is published or ever has been published in America.”8

General Francisco de Miranda
General Francisco de Miranda

Aaron Burr was tried for treason for his part in the Miranda expedition as well as for organizing other aggressive excursions into Spanish territory.  Colonel William Smith (a son-in-law of ex-President John Adams) and Samuel Ogden were indicted with the lesser charge of a violation of U.S. neutrality.  Smith was the United States Surveyor.  Ogden was serving as his assistant.  Smith also testified that his support of General Miranda was at the direction of the White House;

Their defense was that they had acted in accordance with the wish of their superiors; that the expedition “was begun, prepared and set forth with the knowledge and approbation of the President… and the Secretary of State of the United States.”9

Smith and Ogden lost their government posts, but were acquitted by the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Marshall of the charges against them.

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr

In between these atypical instances of notoriety, Mowatt’s family tree was packed with brothers, brothers-in-law, uncles, nephews, and cousins who were New York and New Jersey lawyers, politicians, bankers, and businessmen of note as well as a number of prominent ministers and churchmen.  The History of the Ogden Family in America duly records the membership of many of Mowatt’s female relatives in organizations such as the Colonial Dames and the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Reputation was lifeblood to people in these positions.  Between the stock market instability of the 1840s, constant Tammany Hall intrigue, and the viciously insular nature of New York society, there were many who shared Anna Cora’s lineage who clearly felt the last thing they needed to deal with was the potential fallout from the silly scribblings or histrionic whims of a young woman. The severity of the illnesses she consistently developed when confronted with disapproval about her career choices from members of her extended family testifies to the enormous amount of pressure exerted on Mowatt not to disgrace or embarrass her relatives. The anonymity afforded by pen names was a necessity, I think, to shield her from that pain.

Signature of Anna Cora Mowatt
Signature of Anna Cora Mowatt

Although it would be some time before she would again attempt a book-length publication, Mowatt did not make her next pseudonyms as difficult to trace as “Isabel.”  As she reports in this excerpt from her autobiography, she began to write short poems that she here calls “fugitive pieces” that she submitted to publications such as Godey’s Ladies Book and Graham’s Magazine.  As she says, she primarily used her middle name “Cora” as a pen name at this time.  However, there are publications that bear other variations of her name such as “Anna,” “A.” “A.C.” or “A.C.M.”  Anonymity and the ability to distance herself from her literary output seemed to be growing to be less of a priority for Mowatt.  Finally, in 1838, she published “To My Sister on Her Bridal” under her full, undisguised name.

About this period I began to write fugitive pieces, which were published in various magazines, under the signature of “Cora.” The first to which I allowed this, my own name, to be attached, was a bridal address to my sister Emma. When the bride and bridegroom, after the ceremony, returned from church to our father’s house, little Julia came forward and greeted them with this address.10

The poem is credited to “Anna Cora Mowatt.”  She did not chose “Mrs. Mowatt,”  “Mrs. James Mowatt,” “Mrs. A. C. Ogden Mowatt” or “Anna Mowatt.”  All of these variations are among the valid constructions of her name that would have been viable options.  Each would have created a slightly different mental image for the reader of what sort of person the poet might be and what her important social connections were.  During this era, some married women who were authors or poets used a combination of their husband’s name and the title of “Mrs.” Others did not. The choice appears to have more to do with the writer’s subject matter than with a set rule of etiquette.

After stating that “On My Sister’s Bridal” is the first time she has allowed something to be published under her actual name, Mowatt makes no further comment on why she chose which parts of her name.  Therefore everything I am going to say about her choice is speculation.  In the context of the era, the double name “Anna Cora” had a more fashionable, upper-class sound than the single name “Anna.”  Also at age nineteen, Mowatt might have been seeking to graduate from her childhood identity.   Exercising her option to use her maiden name might have drawn unwanted attention to her work and put pressure on her to maintain a higher level of propriety and social conformity in her texts than she wished.  Especially in her early days as a writer, Mowatt published in a wide variety of genres.  She might have felt that using the title “Mrs.” would wrongly give a paratextual cue that would indicate to readers that her work would only be dealing with romance or domestic matters.

Mowatt’s elaborate five-act parlor theatrical, “Gulzara” was published in Park Benjamin’s prestigious literary newspaper, the “New World” in 1841.  Mowatt was twenty-two.  The play was printed with her name as it would appear under the title of her plays and most of her novels until her second marriage in 1854 – Anna Cora Mowatt. Since the Mowatts had presented this drama at their home to an audience of their high-society friends and relations, there was little point in disguising its authorship.

"Gulzara" in the New World journal, 1841
“Gulzara” in the New World journal, 1841

When James Mowatt opened his short-lived publishing firm in 1842, Anna Cora developed a host of new and more wide-ranging aliases.  In addition to her original compositions, she began to edit together compilations of material.  Some of these were published by other companies.  Although she probably had little real domestic expertise, Anna Cora, working under the name of “Mrs. Ellis” compiled several volumes of household topics as she explains here;

I continued to write for various magazines — the Columbian, Democratic Review, Ladies’ Companion, Godey’s, Graham’s, &c. I used fictitious names, and sometimes supplied the same number of a magazine with several articles, only one of which was supposed to be my own. I also prepared for the press a number of works, the copyrights of which were purchased by Messrs. Burgess & Stringer. They were principally compilations, with as much or as little original matter as was found necessary — book cement, to make the odd fragments adhere together. The subjects of these books were not of my own choosing — I wrote to order, for profit, and to supply the demands of the public. In this manner were produced Housekeeping made Easy, (the name of Mrs. Ellis was not affixed by me,) Book of the Toilette, Cookery for the Sick, Book of Embroidery, Knitting, Netting, and Crotchet, Etiquette for Ladies, Ball-room Etiquette, Etiquette of Matrimony, and similar publications, the very names of which I cannot now remember.11

It was during the time that the Mowatts were engaged in trying to keep their publishing company afloat that Anna Cora used at least one male pen name.  Mowatt used her fluency in German and her enthusiasm for the plays he had written to put together a volume titled “Life of Goethe.” Someone in the decision-making chain decided that the masculine nom de plume “Henry C. Browning” would boost sales for this book.  I’ve not found records of her using this pen name for any other work.

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

According to Eric Barnes, Anna Cora compiled works that were published under the name “Charles A. Lee, M.D.”  She does not mention doing so in her autobiography.  I have not been able to locate the titles to which Barnes is referring.  However, I think either I’m misreading him or he may have been confused about what occurred.  Dr. Charles Alfred Lee (1801-1872) was a real person, not just a name randomly pulled from thin air like Henry Browning.  Dr. Lee was not only a prominent physician, but a prolific author actively publishing in 1841.  I think it is likely that “Management of the Sickroom” was advertised as extracted highlights condensed from Dr. Lee’s other publications just as “The Etiquette of Matrimony” was touted by its publishers as containing excerpts from the works of Lady Blessington but was not purported to be the creation of someone claiming to be Lady Blessington.  “Charles A. Lee, M.D.” therefore, was probably not a Mowatt pen name.  “Management of the Sickroom” might have been among the “Mrs. Ellis” publications.

It was at the Mowatt Publishing Company that Anna Cora’s most successful alter ego, “Helen Berkeley,” came into being. In her autobiography, Mowatt refers to her as “Mrs. Berkeley.”  However, in print, just like the appellation “Anna Cora Mowatt,” Helen Berkeley’s marital status was often left ambiguous.  As with “Isabel,” Mowatt does not give the reader any clues that would help us decipher why she chose this alias.  There does not seem to be anything that ties the name Helen Berkeley back to her history.  Therefore, like “Isabel” this was a pen name that allowed her to publish with a certain degree of anonymity.

"An Inconveinent Acquaintance" by Helen Berkeley
“An Inconvenient Acquaintance” by Helen Berkeley

Many Helen Berkeley works appear in Epes Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine, a publication printed by the Mowatts’ company.  Anna Cora frequently used the Berkeley pseudonym for texts with a controversial edge.  Her interviews with Frances Trollope, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, and Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte were all published under this name.  Trollope was a widely disliked figure in the U.S. at this time because of her comments on the behavior she had observed during her stay in the country in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832.)  Mowatt’s interview with Lady Bulwer-Lytton dealt frankly with her allegations of abuse by her famous spouse.  The article received many outraged letters from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s fans.  The picture Mowatt drew presenting the spectacle of a branch of the once-mighty Bonaparte family eking out a pathos-filled semblance of a lordly existence in Bordentown, New Jersey also sparked a critical reaction from some readers.

Joseph Bonaparte's estate in Bordentown, N.J.
Joseph Bonaparte’s estate in Bordentown, N.J.

The Helen Berkeley stories published in New Monthly Magazine are, in my opinion, the best short works Mowatt wrote.  She shared Epes Sargent’s taste for biting social satire and had a talent for drawing larger than life characters to rival Dickens. “An Inconvenient Acquaintance,” “Practitioners and Patients” and “The Colonel Abroad” are not sweetly moral fables featuring well-behaved and well-meaning protagonists.  In “An Inconvenient Acquaintance,” a family of social climbers is terrorized by a comically persistent bill collector.  A quack kills a hypochondriac in “Practitioners and Patients” and an American seeking to marry his way into a European title narrowly escapes an entanglement with a penniless French noblewoman in “The Colonel Abroad.”  The humor of these stories is not mild, gentle, and ladylike.  In her guise as Helen Berkeley, Mowatt’s writing is as acerbically witty as any male writer of the same period.

Mowatt’s first novel was written as Helen Berkeley.  Through Epes Sargent, she learned of a writing contest sponsored by Park Benjamin’s New World newspaper.

I had half determined to attempt a tale of some length, and was pondering upon the subject, when a friend informed me that the New World newspaper had offered one hundred dollars for the best original novel in one volume. The title must be the Fortune Hunter, and the scene laid in New York. The novel must be completed in a month, or within six weeks at the latest.

“Why do you not try what you can do?” said my friend. “Write a story in your Mrs. Berkley style — you can easily make the title apply. Ten to one your novel will be the one accepted.”12

When inspired, Mowatt could compose at remarkable speed.  Well within the six-week time limit, she had the twenty-two chapters of her novel completed.  The Fortune Hunter; A Novel of New York Society borrows a character from the Helen Berkeley story “An Inconvenient Acquaintance” — Mr. Badger, the indefatigably cheerful and terrifyingly resourceful debt collector.  Badger is not actually one of the story’s official protagonists.  He’s just a man trying to do his job. And his job takes him everywhere in this novel. Apparently you can be a virtuous maiden, gallant hero or a melodramatic villain and still get behind on payments. We all know how that is…

So even at the most sensational or sentimental points in the plot, there’s always the chance that annoying, chatty Mr. Badger will pop in like an old vaudeville performer doing a guest shot on The Love Boat and start doing his shtick, completely changing the mood of the scene and adding an element of the unpredictable.  His disruptively comic presence makes this one of the most unique novels I’ve read from this period.

The Fortune Hunter has lots of genuinely funny moments. I am not surprised that the novel won the New World contest.  I am astounded that she was able to complete the entire process from conception to final draft in less than six weeks.  As is true for the witty short stories she wrote under the Helen Berkeley pen name, this novel is one of her works that I think would have a strong appeal to modern audiences if it were adapted into a screenplay.  Although Fortune Hunter was Mowatt’s first novel, the humor of the work makes it one of her most enjoyable and accessible.

After she ceased to use this pseudonym, the strength of the quality of the work she had composed under the name of Helen Berkeley would come back to haunt Mowatt.  In her autobiography, she reports;

I was very much amused by an article that appeared in one of the papers accusing me of being an imitator of Mrs. Berkeley, and more than hinting that the imitation fell far short of the original.13

Thus in the sharp-witted Helen Berkeley, Mowatt unintentionally created a competitor for herself who did not have to be quite as careful about maintaining lady-like public persona in the works she created. She did not entertain this rival for long, though. Sometime after her debut as an actress, someone discovered that Mowatt was Helen Berkeley.  After her cover was blown, Mowatt ceased to use the pseudonym.  There are no Helen Berkeley stories dating later than 1845.  I regret this. I’m afraid that I agree with the writers who thought they were comparing two different authors.  Although they are one and the same person, because she was bolder, more irreverent, and funnier when writing under that name, I feel that Helen Berkeley was a better author than Anna Cora Mowatt.

There may have been other Mowatt pen names that she never made public.  In a letter to publisher James Fields dated 1842, she is searching for an outlet to publish a short story anonymously that does not fit the description of any of the Helen Berkeley narratives from that time period;

I acknowledge through our mutual friend (E.O.W.) the reception of your agreeable letter and am now making you my debtor for another for the purpose of transacting some business.  I have a moral tale for the young in hand, something in the style of those now in vogue, and I am anxious to dispose of it.  Your will not wonder at my turning to Boston for the fulfillment of my wishes, for it is natural for us to seek again the hand which has been once stretched kindly towards us.  Will you undertake to make some disposition of the troublesome little encumbrance for me?  Of course it will be the best in your power.  Is Mr. Ticknor in the habit of publishing stories of the kind?  I have no objection to selling the copyright of the tale but I do not wish it published with my name.14

We don’t have the reply to this letter.  However, Ticknor & Fields did become the publishers for Mowatt’s two best-selling publications — her autobiography in 1854 and Mimic Life in 1856. The fact that she returned to this company to print texts of such personal significance and that James Fields saved her letter from 1842 both tend to argue he was able to find a home for her “troublesome” moral tale.  I have not as yet uncovered any other clues about this story or the pseudonym to which it was accredited.

Marius Blesi thought it was possible that “Mary Davenant” was a Mowatt pen name.15 There is a story titled “Helen Berkley; or the Mercenary Marriage” by that author in the April 1845 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.16  Blesi was of the opinion that the narrative is of a “Helen Berkeley style.”  I strongly disagree. The character descriptions are very flat, unimaginative, and one-dimensional.  No one has the sort of distinctive verbal tic Mowatt usually gives to at least one of her minor characters.  None of the young ladies has even a hint of an exotic hair color. The use of language is rather pedestrian.  The narrative completely lacks Mowatt’s usual borrowings from French and complex sentence structures.  There is no humor or social commentary. No breaking the narrative fourth wall for a wry comment. Mary Davenant doesn’t even spell “Berkeley” the same way Mowatt does.

"Helen Berkley; or the Mercenary Marriage" by Mary Davenant, 1845
“Helen Berkley; or the Mercenary Marriage” by Mary Davenant, 1845

Blesi does admit that two subsequent Mary Davenant stories, “Grace Clavering” (Godey’s, Dec. 1846) and “The Old Armchair,” (Godey’s, June 1847) were not good candidates to be written by Mowatt.  He finds no stylistic match in these stories. During those years, Mowatt was fully occupied with her stage career.  Her only writing seems to have been the composition of the play, “Armand” in the summer of 1847.

After retiring from the stage in 1854, Mowatt once again began to devote time to writing.  There are no indications that she published under any name but her own from this time forward.  One primary purpose of her writing tended to be generating an independent income.  After nearly a decade on the stage, she had a created a name for herself that translated into dollar signs as her fans loyally purchased her latest publication.  It would have seemed foolish not to take advantage of the fame she had worked so hard to achieve.

On the other hand, Mowatt had also labored to attain a public persona that was synonymous with lady-like decorum and refinement.  It was an image that might have limited her artistic freedom as a writer.  With her second marriage, she had escaped the conservatism of New York high society only to marry into the aristocratic elite of Richmond, Virginia.  Antebellum Richmond society was a rarefied atmosphere even more claustrophobically restrictive in their definitions of appropriate behavior for married women.  Wouldn’t the mask of a sufficiently concealing non de plume have seemed alluring once more?

I would say that we may never know.  However, recently, I found an unpublished collection of poems in the Hawthorne Family Papers that allowed me confirm that several verses printed as works of “A.” “Cora,” or “A.C.” were definitely Mowatt creations.  One side benefit of lack of scholarly interest in Mowatt’s work (other than her play “Fashion,” of course), is that the inattention leaves room for some fascinating discoveries.  There may be a letter or handwritten manuscript sitting in the special collections section of a library containing clues to the secret identity of Helen Berkeley’s successor just waiting for someone to blow the dust off it right now…

Next Time:  Stage names, nicknames, and the strange story of Mowatt’s experiences with mesmerism

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of her early life
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of her early life

 

  1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Pages 31-32.
  2. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Hawthorne Family Papers, undated. Archival material. Stanford Library.
  3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “To Mary.” Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine, 1843. Volume 1, part 1. Page 259.
  4. Wheeler, William Ogden. The Ogden Family in America, Elizabethtown Branch, and their English Ancestry.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1907. Page 298.
  5. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 79.
  6. Ibid, page 66.
  7. William Foushee Ritchie, Richmond. Letter to Isabella H. Harrison, Brandon, September 22, 1853. Ritchie-Harrison Papers, William & Mary Library.
  8. “Thomas Jefferson to William Short, September 8, 1823”
  9. Porcelli, Aurelio Albert. The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr Before Chief Justice Marshall. (1942) Master’s Thesis. Page 66
  10. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 74
  11. Ibid. Page 186.
  12. Ibid. Pages 185-184.
  13. Ibid. Page 185.
  14. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Letter to James Fields. Sept. 23, 1842.  Papers of Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie, Accession #8010-e, Special Collections Dept., University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.
  15. Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. University of Virginia, 1938. Page 101.
  16. Davenant, Mary. “Helen Berkley; or the Mercenary Marriage.” Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, Volume 30, April 1845, pages 170-178.

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