Anna Cora Mowatt and Louis Waller – Part II

Mowatt, Men, and Villainy

If you pick up a book about popular culture in the 19th century in the U.S. and Great Britain that doesn’t mention the influence of melodrama somewhere in the first chapter, put that volume back down again immediately. I know I can seem rather touchy about this genre, but be assured that I do recognize its overwhelming importance to the Victorian era.  Audiences enjoyed plays, books, and stories that pitted the forces of evil versus virtue embodied in a mind-numbing number of variations from the beginning of the century to well past its end. Playwrights, novelists, and poets churned out formulaic works as the genre waxed and waned in popularity with different demographics in a myriad of forms in varying locations as the decades passed.

The word “melodrama” tends to raise my hackles a bit because I feel scholars tend to over-apply the generic expectations of category to Mowatt’s narratives. Anna Cora Mowatt — alongside her more famous peers, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Louisa May Alcott — is one of the few female American writers of the 19th century whose works are still read today. Mowatt was not only a mid-19th century author at a time when melodrama had a profound impact on all popular culture, but one specifically who had a career in theatre and achieved fame as a dramatist. A grasp of the tropes of melodrama is, therefore, essential to understanding her work.  However, I feel we must look beyond those one-dimensional stock characters and simplistic messages to correctly interpret her writing.

Poster for "Fashion" 1850
Poster for “Fashion” 1850

This blog entry is a continuation of a look at some overall characteristics of Mowatt’s body of work.  I embarked on this series of entries with the hope that I can open up some interesting spaces that other scholars and researchers might profitably explore.  To aid me in defining these general characteristics, I am going to continue to use the work of a scholar engaged in a similar project for her generation — Louise Waller’s 1958 thesis, “The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation.”  We started in the last entry with a look at Mowatt’s female protagonists.  This week we move on to Mowatt’s antagonists of whom Waller assures us;

Rarely does Mrs. Mowatt present an absolute villain.  The wrong-doing in each book usually stems from a misunderstanding or fatal flaw in the person who plays the antagonistic part.1

As Waller observes, Mowatt seldom gives the reader examples of thoroughly evil people who do evil things for purely evil reasons in her works.  Her narratives are not the stories of the forces of good in head-to-head conflicts with the powers of villainy.  The underlying rhetorical message of her novels, plays, and stories usually breaks down to a sentiment more along the lines of “In the end, the truth will always come out” or “Selfless love triumphs over pride” or “Work enriches the spirit” rather than “Virtue will always defeat vice.”  Her plotlines may play out melodramatically, but the lack of a clear good versus evil conflict throws her work out of the category of generic Victorian melodrama as most theatre historians define it today.

And why is this distinction significant, you ask? Because Mowatt is one of the few playwrights still remembered from the 19th Century, it is quite understandable that writers try to shoehorn her work into the category of generic Victorian melodrama.  However, Mowatt, like James Sheridan Knowles, was a transitional figure still carrying over traces of Restoration Comedy sensibilities in her writing.  Mowatt’s works lose the Restoration era’s bawdy amorality, but do not boil down to the puritanically black and white ethics of true melodramas.  Her narratives are about human folly.  All the characters — protagonists and antagonists — are fallible, make mistakes, and do foolish things.  It is the characters who can admit to their mistakes and learn from them who are happiest at the end of the narrative. Usually closure consists not of a good thumping defeat of a baddie, but a moment where the protagonists reflect on what they’ve experienced.

Mowatt’s body of work is now over one hundred and seventy years old.  Tastes and creative writing styles have changed very much in the intervening decades.  Her characters do not seem as emotionally complex as those written by many modern authors. However I think it is very important to take off the blinders that generic expectations may apply to her writing in order to appreciate the depth inherent in her work.  If we try to stuff the polyhedron pegs that are Mowatt’s plots and characters into the smooth little round holes modern scholars have carved out as the defined characteristics of the typical Victorian melodrama, we lose much of their delicate intricacy.

Anna Cora Mowatt, circa 1853
Anna Cora Mowatt, circa 1853

In the last entry, I may have created the impression that all women in Mowatt’s books and short stories are saintly, hard-working, and flawless.  They are not. Both male and female characters fill antagonistic roles.  I would not echo Waller in saying that these antagonists have what I would call “fatal flaws.”  There are a few of them who have had life experiences that have sometimes tragically warped their characters and so, yes, might fall into that category.  However, there are greater numbers of others who are simply individuals possessed of highly annoying personality traits.  Mowatt’s books are filled with characters who become stumbling blocks to those around them because they are incredibly spoiled, stubborn, or eccentric.  The exaggerated personal tics of her antagonists can be a source of both drama and humor in her books.

Esther Clinton from Mowatt’s first novel, The Fortune Hunter, is a good example of a character who makes trouble for the protagonist (and herself) because of her folly early in the book but learns from her mistakes and reforms by the conclusion of the narrative.  Esther is an obsessive reader of novels.  I was shocked that an author would have the nerve to write a character with this sort of flaw until I found that Mowatt’s critique of Esther’s obsession was not the standard anti-feminist anti-intellectual complaint.  Esther’s problem was not that she was a young woman getting dangerous ideas from books, but that she was a vain, spoiled, self-centered girl who used reading as a substitute for interacting with people.  Because of her degree of engagement with the characters in romantic novels, she felt she was highly empathetic.  In reality, Esther was increasingly disengaged from the actual problems faced by her family and friends as the following passage points out;

“Beware what you do, Esther!”

“I am aware! Love is often unwary, but my love is under the guidance of wisdom. Interrupt me no longer, sister; you have called me back from the world of fiction to a world that is unblessed by its rainbow hues.  I sicken of your false counsels, therefore do not disturb me again.”

Esther resumed her books, and tears, which never course her cheeks for the real sorrows of many a poor wretch whom her bounty might have succored, were soon streaming from her eyes, for the ideal griefs of ideal beings.  Rachel knew that it was useless to argue with her, and left the room to assist in her mother’s household occupations – that mother, from whom her exertions seldom met an approving word – in whose ear she longed, but dared not to breathe how tenderly she loved her.2

Esther (who insists that everyone calls her “Estelle”) also begins the book with an unrealistic self-image modelled on descriptions of romantic heroines that leaves her vulnerable to the lies and predations of the fortune hunter, Augustus Brainard.  She acts foolishly, selfishly, and is unwittingly cruel. It is only when she begins listening to her sister and starts caring more about the real problems faced by the people around her than the imaginary problems faced by the characters in her beloved books that Esther is able to get her life in order and join the side of the protagonists in the novel.

Fairy Fingers
Fairy Fingers

Mrs. Gilmore, a minor character from Fairy Fingers, is an example of a trouble-making character who does not learn from her folly.  She, like many other male and female antagonistic characters introduced in Mowatt narratives, is petty, vain, self-centered, and jealous.  Mowatt tends to pour lavish details into describing the richness of the food and drink consumed by such characters or the intricacies of the fashions they wear.  Their outward venality is meant to cue us to their inwardly shallow nature.  In the following short interchange, Mowatt allows Mrs. Gilmer to reveal some of the petty malice of her character while putting the costume of another similar character, Madame de Fleury, on display;

Mrs. Gilmer, who was choking with vexation, sought revenge in one of those petty maneuvers which women of the world thoroughly understand. She paused, in the most natural manner, before the hat which she had just extolled, and which she had been informed was designed for Madame de Fleury, and said aloud,

“What a pretty bonnet! Admirably suited to hide the defects of an uncertain complexion, and hair of no color, neither light nor dark. It is not too gay or coquettish either; just the thing for a woman of thirty, who has begun to fade.”

“I beg pardon, Madame, it is intended for Madame de Fleury,” answered Victorine, reprovingly, and not immediately comprehending the intentional spite of Mrs. Gilmer’s remark.

“Indeed!” returned the latter, still speaking as though she had no suspicion of the presence of the marchioness; “Will it not be rather young for her? It seems to me that these colors are a little too bright for a person of her age.”

“Madame de Fleury is present, and may overhear you,” whispered Victorine, warningly.

“Ah, indeed! I did not perceive her; much obliged to you for telling me, for she conceals her age so well that I would not mortify her by letting her suppose that I am aware of her advanced years,” continued the malicious little lady in a very audible tone.

Madame de Fleury was, in reality, but twenty-five, and particularly sensitive on the subject of her age, or rather of her youth. She expected to be taken for twenty-two at the most, and had been furious when Mrs. Gilmer talked of her bonnet as suitable to a person of thirty; but when her spiteful rival had the audacity to suggest that Madame de Fleury had even passed that decisive period, she could scarcely contain her rage. By a sudden impulse she turned and faced the speaker. Both ladies made a profound courtesy, with countenances expressive of mortal hatred.3

Mrs. Gilmer may have had a real life inspiration. In the mid-1850’s Mowatt was working with the Mt. Vernon Association.  This group fought to have George Washington’s home preserved as a national monument.  The Association had presented an important bill to the Virginia Legislature. Just when they were certain of success, they found their efforts had been undermined by some of their own members.  The ringleader of the dissident band was a Mrs. John H. Gilmer.  The narrator of Fairy Fingers introduces the fictional Mrs. Gilmer as follows,

Mrs. Gilmer was one of those light-headed and light-hearted women, who float upon the topmost and frothiest wave of society, herself a glittering bubble. To win admiration was the chief object of her life. The breath of flattery wafted her upward toward her heaven,—that rapturous state which was heaven to her. To be the belle of every reunion where she appeared was a triumph she could not forego; and there were no arts to which she would not stoop to obtain this victory.4

Anna Cora Mowatt stated several times that she modeled her fiction on persons and events from her life.  Apparently she wasn’t above getting a bit of literary revenge for grievances from bygone days.  In a similar case to Fairy Fingers’ Mrs. Gilmore, in Twin Roses, Mowatt chose to give the name “Mr. Brown” to the snappish and unsympathetic costumer who exploits sweet, disabled Jeannie Garnett.  The name of the very real person who was the Marylebone Theater’s much praised costumer during the time she starred in productions at that venue also happened to be Mr. Brown.  I think a contemporary author might get sued for making their clef de roman quite this nakedly undisguised.

Scene from "The Mute SInger"
Scene from “The Mute Singer”

The Countess de Gramont, also from Fairy Fingers, is a representative specimen of one of Mowatt’s antagonistic characters who doesn’t fit neatly into either the category of the trouble-making individual who reforms or the irredeemably flawed person whose attitude is impervious to change.  The Countess is haughty, proud, and stubborn to a degree that Mowatt mines for its tragi-comic potential in the novel.  Her proud and unyielding nature causes a great deal of trouble for everyone in the story – including herself.  Because the Countess is so extreme in her outlook, other characters try to accommodate her and even admire her degree of commitment to her principles.  In the first scene where she appears, her son, Count Tristan reflects;

She looked so regal, as she sat before him in a richly carved antique chair, which she occupied as though it had been a throne that, in spite of the blind obstinacy with which she refused to see her own interests and his, Count Tristan could not help regarding her with admiration.5

The Countess and her son begin the book with very similar personalities.  The narrator introduces Count Tristan to us as follows;

Count Tristan de Gramont was a widower, the father of but one child.  It must not be supposed that, although he seriously purposed embarking in a business enterprise, he had failed to appropriate a goodly share of that pride which had both descended by inheritance, and had been liberally instilled into his mind by education. His character was strongly stamped with the Breton traits of obstinacy and perseverance, and he was gifted with an un-aristocratic amount of energy.  When an idea once took possession of his brain, he patiently and diligently brought the embryo thought to fruition, in spite of all disheartening obstacles.  He was narrow-minded and selfish when any interests save his own and those of his mother and son were at stake.  These were the only two beings whom he loved, and he only loved them because they were his – a portion of himself; and it was merely himself that he loved through them.  In a certain sense, he was a devoted son.  His education had rendered him punctilious, to the highest degree, in the observation of all those forms that betoken filial veneration.  He always treated his august mother with the most profound reverence.  He paid the most courteous attentions, — opened doors when she desired to pass, placed footstools for her feet, knelt promptly to pick up the handkerchief or glove she dropped, was ever ready to offer her his arm for support, and seldom combated her opinions.6

Perhaps Louise Waller had characters like Count Tristan and his mother in mind when she said that wrong-doing in Mowatt’s books was usually committed by “fatally flawed” individuals. As I have said previously, Mowatt did not write about struggles between good and evil, but about the consequences of human folly. The Count and Countess take actions that directly initiate many plot complications in this novel. They can be cruel and cold, but they are not evil. Their motivations are usually selfish or out of an excess of pride.  Their acts have many negative repercussions for most of the major characters – including themselves.

Count Tristan goes through a full redemptive arc over the course of the book and repents of the offensives he commits.  The Countess, however, never quite fully unbends enough to admit the extent to which she has been wrong.  She clings to her folly with tragi-comic dignity until the end.

Closer to the conventional idea of the villain is the character type Waller calls the scoundrel.  She defines the presence of this persona in Mowatt’s narratives as follows;

The cast of the novels always includes, besides the heroine and her confidante, the scoundrel.  This man is not a real villain, but he is generally not very religious, nor very bright and always makes an indecent proposal to the heroine for one foul reason or another.  It is interesting to watch Mrs. Mowatt, in the fusty gentility of Victoria’s reign, dealing so doggedly with the question of illicit sex, certainly not on the level of a James T. Farrell, but dealing with it nevertheless.  The heroine of course, never succumbs, but she always has a chance to stand back, throw out her chin and point to the exit, with a strong hint of “never darken my door again, you cad.”7

I would agree that the untrustworthy male character is a standard feature of Mowatt’s narratives. (This is another topic that I feel is worthy of thesis or dissertation-length exploration.)  However, only Fortune Hunter’s Augustus Brainard, Fairy Fingers’ Lord Linden, and King Louis from “Armand” fall into the sort of pattern of sexual harassment that Waller outlines here. The sexual predator thwarted by the forces of virtue is a standard trope of melodrama.  However, as I’ve said repeatedly, Mowatt’s works aren’t classic melodramas. These characters aren’t presented as being evil and the forces of good don’t line up neatly to defeat them.

These fellows are scoundrels, not full-fledged villains.  Mowatt presents these men as selfish, thoughtless, and venal, but not cruel for cruelty’s sake.  The more powerful the individual is, the greater the effort is required to wake him up to the error of his ways.  Thus Augustus Brainard can be shamed into a confession of guilt in one comic scene.  King Louis nearly requires both the main characters to sacrifice their lives before he reconciles himself to a more honorable course of action.

Illustration of a scene from the original production of "Fashion" 1845
Illustration of a scene from the original production of “Fashion” 1845

“Fashion’s” high society imposter, Count Jolimaitre, is one of several characters from that play who falls into the general category of scoundrel.  There are no sexual overtones to his treatment of Gertrude. However, his deceptive wooing of Seraphina and abandonment of Millenette are definitely less than gentlemanly behavior. Like other of Mowatt’s rascals, his main flaws are that he is greedy, unrepentantly manipulative, and selfish.  At the end of the play, he receives the usual punishment of a scoundrel — his deceptions are publicly exposed, he is forced to confess, abandon his attempted seduction, and is banished from the presence of the protagonists.

Title page of "Evelyn"
Title page of “Evelyn”

Mowatt’s worst scoundrel — and the nearest she comes to writing a true villain — is Evelyn’s Colonel Hubert Damoreau. Although Damoreau is a highly destructive character in this narrative, she has not drawn the portrait for her readers of a purely evil person who does evil things because he wishes to be evil. Damoreau is a hedonist. After seven chapters of Katherine Bolton’s rather prim New England schoolmistress-style of narration of the interactions of the inhabitants of a New York boarding house, the Colonel’s letters burst onto the scene in full-color glory. He introduces his interests by saying;

A man must live, and it is my maxim that he should live, not as fast, but as much as he can; that is, collect and concentrate into the small space of his life as much enjoyment as is practicable or possible.  What the plague are our five senses good for unless we can inhale pleasure through every one of them, and create around us an atmosphere of exhilarating delight? I have tried to do with these five fine senses of mine all that could be done by way of cultivating and gratifying them to the utmost, and yet I fall a victim to ennui oftener than the moon changes.

There are a great many good things in the world, but there is one better than all, worth all the rest melted down into an essence that could be sucked in like exhilarating gas.

“the garden was a wild

And man, the hermit, sighed ‘till woman smiled.”

You know my old failing? A pretty face and a pair of bright eyes give me no inclination to become an anchorite.8

Damoreau is perhaps the most remorselessly amoral character in all of Mowatt’s body of work. Although his thoughts on the onset are only of his pleasure, his actions bring disgrace, ruin, and death in their wake.  Through the progress of his letters to his friend, Fred Ruthven, we listen in as he voraciously plans out and executes his campaign to seduce first Evelyn Merritt then her friend Amy. From comments in those missives, we are able to piece together the story of the betrayal and destruction he has already wrought on Claudine before any character in the novel has access to this information. Despite all the evidence we are given of the toxic effects of his influence, Mowatt does not write Damoreau as a sinister or menacing persona. The Colonel jokes, quotes poetry, relishes his meals and his surroundings, gives sarcastic descriptions of characters introduced earlier in the story, and hectors his friend to come join the fun. Damoreau’s letters are much more colorful and lively than Katherine Bolton’s.

Damoreau is perhaps much more frightening than the one-dimensional villains of melodrama because from the moment he appears on the scene, Mowatt allows us to simultaneously see not only how dangerous he is, but also how charming he can be.  In his letters, we get to see the worldly and sophisticated personality that dulls the suspicions of even the most sharp-witted and virtuous characters in the novel until his hooks are in far too deep.

Contrary to the failed seduction plot Waller presents as being typical of Mowatt’s stories, the women in Evelyn do not say no to Colonel Damoreau until things have gone too far and irreparable damage has been done in a number of different ways.  They are each able to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives enough to take some final action that helps them regain a measure of their self-respect. However, none of these women end the book as the sort of picture of virtue triumphant that Waller paints. Damoreau cuts a wide path of destruction through this novel. He becomes an antagonist in the setting of the story in the same way a cat would become the antagonist in a box full of mice.  His goals are diametrically incompatible with the continued well-being of the inhabitants of the world of the story.  Damoreau is a predator. The young women of the story are his chosen prey.

Hubert Damoreau contradicts Waller’s definition of a Mowatt scoundrel because he is highly intelligent and for the most part successful in his plans to seduce.  Her definition of this category of characters is further complicated (and made more intriguing, in my opinion) by the fact that Mowatt creates so many fathers, husbands, and male mentors who share characteristics with the scoundrels. These men are not sexual predators.  However, they are unreliable characters who, though ostensibly on the side of the female protagonist, are capable of taking selfish or irresponsible actions that turn them temporarily into an antagonistic force, causing her emotional distress or impeding her progress towards important goals in the narrative.

For me, the most scoundrel-like male character allied with a female protagonist in a Mowatt novel is Twin Roses’ Herman Landor.  He starts out as a very admirable character, but becomes less so when he rejects Jeannie Garnett for her twin sister, Jessie.  The critical difference is that he picking the able-bodied sister over the disabled sister who he has been dating for several months.  This decision does not testify to a great depth of character.  To confirm the shallowness of his personality, after his marriage, Landor develops a gambling addiction. Although he eventually reforms, the twin heroines spend most of the book trying to deal with the fallout from Herman’s irresponsibility.

Sylvie de la Roche, heroine of The Mute Singer, must cope with not one, but two scoundrel-ish male characters in the form of her father, Everard, and her mentor, Maitre Beaujeau.  Her greatest burden and barrier to success in life at the beginning of the novel is her father who loves her dearly, but is a compulsive spender with an over-inflated self-image.  Mowatt introduces Everard de la Roche to us as follows;

Sylvie’s father belonged to an excellent family of Provence – a family who claimed to be the off-shoot of nobility.  Everard de la Roche was born and bred a gentleman, according to the European acceptation of the word, which means he was born and fitted for no occupation – a gentleman of the aristocratic, do-nothing school.  His father’s in come had been sufficiently large to enable him to live luxuriously with prudence, but the son chanced to be wholly deficient in that inestimable quality. When Everard became his father’s heir, and found himself with ample means at his command, he proposed to his young wife that they should remove from Provence to Paris, and “see the world” Paris, to a Frenchman, being the only world worth recognizing.

Hardly had they taken up their residence in the great capital, when Monsieur de la Roche launched into numberless extravagances. He was one of those light-hearted, sanguine men, who never look beyond the hour. He squandered his property in the most reckless manner. Now and then, as he felt his substance melting away, he embarked in some hazardous but Golconda-promising speculation, which usually left him poorer than before.

In a few years his means were exhausted. He then resorted to borrowing from any source that was accessible. He had no scruples of delicacy, for he always promised, and intended to pay when he could; but scorned to contemplate the possibility that such a day might never come. He did not experience the faintest gratitude for these loans; they were a matter of business, he asserted. He never economized the money thus acquired, but often expended for an hour’s indulgence a sum that would supply his family in food for a week.

By the time Sylvie had entered her tenth year, her father was reduced to such poverty that, one after another, all the valuables he possessed, down to his wife s jewelry and clothes, had been sold for bread. He had wearied out the patience, and drained the generosity of his former friends, who shunned, and finally cut, the unscrupulous borrower. The prospect of actual starvation now compelled him to exert himself; but he found it difficult to secure employment, and quite as hard to force himself to work when it was obtained. He had latterly fallen in with a notary who supplied him with a small amount of copying drudgery for which he was scantily compensated.9

When Sylvie begins experience some success as a singer, her father immediately commandeers every penny of her income and squanders it on re-establishing the family’s status as nobility in some manner.  Although de la Roche is quite devoted to his daughter, he proves such an impediment to the forward motion of the plot that Mowatt finally has to get him out of Sylvie’s way by means of a near-fatal head injury.

Scene from "The Mute Singer"
Scene from “The Mute Singer”

Sylvie also has to endure a great deal of bad behavior from the other leading male character in the novel, her music teacher, Maitre Beaujeu.  The musician is an artist who begins the book embittered by his lack of success and betrayals at the hands of his peers.  Beaujeu is at a low ebb of his life.   He will travel through a redemption arc over the course of the novel, recognize his errors, repent of these wrongdoings, and make reparations to Sylvie and Mathieu.  However, the music-master begins as a very cruel and unfeeling character.  It hard to feel any sympathy for him when he behaves as abusively as he does in this scene;

Maitre Beaujeau snatched the flowers and threw them into the passage.

Sylvie, with more courage than could have been anticipated from her timid mien, now came forward.  She quietly took up the humble nosegay, saying, “Mathieu is so good he often brings me flowers – indeed, I should never receive any, were it not for him.  He knows I like them only too well.  Sometimes I fear he robs his sister, Ninette, who sells flowers, of her wares.  Pray don’t be so hard upon the poor boy, Maitre Beaujeu; he loves music so much, and has so few –“

She could not finish her sentence, for the music-master thrust her aside.

“How dare you interfere, you little fright! What do you want with flowers? Do you think they’ll make you any handsomer?”  Turning to Mathieu, he added: “Get out, now; and let me catch you again – that’s all!”

He rounded his sentence with a kick that sent the terrified cripple staggering along the entry.  Then closing the door savagely, he returned to the piano.10

Mowatt’s narrative does not represent Maitre Beaujeu as an evil person.  However, in the depths of his bitterness, he is capable of saying and doing very hurtful things to those around him.  Without his aid, none of the personal and professional triumphs Sylvie achieves in the book would be possible.  It cannot be denied though, that she is forced to endure a lot of peevish, bad-tempered, undeserved verbal abuse and emotional torment from him before he wakes up and starts to appreciate her contributions to his quality of life.

Like Everard de la Roche, Herman Landor, “Fashion’s” Mr. Tiffany, “Armand’s” Duc de Richelieu, and Fairy Finger’s Count Tristan, Maitre Beaujeu typifies a category of male character that frequently appears Mowatt’s works. These flawed fathers, husbands, and mentors fall somewhere between heroes and villains.  They are proud, moody men, irresponsible with money, often gamblers or big spenders, blind to their own folly, tempted into excesses that cost the heroines of the narrative dearly.  In most of the narratives she created, Mowatt’s female protagonists need to defend themselves from rearguard attacks in the form of friendly-fire crises generated by these defective allies more often than they need to ward off frontal attacks on their virtue from outright scoundrels.

The classic romantic melodrama plotline is essentially a domestic drama at heart.  A father or guardian foolishly allows the heroine to become ensnared into a disastrous union of some sort with the antagonist. She is rescued by the hero.  Although none of Mowatt’s narratives exactly duplicate this pattern, many of the familiar story elements are present.  In the past two blog entries, I’ve shown you an abundance of virtuous maidens, quite a few foolish fathers, and some rather lecherous Lotharios.  So what’s the significance of these perhaps minor deviations from the standard path followed by the majority of writers of the period? Are Mowatt’s weak antagonists just a sign of bad writing?  Was she just too much of a frilly girly-pants to commit to writing the sort of two-fisted baddie the genre demanded?

In my opinion, the kind of antagonists Mowatt creates provides an important contrast pointing to how the story dynamics of her narratives differ from generic melodrama romance plots of the era. In the standard plotline, a strong male lead battles a powerful antagonist to rescue the heroine. Thus the lead female character tends to function in such narratives as a prize to be won by the victor of the power struggle between the two male characters.

In Mowatt’s novels, the antagonists are not usually very powerful.  Although these trouble-makers cause terrible problems for her protagonists, her antagonists tend to be foolish and fallible.  Mowatt’s heroines are as virtuous and beauteous as any in standard melodrama, but instead of relying on a single hero to rescue them, the author presents them fully-rigged with support networks of confidants, mentors, family, friends, and sometimes even spouses, children, and employees. In other words, the story dynamics of Mowatt’s novels indicate that these narratives are about the female protagonists (or in some cases, a married couple’s) struggles to overcome adversity.  The heroine’s progress through the plot is the real focus of the story.  The leading female character is more than an object that represents victory conditions for a male character.  The thematic message of Mowatt’s narratives is embodied in the female protagonist’s struggle against antagonistic forces, not in a power struggle between a male protagonist and a contrasting villainous character.  This type of focus on female characters differentiates Mowatt’s work from the type of standard romance melodrama being written in this era mostly by male authors.

To further illustrate the power balance Mowatt created in her narratives, in the next entry, continuing to use Louise Waller’s outline as a guide, I will present some of her male protagonists and their characteristics.  I also want to discuss a somewhat unusual class of protagonist employed by Mowatt – the husband and wife team.  Most essentially, I will talk about Mowatt’s treatment of the ties of affection that hold these lead characters together.

Next Week: Love, Sex, and Heroes

Anna Cora Mowatt, Louise Waller, and images of antagonists in Mowatt's narratives
Anna Cora Mowatt, Louise Waller, and images of antagonists in Mowatt’s narratives
  1. Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page 64.
  2. Berkeley, Helen. The Fortune Hunter; the Adventures of a Man About Town, a Novel of New York Society. Winchester, New World Press: New York, 1844. Page 55.
  3. Ritchie, Anna Cora. Fairy Fingers, a Novel. Carleton, New York: 1865. Page 235.
  4. Ibid, 230.
  5. Ibid, 10.
  6. Ibid, 9-10.
  7. Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page
  8. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Evelyn; or a Heart Unmasked, a Tale of Domestic Life(G.B. Zieber: Philadelphia, 1845. page 66
  9. Ritchie, Anna Cora. The Mute Singer; a Novel(Carleton: New York, 1866). Pages 20-21.
  10. Pages 16-17.


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