Anna Cora Mowatt, Mimic Life, and the Critics

Part I: The Prep

Among the reasons why it is a good thing that I am no longer in the classroom is that I would not now lend the sympathetic ear I once did to my Performance History students when they moaned of how difficult it was to find material on the obscure entertainers from the past I asked them to research.  Where once I would be understanding and forgiving, now I know that I would turn into all four of the middle-aged Yorkshire men from the Monty Python skit complaining about how I had to do the scholarly equivalent of walking to school uphill in the snow both ways when I was a kid.

My dear students would have to sit through the story that I’m about to tell you of how when I was writing my dissertation in the early 1990s, I only had access to Mowatt’s autobiography for a couple weeks via interlibrary loan.  I was not permitted to bring this precious text, sooooooooo vital to my research to my home for perusal. Oh, no, no, no, no!  I could only visit the book for a few hours a day in my university’s Special Collections library.  I had to don little white cotton gloves and take notes with a pencil on a legal pad.  I couldn’t even use a pen for fear ink might find its way to the book’s pages.  I could not use my laptop because…. I don’t know… Evil spirits? Laptops were still pretty new at that time.  Confidentially — I don’t think the librarians had an official policy yet, so they just said no to my request to be on the safe side.  We weren’t calling little computers “laptops” yet.  I think we were calling them “portables.” Mine was more of a “luggable.”  She was a bit of hefty vixen, weighing in at around twelve pounds with a three by six inch screen that displayed text-only in a retina-burning blue on grey.  She didn’t have an internal modem or any of the proper ports that would allow a connection to the Internet.  Computer manufactures hadn’t decided that sort of thing was a “must” yet.  My little luggable had less RAM than your microwave oven or alarm clock does and sounded somewhat like cross between a dust-buster and an asthmatic walrus when she ran (Maybe that’s what bothered those folks in Special Collections…?)

Students, I’m sure, after hearing such impassioned and overly detailed description of my travails in the age of Ace of Base’s peak popularity, would start to fear that little chunks of their ears would begin to ossify from sheer boredom, fall off, and shatter – thus rendering them unable to wear certain types of headphones. Hopefully, this terrible fate would persuade them to drop their complaints entirely, because, thanks to the internet, historical research requires much less effort than it used to.  Don’t get me wrong – drawing interesting, original conclusions from the material you gather is just as difficult as it ever was.  High quality writing is difficult. Publishing is soul-crushingly difficult.  However, gaining access to primary source material is soooooo much easier now.

For example, when I was working on my dissertation and looking for reviews of Mimic Life and Autobiography of An Actress, I started with the information in Marius Blesi’s dissertation.  This provided me with the publication dates, excerpts from some reviews, and dates that gave me an idea when reviews were being published.  My university’s library had a couple of indices of newspaper articles. These did not list every article in every newspaper in the country.  A lot of the small papers were left out.  The indices were books – analog, not digital.  You had to sit and search through each one that might be relevant. Decipher how they listed information. Copy down that information.  Check and see if your library had that issue of that newspaper.  All too often, my library did not.  It wasn’t a bad library for some subjects, but they didn’t have an impressive collection of national newspapers with issues than ran all the way back into the 1800s. Libraries didn’t have the big collections of digitized newspapers like they do today. Interlibrary loan was not magical in those days, either.  When you asked for rare, old, or valuable texts, librarians had no problem saying, “Are you kidding? No! That material does not does not travel.”  Unfortunately, I was a poor grad student and did not travel much either.

Fast forward to the present. Just prior to the writing of this blog entry, I decided to write summary pages for Mowatt’s novels Fortune Hunter, Evelyn , Mimic Life ,Twin Roses, Fairy Fingers  , and The Mute Singer  for my website in the style that Wikipedia does for other authors – but has not yet done for our dear Anna Cora Mowatt.   One of the standard features of a Wiki page on novels is a summary of contemporary critical reaction.  Spending approximately an hour and a half using — among other online resources — two sites I subscribe to that index U.S. newspapers of the appropriate time period, I was able to find and read over twenty contemporaneous reviews of Mimic Life.  The search engines for those sites also turned up numerous examples of ad copy for the book and one-sentence blind items about sales and Mowatt’s activities at the time of publication that probably would not have been listed in a printed index of newspaper articles. Critiques I found from my internet search came from papers with circulations as large as that of the Boston Evening Transcript and the New York Mirror to those as small as the Buffalo Christian Advocate and the Worchester Palladium. I had instant access to the complete text of each review.

In my 1994 dissertation, I was very sparing with my comments on critical reaction to Mimic Life. My quotes of reviews for Mowatt’s autobiography relied heavily on material used by Blesi and critiques reprinted in publicity material for the book.  If I had found more examples of contemporary commentary, it probably would have changed the content of what I wrote. Now, though, I have found a trove of reviews that represent both positive and negative reactions not only to Mimic Life, but also to Mowatt’s public persona.  I am writing this series of entries because I think the critical reception of this novel tells an interesting story about Mowatt’s transition from actress to novelist.

So, now I’ll stop shaking my fist at the sky like an aggrieved old lunatic and get on with this tale. But,

modern scholars, be grateful for the resources you have at your fingertips and a little more understanding of why older scholarly works miss or seem to ignore so much that is so easy for you to find.

Portrait of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, circa 1856 (colorized)
Portrait of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, circa 1856 (colorized)

1855 marked the beginning of a time when we no longer have Mowatt’s voice via her autobiography to guide us through the events of her life. From this point forward, biographers and other scholars must rely on her letters and those of family and friends as the final word on the motivations behind the choices she made.  Thus there is more divergence between different accounts of some events depending on which sources the particular author has chosen.  Some writers ignore the last fifteen years of Mowatt’s life completely, as if she had fallen off the edge of the Earth after writing her autobiography. I must admit that I was surprised when I saw “preservationist” listed among her achievements on the current edition of her Wikipedia page.  Even I tend to forget about her efforts with the Mt. Vernon Association to turn George Washington’s home into a national monument in the years just before the Civil War – although her contributions to the success of this project were arguably one her most lasting contributions to the national legacy of the U.S.

Founder and First Vice Regents of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association
Founder and First Vice Regents of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association

There are, therefore, a number of different explanations as to why Mowatt chose to emerge from retirement to publish another book.  First, Ticknor and Reed, the publishers of her autobiography, were keenly interested in a follow-up to Autobiography of an Actress as this July 1855 letter from Mowatt underlines;

Your note of the 15th is but just received as I only arrived in Ravenswood night before last.

I echo your cry of “Give! Give!” If Heaven will but give me health enough to sit up and strength enough to hold a pen – or an amanuensis like May Thompson to whom I can dictate lying down.  I will certainly “give” you the desired M.S. all in good time. No shadow of Southern and proverbial indolence has yet passed over my spirits and cased the dilatoriness of which you complain.  Almost immediately after Mr. Ticknor’s visit to Richmond, I was dangerously ill for nearly two months.  Our cottage was flooded with visitors before I had recovered.  I only rallied enough to entertain them for six weeks and then became ill again, but have once more laughed at the Doctor and told him that he had lost a profitable patient.

I am sitting in the same pleasant little room where two-thirds of the autobiography was written – I have gained my husband’s consent to remain here until the 1st of next November. I purpose to go diligently to work and mar all the paper your compositors want without delay.  Will that satisfy you?  Perhaps you want something more tangible than a mere promise.

Anything to oblige.  I will send you, the first week in August, the first narrative of the new book, legibly copied.  That is – I will send it to Epes to read and he will give it to you.  I am so much accustomed to rely upon his judgement and to give him carte blanche in striking out anything which he things would not be understood in my writings, that I should not be satisfied without his supervision.  The book will contain four narratives of varying length. Only the first is completed.  I have not the slightest idea whether they are good or bad, worth reading or the merest trash.  To be sure I have just read aloud “The Prompter’s Daughter” to my husband – sisters – nieces – nephews, but the tears abundantly shed might very well have been a tribute to my elocutionary powers, and to the favorable light in which the partial party are apt to view my performances.  So don’t expect anything meritorious.1

Although the July 21st letter is the first surviving correspondence between Mowatt and her publishers that discusses Mimic Life, this was not the first time she had talked about the book with Ticknor and Fields. On May 16th, an advertisement had already appeared in the columns of the New York Evening Post, announcing that a book by Mowatt titled “Mimic Life: or, Before and Behind the Curtain” was already “in press.”2 On May 22, in a column titled “Literary Gossip” a writer put forth this speculation about the up-coming book;

Mrs. Mowatt’s new book, soon to be issued by Ticknor & Fields of Boston, is to be entitled “Mimic Life, or Before and Behind the Curtain.”  Her Autobiography had a good sale; but, in our opinion, it was one of the worst books of the past year, it its effects are regarded.  It pictured the trials and triumphs of the Actress’ life, and in such colors was the Stage depicted that almost every female reader of that book was seized with a desire to “get upon the boards.”  It thus instilled lessons in the maiden heart which may never be forgotten; and how many will foolishly follow the infatuation to their own moral death is a question for the future to reveal.  That it has done no good, we can certainly say; that it has done harm is the frequent remark of parents whose daughters have had their minds filled with a thirst for theatricals and for the Stage.  If her new work is of the same character as the autobiography, we shall feel like earnestly condemning it, because it must consummate the unhappy work commenced in the hearts of so many young women.  We hope “Mimic Life” will show up the profession in such true colors as will undo the work Mrs. Mowatt unconsciously effect by her enticing Autobiography.3

Her letter to publisher James Fields indicates that Mowatt had not yet finished much more than early drafts of the individual stories in the book in May of 1855 when column was written.  However, in 1856, when Mimic Life was published, critics would tend to view the book as a sequel to Mowatt’s autobiography even though one work was as clearly framed as fiction as the other was non-fiction– just as the writer of this column does.  Individual stances on the moral merits of theatre will also shape reaction critics’ reaction to Mimic Life, much in the same way that this columnist predicts that they will.

Title Page of "Mimic Life" 1856
Title Page of “Mimic Life” 1856

In May, it seems Mowatt signed an agreement with her publishers and was far enough along in her planning of the book to have settled on the title that she would use.  According to her letter to Fields, she came to her father’s home, Ravenswood, in July with a completed draft of “The Prompter’s Daughter” and at least outlines of three other stories.  We know from the completed work that two of the stories were “Stella” and “The Unknown Tragedian.”  (The fourth was probably some form of the plot would eventually become the novel “Twin Roses.”)  Mowatt’s goal was to have a completed draft of the entire book ready to send to Epes Sargent for editing by the end of August. She overshot her goal somewhat, but did have more pages ready for Sargent by September.

Mowatt was capable of composing works very quickly.  Her first novel, The Fortune Hunter, was written in around six weeks.  Her plays “Fashion” and “Armand” both seem to have been completed over periods lasting no more than three months.  Given the length of Mimic Life and the fact that she would need to have some description of the component parts to pitch to Ticknor and Fields in May to sell the book, Mowatt had probably been doing some work on the separate plots that comprised the four stories that made up the work since at least by the early months of 1855 if not sooner.

I call attention to these dates because I wish to point out that the time Mowatt spent being simply “Mrs. William Foushee Ritchie,” a lady of leisure, no longer a public figure, with no independent income, was really very brief.  In fact, August of 1854, while ostensibly still on her honeymoon with Ritchie, Mowatt was completing final edits of “Fashion” and “Armand” to send to Ticknor and Fields for their U.S. publication.

Ticknor and Fields logo
Ticknor and Fields logo

In the fall of 1854, Anna Cora paid a visit to her sister May in Connecticut and then to Boston to visit the three Grey children who she and her first husband, James Mowatt, had adopted.4 The Greys were all in their late teens now. Anna Cora had procured a job for one of the boys with Ticknor and Fields. Margret, the girl, was in poor, health. Mowatt decided it would be best for the young woman to accompany her and William Foushee back to Richmond. Letters that Anna Cora wrote to Annie Frobisher and other friends over the subsequent months document the rapid decline in Margret Grey’s health.  The girl died in February of 1855.

[Previous to the writing of this blog entry, I had not connected the timing of the writing of Mimic Life and Margret Grey’s death.  Margret died in February.  At this time, Anna Cora was probably doing preliminary work on Mimic Life prior to pitching the book to Ticknor and Fields sometime around late April.  After Margret Grey’s death, Mowatt herself fell gravely ill for most of the months of March through June.  In July, when she starts work again, the novella she has a complete draft of is “The Prompter’s Daughter” – a story in which a beloved child dies and the mother dies of grief shortly afterwards.  Given her own deep sorrow at Margret Grey’s passing, the weighty tragedy of this story becomes more understandable.]

Sometime during the fall of 1854, probably at a social event in Richmond, Mowatt met Ann Pamela Cunningham and became caught up in this lady’s enthusiasm for preserving George Washington’s home as a national monument.  Anna Cora joined the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association and became the secretary of its Central Committee.

Ann Pamela Cunningham
Ann Pamela Cunningham

These events are samples of circumstances that could have motivated Mowatt to insist on continuing to earn an independent income – despite the fact that doing so violated social norms of the time for women of her social class. First, the Greys were dependents Mowatt brought with her into her new marriage.  Because they were all young adults in 1854, by standards of the time, they should have been self-sufficient by this point.  However all of them had health concerns.  In addition, Mowatt still felt an obligation to subsidize their education and see to it they found appropriate careers.  Having her own money guaranteed that she could continue to play an active role in their life without placing an additional financial burden on her new husband.

The Mt. Vernon Ladies Association was an example of a charity that Mowatt supported not merely by sitting in her lovely parlor and writing a check, but by being a key member of the core leadership.  She organized, recruited, traveled, performed, lobbied legislators, composed appeals, and helped design strategies. Having her own income gave her a great deal of latitude in determining the depth of her commitment to this cause.

Mt. Vernon in 1858
Mt. Vernon in 1858

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie had worked to earn a living since she was in her early twenties.  Being a bread-winner probably seemed a much more comfortable and secure position to her than to the average woman of her social class.  After all, it had been her ability to generate income that had saved her and her husband from total financial ruin multiple times during her first marriage.

A consistent theme stressing the redemptive power of labor specifically for upper class male and female characters much like herself runs through Mowatt’s body of works.  From short stories written as early as “Ennui and its Cure” (1845) to one published as late as “A Plethora of Happiness” (1867), the author explicitly recommends active engagement with some sort of productive occupation as a cure for a condition she calls “the blue devils” – a state of crippling depression and mental lassitude.  The quote on the title page of her 1865 novel, Fairy Fingers was “Labor is Worship.” Clearly, the thought that the efforts she was putting into her writing and her charitable activities were wholesome and healthy pursuits was consistent with a strong component of Mowatt’s core beliefs.

One wonders how William Foushee Ritchie felt about how independent his beautiful bride was turning out to be.  In “A Plethora of Happiness,” the author describes Mr. Willington, a character that some writers think may be based in part on Ritchie, as follows;

He was a strict observer of the laws of etiquette, and of all social conventionalities and proprieties. His high breeding was especially evinced in his deportment to the gentler sex. There was a sort of chivalric protection, a polite forbearance, a patronizing tenderness in his demeanor towards them, which distinctly proclaimed his own sense of superiority, through the very fact of his manhood, and his conviction that these “dear helpless creatures ” were not designed to rise out of the sphere of petted childhood, and could never become equals, or even intelligent companions. “Mind” to him was of masculine gender, and he had no faith in the existence of a “woman of mind” who was not unfeminine. According to his creed, womanhood should ignore aesthetic tastes, and for her to show any disposition

“To ponder the precipitous sides

Of difficult questions,”

was a social crime.

To have discovered some electric sparks of genius accidentally flashing from the lips or the pen of his wife, would have rendered him the most miserable of men. Perhaps he was not very unreasonable in that respect. Genius, with her airy flights, her vivid imagination, her quick sensibilities, her abstraction, her states of alternate exaltation and melancholy, so incomprehensible to matter-of-fact natures, is too seldom an agreeable fireside companion. Men hardly care to see a Sappho or a Corinne sitting opposite to them at the breakfast table. Laurels are a nuisance on the hearthstone of home; fling them into the flames, or sweep them up with the ashes!5

The kind of disconcertingly intellectual and creative Victorian wife Mowatt paints a picture of here — the Sappho or Corrine at the 19th century breakfast table – is a much better description of herself than of the heroine of the story, Angelica Wellington.  W.F. Ritchie had to be deluding himself if he didn’t realize that’s who he was marrying… or that she would suddenly start being someone else when she became Mrs. Ritchie… Then again, people do delude themselves about just that sort of thing…

William Foushee Ritchie
William Foushee Ritchie

At any rate, in late July of 1855, after having been seriously ill with pneumonia since March and still grieving the death of her adopted daughter, Margret Grey, Mowatt arrived at her family home in New York, ready to finish work on Mimic Life.  In her July 21st letter to James Fields, she estimated that she would have a draft of the entire book ready to send Epes Sargent by the first week in August.  In a missive dating August 14th, she reported that she had heard back from her friend in Boston on the sections she had already completed. Ticknor and Fields should soon be expecting a manuscript around 500 pages.  Sargent’s most notable piece of feedback on “The Prompter’s Daughter” was that she needed to find character names that were less allegorical.6

Despite Mowatt’s lightening-like start, the writing process lagged a little in the next few weeks.  Still, she maintained focus and by September 1, was able to report;

As soon as Epes comes to town, which will be next week, I will forward a pile of M.S. of “Mimic Life.”

I find that the story which I intended for the second narrative will probably have to go in the book first, as it is considerably longer than the one already sent.  Prompter’s Daughter 150 pages.  Stella 275!  Owing to the unexpected length of “Stella” the book will contain three narratives instead of four.  You can commence printing whenever you think fit – but don’t I pity your poor compositor and proof reader!  I shall be obliged to send you the roughest of copies unless you agree to the delay of finding a copyist here – just as you please.7

This letter explains a couple of technical decisions Mowatt made concerning Mimic Life.  Ultimately she determined the order the novellas would appear by their length.  The frontispiece illustration for the book comes from “The Prompter’s Daughter” probably because this story was finished first and Mowatt thought it was going to be the longest of the four.  As she was writing, “Stella” more than doubled in the length that the author anticipated for this text.

Illustration for "Mimic Life" 1856
Illustration for “Mimic Life” 1856

By October 31, all work on Mimic Life seems to have been completed.  This widely reprinted item appeared in the Boston Telegraph conveying intelligence from someone who had gotten a sneak peek at the book’s contents to the book-buying public;

This accomplished lady, who, as Mrs. Mowatt, the actress, and the author of her own biography on the stage, gained applause second to no one whose career has been a public one, has just completed reading the proof sheets of her new work called “Mimic Life; or, Before and Behind the Curtain.”  A literary friend, who had the good fortune to see the manuscript, tells us that there are scenes in this new book of the highest interest; scenes described from actual life with a power and an earnestness unsurpassed.  The pathos and beauty everywhere apparent in the “Autobiography” are not wanting in “Mimic Life.” There are incidents described in the story of a prompter’s daughter that will touch the heart of a woman to its deepest centre, and kindle more sympathy and enthusiasm for the suffering among that class of females connected with the stage than all the appeals ever before written.  There is a deep meaning and a benevolent purpose in the pages of “Mimic Life,” and we look longingly for its appearance.8

From information Mowatt shared in her letters to James Field, we know there is a very good chance that the columnist’s “literary friend” is none other than Anna Cora’s proof-reader, Epes Sargent, one of the editors of The Boston Transcript.  Even if Sargent was not directly the source, this promotional leaking of information about Mowatt’s upcoming book is a nice demonstration of how her network of friends among the writers and editors of the nationally influential Boston press subtly helped boost her career and help give her momentum at critical moments.

William Davis Ticknor and James T. Fields
William Davis Ticknor and James T. Fields

In November, Ticknor and Fields proudly listed Mimic Life among the highlights of its promised batch of prestigious Christmas releases alongside Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” Robert Browning’s new book of poems, G.H. Lewes’ “The Life and Works of Goethe,” and a new volume of stories from best-selling author, Grace Greenwood.9 Mowatt’s book did not make it to the hands of the public across the nation by December 25, but advance copies were delivered to key newspaper critics.  The curtain on the first, critical phase of Mimic Life’s public debut was about to rise.

Images of Anna Cora Mowatt and the publication of "Mimic Life"
Images of Anna Cora Mowatt and the publication of “Mimic Life”

Notes:

  1. The Huntington Library, Fields Collection. A.L.S. Anna Cora Ritchie to James T. Fields, July 21, 1855.
  2. “In Press.” New York Evening Post. Wednesday, May 16, 1855. Page 2, col. 2.
  3. “Literary Gossip.” Daily Commercial Register: Sandusky, OH, Vol: IV, Issue: 303. Tuesday May 22, 1855. Page 2, col. 3.
  4. Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page 264.
  5. Ritchie, Anna Cora. The Clergyman’s Daughter and Other Sketches; a Collection of Pen Portraits and Paintings(Carleton: New York, 1867). Pages 89-90.
  6. Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Page 312.
  7. The Huntington Library, Fields Collection. A.L.S. Anna Cora Ritchie to James T. Fields, August 1, 1855.
  8. “Mrs. Ritchie.” New York Evening Post. Thursday, Nov. 01, 1855. Page 2, col. 02.
  9. “New List of Books.” The Albion, or, British, Colonial, and Foreign Weekly Gazette. Saturday, Nov 10, 1855. Page 539, col.3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.