Part I: Intriguing, But Less Than Ground-Breaking
[A recording of this play is available at Librivox]
John Westland Marston’s 1852 play, “Anne Blake” makes me glad I’m writing a blog. As you may have noticed, researching Anna Cora Mowatt’s acting roles has caused me to develop a taste for mid-19th-century popular drama. I found this script to be a wonderful example of the genre. If you too find that you have a fondness for sentimental romances of this period, I recommend our Librivox recording of this play to you heartily. If I were writing an article or a chapter for a book, though, in order to get into print, I would need to make a case to an editor that Marston’s script was an important work that had a significant impact of some sort. In all honesty, I can’t make so great a claim for this script. The show was a respectable hit in London. Anna Cora Mowatt starred in the drama’s U.S. premiere at the Broadway Theatre in New York to the applause of critics. However, “Anne Blake” serves as just a tiny piece in the much more complicated jigsaw puzzle that is both Mowatt’s career and the development of the genre of 19th century sentimental drama. I am much more confident, though, that I can make a number of fascinating connections via this work to significant people and issues that do prove essential to understanding both. I think these intersections are important enough to justify a couple of blog entries. I hope you will agree, Dear Reader.
John Westland Marston (1819-1890) was born in Lincolnshire, the son of a Baptist minister. He studied to be a lawyer, but instead achieved fame as a literary figure. Marston entered the world of letters as a poet. He was a friend of Robert Browning. Both men, like Anna Cora Mowatt and many members of the intelligentsia of this period, shared an interest in Spiritualism.
Marston became a part of Charles Dickens’ and William Macready’s wide circle of friends and protégées. In addition to his interest in poetry and spiritualism, Marston wrote literary reviews for the Athenaeum. I’m not saying that novelist Dickens or actor Macready purposefully cultivated the acquaintance of individuals who wrote reviews for journals to boost their own already successful careers, but there were a number of writer/reviewers included their inner circle. John Foster (The Examiner), E.L. Blanchard (The Era), William Fox (The Examiner), Thorton Leigh Hunt (The Spectator), Douglas Jerrold (Punch, Lloyds’), and George Henry Lewes (The Literary Gazette) are just a few of the friends of Macready and Dickens who wrote reviews for newspapers or journals.
Like Thomas Talfourd and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, as a hefty fringe benefit of his friendship, Marston received active aid in his career as a dramatist from both Dickens and Macready. Marston’s first play, “The Patrician’s Daughter” (1841) bears very visible marks his debts to both his mentors. The tragedy is dedicated to Macready. Marston says;
In dedicating to you the following Tragedy, I but acknowledge a debt which is due to you from myself, in common with all lovers of the Drama. Receive my assurance, that by so kindly accepting this record of a public obligation, you have conferred on me a personal one.1
Charles Dickens wrote a prologue to the play. In a letter to Macready, the author said he intended his introduction to; “Get the curtain up with a dash, and begin the play with a sledge-hammer blow.”2 The famous actor delivered the renowned author’s lines to the fledgling playwright’s work on its opening night. This one-two punch of star power was enough to bring crowds into the playhouse to give an ear to Marston’s drama.
[Here is a recreation of Macready’s recitation of Dickens’ prologue to “The Patrician’s Daughter” ]
The première of “Anne Blake” in 1852 and Thomas Talford’s “The Castilian” in 1853 were among the works that marked the end of an era in mid-19th century English drama. Edward Bulwer-Lytton and James Sheridan Knowles had already ceased to write new plays by beginning of the 1850s. Hit-makers like Dion Boucicault, J.R. Planché, and Maddison Morton, who had been popular in the 1840s, would continue to produce audience-pleasing compositions for decades to come. Their style of writing would now dominate the London stage. The influence of these three writers can very easily be found in turn-of-the-century artists such as Gilbert and Sullivan.
After William Charles Macready retired from the stage in 1849, though, the absence of his influence as an actor, director, tastemaker — and even sometimes ghostwriter — in the London theatre world changed the tone of popular dramatic literature. Without his strong influence to nourish and shepherd such works, the refined literary style in dramatic writing that he cherished gradually died out. The blank verse drama “Anne Blake” — although critics and audiences did not realize it at the time — was one of the last glowing embers of the great firestorm of creative brilliance that Macready’s decades of presence on the English stage had ignited.
At the risk of having regular readers of this blog calling the ASPCA to report me for attacking an obviously deceased equine with a very old stick, I must nevertheless state that in terms of plot, “Anne Blake” is melodramatic, but is not a melodrama. That is to say, the storyline draws its interest from the larger-than-life emotional lives of the characters but does not adhere to the commonly defined parameters of this genre. I would, therefore, characterize the plot as being “melodramatic” more in the modern sense of the word rather than by the way the distinguishing qualities of Victorian melodrama are typically defined by scholars.
“Anne Blake” is the story of a love triangle. Some of the plot twists can seem quite contrived. The antagonists are shameless schemers. The protagonists can be frustratingly blind. However, the play is not a battle between the forces of good and evil in which a simple moral choice is made by a virtuous hero to save an imperiled innocent maiden who exercises no agency in determining her fate. Although the storyline of this one hundred and seventy-one year old play may seem like a vaguely familiar plot, close to something that you might have seen in an old movie or daytime drama, “Anne Blake” is yet another example of a popular mid-19th century script that does not fit the frame of stereotypical Victorian melodrama.
For me, the most interesting element of this play is its title character, Anne Blake. She is a young woman of marriageable age. Anne is an orphan, raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Toppington. Unlike the standard heroine of the period, she is not humble and modest. Anne instead is embittered by her experiences as a dependent looked down upon by her relations. She is proud and defiant.
One of the most remarkable things about how Marston has written Anne Blake is how rude he allows her to be to others. Not even Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw is as consistently verbally aggressive to all those around her as Anne. In her very first line, we hear her upbraiding a servant as she returns from a ride as follows;
I say you must; for the beast’s sake, not mine.
She’s hot; walk her round gently. Sirrah, do it!3
Then as now, rudeness to domestics — like cruelty to animals — was literary shorthand to readers and audiences that an author meant a character to be unsympathetic. However, Anne’s maid, Mrs. Lloyd — whose chief function in the play seems to be to serve as her mistress’ apologist and comforter — quickly lets us know that the servants are the ones at fault for her ill temper. Lloyd explains that they neglect and torment Anne because she is a poor relation of the Toppingtons. Earlier in the act before she has made an appearance, Llaniston, Anne’s would-be suitor, has already prepared us to excuse her temper when another servant comments disparagingly on it, confessing an aside:
I know it. I’ve heard her talk – (Walks apart).
Spirit indeed! Her very words are cuffs,
And yet I like them. They’ve a health that suits me.
Because well born and rich, forsooth, my life.
Has been all tame and breezeless. Gliding servants
Have noiseless done my bidding; tradespeople
-Forgetting man’s a perpendicular
Have crooked when I approached; often even woman,
Whose outside should be mirror to her heart,
Has feigned the glance, the motion, and the blush,
Heaven meant for instincts. Oh, all these have closed me
In a dead, sultry noon; but brave Anne Blake
Blows like a morning gust from our cragged hills; –
I breast it, and am man!4
It is fortunate that Llaniston finds her acidity bracing, because he bears the brunt of much of this sort of treatment, despite the fact that he is a landed gentleman of higher social rank than Anne and a guest in her uncle’s home. The following exchange is typical of dialogue between them:
She turns from me. – Our hostess, gentle lady,
Bade me amuse you.
She imposed on you
A hard employment.
True. I’d choose another.
I’d woo you.
Then, sir, you’d succeed
In your first task, my amusement.
(She retires up the stage.)5
Anne also has some very sharp exchanges with her aunt and uncle. Since Lord and Lady Toppington are the show’s antagonists, I’m not as surprised that Marston allows be direct and harsh in her exchanges with her relatives. Even the most demure Victorian heroines can rebuke outright villainy with impunity. However, even bearing this caveat in mind, for an upper-class leading lady in a romance who is supposed to be sympathetic, Anne Blake has unusual license to express negative opinions and even hostility to the people around her.
Another unusual quality about Anne is that she talks about herself frequently. Most upper-class Victorian heroines in romances only make reference to themselves when they are forced to protest their own spotless character. Anne talks about herself for some of the same kind of reasons that modern heroines might engage in self-reflection: either because she is expressing her dissatisfaction with her life or she is verbally working through a process of figuring out who she is. For example, in the following monologue in Act II, she is both enraged at her fiancé Thorold’s reported behavior and trying to determine how she should react;
ANNE (after a pause).
When next he treats you as your aunt’s dependent!
Those were her careless words. Is it so ?– Of late
He has been often absent, and he checks
My questions of the cause. He’ll sometimes chide them
As I were but his pupil. I must learn
Restraint and patience, and he’ll give me kindness –
Allot me half his thoughts — then comes a bar.
Here your love’s free to walk, that chamber’s private.
A duteous wife’s content, no doubt! For me
I’m not that wife! (rising.) No, were his heart world-wide,
I’d be its sun or nothing—fill my world
Or burst from it to ashes! – What wild wrong
Is this to Thorold ? He who taught me first
Man’s nobleness, so good, so just – Ay, there,
So just! -Does justice bind him to those vows
A moment’s pity breathed and his heart shrinks from?6
Anne’s self-centered volubility is more of a function of the plot than it is borne of any sense of pure narcissism, though. Marston creates a situation in which Anne, the orphan, is unhappy with her status as a dependent in her uncle’s house. She has incomplete and unsatisfactory knowledge of her parents. The playwright reveals through dialogue early in the play that other characters know more about her parents than she does. In each act, new revelations about her background come to light. As Anne’s status in relation to the other characters changes, she struggles to re-evaluate her identity and incorporate this knowledge into an emerging sense of self.
Anne is not the only character in the play preoccupied with a problem of defining her identity. The drama is titled “Anne Blake” for a very good reason. Rather than being a simplistic battle between the forces of good and evil, I would argue that the central conflict in this play is a struggle to determine who will be the ultimate arbiter of Anne’s character. Will she be persuaded to be materialistic and grasping like the Toppingtons? Will she be worldly and cynical like Llaniston? Or will she be spiritual and sincere like Thorold?
When Anne is first introduced, she is dependent and frustrated. Her options are limited. By the middle of the play, she had gained more power to actively determine the circumstances that will shape her social status and moral character. The dramatic tension of the play lies in the playwright’s ability to make us uncertain of what kind of choice Anne will make. Because she is an unusual type of protagonist for this era — willful and defiant — there is a decent amount of uncertainty about which path she will choose to take in the final act.
Looking into the big rearview mirror of history, because of the atypical amount of agency for a female protagonist contained in this script, we might place “Anne Blake” among the scattering of plays, stories, and novels of this time period in Great Britain and the United States that began to creatively explore questions of gender equality being raised by the nascent women’s rights movement. However, the drama was not viewed through that lens at the time of its production. The primary concern that reviewers of the London debut of the play debated was the playwright’s choice to write the script in blank verse. Most critics felt that Anne’s problems were simply too prosaic to merit the use of a poetic form. The critic from The Era loftily disparaged;
Mr. Marston, as all the world knows, can write with great elegance, and his sentiments are never of a common character. But in this excellence lies his chief merit as a dramatist, for in his production there is never much plot to amuse, or much truth to admire. He strings gems upon a tiny thread. Mr. Marston evidently desires to represent real and homely life in poetry, and although he succeeds in clothing simplest thoughts in charming language, he fails to portray that state as we are wont to find it. Allowance should be made for the poet — indeed, he will take it — but the perfect artist is true to nature, however gloriously he gilds it.7
“Anne Blake,” in other words, was in this critic’s opinion, nothing more than a soap opera-style romance dressed up in the clothing of high literature. The reviewer from John Bull is one of many who echoed the same concerns;
Anne Blake, like The Patrician’s Daughter, is an ambitious effort. It will also be regarded as a fine dramatic poem; but this very circumstance will mar its success as an acting play. The author has repeated the mistake made by him in The Patrician’s Daughter, — that of taking a subject from modern English life, and treating it in a poetical fashion. The mistake, indeed, is now greater than before: the subject of Anne Blake is of a more ordinary and familiar cast, and the characters and incidents more resemble those of everyday life, than the subject, characters, and incident of the previous play. Both are written in blank verse, and in the flowery, metaphorical, poetical diction which blank verse requires; but the effect of this style of dialogue in Anne Blake is even worse than in The Patrician’s Daughter. When we see ladies and gentlemen, belonging to the classes we daily see around us, exhibited in imaginary life on the stage, we expect to find their language in accordance with the realities of life, as well as their costumes, their manners, and the scenes and transactions in which they are engaged. Their language may be as strong, energetic, and passionate as their situations demand; but still it must be the same language which would be called for by the actual occurrences of life.8
The critics’ objections, in short, were not with the character of Anne, but with stylistic choices made by the playwright to present the text’s dialogue. Although Anne is an unusual leading lady for a romance of her time period who is atypically assertive, proud, and open in her display of negative emotions, reviews of the play would lead us to believe that she was not perceived as being unrealistic or offensive to viewers.
In the final analysis, it must be taken into consideration that “Anne Blake” is still a conventional romance of its day. At the close of the play, Anne uses her agency to choose to marry the hero. Although she is more proud and assertive than most other heroines of her time, she still shares many characteristics with other leading ladies of the Sentimental era. Marston seems to want to persuade us that she, like the stereotypical woman of sentiment, is ruled by emotion rather than intellect when he puts lines in her mouth such as;
I’ve not the brain
To solve a riddle, nor the time.9
The playwright allows Anne to have agency, but only in a limited domestic issue. She is choosing a husband, not a job, or advocating overtly for a political issue. Anne is a wealthy, upper-class white woman. Marston certainly gives no indications that he would grant the same freedom of speech to her maid. In other words, the script doesn’t provide much evidence as to whether playwright was trying to make a positive statement about women being the intellectual equals of men, or if he was just trying to come up with a novel heroine for this play.
Although the play’s approach to portraying female agency is interesting and different in the context of Victorian era sentimental romance, I cannot by any means stake a claim that it makes any sort of a revolutionary statement about gender equality. In a modern context, the very limited type of power for women that this narrative advocates has certainly lost all power to seem inspirational. One cannot picture the likes of Che Guevara or Angela Davis rallying activists to march under banners for the cause of the right of certain white ladies to get a bit pissy in certain fancy drawing rooms about who they are forced to date.
As I said previously, I am glad I am writing a blog entry on this play, not an article. Although I love this little old-fashioned romance, I shudder to think how painful it would be to have to try to compose the required mountain of journal submission statements about its supposed earth-shattering significance for the sneering perusal of some cold-blooded Reviewer Two.
“Anne Blake” is an interesting and unusual drama with a rich history in mid-19th century English theatre — even if it does fail to meet the threshold of being a ground-breaking piece of literature that startled viewers into reconsidering their attitudes on gender norms. This text, with its outspoken and willful upper-class heroine, was part of a significant, though very, very slow and incremental change in ideas about gender roles beginning to be expressed in the popular culture of the U.S. and Great Britain at this time. Without hundreds of thousands of tiny baby steps that opened people’s minds to new possibilities –even though they seemed to make no difference at the time – real change might have never been possible.
Next Time: How “Anne Blake” did and did not change the course of Anna Cora Mowatt’s career
- Marston, John Westland. The Patrician’s Daughter. London: William Stevens, 1841. Page iii.
- Charles Dickens to William Charles Macready (Nov. 12, 1842).
- Marston, John Westland. Anne Blake. London: C. Mitchell and Co. 1852. Page 6.
- Page 7.
- Pages 35-36.
- Page 27.
- “Theatres, &c.” The Era. October 31, 1852. Page 11, col. 2.
- “Theatres and Music.” John Bull. November 1, 1852. Page 700, col. 2.
- Marston, John Westland. Anne Blake. London: C. Mitchell and Co. 1852. Page 52.