Anna Cora Mowatt, Mimic Life, and the Critics

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie and images of the publication of Mimic Life

Part II: The Push

[Given the response to my last entry, I am somewhat tempted to take a short vacation from writing about Anna Cora Mowatt and devote more time to relating my adventures in grad school with my somewhat portly portable computer.  I would give you her name, but I must confess that she did not have one. Frankly I tried to avoid emotional attachments to electronic equipment because there was a great tendency for them to suddenly self-immolate.  My portable and I did have a good relationship, though.  We were both clear about our mutual commitment to complete our goals and get the hell out of Southern Louisiana before a 3-5 year warranty suddenly expired on one or both of us.

There were no unfortunate incidents of my screaming language unsuitable for the dignity of any scholar (including those who found themselves in Faustian-type arrangements) at her as there was with my daisy-wheel printer.  Dear Reader, if you don’t know what a daisy-wheel printer is, count yourself among the realm of the fortunate. This means you have never stared into the grinning maw of a piece of technology wholly possessed by and known to be the willing, eager, and inventive child of Satan.  You’ve never had a hellishly-booming, click-clack monster chew through your last reserves paper and ribbon unstoppably spewing out garbage gleefully composed extempore in Lucifer’s own laughing tongue while wall-sharing neighbors on all sides beat on the too-thin partitions howling for a cessation of the infernal and preternaturally uninterruptable racket as an RA pounds on your door promising well-earned eviction from your humble quarters…

Well, on second thought, perhaps it is best to draw a curtain of charity closed on this scene of vintage 90s scholarly chaos and continue on to our story…]

 

Because of its rare and vivid glimpses into the backstage work of 19th century theaters, Mimic Life has always been rated as one of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s best works by both critics and readers.  The book is one of my personal favorites as well.  I have devoted several blog entries to it previously.  In this series of essays, though, I wish to deal not with the characters or plots of the three novellas contained in the work, but rather with what the publication of this work represented in terms of how it functions as an important transitional point in Mowatt’s life and career.  In 1854, she had, to great fanfare, retired from the stage, published her memoir, and married newspaper editor, William F. Ritchie.  Most observers assumed that she was signaling that she was permanently exiting public life.  Henceforth, they thought, she would only be Mrs. Ritchie, gracious hostess and full-time wife as was standard procedure for women of her social class in the mid-19th century.

William Foushee Ritchie
William Foushee Ritchie

Instead of fading quietly in to domestic anonymity, though, while still on the last stages of her honeymoon, Anna Cora was already corresponding with her publishers Ticknor and Fields, strategizing on ways of how best to extend the momentum of the blockbuster sales of her autobiography. The first step to refresh public interest was a U.S. release by the Boston publishers of her hit plays “Armand” and “Fashion” in one handsomely bound volume. (All references to Marylebone Theatre manager Walter Watts are tactfully removed in this edition.) Next Mowatt returned to the genre of creative endeavor where she had experienced her first taste of financial success in the early 1840s – the writing of novels.  I don’t have correspondence between Mowatt and her publishers from the fall of 1854 to confirm this supposition, but in all probability, because of the success of her autobiography either she or Ticknor and Fields came up with the idea of a story or stories set in the theater to capitalize on the success of that prior work and exploit reader interest in her career as an actress. After spending nearly a decade on the boards, Mowatt had a wealth of interesting anecdotes to relate.  Framing her reminiscences in fictional form would allow her to avoid offending or embarrassing former associates.  Writing stories about theatrical life would also allow Mowatt to continue her work advocating for theatre reform and arguing against prejudicial attitudes – particularly those directed towards the poorly paid theatrical professionals in minor roles, or those working backstage or front of house.

Anna Cora Mowatt had retired from the stage in 1854, but she clearly did not intend to disappear from intellectual life in the U.S.  She still meant to have a voice.

Ticknor and Fields in 1863 with Mowatt family friend Nathaniel Hawthorne
Ticknor and Fields in 1863 with Mowatt family friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne

By the end of the fall of 1855, Mowatt had finished writing her book.  A month before releasing Mimic Life to the public, Ticknor and Fields placed copies of the work into the hands of select, influential newspaper reviewers in cities across the U.S.  The bulk of these critics tended to be in typically Mowatt-friendly and theatre-savvy locations such as New York and Boston. Most of the country’s biggest papers from that time are represented.  Not all the reviews are pure raves, but Ticknor and Field had plenty of positive material to pull quotes from when they put together their quarter-column long ads for Mimic Life’s release to the public in January.

This round of upbeat December reviews coming out before the book-buying public had a chance to read the book for themselves comprises an effort that I am for the purposes of this essay calling “the push.” At this point in time, conscious efforts of the publishers were combining with active or passive cooperation of the newspaper reviewers and creators of advertising copy to generate or reinforce certain impressions of Mimic Life and its author.  The primary purpose of influencing public opinion in such a manner, of course, was to try increase sales of the book.  However, initiating discussion of a public figure such as Anna Cora Mowatt’s persona and impact on popular culture had the potential to devolve into unintended side discussions that could have negative impact as we will begin to see in coming essays in this series.

Ticknor and Field's Boston bookstore, circa 1851
Ticknor and Fields’ Boston bookstore, circa 1851

Mimic Life began its public career accompanied by a glow of affirmation from the press, though.  The first reviewers to be permitted a glimpse at its pages, such as this critic from the Vermont Republican, were rapturous;

Anna Cora Mowatt (we shall never learn to call her Anna Cora Ritchie) has a new work in the press of Messrs. Ticknor & Fields.  We have before us the proof sheets of the forthcoming volume, and have just enjoyed the perusal of one of the touching and beautiful pictures of young artist’s life, terminating only too quickly, but yet too beautifully to be spoken of as sad.  Yet saddening too, it is; for apart from the affecting resignation, the self-sacrificing and devotional spirit of the Prompter’s angel daughter, the greed, the selfishness and the prejudices by which her brief life was made so full of thorns was brought to so painful a close, furnish, indeed, a saddening glimpse of the all too dark realities of life. Although the bright vision of Tina Trueheart is one of the most enchanting the pencil of genius ever traced, its very brightness only presents to us in more gloomy contrast the back-ground of sordid egotism to which her young life was sacrificed, and which even the fond, unselfish, self-sacrificing parents, the prejudiced yet well-meaning patronizing teacher fail to relieve.  The Prompter’s Daughter is one of three narratives, all beautifully conceived and exquisitely written, in a volume, the somewhat fanciful title of which is Mimic Life, or Before and Behind the CurtainStella and The Unknown Tragedian are the others, and all are sketches connected with the artist life of the stage.  If there were no merits, as there certainly are exquisite beauties in the rest of the volume, the tender, touching narrative of Tina Trueheart, the good Prompter’s little daughter, would alone fill the volume with its pervading odor of sweetness and the impress of beauty.  Mimic Life may not meet with the remarkable popularity which accompanied Mrs. Mowatt’s sketch of her own life, but wherever it is read, it will not fail to be much more admired.

It is to be issued on Saturday next, when we advise all who would enjoy perhaps the most exquisitely beautiful production of the author’s ever finished pen, to buy the volume (if they cannot borrow one,) and to be sure and read the story of little Tina – a story destined to rank among the most beautiful sketches of childhood that have ever yet appeared.1

It may seem a bit hypocritical for me to comment on this particular issue since I call Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie “Mowatt” to maintain a consistency of address as I move backwards and forwards through the various epochs of her life and for other reasons I have covered in a previous entry — however, notice the degree to which the reviewers struggle with how to identify the author.  Many, like this critic, simply cannot adjust to calling her by a new name.

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

Among reviewers who liked the book, “The Prompter’s Daughter” is often singled out for special commendation. Little Tina’s death can sometimes make this story too emotionally intense for modern readers.  Childhood mortality was all too common an occurrence in the Victorian era, though. Many 19th century readers, such as this critic, reported being able to relate to the emotions of the characters and found the author’s handling of the situation touchingly beautiful, as does the writer of following review from the Cleveland Leader that was published near Christmas;

This is one of the most interesting books that has lately appeared.  It is such a book as the people like to read.  There is so much naturalness and kindly spirit, together with energy, life and power, manifested in every page, that the attention is irresistibly enchained from beginning to end.  The characters are well drawn, and those who read it for the interest it contains will not discover anything to find fault with. – The “Prompter’s Daughter,” is inexpressibly sad, touching and beautiful.  This volume will add new leaves to the laurel wreath with which the public has long since crowned the author’s brow.2

A French language newspaper, Courrier des Etats-Unis, published in New York, contrasted Mowatt’s style to that of another popular female author of the day, Fanny Fern;

A psychological study has always greatly and profoundly interested us: it is that of the various effects, often opposed, that almost identical events can produce on different natures. Chance brings today, before our eyes, a striking contrast of this kind.

Now here is another woman, whose life has been neither less harshly tried nor less laborious, and in whom adversity seems to have served only to develop the noblest, the most delicate, the most tender of feminine nature. Like Fanny Fern, Mrs. Mowatt-Ritchie saw the brilliant existence of her early youth shattered by cruel reverses; like her, she had to face the hardships and setbacks of public life and rebuild a future on the debris of the past. – For both of them, the crisis to go through was the same, and both emerged victorious. Who would believe, reading their productions, that they are the fruit of almost identical circumstances?

Before being a writer, Mrs. Mowatt-Ritchie was, it is said, an actress of the first order. We also know that the story of her theatrical career served as the beginning of her literary career. We have, in these same columns, reproduced some of the picturesque pages, in which the woman of the world recounts her first impressions, in the new and factitious life that necessity created. Today, a new book, which holds the middle between the simple narrative and the Romanesque fiction, comes to reveal to us in a more complete way the talent and the Heart of the charming writer. The Mimic Life is still a memory of the years the author spent in the theatre; but it is no longer a memory, absolutely personal, like her autobiography. The volume consists of three completely separate episodes: Stella – The Prompter’s Daughter – The Unknown Tragedian. They are three real dramas, borrowed from artificial life behind the scenes, and of thrilling interest – the first two especially. The way they are told also enhances their appeal, to a degree that is difficult to express. Ms. Mowatt-Ritchie possesses the gift of description, the power of which goes so far as to momentarily evoke characters and localities in the eyes of readers. Always precious, this gift acquires new merits when it is exercised on a subject to which an interest, a special curiosity is attached – and this is certainly the case when it comes to theatre. However, this is still, in our eyes, only the least quality of Mrs. Mowatt-Ritchie. What constitutes above all the undeniable and irresistible charm of its narration is the warmth of love and the truth of feeling that do not cease for a single moment to pierce through it. In this respect, her style and her manner are the absolute antipode of the manner and style of Fanny Fern. As much as this one has dryness in the heart and abruptness in the pen, as much Mrs. Mowatt-Ritchie has, so to speak, sympathetic radiance and binding sweetness. The new work she offers to the public is certainly not a monumental size; but it is a series of interior paintings taken from nature, which seduce, move, and captivate. Despite the lack of pretension that characterizes them – or perhaps because of it – we would not be surprised to see The Mimic Life take its place among the works that survive the fashion of the day.3

Fanny Fern
Fanny Fern

I am intrigued by the idea of comparing and contrasting the work of Fanny Fern and Anna Cora Mowatt.  They were both popular female literary figures of the day.  Their socio/economic backgrounds differed more sharply than this brief summary suggests. Their styles are so different that I never thought of them together until I read this review.  Beyond the fact that both are women who were popular writers at the same time in history, they do not seem very similar to me. Although she did publish a few novels, Fern was primarily known as an essayist.  I think of her as a very early forerunner of Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, and Erma Bombeck. Both Fern and Mowatt would write opinion pieces in the same issues of Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger between 1857 and 1861.  Therefore a head-to-head comparison of the two writing in the same genre on similar subject matter may be quite feasible even though Mowatt was not well-known for her essays. Given the blunt, folksy, then currently trendy American writer this reviewer has chosen to contrast her with, I’m not at all surprised that Mowatt’s evocative, romantic, sentimental, and overall more conventionally fashionable European style of fiction composition wins out for this critic writing for a French-speaking readership.

Ticknor and Fields logo
Ticknor and Fields logo

Dear Reader, if you failed to anticipate that Anna Cora Mowatt’s long-time allies J.W.S. Hows at the Albion and Epes Sargent at the Boston Evening Transcript would not be included among those getting an early copy of Mimic Life, take your fan and give yourself a sharp rap on the knuckles right now.  Actually Hows was the drama critic for his paper. I’m not certain that he wrote book reviews.  He may have had absolutely nothing to do with the following critique. Whoever did compose this critique does pick out a favorite character which – spoiler alert – is not Mr. Oakland, Stella’s elocution professor who Mowatt scholars firmly believe is a very life-like portrait of J.W.S. Hows.

Three stories from the pen of a lady, once a petted favourite of the public, under the name of Mrs. Mowatt.  They are intended to illustrate – and do so most forcibly – the lights and shadows of a theatrical career – The first, “Stella,” paints the brief fluttering of a young debutante upon the stage, whose irresistible impulse carried her thither, when sudden necessities called upon her to earn a livelihood for her mother and herself. But her high-strung nature and excitable nerves unfitted her for the requisite physical exertion.  The sight of a fearful accident, on the very scene of her opening “mimic life,” shatters her delicate organization, mental and bodily.  The gentle Ophelia’s reason “quite gives way’” and she is carried home, still decked with her crown of straw, to pass through the malady of a fevered brain, and sink, calmly at the close, into an untimely grave.  The second tale, “The Prompter’s Daughter,” has also a melancholy denouement.  It traces, with touching but not exaggerated pathos, the early childhood’s years of a girl born almost upon the stage.  It tells how she personates Dot’s baby in a version of the Cricket on the Hearth and ascends by degrees, through the role of Cora’s child in Pizarro, to the dignity of the young Duke of York, Prince Arthur, Ariel, and a Fairy Queen.  But an appalling catastrophe, the result of mismanaged wires and pullies, throws poor Tina upon a bed of suffering; and her subsequent efforts, when partially recovered, cut short the thread of her frail life. In the third narrative, which in its intensity and “striking situations” may not inappropriately be called a dramatic sketch, we find reminiscences of two or three distinguished actors; but, though it ends in a happy marriage, it resembles the others in its generally somber tone.

We use the term “narratives,” because Mrs. Mowatt uses it herself, and states further that the incidents related are but slightly varied from occurrences that have come under her own observation.  Be that as it may, the insight given into that portion of theatrical life which lies behind the curtain has the unmistakable air of truth.  If the picture could not be free from the darker shades of littleness and jealousy that chequer professional life, it is clear that the author takes more delight in vindicating the subjects of much social obloquy.  She shows how much of charity and gentleness and true nobility may be covered by the tinsel robe. – As a literary effort, “Mimic Life” may be honestly praised.  The personages are sharply cut: the interest progresses page after page.  Our bounds forbid us particularizing, but we should be at once ungrateful for pleasure derived and unjust in our criticism if we did not mark out one character.  The hump-backed Prompter of the second story, carrying a stout heart and a cheerful spirit through weariness and woe, deserves to be set apart in a niche of his own.  On the whole, this transcript of reality ought to be most favourably received by the public, as it will doubtlessly be by those members of the theatrical profession, who are capable of appreciating the spirit in which it is written.4

To be fair, this book review does spend much more time evaluating Mimic Life’s verisimilitude to the realities of theatrical life over weighing the elements of its literary merit – almost as if the evaluation were written by the paper’s drama critic…

Epes Sargent
Epes Sargent

I must have angered some listening ear of a Library Deity with my bragging in my last essay about how easy it was to obtain primary source material, because I was not able to retrieve the Boston Evening Transcript’s review of Mimic Life in one piece. By my calculations, the article was published on Sunday, Dec. 16th, 1855.  I have discovered, to my great sorrow, that my source for copies of the Transcript does not include Sunday editions. Therefore, I can only present the portion of this review that I have found quoted by others;

The work is a sort of sequel to the Autobiography — embodying much that could not well be included in that volume, and casting a thin veil of fiction over scenes and characters, the dates and name of which could not be given without wounding the feelings of living person.  We will only remark that every narrative in this volume is not merely “founded on fact,” but is, in many parts, literally true. The denouement and the leading incidents are true without an exception, and the principal characters will be recognized by many who have known the originals. The work is destined to be a popularity equal if not superior to that of the Autobiography; for it is not a maudlin romance spun from a morbid brain, like too many of the feminine novels of the day, but is the result of the life studies and experiences of a true woman and an accomplished writer, who has here deposited some of her most sacred convictions in regard to life and its meaning.5

Book reviews from this time-period in newspapers are typically not signed.  However it is quite probable that Epes Sargent or someone under his direct supervision composed this critique. Judging from the usual length of such entries in the Transcript, I’m probably missing at least an introductory and a concluding paragraph.  There might be more material summarizing the contents.  I would like you to note how strongly the columnist links Mowatt’s prior best-seller, Autobiography of an Actress to Mimic Life. The writer goes so far as to nearly erase the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, promising that Mowatt’s narratives are not only “founded on fact,” but in many parts literally true.6 Theatre aficionados, the columnist promises tantalizingly, may be able to recognize the characters sketched. (Let me freely confess here that the quest to figure out who might have been who in Mimic Life and other of Mowatt’s creations is a particular obsession of mine – if you haven’t already figured that out from my essays.  The writer of this review could not have possibly designed a better sales technique to pitch the publication to me. One hundred and six years before my birth, old Epes Sargent already had my number when it came to knowing how to sell a book…)

Another aspect of spin-control from this review that I find notable is the preemptive attempt to both downplay the book’s so-called “morbid” elements and distance it from other “feminine novels.”  Although each of the narratives are full of situations that are literally and metaphorically full of drama, as well as romance, and humor, Mimic Life stands as Mowatt’s darkest-hued creation.  Each story ends with a heart-rending depiction of the death of a major character. Scholars to this day debate why this book that contains so many direct references to events in her own life and those of friends and colleagues from her nine years on stage became what could almost be termed a memento mori. Mimic Life is an extremely lively book, but does dwell at length on thoughts of death. The reviewer takes pains to re-assure potential readers this serious turn is not a cheap melodramatic twist to add pathos to the work – a technique the columnist is associating with popular women writers of the day.  Perhaps this slight is directed towards those following in the footsteps of the phenomenally popular writer of serial fiction, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, or her friend, best-selling novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Mowatt, the reviewer implies, is not being gratuitously melodramatic because her fiction is grounded in fact.  We will see in later entries how well this argument stands with other readers.

Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth
Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth

The review from the Boston Advertiser takes an interesting angle for the time period on the glimpse of backstage/front of stage existence of the theatrical artiste’s life that the book provides for curious readers;

A sort of halo surrounds a successful actress – the face is more beautiful when seen the other side of the footlights – her dress is more exquisite – her step more graceful than that of a common woman, and her admiring auditors would fain follow her into her retirement, where they are sure she is the same angelic being in another sphere.

This volume of Mrs. Ritchie’s shows the other side of the picture.  It paints most forcibly the painful days and nights of preparation, the heart’s misgivings, the jealousy of rival actresses, the physical difficulties which meet the poor woman at every step, the dismal green rooms, the cold stage wind, the lassitude and exhaustion of the next morning.  All the trouble and all the satisfactions too, of this mimic life.

Mrs. Ritichie’s “Autobiography of an Actress” was so universally read, and created so much sympathy for her, that this new volume, which, though in the form of fiction, seems so natural that it will be taken for a continuation of the same subject, will be eagerly sought for and read – and the wonder will be increased that a delicate and sensitive woman, as these volumes have shown her to be, could have passed so well through such a fiery ordeal.

The stories are themselves well written, and very interesting.

The volume is a thick octavo of over 400 pages, dedicated to the author’s father.7

When reading these reviews, it is important to remember that entertainment-based celebrity was still a very new phenomenon in the U.S. Mowatt, along with Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, and Edwin Booth were among the first generation of stars of the American stage to rise to national fame. Part of the intense interest in her marriage to W.F. Ritchie and the publication of her autobiography was their novelty.  No entertainment celebrity in the U.S. had ever done exactly the same thing in precisely the way she did ever before.  The thought presented here — that there was a downside to such fame, that being an entertainer actually involved a good deal of hard work, disappointment, and enduring of less-than-pleasant conditions — was still a relatively new one to many American fans of the theatre. Suffering for glory continues to be a theme that fascinates readers of entertainment biographies to the present. By stark contrast, the writer of this blurb for Maine’s Portland Advertiser chose to look at the title of the book as signal that Mowatt was repudiating her theatrical career;

The former works of Mrs. Mowatt (by which name she is best known) greatly endeared her to the reading public.  The hearty naturalness of her writings showed that “mimic life” was but a superficial life of hers, that her sympathies were as fresh and deep as though she never been among the tawdry scenes of the green-room.  This present volume, we are persuaded, will increase the number of the author’s admirers.  It contains many a touching and pleasing story of those with whom her nine years on stage brought her in contact.8

Rather than being a true sequel to the author’s autobiography, Mimic Life was in the view of this columnist, is merely an amusing collection of tales drawn from a “false world” in which the writer only tarried briefly before returning to her proper sphere of existence. In this reviewer’s opinion, the book was not really focused on sharing the story of incidents that shaped Mowatt’s character as her autobiography had been, but on telling stories of things that had happened to other people with whom she now no longer associated. I close out this survey of the initial critical reaction to the book with selections from reviews that I was not able to access that Ticknor and Fields chose to include in their long-form advertisement for Mimic Life.  Excerpts from the Albion, Boston Advertiser, and Boston Transcript reviews were included in this ad as well;

[From the Daily Advertiser]

This volume contains three splendid stories – Stella. The Prompter’s Daughter.  The Unknown Tragedian; into which the author has brought, in a very interesting manner, her experiences as an actress, during her successful professional career of nine years.

[From the New York Mirror]

Her “Autobiography of an Actress is a charming book; but this “Mimic Life is in every way superior.  It is written with great power and beauty and pathos; and evidently sketched more from memory than imagination. It contains three stories of the most absorbing interest – Stella, The Prompter’s Daughter, and The Unknown Tragedian.

[From the Boston Transcript.]

The work is destined to be a popularity equal if not superior to that of the Autobiography; for it is not a maudlin romance spun from a morbid brain, like too many of the feminine novels of the day, but is the result of the life studies and experiences of a true woman and an accomplished writer, who has here deposited some of her most sacred convictions in regard to life and its meaning.

[From the Boston Atlas]

We advise all who would enjoy perhaps the most exquisitely beautiful production of the author’s ever-finished pen to buy the volume, and be sure to read the story of little Tina – a story destined to rank among the beautiful sketches of childhood that have ever yet appeared.

[From the Philadelphia News]

No book has recently been issued in this country, destined to be more universally read, than “Mimic Life.”  Apart from the revelations which it gives of theatrical life behind the curtain – describing the struggles, dangers and heart burnings of the votaries of Thespis and Thalia – there is an originality and freshness in the style throughout which, of itself, must fascinate the reader.

[From the Boston Mail]

Mimic Life cannot fail to become a universal favorite, and gain admirers everywhere.  It possesses every literary element that can command success, and it will render the name of the authoress still more famous.

[From the New York Albion.]

As a literary effort, “Mimic Life” may be honestly praised.  The personages are sharply cut: the interest progresses page after page.  Our bounds forbid us particularizing, but we should be at once ungrateful for pleasure derived and unjust in our criticism if we did not mark out one character.  The hump-backed Prompter of the second story, carrying a stout heart and a cheerful spirit through weariness and woe, deserves to be set apart in a niche of his own.

[From the Christian Inquirer]

“Stella” is full of warning; “The Unknown Tragedian” has examples of heart-magnanimity, whilst “The Prompter’s Daughter” is worthy of a place beside “Little Nell” and “Oliver Twist.”9

It’s risky to speculate too much about the tone of the entire review based only on the sentences Ticknor and Fields chose to excerpt for inclusion in this ad copy.  Therefore I will avoid characterizing commentary I haven’t read in full. Instead, let me say that Mowatt’s publishers were able to cherry-pick long and substantial quotes that recommended Mimic Life to the book-buying public in a number of ways they thought would be advantageous to promote sales.  These ideas included thoughts such as:  Mimic Life is a work of high literary merit.  The stories are dramatic, heart-warming, and original.  These stories are comparable to the works of Charles Dickens.  Mimic Life is a literary work of the same quality as Autobiography of an Actress.  This book, like Mowatt’s autobiography, is about her life in the theatre. Fans of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s career as an actress should buy this book which will increase her fame.

All of these are compelling points. Ticknor and Fields put forth a substantive effort to position Mimic Life to repeat the impressive sales figures Autobiography of an Actress had racked up in the spring of 1854.  However, circumstances were not the same.  In 1856, Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie was not on a feverishly covered national tour at sold-out venues celebrating her retirement from the stage.  She had not – after years of wild speculation in the press – announced her impending marriage to a provocative Southern newspaper editor whose even more controversial brother died only weeks before the ceremony.

Although Mowatt was one of the U.S.’s first entertainment celebrities, this did not mean that she was immune from ill-effects of media burnout and overexposure.  After living in the constant glare of the public eye for those frantic first months of 1854 with the accumulated steady coverage of the ups and downs of her retirement tour, the release of her autobiography, and up-coming marriage to W.F. Ritchie, there were plenty of Americans who decided they’d had just about enough of her.  They didn’t like actors or lady authors all that much to begin with. Six months of someone who was both appearing in the papers every day was more than they wanted and probably a bad influence.  They were more than ready for her to go away and not to be heard from again. Additionally, despite the claims of the reviewers, Mimic Life was not at all the same sort of book that Autobiography of an Actress had been.  It was not really a sequel to that book.  If you were a fan with burning curiosity about incidents in Mowatt’s life and career, Mimic Life did not satisfy doubts or settle speculations. No questions, for example, about the origins of her romance with W.F. Ritchie or the details scandal with Walter Watts are addressed in the text.  Mimic Life and Autobiography of an Actress are both books about life in the theatre.   The similarity ends right about there.

Would the differing context, changing perceptions of Mowatt as a public figure, and unacknowledged differences between Mimic Life and Autobiography of an Actress have a negative impact on sales? We will see in the next essay as the book finally reaches the hands of the public and reviewers begin to take a more leisurely second look at the work beginning in the frosty January of 1856.

 

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie and images of the publication of Mimic Life
Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie and images of the publication of Mimic Life
  1. “Mimic Life.” Vermont Republican. Dec. 21, 1855. Page 2, col. 5.
  2. “Mimic Life.” Cleveland Leader. Tuesday, Dec 25, 1855. Page 1, col. 5.
  3. “Livres Et Revues.” Courrier des Etats-Unis: New York. Vol. XXXII, Issue 300. Saturday, Dec. 22, 1855. Page 2, col. 1.
  4. “Mimic Life.” Albion, or, British, Colonial, and Foreign Weekly Gazette. Saturday, Dec 22, 1855. Page 9, col. 1.
  5. “A Welcome New Book.” New York Tribune. Thursday, December, 27, 1855. Page 1.
  6. Boston Semi-weekly Advertiser. Tuesday, Dec 25, 1855. Page 2, col. 2.
  7. “Mimic Life.” Portland Weekly Advertiser: Portland, Maine, vol. 55, issue. 52. Tuesday, Dec 25, 1855. Page 2, col. 4.
  8. “Mrs. Mowatt’s New Book.” Republican Banner: Nashville, TN. Tuesday, Feb. 12, 1856. Page 3, col. 7.