Anna Cora Mowatt and Louis Waller

Images of Anna Cora Mowatt, Louise Waller, and women in Mowatt's life

Part 1: Mowatt’s Woman

A Master’s thesis is really a horrid sort of little document.  In the Humanities, most institutions put limits on their size.  They can only be around a hundred pages long.  If you’re an undergraduate reading this, that sounds gigantic.  If you’re a doctoral student or beyond, you know that barely gives you enough time to sign your name properly.  The assignment is to find a topic that has scholarly significance and write something that adds to the body of knowledge.   Making this task more difficult is the fact that for a couple thousand years scholars have already been at this game taking up all the good topics.

There’s a time limit too. Ideally, you should have the document finished within two years.  It takes a lot of people longer than that, though.  You have to quit and start over if you take longer than seven.  The first half of the first year is taken up learning all the rules of thesis-writing, selecting a topic, and writing a prospectus.  The second half of your first year is spent deciding you loathe and despise the topic that you have chosen and that it is the last possible thing on Earth that you could ever force yourself to write about.  You therefore must scrap everything you’ve done so far and start over at square one.  (Some graduate students give this cycle a ruinous number of repetitions.) You also waste a lot of time dithering and obsessing about who to put on your advisory committee and who to ask to be your major professor and how all these decisions are inevitably going to end up in more pain and humiliation for you.

All this time the clock is still running and the amount of money you are paying to attend the fine institution of higher learning of your choice is still mounting to the equivalent of the gross national product of a small European duchy. If you wish to meet the projected two-year window of graduating, you now have only a dozen months left to research and write your thesis.  Again, if you are an undergraduate and accustomed to churning out a twenty page “research” paper in a couple days or hours… or moments before it is due, this may sound like big-soft-fluffy-generous-plenty of time to crank out an assignment.  However, for scholars, a year of digging through microfilms and blurry photocopies of journals looking for something no one else in a hundred generation of researchers squinting at the same material has ever quite squeezed the last tiny drop of elucidation out of is just the blink of a red-veined and weary eye.

Generally speaking, a mere year of research and writing does not give a scholar sufficient time to get deeply immersed enough in their topic to start uncovering exotic primary sources or connecting dots in a manner that — within the context of the scholarly community of their specialty — everybody and their Uncle Bob hasn’t already done. And of course, grad students aren’t just devoting themselves to doing research all day every day.  They teach, go to class, write papers, cry, obsess… complain… drink coffee… drink wine… drink beer… drink vodka… write blogs… make podcasts… All these endeavors take up an impressive of time.

The dissertations written by doctoral students are significantly larger scale works.  There is no maximum page limit for this document at many institutions.  It is written over a four to ten year time frame. There are higher expectations that the student/researcher will discover something of real significance about their topic. Most folks who end up staying in academia after they get their degree are able to pull together something from their dissertation that they can turn into a publishable journal article or even a book.  The story may be different in the Hard Sciences, but in the Humanities, generally, because of the short time frame for writing and research, few people end up with publishable material from their Master’s thesis.  Writing the document is primarily a learning experience to train you to research and write full-scale scholarly books.  For the thesis, most folks end up regurgitating material from well-worn primary sources and secondary sources.  The typical master’s thesis tends to read like a very, very, very long Wikipedia entry.

All this is to say that of all the master theses I have read on Anna Cora Mowatt, my favorite is Louise H. Waller’s “The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt, A Re-evaluation” from 1958 precisely because it does not read like a very, very, very long Wikipedia entry.  It’s not a perfect document.  I don’t agree with every word, but it is an extraordinarily lively read for a thesis. The personality of the author shines through.  She attacks the subject with impressive energy and manages to make some thought-provoking observations about Mowatt’s stylistic choices rather than just grinding through a re-tread of the same sources everyone cites.

Louise Waller
Louise Waller

You might look at the title page of the document, shrug, and say, “Well, of course Waller’s a good writer.  She’s a grad student in the English Department at Columbia.”  No, no, no.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m not talking about good.  I’m talking about fun. This thesis is actually kinda fun to read.  A thesis is not supposed to be fun.  A thesis isn’t a dorm room.  They don’t need personal touches and decorations.  It’s supposed to be a serious scholarly document, not a floorshow.  Most departments prefer a conservative and formal tone. Most major professors and thesis committees brutally weed any sort of nonsense out of your thesis with the same sort of enthusiasm your middle-aged neighbor might use to apply Round-Up to wayward dandelions in their beautifully manicured lawn.

Not to be too much of a killjoy – because I do love creativity and liveliness – but a little “personality” can go a long way in a thesis.  There’s a fine line between creating a unique spin on your material and just being goofy and self-indulgent in lieu of actually having anything substantive to say. There are times that Waller wobbles a bit into the territory of the melodramatically silly – such as when she makes up dialogue for the Mowatts to exchange at various crisis points in their life – but overall, her writing is energetic and keeps your attention focused.  After reading this text, I felt that I came away with much more than a handful of titles poached from the bibliography.

In tribute to all writers of such documents, at this time of the year when so many students are graduating, I wanted to take a little time to examine some pertinent points from Waller’s 1958 thesis. Taking into consideration the age of the work, the inherent limitations of the format, and bearing in mind that this is a journeyman effort from an author who went on to do greater things, let’s look together at what this work can tell us about Mowatt’s compositional techniques.

The section of the thesis that interested me most was where Waller points out some recurring patterns in Mowatt’s writings.  She makes some very pertinent observations.  However, in my opinion, she, like other critics, is thrown a bit off the mark by giving too much weight to Mowatt’s plays.  It is very easy to see why she does so, though. Since “Fashion” is by far the writer’s most well-known work, it is natural to assume it is the most typical specimen of her style available.  I mean, for goodness sake, we know what people like Arthur Hobson Quinn, Eugene O’Neill, and Edgar Alan Poe thought about this play.  It just stands to reason that it is Mowatt’s most representative work, doesn’t it?

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

“Fashion’s” greater historical significance and the fact that it has received the lion’s share of critical attention should not distract a researcher into giving the play undue weight when considering the totality of Mowatt’s body of work.  She both began and ended her professional writing career as the author of short stories.  She wrote more novels than plays. I would argue that “Fashion” and “Armand” are watered-down examples of the type of writing that Mowatt does in her fiction.  The author is more conventional in her choices in those two plays than she was in many of her other works.  “Armand” was written after she had toured as an actress for a year.  She wrote this show as a starring vehicle for herself and her acting partner, E.L. Davenport.  This romantic drama purposefully incorporates many familiar tropes of popular dramas of the day.  “Fashion” and “Armand” resemble each other in tone and structure more than they resemble any of Mowatt’s other works.

Mowatt Playbill detail, 1854
Mowatt Playbill detail, 1854

In Waller’s analysis, she includes “Fashion” and “Armand” but does not talk about “Gulzara” at any length.  “Gulzara” was not written for production in a commercial theatre and contains exceptions to most of the characteristics of Mowatt’s writing she lays out.  Waller discusses Mowatt’s full-length novels – “Fortune Hunter,” “Twin Roses,” “Mute Singer,” and “Fairy Fingers,” but doesn’t spend a lot of time on the novellas in “Mimic Life” or the collections of short stories in “Clergyman’s Wife” or “Italian Life and Legends” in which, again, Mowatt violates many of the parameters Waller sets down for her writing.

In my opinion, if a critic wants to get an accurate feel for Mowatt’s style and characteristics as a writer, they need to start with her “Helen Berkeley” short stories to set their base expectations instead of “Fashion.”  While creating those stories, Mowatt was not famous.  Because she was publishing anonymously, she was under less external pressure to self-censor to protect her reputation than she was at any other point in her career. The short story format allowed her to make bolder choices in style, tone, and structure than she would later be able to sustain in her novels.  A critic who includes these early works in their evaluation of Mowatt as a writer will be much less puzzled and shocked at the bluntly bloody tales of revenge in “Italian Lives and Legends” and the sometimes weirdly experimental short pieces in “Clergyman’s Wife” than a researcher who has convinced themselves Mowatt is always only a dainty, cookie-cutter creator of melodramatic fluff based on their readings of “Fashion” and “Armand.”

With this caveat in mind, Waller’s characterizations of Mowatt’s work are as follows.  First, she points out that Mowatt’s narratives tend feature a female lead based on the author’s own persona;

All of Mrs. Ritchie’s plots run along the same line.  There is always is a lovely young woman (George C. Odell says:  “Mrs. Mowatt is always making herself the heroine of a novel, which was her idea of her own life.”) This young woman is a Swedenborgian whether she acknowledges it or not.  She has Mrs. Mowatt’s love of flowers, her resigned attitude towards life and her paradoxical penchant for adversity.1

To be completely accurate, there’s almost always a lovely young woman somewhere in the story.  Mowatt’s plots don’t all run along the same lines.  Sometimes the lovely young woman is not the focal character at all.  In several of Mowatt’s short stories (such as “The Colonel Abroad,” “Ennui and Its Antidote,” and “La Belle Clementine”) the protagonist is male. Sometimes male and female characters share the role of protagonist as in “The Prompter’s Daughter” and “The Unknown Tragedian” from Mimic Life or the miserable married couple whose misfortunes we follow in the short story “An Inconvenient Acquaintance.”

Illustration from Mimic Life
Illustration from Mimic Life

I will grant that Mowatt wrote a number heroines for her novels who seemed to be loosely based on herself. In previous blog entries, I have discussed at length Mowatt’s creation of the role of “Blanche” in “Armand” to feature her best assets as a performer.  I have also talked about parallels between her life and her descriptions of the characters of Stella from Mimic Life and Madeleine de Gramont from Fairy Fingers.  Similar parallels to those I point out in these entries could be made for other important female characters in Mowatt’s works.  I do object, though, to the somewhat arch tone Waller takes in pointing out that Mowatt used her own life as material for her narratives.  Do we hear similar complaints about male authors?  Dickens and Melville enthusiasts wet themselves in excitement to find confirmation of autobiographical material embedded in their favorite author’s protagonists.  Why then should a female author’s decision to borrow from her own experience to create a fictional character signal a lack of imagination?  A few pages before, Waller was pronouncing “Fashion” to be a much better play than “Armand” because in it Mowatt was writing about the New York she knew instead of a historic French setting she had conjured in her imagination.  What then, could be wrong with Mowatt keeping her heroines reality-grounded by patterning them on her own thoughts and feelings?  I think that despite the feminist attitudes she displays elsewhere in her writing, Waller’s hint of disdain here could be a bit of unexamined vintage 1950’s misogynistic distaste for being asked to step inside the mind of a woman as the focal character of a narrative instead of the usual generic male voice.

Waller also notes that Mowatt’s heroines tend to share her religious perspective. Mowatt’s Swedenborgian beliefs fundamentally shaped her worldview.  This philosophical outlook is reflected not only by the thinking of her heroines, but permeates her writing in forms both subtle and overt. I think Waller makes a better, more interesting point later in this chapter when she says;

Unlike the typical Victorian, Mrs. Mowatt’s New Church religion relieved her from the fear of death common to so many writers of her era.  In some of her books Mrs. Mowatt derides the idea that death is bad and pokes fun at those who fear death.2

A reader unfamiliar with the tenents of Swedenborgism might not realize that this atypical attitude towards mortality stemmed from Mowatt’s religious beliefs. The characteristic in Mowatt’s heroines that Waller terms a “resigned attitude towards life” may also be a product of the New Church’s vision of an idyllic and welcoming afterlife.  I would add that the subdued, polite demeanor of these characters reflects the reality of what social expectations were for the behavior of upper-class young women in the early 1800s in England and the East Coast of the U.S.  In hopes of making the most profitable marriage arrangements possible, young ladies were trained to appear as quiet, pretty, and demure as possible in their public interactions with others.  Victorian era parents and guardians did not seem to give any thought to the notion that more talkative, forthright, and assertive women would make for better models for heroines in novels.

I had not previously noticed that Mowatt’s women usually tend to love flowers.  On quick reflection, though, I seem to recall several instances of main characters giving or receiving bouquets or lingering in gardens.  During Mowatt’s lifetime, floriography was a popular mania. Complex messages could be communicated via specific floral arrangements.

Victorian Floriography
Victorian Floriography

[If you are a grad student looking for a paper topic, here is a promising idea – Mowatt’s nickname was “Lily.” Lilies and other flowers frequently appear in Mowatt’s novels. Procure a book on Victorian floriography. See if you can decipher any sort of coded message about a character or a relationship in the book by the flowers that Mowatt puts in the scene with them.  (I’d bet baguettes to Baudrillard that you can.)  Call your paper “[Insert Character Name] and the Lily: Victorian Floriography in Anna Cora Mowatt’s [Insert Novel Title.]” First part of the paper – Explain who Anna Cora Mowatt was.  Next – Explain that her nickname was “the Lily.” (I’ve got help for you here.) Now summarize what you have learned about Victorian floriography. Briefly summarize the Mowatt novel you have chosen. Zoom in on the scene (or scenes) with flowers. Explain the significance of those flowers in floriography.  Explain how the symbolism of the flowers helps us understand the character or the scene better. (Flower messages usually waft along vaguely Jungian lines like “This character is very pure and virginal” or “This flower foreshadows sadness” or “Lust is in the air!”) Season your mixture with words of wisdom from the theoretician of your choice. Conclude with some sage thought such as this forgotten form of floral communication can send us hidden messages even today. Wham. Bam. There’s your paper. You’re welcome.]

Language of Flowers
Language of Flowers

The next characteristic that Waller identifies as being typical of Mowatt’s work is one that I believe someone could profitably use as the basis of an excellent thesis or dissertation project.  Mowatt’s heroines are typically paired with a close female friend.  Sometimes, as in the case of Twin Roses’ Jessie and Jeannie Garnett, this confidant is a sister.  There are also many examples of strong mentoring relationships between older and younger women.

For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of Mowatt’s writing is the number and variety of same-sex friendships she gives us in her books.  Most male authors of this period are not particularly adept at depicting realistic female friendships.  Even many female authors of the Victorian era seem to lean towards heroines who are more comfortable alone or in the company of men.  However, Mowatt’s women usually bond well with their peers and form mutually supportive alliances. One of my favorite moments in any Mowatt book comes in The Fortune Hunter when Augustus Brainard gambles that he can divide and conquer by turning the Clinton sisters and Arria Walton against each other. The girls instead sensibly share information, believe each other, and therefore are able to deliver Brainard the kind of embarrassing comeuppance he so richly deserves.

As in this example from Fortune Hunter, female friendships can be a source of agency for Mowatt’s characters. Within the plot of several of Mowatt’s novels, there are numerous examples of instances in which the emotional, financial, or moral support of a female friend or mentor empowers a female protagonist to overcome adversity in a pro-active manner. Mowatt’s deployment of friendship serves not merely as a source of emotional comfort and pleasure for women in her story, but as a device for problem-solving in her plots.  For me, the degree of synergistic force with which the author invests female alliances serves as an argument for classifying Mowatt’s works as being proto-feminist in nature.

Waller quotes from Mowatt’s passionate expression of advocacy for female friendships in an essay originally written for the New York Ledger that was reprinted in The Clergyman’s Wife;

The devotion of woman to one of her own sex, the sincerity with which she clasps the hand or presses the lip of woman, the genuineness of her self-sacrifices daily made for a beloved sister, are subjects of a vast amount of skepticism… A woman may be the most irreproachable of wives to the best of husbands, and yet feel a void in her affections… to a sympathetic female companion, a woman may enter into all the details of… insignificant trials, and, clasping a friend’s hand, she may search for and discover the clue that can guide her out of her domestic labyrinth.  The higher love, the love for man, neither absorbs nor forbids the lower, the friendship for woman.  They are distinct, emotional capacities, which may be co-existent in one heart.  They are evidences of a rich, spiritual organization.  If they dwell together in pristine purity, one affection strengthens rather than weakens the other.3

To this outpouring of strong feeling, Waller put forth a speculation that has probably been on the tip of your tongue for several minutes now, but was a pretty bold idea to articulate back in 1958;

Mrs. Mowatt was no female Plato but with her pro-feminine bias and her two inauspicious marriages, she would naturally turn to female companionship for aid and comfort.  A Freudian reading of the quotation above would be liable to accuse the lady of lesbianism.  If so, let us moderately amend it to latent lesbianism, potential only.  Perhaps this is even too much of a concession to make.4

I know of no evidence that Mowatt ever had a romantic relationship with a same sex partner.  Admittedly, though, it is very unusual to find clear-cut documentation confirming the existence of same sex relationships dating from the early Victorian era.

Mowatt did, however, have a number of close female relationships in her life.  Mowatt came from a large family. She had seven sisters and four half-sisters. Her relationships with her sisters Julia and May were particularly close. May lived with her at Melrose during the early years of her marriage.  Anna Cora wrote poems like the following about how meaningful her friendship with her sister May was to her.

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

Apart our knees are bended now,
Yet is my prayer for thee;
Say, gentle sister, dost not thou
Still lift thy voice for me?
Though thou mayst smile when I may weep,
Our joys no more the same,
Yet sacred must each bosom keep
The other’s cherished name.5

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

During her marriage to William Foushee Ritchie, Mowatt’s friendship with Ann Pamela Cunningham blossomed into the founding of a historical preservation society that exists to the very day.  Cunningham had the dream of turning George Washington’s home into a national monument.   Mowatt, though, possessed the ability to organize and motivate the society ladies of Virginia to do the necessary fundraising in that state.  She also had the sort of political connections, personal relationships with celebrity speakers, and contacts in the press to expand the Mount Vernon Ladies Association into a truly national organization.  If you visit Mount Vernon, Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s portrait appears next to that of her friend Pamela Cunningham, honored as the first Vice Regent for the state of Virginia for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Ann Pamela Cunningham, President and Founder of the Mt. Veron Ladies Association
Ann Pamela Cunningham, President and Founder of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association

In her career as actress, Mowatt had many close friendships and mentoring relationships with women younger than herself that were quite important to her.  She formed a long lasting bond with actress Fanny Vining, who would marry E.L. Davenport.  Vining played Romeo to Mowatt’s Juliet and wrote the following about her;

To Mrs. Mowatt

Graceful and gentle on the mimic scene,
As in the quiet of the social hour,
Nature’s own lady both in form and mien;
Stately and proud, yet flexile as a flower.
Round thee may rally those who would uphold
A fair profession doomed to suffer slight –
And, by thy very purity made bold,
Choose thee as type whereby to do it right.
Oh! Never be the artist’s calling scorned,
That in its motley bosom fosters thee!
Many bright names its annals have adorned,
Not least among the brightest thine shall be.6

Fanny Vining, circa 1850
Fanny Vining, circa 1850

Another example of a Mowatt protégée was Avonia Jones, daughter of Melinda Jones.  Melinda, like Fanny Davenport, had played Romeo opposite Mowatt’s Juliet.  When Avonia began her career in the mid-1850s, Mowatt coached the young actress, wrote letters of recommendation to managers to help her secure bookings, and then composed glowing reviews of her performances for the Richmond Enquirer. One of the starring roles featured in Avonia’s debut tour of the U.S. was as Blanche in Mowatt’s “Armand.”

Avonia Jones
Avonia Jones

In a letter in the Ritchie Family Papers Collection at the University of Virginia, the retired actress gives this advice to a friend identified in the document only as “Grace;”

You say you have felt “a call” to this step for years. That again looks (illegible) –But if you read poems let me entreat you commit them thoroughly to memory even if you hold the book in your hand.  The effect of the eye – the powerful speaking eye – of the whole face is gone if you really read.  I invariably committed to memory everything I read – and do so still for I am paid to read constantly in private circles – though I do it most unwillingly and escape whenever I can.  How differently Mr. Everett’s oration in Washington would sound if he would read it!  The success it has met would never have been achieved.

Some such narrow views are entertained at the South (illegible) There is a strong prejudice against lady readers in public. To get an audience is almost out of the question.  I have seen the experiment tried again and again.  On one occasion last winter in Richmond the lady was not able to appear because there were only three or four persons in the hall!

But there are plenty of state at the North and West where you might hope for (illegible) for remunerative success.7

Mowatt took young authors under her wing as well.  Marion Harland writes of her first meeting with the former actress;

During my absence my father sent me a copy of the Enquirer containing a review of The Hidden Path, written by Mrs. Ritchie, so complimentary, and so replete with frank, cordial interest in the author, that I could not do less than to call on my return and thank her.

She was not at home. I recall, with a flush of shame, how relieved I was that a card should represent me, and that I had “done the decent thing.” The “decent thing,” in her opinion, was that the call should be repaid within the week.

No picture of her that I have seen does her even partial justice. In her youth she was extremely pretty. At thirty-eight, she was more than handsome. Time had not dimmed her exquisite complexion; her hair had been cut off during an attack of brain-fever, and grew out again in short, fair curls; her eyes were soft blue; her teeth dazzlingly white. Of her smile Edgar Allan Poe had written: “A more radiant gleam could not be imagined.” In manner, she was as simple as a child. Not with studied simplicity, but out of genuine self-forgetfulness.

She struck what I was to learn was the keynote to character and motive, before I had known her ten minutes. I essayed to thank her for what she had said of my book. She listened in mild surprise:

“Don’t thank me for an act of mere justice. I liked the book. I write book-reviews for my husband’s paper. I could not do less than say what I thought.”

 And – at my suggestion that adverse criticism was wholesome for the tyro – “Why should I look for faults when there is so much good to be seen without searching?”8

Harland became a frequent visitor at the Ritchie cottage.  She looked to the older woman for advice not only on writing but all sorts of matters.  Most critics believe that the main character in the “pen portrait” “Clergyman’s Wife” is based on Marion Harland. Harland’s short story “A War-time Evangeline” has its opening scene set at the Ritchie cottage in pre-war Richmond, Virginia.  Harland included Anna Cora and her second husband William Foushee as characters in this story published in 1901.

Marion Harland
Marion Harland

Annie Frobisher was another Mowatt’s protégées. Frobisher was a young, aspiring writer from Boston introduced to the author/actress by her sister, Mary Thompson.  The two kept up a lively correspondence for years.  The Mount Vernon Association Collection preserves many letters exchanged between Mowatt and Annie Frobisher from this time in which she shares advice and thoughts on a wide range of personal and professional topics.

From all these examples, it is easy to see that Mowatt’s friendships with other women were very important to her from a young age.  She was quite comfortable seeing herself in the role of a mentor to younger women from the time she was in her late twenties.  In her letters, she shares strategies with her female friends for achieving personal, professional, and — in the case of the Mt. Vernon Association — political goals.

About the subject of Mowatt’s treatment of older women in her narratives, Waller tells us only:

There is usually and elderly lady and sometimes an elderly gentleman. Like Prudence in Fashion, these characters are kind and well meaning, but serve also for comic relief.9

Here is an area where I feel like Waller is really being misled by the example set by Mowatt’s plays.  Prudence in “Fashion” and “Armand’s” Babette do fit this description. Babette in particular is a rather silly character.  Chattering constantly, she relentlessly repeats her comic catch-line like a minor character in a 70s sitcom each time she comes on stage.  Babette milks laughs from cowering as she is being bullied by the antagonist and makes a series of disastrously bad decisions that somewhat artificially keep moving the plot forward.  Babette is a classic example of a “comic older lady” role.  Reading back over this description, the role sounds more cruel than funny.  However, watch an evening’s worth of situation comedies and you’ll see at least one or two Babettes in the mix.  It’s a classic type.

Illustration from Chapter 9 of "The Mute Singer"
Illustration from Chapter 9 of “The Mute Singer” in The New York Ledger

Older women in Mowatt’s novels and short stories tend to undermine the stereotype of the meddlesome ineffectual gossiping spinster instead of reinforcing it as Babette does. Mowatt treats such women much more kindly than most Victorian era authors.  Older single women who mentor younger women can be extremely important to the plot of Mowatt’s novels. Katheryn Bolton, for example, serves as the primary narrator of Evelyn.  She helps bring about the little happiness and good fortune the Willard family experiences.  Katheryn Bolton and The Mute Singer’s Mademoiselle Ursule are examples of mentors who receive their own romantic subplots by the end of their respective narratives. In stark contrast to the Victorian era’s picture of the meddlesome spinster as dried up and bitter, Madelaine de Gramont of Fairy Fingers is the book’s beautiful romantic lead.  Because of her circumstances, she has decided that she will not marry.  Instead she devotes herself to work, her family, and her friends. She has mentoring relationships with her female employees.  These connections to her employees are important to Madelaine and are emotionally fulfilling.

In July of 1848, the first convention on Women’s Rights was held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York.  Anna Cora Mowatt did not attend. She and E.L. Davenport were in England, starring in Henry Spicer’s “Lords of Ellingham.”  She did not take advantage of any subsequent opportunities to go to conventions, rallies, or speak out overtly on the issue of votes for women.  Although her sympathies appear to have been with the movement in general principle, she was a celebrity who chose not to make public statements on hot button political issues.

Waller summarizes the context of Mowatt’s novels in this way;

During Mrs. Mowatt’s lifetime women were just beginning to fight boldly for their rights and the rights of their daughters.  Having chosen Mr. Mowatt and later Mr. Ritchie, Anna might well be forgiven if she sought female friends in whom to confide.  In the 1800’s, let us not forget, the majority of men were the natural enemies of women.  If women expressed “…themselves on such subjects (women’s rights defense of women) with sufficient force and clearness to do any good, they were exposed to assaults whose vulgarity makes them painful.”10

It is easier to draw a straight line between the actions of the attendees of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and today’s struggles for gender equality than to do the same with the works of Anna Cora Mowatt.  However, her words were also part of the necessary revolution in thinking that had to take place to make the changes in law that has come along the way reality.

Mowatt’s novels were popular.  They weren’t considered revolutionary or subversive. A man might feel perfectly comfortable buying a Mowatt novel for his wife. Ordinary middle-class woman enjoyed them. One woman loved The Mute Singer so much, she wrote The New York Ledger to say that she had named her daughter “Cora” in honor of the author.11 However, these books contained small kernels of ideas that contradicted commonly accepted ideas about women and gender roles. Evelyn presents Kathryn Bolton’s involvement in the affairs of the Willard family as a lifesaving and redemptive rather than a meddlesome interference. The phenomenally popular Mimic Life preached that it was cruelly uncharitable to automatically assume that all women in theatre were prostitutes. Fairy Fingers boldly proclaimed that it was downright virtuous for upper to middle class women to have professions outside the home. All of Mowatt’s novels seemed to suggest the notion that women could be just as clever, brave, and witty as men. When a person began to think that way… well, voting doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched notion, does it?

Next time using Waller’s thesis as a guide, I want to examine villainy in Mowatt’s novels, male characters, and the instances where these two categories overlap.

Next week – Mowatt, Men, and Villains!

Images of Anna Cora Mowatt, Louise Waller, and women in Mowatt's life
Images of Anna Cora Mowatt, Louise Waller, and women in Mowatt’s lifeLouis
  1. Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page 64.
  2. Ibid 79.
  3. The Clergyman’s Wife and Other Sketches; a Collection of Pen Portraits and Paintings (Carleton: New York, 1867). Pages 310-311.
  4. Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page 64.
  5. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “To Mary.” Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine, 1843. Volume 1, part 1. Page 259.
  6. Vining, Fanny. “To Mrs. Mowatt.” Norwich Chronicle. Saturday, April 7, 1849. Page 2, col. 1.
  7. Anna Cora Ritchie to Grace, Richmond, VA. Dec. 30, 1858. Swem Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary University.
  8. Harland, Marion. Marion Harland’s Autobiography: Story of a Long Life. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1910. Pages 288-289.
  9. Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page 64.
  10. Ibid, 65.
  11. “Letters About Our Stories.” New York Ledger, April 20, 1861. Page 4.