Anna Cora Mowatt and images of other Victorian Rosalinds

While researching for this week’s blog, I found – as I frequently do – information that I wish I could have included in last week’s entry. Rather than saving these bits to build a future essay, I decided to present them in this short addendum. Both of these items came from a re-reading of Marius Blesi’s 1838 thesis, “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt.”

First – Mowatt added the role of Ion from T.N. Talfourd’s play of that name to her repertoire several years sooner than I remembered when I was writing last week’s blog. According to Blesi, her first performance of this part was in Mobile, Alabama, in January of 1847.1 Ellen Tree (Mrs. Charles Kean) was making quite a hit with this role during the couple’s tour of the U.S. Tree’s success soon had many tragediennes, including Mowatt and Charlotte Cushman, donning togas to create their own interpretation of Talford’s noble Greek in this melodrama inspired by Euripides.

Apparently one of the things Mowatt enjoyed most about this role was the figure-flattering costume. She wrote in a letter to Epes Sargent’s brother, James, on April 13, 1847;

And so you would like to see “Ion?” –It was played for my benefit last night and drew a fine house. Strange to say – stranger to believe, it is everywhere admitted that I wear no costume which so heightens every imaginary charm – and my glass scarcely contradicts the general decision. Whether it is in the effect of the light Grecian attire so admirably calculated to display the figure – or the appropriateness of that fragile figure itself – and the light hair bound in clusters with a white fillet – to the dreamy Ion, I cannot say, but I have more than once, in different cities, heard the term “vision” applied to the picturesque tout ensemble, in producing which the tunic and toga have a wonderful share. I am afraid all this sounds like vanity – and yet I hope not.2

And how did the playwright feel about having a role that he wrote for a man played by a woman? In his forward to the play in his “Standards of Modern Drama” collection, Epes Sargent quotes Talford as saying about Ellen Tree’s performance of the role;

Who is there who does not feel proud of the just appreciation, by the great American people, of one who is not only the exquisite representative of a range of delightful characters, but of all that is most graceful and refined in English womanhood, — or fail to cherish a wish for her fame and happiness, as if she were a particular friend or relation of his own?3

Charlotte Cushman as "Ion," 1845
Charlotte Cushman as “Ion,” 1845

My second update is to the blog discussing Mowatt’s experiences with productions of “Romeo and Juliet” — Blesi included a bit more information on Fanny Vining’s performance as Romeo in 1849 at the Marylebone. He quotes her as saying in an interview;

Fanny Vining said she was persuaded by Mrs. Mowatt to take the part, and “as I was a little taller than she, the illusion passed off well… It was my last venture of the sort. I think women deserve to have men for lovers.”3

One reviewer seemed to disagree with this sentiment, enthusing;

In Miss Fanny Vining the youthful Montague has found an admirable representative; love at first sight may be forgiven to the gentle Juliet when we behold the object of her passion; we readily believe “Verona bragged of him.” Miss Vining well becomes her cavalier’s costume, and from her plumed bonnet to slashed boot is “point de vice the very man.” Her voice is melody; and for her wooing, had we ourselves a lady-love we would not readily expose her faith to such an ordeal. We are not apt to quarrel, can “keep time, distance and proportion” with our rapier; and yet – nor care we who knows so much of our valor – we should think twice ere we encountered in the duello, “The light but terrible motion of her blade.”
Right well she represents the restless anxiety of the enamored boy – his swift transitions from the raptured bridegroom, to the fierce avenger; from the frantic agony of wild distraction, to the stern and gloomy resolution of despair.4

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of other Victorian Rosalinds
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of other Victorian Rosalinds

1. Blesi, Marius. “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt.” Thesis, University of Virginia, 1938. Page 211
2. Ibid, page 217.
3. Sargent, Epes. The Modern Standard Drama; a Collection of the Most Popular Acting Plays, with Critical Remarks, also the Stage Business, Costumes, etc. Berford & Co.: New York, 1846. Page vii.
4. Blesi, p. 247.