Despite the fact that at the time I am writing, the story “The Unknown Tragedian” is around one hundred and seventy years old, let me start with spoiler warnings, for I intend to divulge many plot points in my discussion and, unfortunately, there’s a good chance you haven’t read it. The story is the third novella included in “Mimic Life” available here. You can also listen to this story online at Librivox. It’s a good story. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do that first and then come back and read this blog entry.
All Mowatt biographers readily agree that the character of Gerald Mortimer in “The Unknown Tragedian” is based on Gustavus V. Brooke. Mowatt’s pen portrait is just too spot-on and the field of big-hearted, melodramatic, eccentric Irish tragedians from that exact moment history is simply too narrow for Mortimer to be anybody else. What I have never seen anyone else assert, but I am going to tell you now with perfect confidence is that Elma Ruthven is Avonia Jones.
Before I make my case for why Avonia is Elma, let me briefly explain why no one has ever put this identification forward before in the one hundred and sixty-seven years readers and critics have had to chew over this story. “The Unknown Tragedian” is about a love triangle between Gerald Mortimer (Gustavus Brooke), Elma Ruthven (Avonia Jones), and Leonard Edmonton (rich man probably from Virginia). In 1853 when the book was starting to be written, Gustavus Brooke was thirty-five years old and married to Polly Bray. There’s some ambiguity about Avonia Jones’ birth date, so she was either fourteen or seventeen. (My money’s on seventeen.)
The two don’t officially meet until 1859, when Brooke suddenly finds himself without a wife or leading lady and Jones very conveniently shows up in Australia to fill both those positions. Actually, it’s a little ambiguous whether the wife disappears before or after Avonia’s arrival. I’m giving them some benefit of the doubt. However, Miss Jones rapidly and smoothly transitioned into becoming the second Mrs. Brooke. This transition is so smooth; in fact, it was like they already knew each other.
In plain language, I think Mowatt did some misdirection to protect Jones’ identity. Critics and biographers were either thrown off the scent by those false clues and the way official stories about when who was born and when who met who don’t seem to match up… or perhaps those critics have just been much more discrete than I am about suggesting a scandal.
Now to my case — Read the following physical description of Elma, then scroll down and look at the picture of Avonia:
Her exquisitely-rounded form was several inches above the Medici’s height. Her half-stately bearing, her queen-like tread, the classic pose of her head on her shoulders, the chiseled regularity of her features, befitted a Juno. But the face itself was more suited to a Madonna if the arbitrary old masters would allow us to imagine a Madonna with a rich olive complexion, and shining dark hair wound in coronet shape around a broad, low brow.1
This could serve as a very nice, richly Victorian description of the young woman who starred in a production of “Leah, the Forsaken” that President Abraham Lincoln and his family enjoyed in 1864, couldn’t it?
Compare the following two descriptions of a performance style. The first comes from Mowatt. If I am correct in my assumptions, this is a teacher describing her prize student fairly but proudly:
It is difficult to define the exact order of Elma’s scenic talents. Her performances lacked vivid coloring. They might have been deemed cold, but it was a marble coldness of statuesque beauty; they were carved, as it were, in alabaster, but sculpture was not dumb. She never rose out of herself, but she filled her assumed characters with her own inseparable loveliness. If they were narrow, she seemed to compress her nature to enter into their contracted limits, reminding the beholders of a butterfly struggling to force itself into an empty chrysalis-shell, but failing to hide its bright, tinted wings.
She never descended to stage trickeries, nor ever, like Mortimer, courted the applause which she disdained.
The extreme polish of her delivery lent one great charm to her personations. Never was the Saxon tongue more musically syllabled than by her lips. Every word was cut fine and sharp, and invested with a value and a meaning which betokened intellect, though unallied with ardor.2
Next, is a review of Jones’ stage work nearly a decade later from a London critic:
We could not but feel that she was an actress of true ideal power who could speak at once to the deepest recesses and finest sympathies of our common nature, by means of a passion profound and absolute, which acted at once on the imagination. We were not insensible to the physical advantages which nature had added to her mental – the noble voice, the expressive face, and the delicately rounded person which was so capable of responding to all the promptings of her sense of dignity and grace. Nor at the same time were we blind to the few defects which, owing to an insufficient amount of art, were capable of abating to a certain extent the due impression of her powers. We could not but regret a little excess in the modulation of her superb voice which aimed at the rhythmical effect that was scarcely consonant with passion and of an occasional delay at her great moments – her wonderful leaps into intensity, which gave a fatal air of preparation to many of her best impulses. 3
Note the mention of the same sense of dignity, nobility, and restrained emotion as being hallmarks of Jones’ appeal as a performer. Whereas Mowatt was charmed by the genteel artificiality of Jones’ elocutionary style of vocal delivery (assuming that Jones is Elma), the reviewer from The Sun saw it as a flaw that unnecessarily distanced the actress from the raw emotionality he felt she could deliver.
Like Jones, Elma Ruthven is the child of two actors. Like Avonia, Elma’s parents had specialties that would sound strange to people outside the theatre. Her father played villains. Her mother played old women from the time she was quite young. Of course, both of these career choices were much more easily explained to and accepted by a Victorian readership than potentially were those of Avonia’s parents. Avonia’s father, George Jones, like Elma’s was also booed and hissed by the audience, but because he was performing a strange burlesque of popular tragedians’ style that may or may have not been on purpose. Melinda Jones, Avonia’s mother, had been a woman who played young men for a good portion of her career. Theater-going Victorians might have a voracious taste for ladies in breeches roles at this time, but Mowatt was probably correct in assuming that the more prim and proper novel-buying mass audience would have trouble accepting this specialty as a dignified career path for a heroine’s dear old gray-haired mom.
Instead of getting divorced like Avonia’s parents did, Elma’s mother dies. Divorce was less uncommon during this period in American history than might be assumed. However it was stigmatized. Killing the mother rendered her more sympathetic and exerted more narrative pressure on Elma to marry Mortimer. A dying mother’s last wish for a union has more emotion punch than two squabbling living parent’s strong desire.
Although I have not — thus far — been able to document any direct association between Gustavus Brooke and the Jones family in the years 1851-54, it is not unreasonable to assume that they did come into contact. The U.S. professional theatre community was small and tight-knit at this time. The Jones family were well-established and had documented ties to other performers who I can easily link to Brooke such as the Booth family, Anna Cora Mowatt, and E.L. Davenport. Brooke, during these years, was not only popular with audiences and prominent professionally; (he was the lessee of Astor Place for a season) the actor was also beloved by his co-workers. What Mowatt says of the character Mortimer was Brooke’s reputation as well:
Mortimer was a rare instance of a dramatic favorite enthusiastically beloved by the players themselves. His manner was wholly free from the overbearing tyranny which tragic heroes are accustomed to assume towards their inferiors. He treated the subordinates of the theatre with manly courtesy, and an acknowledging remembrance that the feelings of the humblest were entitled to some consideration.
It was singular that, while he totally disregarded the clamorous approval of the audience, an unstudied expression of delight falling from the lips of a “bearer of banners,” or a “general utility” imparted a thrill of pleasure. He often declared that actors were the only judges of acting the only true critics. The panegyrics with which the journals teemed, he never read. He scorned the “quirks of blazoning pens,” which, to display the critic’s own wisdom, manufactured beauties, or shaped faults that are not,” at random.
Mortimer dispensed charities with lavish hand. It was currently reported that the enormous proceeds of his nightly exertions were distributed among the suffering members of the profession. He had freed many from the galling bondage of the stage, and established them in more congenial employment. Did space permit, we might relate not a few touching histories of the objects of his bounty.4
Again, I have no direct evidence that George and Melinda Jones were pushing their daughter to marry this international star at the time that “The Unknown Tragedian” was written. However, I do know that when Avonia Jones did eventually become Mrs. Brooke, her father was extremely proud of that fact. The obituary he wrote for her talks as much about G.V. Brooke as it does his daughter.
Another aspect of her friend Brooke’s persona that Mowatt bestowed on the character Mortimer, was that by all reports, G.V. Brooks loved women and women loved him. The author explains Mortimer/Brooke’s appeal couched in these terms of her day:
Few men were better fitted to captivate a woman’s heart, and compel its deep fountains of devotion to gush forth responsive to his will, than Gerald Mortimer. He possessed that persuasive eloquence which enthralls the ear; that impressive earnestness which fixes every wandering thought; that reverence of manner towards the weaker sex which lures it to forget man’s actual superiority, and feel itself the stronger; and most potent of all that considerate tenderness which recognizes that womanhood is dowried with sufferings from which he is exempt, to render her existence sacred in the eyes of man.5
My candidate for the real life model for Brooke/Mortimer’s rival for Elma/Avonia’s affections, Leonard Edmonton, comes from a blind item in the gossip column for a Washington, D.C. paper. This tidbit is dated December, 1856, a year before her “official” debut performance as Parthenia in the play “Ingomar” in Cincinnati.
…The New York Mirror says that “Miss Avonia Jones, the talented and beautiful young actress (daughter of Mrs. Melinda Jones) has, by her superior acting, captivated a wealthy Southern planter.”6
[Note that the writer refers to her as an actress and says she won her beau’s heart by impressing him with her histrionic excellence. This would be entirely in keeping with other newspaper reports I have documenting a Toronto debut for Jones in the summer of 1856. However, for some reason, accounts purportedly from Jones herself say that she debuted in Cincinnati.]
I have no more details on this wealthy planter such as age, personality, or looks, but from the positive tone of the wording utilized, I think we can assume that this person is probably what her peers would consider a socially advantageous match to someone who is quite definitely not already married.
So, in my theory of the case, this is what happens: Sometime between 1851-1853, Anna Cora Mowatt sees a romance blossoming between her perpetually seventeen-year-old protégée, Avonia Jones and Victorian heart-throb, G.V. Brooke. The attraction is pushed rather than discouraged by her somewhat flaky parents because of the star status of their ambiguously teen-aged daughter’s married wooer. Mowatt writes this story – changing many details such as aging up the heroine, switching the setting to London, and inserting some of her own experience touring with Brooke – to protect the perhaps not-all-that-innocent.
Now, Reader, if this inspires you to contemplate composing a real life fanfic about your dear ones, let me discourage you from imitating Mowatt to the point that you have a protagonist based on one of your besties committing suicide by stabbing himself in the heart. That’s a definite faux pas.
However, Mowatt’s best friend in this case was a tragedian. She gave him an excruciatingly beautiful and noble death. It had all the melodrama one could wish for. And, yes, theater folk are not exactly like regular people in some ways, so their friendship seemed to survive unscathed. This dramatically described fictional death can be viewed as pretty overtly metaphorical too. By the time this story was published in 1856, Brooke, if he had any feelings for Avonia at this time, had already “stabbed himself in the heart,” moved back to London, and reconciled with his wife, Polly.
And so, “The End,” right? Avonia marries her rich famer and lives sensibly ever after like in the book, right?
In contrast to the cool as marble exterior of Elma Ruthven that Mowatt described as follows:
Her nature was undemonstrative. She ever shunned the display of emotion, however real. Her profoundest, tenderest feelings were always voiceless.7
Avonia Jones said of herself:
“When I love, it must be madly; not the tender gentle love that shrinks from observation, but the love that would sweep all before it and if thwarted would end in despair, madness, and death.”8
In 1859, when Jones was at the height of her popularity in the United States, she packed up her mother and went on tour – not to London, but to Australia. She joined Gustavus Brooke’s touring company – not when he was flush with Australian gold, but when he was drinking, broke, and playing small venues in the Outback with a company so depleted that Jones had to throw on a cloak when she wasn’t on stage and play piano because they couldn’t afford any musicians. She got to preview some of the “worse” part of the “better or worse” of their marriage right away.
And yet she stayed.
They had one of those passionate relationships for the ages, with stratospheric highs and cavernous lows. They had the kind of marriage that would make a fabulous movie.. but you really wouldn’t want to get stuck in a compact vehicle with the two of them in heavy traffic. Together, their intensity set the stage on fire and mesmerized audiences on two continents (It probably would have been three if the Civil War hadn’t intervened). Apart, Brooke’s drinking bouts became legendary. Jones’ stunningly realistic portrayal of a jealous, cheating wife in “East Lynne” had the audiences so tearful that humorist Artemus Ward joked that teams of janitors had to be employed to mop up after performances for fear the excess moisture would damage the ceiling of the theater’s basement.
The couple was in the “makeup” half of one of their makeup/breakup cycles when Brooke boarded a steamer for Melbourne in 1866. His last act, as the ship was sinking, was to toss love notes to Avonia Jones in bottles into the ocean.
Two years later, Jones would suddenly sicken and die of consumption.
Mowatt, who at this time was very ill herself, sadly noted the death of her friend and later her pupil in her newspaper column without ever a single hint of “I tried to warn them…”
1. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Mimic Life; or Behind and Before the Curtain. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1856. Page 326.
2. Ibid, page 339.
3. “Miss Avonia Jones.” The Sun. (London) Tuesday Evening, August 12, 1862.
4. Mimic Life, page 367.
5. Ibid, page 334.
6. Personal. Evening Star. (Washington, DC.) Dec. 18, 1856
7. Mimic Life, page 343.
8. Letter from Avonia Jones to Augustin Daly, January 11, 1864, quoted in Joseph Francis Daly, Life of Augustin Daly, page 58.