Dear Reader, pure of heart and mind as doubtlessly you are, I know you do not waste much time pondering matters such as this blog will prove that I have. However for this entry, I crave your indulgence. Two unrelated incidents in the past few weeks have prompted me to spend some time reflecting upon the state of marital affairs between Anna Cora Mowatt and her first husband, James Mowatt.
First, I viewed several biographies of Edgar Allan Poe after my mother reported hearing a mention of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie in one. I thought there might be some discussion of the actress as the source of some second-hand gossip about Poe after his death. It turned out my mother had misheard. The person named was Annie Richmond – who was quite a character. A good many of the programs I viewed could have been enlivened out of cookie-cutter tedium by delving into Poe’s sometimes-problematic-on-both-sides relationships with the women in his life. However, my refresher course on Poe did remind me of the ongoing scholarly debate about whether or not Poe’s marriage to his 13-year-old bride, Virginia Clemm, was ever consummated.
Second, when re-reading Marius Blesi’s 1938 dissertation “Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt” looking for information on an unrelated topic in answer to a query from a correspondent, I was surprised to find that he addressed the question of the Mowatts’ marital relations. Blesi’s work is an impressive piece of scholarship. It is authoritative, thorough, factual, and scrupulously avoids speculation… Well, to be frank, it’s the sort of book that people outside academia find extremely dry and boring. Nothing about is sensationalized at all. On the topic of the Mowatts’ sex life, he blandly states;
The Mowatts were devoted to each other, even though the pages of the Autobiography read as though the love was purely platonic. That there were no children Mrs. Mowatt herself has regretfully stated.1
In a footnote, Blesi also records that in keeping with conventions of the time, Anna Cora always refers to her first husband in a formal manner as “Mr. Mowatt,” never as “James.” In other sections of the dissertation, Blesis reprints letters in which James Mowatt, when managing her professional affairs, quite proudly — though not very passionately — refers to his wife as “the Lily.”
Blesi’s assertion about the Mowatt’s devotion prompted me to consider this question –if Anna Cora Mowatt gave us ample, though discreet, indications that her marriage with James Mowatt was platonic some or all of the years it lasted, why shouldn’t we believe her? Who is a better authority on the matter? Is this an issue on which she would wish to mislead us? Is it not possible for a marriage to function as a successful social contract and business partnership, with ties of affection, and still be lacking in physical engagement? Are there not always – even in the most ideal marriages — differences between the façade of devotion a couple seeks to display publicly and the reality that exists when bedroom doors are closed?
James Mowatt had initially met and been attracted to Anna Cora’s oldest sister Charlotte. He was disappointed to find that this young lady was married. Not to worry, the eldest Ogden sister informed him. There’s plenty more like me at home. Mr. Mowatt was received as a potential suitor for the next unmarried Odgen daughter in line (probably either Eliza Lavinia who was twenty-five or Louisa Willoughby who was twenty-one.) Instead, James fell in love with thirteen-year-old Anna Cora. James Mowatt was fourteen years older than the young Miss Ogden. In other words, he was one year older than her than her age was at the time. Although, Mr. Mowatt, a successful lawyer, was fine potential husband material in many respects, in addition to the offense of bypassing several perfectly appropriate marriageable daughters, this age gap raised eyebrows in the Ogden household. Samuel Ogden insisted that no engagement should take place until Anna Cora was seventeen. However, James Mowatt grew increasingly panicked as the date for his chosen one’s debut into New York society neared. He feared that his claim on her would not survive competition with younger beaux. James pressured Anna Cora into agreeing to elope when she was fifteen.
In her autobiography, Anna Cora’s description of her future husband’s plans sound to modern ears a bit more like an abduction than something romantic;
From the moment he conceived the project of educating me to suit his own views – of gaining my affections, and, the instant I was old enough to be considered marriageable, of taking me to his own home – his child-wife.2
Samuel Ogden was furious when he found out about the secret wedding. It took some time for him to accept the marriage. Anna Cora’s mother was more forgiving; however, she died less than two years after the elopement. The family had little time to recover from the disruption caused by Mr. Mowatt’s marriage plans before they were plunged into deep mourning.
Anna Cora says of the early days of her marriage;
The bearing of a new name, and the wearing of a ring, made very little alteration in my mode of life, or in the manner in which I occupied my time.3
James Mowatt moved Anna Cora’s younger sister May (Mary Gouverneur), who was then only twelve, into their mansion, Melrose, to keep his young wife company. Her autobiography describes how, when Anna Cora was not occupied with lessons, the girls played with hoops on the grounds of the estate, roamed the gardens, rode ponies, and amused themselves with pets – acting very much as one would expect young schoolgirls to do.
We neither ceased to be children, nor gave up our childish sports. Our morning amusements were trundling a couple of huge hoops through the favorite arbor, dancing with the skipping rope, or floating around the “flying course” which had been erected to promote our healthful exercise.4
To summarize, all of the following seem to be true: a) Anna Cora’s sister lived with her during these early years of her marriage, b) the Mowatts had no children, c) Anna Cora continued to live the life of a child without taking on any of the responsibilities of an adult woman. Taken separately, none of these facts conclusively indicate that the Mowatts had no sexual relationship. However, taken collectively, I think they indicate a likelihood that consummation of the marriage may have been deferred for a few years or that theirs was not an active partnership at this time.
In 1840, Anna Cora Mowatt was twenty-one years old. She was young, beautiful, well-educated, creative, accomplished, and wealthy. James Mowatt arranged for his lovely spouse to make a grand tour of all the most glittering spots in Europe chaperoned only by her aunt. Mr. Mowatt was very ill at this time. His business was in trouble. These are all good reasons why he was unable to accompany Anna Cora. Let me put the question to you this way, though – if you had a gorgeous young wife to whom you were passionately attached, would you send her on a romantic, year-long European vacation without you?
Anna Cora Mowatt frequently wrote herself into her fiction. On more than one occasion when talking about her writing process, she said that she needed to root her writing in reality. She often based characters on friends and acquaintances. There are a few works, like the novella, “Stella,” from Mimic Life, that she overtly identified as autobiographical. Several of her heroines share the distinctive style she employs to describe her hair and eye color as well as aspects of her personality. However it is rare for her works to feature passionate romantic relationships between very young women and mature men. The one exception to this rule occurs in the play “Gulzara” which she began to compose during her time in Europe in 1840.
In this drama, the title character, Gulzara, which Anna Cora would herself play, falls in love with the Sultan Suleiman while he is in disguise. The Sultan, though his actions powerfully shape the events of the plot, never actually appears on stage. Although domineering and controlling, he is physically absent throughout. In the events of the play, he has taken young Gulzara as his wife, promising fidelity and affection, but has left her alone and vulnerable. She begins the play feeling angry and abandoned.
As metaphors go, “Gulzara” does not bear a happy report of the Mowatt marriage if we choose to take it as such. Even more damning, though less of a clear match is the couple presented in “The Married Flirt,” one of Mowatt’s “pen portraits.” The piece was originally published in The New York Ledger, but later was collected into book titled “The Clergyman’s Wife and Other Sketches; a Collection of Pen Portraits and Paintings,” published in 1867. Unlike other clearly autobiographical characters, Melinda Belmont does not have Anna Cora Mowatt’s hair and eyes. Mrs. Belmont is a rare, unsympathetic delineation of a female character from this author. Mowatt usually finds qualities to praise or encourage in even the most conventionally outcast of her Victorian sisters. Not so for Melinda Belmont, who she introduces in this manner;
Who calls Melinda Belmont a flirt? She is only as attractive to mankind collectively as to the one especial man whose name she bears, whose domicile she graces with a regnant presence powerfully suggestive of feminine superiority and masculine nonentity. A flirt, forsooth? She will resent the title with virtuous indignation. With a majestic uplifting of her queenly head, she will ask you whether a woman, when she honors a man by uniting her destiny with his, necessarily enters into a compact to render herself odious to the rest of his sex?
Melinda had not won the name of a coquette before her marriage. A handsome, high-spirited girl, striking in figure, captivating in manner, brilliant in conversation, and not lacking intellect, she married young. Possibly, she fancied herself in love, or her suitor’s delicious flatteries made her in love, with herself, which she mistook for being in love with him; a very common occurrence! At all events she evinced no shrewd, cold calculation in choosing among her many admirers; she neither selected the Croesus, nor the Adonis, but yielded, in womanly fashion, to the most ardent wooer. An eligible partner, of course, none but eligible men venture into the arena, to struggle for such a prize. Probably, she looked upon marriage as an inevitable necessity, the unavoidable, and very endurable, destiny of womanhood; and, with only sufficient reluctance to intensify her charms, she permitted the most devout worshipper to claim her as his idol, and enshrine her in his luxurious establishment; though certainly not with the potential understanding that his exclusive adoration could satisfy the needs of her soul.
Melinda’s marriage with Mr. Belmont, if it wrought any change in her deportment towards other gentlemen, only rendered her more thoroughly at her ease in their society, more alluring, more delightful! Her sallies of wit gained piquancy, her manner acquired more perfect abandon, her beauty more brilliant expression. Always willful and exigeante, she now grew half-imperious in appropriating devotion, as though she looked upon men in general as more entirely her slaves than before she assumed the unfelt chain which bound her to one man in particular. Consequently the willing vassals became more liberal of those “sweet observances,” those nameless indescribable attentions so gratifying to a woman’s self-love, because they tacitly exalt her to a pedestal, and lay such harmless tributes upon the altar of her vanity.5
Mowatt describes a consuming emptiness and desire for attention that drives Melinda’s compulsive flirtations;
It is generally admitted that Melinda, as Mrs. Belmont, is far more attractive to gentlemen than she had been as a young girl, more fascinating than any young girl can hope to be! Yet, be it understood, that she is never guilty of an imprudence that will risk her reputation, or furnish tempting food for scandal. The disease that gnaws, vulture-like, at her heart, is an insatiable craving for adulation, an unappeasable hunger that would make her barter her birthright of womanhood for Flattery’s mess of pottage.6
Mowatt is not a great deal kinder when describing Melinda’s spouse;
Mr. Belmont, if he sometimes feels Othello pangs, conceals them too carefully ever to be classed with jealous husbands. He is virtually shut out of the charmed circle which his wife’s magic draws around her. He sits at a distance, trying to look as though he were occupied with other interests, but secretly drinking in the musical rise and fall of her voice, softened to the low tone of high breeding; hearkening to the rippling gushes of her exultant laughter; listening to her sparkling thoughts, sham jewels dropped into gilt setting of glittering words; admiring the half voluptuous contour of her form, which is strikingly displayed by some picturesque attitude; smiling inwardly at the captivating changefulness, the bewitching caprices that keep her devotees on the qui vive to watch her varying moods, and weakly glorying in the sensation she creates, the admiration she excites.
Perhaps Mr. Belmont, who is a man of some sentiment and more feeling, suppresses a sigh when he remembers that the very fact of calling this peerless being his own, deprives him of the happiness of enjoying her society, even of offering her any of the little courtesies which she receives from others with such winning affability, and rewards with such enchanting looks and words. But he would not have his best friend divine that puerile regret for the universe! Fashion, the bete noire of his imagination, would point her finger and laugh at him! Unendurable calamity!7
Mr. Belmont’s horror of going against the whims of fashionable society links him to another creation of Mowatt’s, Mr. Merritt, the husband in her first novel, Evelyn; or a Heart Unmasked. Walter Merritt and his young wife, Evelyn, are the most miserable and unlucky couple in all of Anna Cora Mowatt’s fiction. She describes Walter Merritt when he first appears in the book as follows:
He is a young man, not more than twenty-five years of age — a merchant, already established in a prosperous business, and master of a moderately large capital. His figure is good, and his face not exactly handsome but pleasing and intelligent. I have not had much opportunity of reading his character, yet observe that he is sincere and generous in the extreme; is passionately enamored of Evelyn, but inclined to jealousy, and peculiarly sensitive to the world’s opinion. He would not infringe the rules of etiquette to gratify the dearest wish of his heart — he entertains the greatest horror of doing anything different from other people — expressing a sentiment which would not be generally approved — or even wearing a coat or cravat which is not sanctioned by the present usages of society. The public is to him a mighty bug-bear; at its shrine he trembles and bows, and lives in perpetual fear of incurring the wrath of the Deity.8
Of Mr. Merritt’s bride, who, like Anna Cora, was a few months shy of her sixteenth birthday on her wedding day, and who the author gifted with her own distinctive hazel blue eyes and brownish-auburn hair with golden highlights, she tells us;
As for Evelyn, I cannot say that she returns his affection, although she likes him very well, is flattered by his attentions, and willing to become the mistress of his house by first becoming his wife. The seal upon her virgin heart has never yet been broken; yet I am sure that heart is a mine of passion — passion sparkles in her eyes; breathes upon her lips; speaks in every word — an undefined tenderness pervades all her actions and extends itself almost without discrimination to every being that comes within her sphere.9
Even though only a few letters separate the last name of this couple from exactly mimicking her own surname, the Merritts are a heartbreakingly mismatched pair who suffer through miscommunication, infidelity, and ultimately end tragically. Mowatt wrote the following about Evelyn in her autobiography, distancing the character from herself;
Evelyn herself was not an ideal creation. I could never write mere fiction; I needed a groundwork of reality. Her history was that of one whom I had dearly loved — over whose tomb there are few to weep, but whose sin we may dare to hope was forgiven, for “she loved much.”10
The Belmonts from “The Married Flirt” conclude less tragically, but far from happily. In the piece, the author projects beyond the uneasy détente of the couple’s status quo to a miserable future where Melinda’s charms have faded and the couple have grown distant.
What has the weary, dreary, faded, jaded wreck of brilliant womanhood to fall back upon? What consolation — what refuge is hers? Is there none to be found in her husband’s sheltering arms? No; he is tired at last of his youthful idolatry. In his own house he has never had a snug, quiet corner, an especial arm-chair, where he might sit, in dressing-gown and slippers, with that solace of manhood, a newspaper, in his hand, and he has gradually sought the society of men, the club-room, or the card-table as a substitute for the fireside of home. It is too late for Melinda to turn to him and seek, in his long slighted devotion, repayment for the neglect of the world; too late to find herself rejuvenescent through her husband’s love, as Michelet maintains that a woman may be. Her bitterest retribution comes through an instinctive but tardy knowledge that there must be a joy, she never tasted, in reposing upon one true heart, without fear of change; a happiness beyond her conception, in hoping for and hoping with, in soothing and being soothed by another self; in clinging to one who needs her, whose life is incomplete without her; who makes her proudly glad in the consciousness that whatever she may not be to others, she is all in all to him.
But this comfort shall never be hers; and the desolate, dethroned sovereign looks with envious eyes upon the unambitious wife, her youthful contemporary, who never dreamed of being a belle, whom Melinda scorned for her even, unpretentious ways, but who still retains a lingering freshness, a kindly warmth, a serene vivacity, a soul-renewed loveliness that have preserved a husband’s devotion intact, and won from time-tried friends reverence and tenderness in abundance, and now make the nonpareil beauty of other days reflect despairingly upon her wasted opportunities, her hollow and valueless existence, and inwardly murmur, “Oh, that I could change places with her, here and hereafter!”11
In the Belmonts, Mowatt gives us snapshots of a marriage before and after its collapse. Even though there is no physical infidelity, the author, with uncharacteristic harshness, lays the blame for the failure of the relationship squarely on the shoulders of the vivacious and unfulfilled young wife, not on the self-conscious and emotionally absent husband.
Were the childless, seemingly devoted Belmonts a fictionalized version of the childless, seemingly devoted Mowatts? I do not know. Do the unhappy married couples in Anna Cora Mowatt’s fiction give us an indication of problems in her first marriage? Unless further primary evidence such as letters or diary entries emerge to document details of her relationship with James Mowatt, we cannot know with any certainty. I can only say that her writing of both fiction and nonfiction makes it excruciatingly clear that she understood the pain and frustration of an unsatisfying marriage from the inside out.
1. Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. 1938. University of Virginia, Dissertation. Page 204.
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 44.
3. Ibid, page 61.
4. Ibid, p. 64.
5. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. “The Married Flirt.” The Clergyman’s Wife and Other Sketches. (G.W. Carleton: New York, 1867) Page 71- 72.
6. Ibid, page 74.
7. Ibid, 73-74.
8. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Evelyn; or a Heart Unmasked. (G.B. Zieber: Philadelphia, 1845). Page 9.
9. Ibid, page 79-80.
10. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 187.
11. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. “The Married Flirt.” The Clergyman’s Wife and Other Sketches. (G.W. Carleton: New York, 1867) Page 71- 72.