Anna Cora Mowatt and the Real People behind the “Fairies”

Anna Cora Mowatt and her novel "Fairy Fingers"

At the time of this writing, I am working on a recording of an audiobook of Mowatt’s novel Fairy Fingers for Librivox. I have, therefore, continued to do a great deal of thinking and reading about this work. This week, I’d like to come back to that narrative and focus on the parts of the book that are quite definitely of Mowatt’s own invention and rooted in her life experiences.

Before I do, though, after publishing my last blog about the novel, I came across a couple of facts about the play Les Doigts de Fee and its author that I am embarrassed not to have found out before writing that piece. Patti Gillespie doesn’t mention either of these things in her article about Mowatt, but that’s no excuse for me not doing my homework before commenting. The first significant fact is that Les Doigts de Fee was co-written with Ernest Legouve. Legouve was a frequent collaborator of Scribe’s. They co-wrote Adrienne Lecouvreur and Medee which served as vehicles for the inimitable Rachel. Because Les Doigts de Fee was written so late in Scribe’s career, it is possible that the text may be more a creation of Legouve’s. The work might have even merely been edited by Scribe. I did not find any mention of the play in Legouve’s autobiography. The only writing I could find by the playwright about the text was a brief piece discussing technical difficulties the Parisian actor playing Richard de Kerbriand had faced in figuring out how to simultaneously incorporate both a stutter and a convincing Breton accent into his character’s speech pattern.

A second, also rather significant piece of information that I found staring me in the face was that Eugene Scribe died on February 20, 1861. There definitely wouldn’t be any negotiating copyrights with him personally after that. However, I have not been able to track down any correspondence between Robert Bonner of The New York Ledger (who published Mowatt’s The Mute Singer and whom I suspect she wrote Fairy Fingers for), or George W. Carleton (who published the novel), and Scribe and Legouve that would indicate that there was an arrangement being ironed out for Mowatt to novelize Les Doigts de Fee prior to his death either.

The play was published in French by the Henry Holt Company in 1864 with Harvard’s distinguished head of Modern Languages Department, Ferdinand Boucher, providing notes translating difficult French idiomatic phrases in an extensive afterward. (I have no expertise in what is the norm for translations, but it seems odd to me to publish footnotes in English by a renowned scholar when no English language version of the complete text is being provided.) I can’t find any records of U.S. productions of the comedy or of an English translation being published in the 1860’s. Despite the open references back to Les Doigts de Fee, none of the reviewers of Fairy Fingers in 1865 make any reference to the play as source material for the novel. One particularly antagonistic reviewer, who seemed to be searching venomously for any excuse to denigrate Mowatt, grudgingly granted that at least the work was all her own.1 I think the writer probably made this admission only to facilitate the inclusion of an old rumor about Epes Sargent had ghost-written Fashion, though.

[This reviewer does, at least, do us the favor of fixing a time setting for the novel by informing us that Mowatt’s inclusion of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in Washington narrows the period down to 1859-60, since the establishment opened around that date.]

Instead of being a stealthy plagiarist, Mowatt plants a host of red flags to alert even mildly sleuth-y readers of the identity of her source material. Despite this, none of her early biographers – Blesis, Barnes, McCarthy, or Butler – make any mention of Fairy Fingers having any relationship to Les Doigts de Fee. The novel centers on the travails of two pairs of lovers – Madelaine and Maurice and Gaston and Bertha. In the play, Madelaine de Gramont and Gaston de Bois are called Helene de Lesneven and Richard de Kerbriand. Mowatt renamed her heroine borrowing the first name from the actress listed as playing her in the published script for Les Doigts de Fee, Madame Madelaine Brohan. Gaston de Bois shares a surname with the actress who played his fiancée, Bertha, in that production, Mademoiselle Dubois. Bertha’s first name remains the same in both the play and the novel.

Mowatt also did a Theatre Francias name-switch tribute to christen Madame de Fleury, a secondary character whose part is very much expanded in the novel. In the Scribe and Legouve’s play, the character is la Marquise de Menneville. In the book, she is gifted with the last name of the actress who played her maid, Josephine (in the book the maid gets the delicious name of “Lurline”) and became Madame de Fleury.

In Fairy Fingers, Mowatt accomplishes the converse of her task in Fashion. Instead of satirizing the pretensions of the newly wealthy, she takes aim at the ridiculous monomanias of the pampered upper class. Even more than Mrs. Tiffany from that play ever dreamed of being, Madame de Fleury is fully a creature of fashion whose sole animating drive is her outward appearance. Early on in the book, Maurice describes her,

“Of course she is agreeable,—that is, in her own peculiar way; for she has an archly graceful manner of discussing the only subjects that interest her, and always as though they must be of the deepest interest to you. If you speak to her of her projects for the winter or the summer, she will dwell upon the style of dress appropriate in the execution of such and such schemes. If you express your regret at her recent indisposition, she will describe the exquisite robes de chambre which rendered her sufferings endurable. If you mention her brother, who has lately received an appointment near the person of the emperor, she will give you a minute account of the most approved court-dresses. If you allude to the possibility that her husband (for such is the rumor) may be sent as ambassador to the United States, she will burst forth in bitter lamentations over the likelihood that American taste may not be sufficiently cultivated to appreciate a Parisian toilet, or to comprehend the great importance of the difficult art of dressing well. If you give the tribute of a sigh to the memory of the lovely sister she lost a year ago, she will run through a list of the garments of woe that gave expression to her sorrow,—passing on to the shades of second, third, and fourth mourning through which she gradually laid aside her grief. You laugh, young ladies. Oh, very well; but I declare to you she went through the catalogue of those mourning dresses, rehearsing the periods at which she adopted such and such a one, while we were dancing a quadrille. In short, the Marchioness de Fleury is an animated fashion-plate!—a lay-figure dressed in gauze, silk, lace, ribbon, feathers, flowers, that breathes, talks, dances, waltzes!—a mantua-maker’s, milliner’s, hair-dresser’s puppet, set in motion,—not a woman.”

“Has she really no heart, then?” questioned Bertha.

“I suppose that, anatomically speaking, a bundle of fibres, which she courteously designates by that name, may rise and fall somewhere beneath her jewel-studded bodice; but I doubt whether the pulsations are not entirely regulated by her attire.”2

Scribe and Legouve’s play is a comedy more in the Shakespearian sense of the word. It is not a tragedy. In the end, the lovers are united. It is amusing, but is not a laugh-riot by any means. Mowatt’s novel has more outright humor. Part of how she achieves this effect is by adding an army of minor characters who make small contributions to the plot, but are who are mined for their comic appeal. A good example of this strategy is Bertha’s uncle, Marquis de Merrivale. Invented for the novel, this dotty aristocrat is focused entirely on eating. He interprets the world around him — and the motivations of all humanity — based on digestion.

“My dear child, it was probably her liver not her heart that was in fault. Her heart, I dare say, performed its grave duties properly, and should not be aspersed; some bilious derangement was no doubt at the bottom of her singular conduct. The greatest eccentricities may all be traced back to bile as their origin. Regulate the bile and you regulate the brain from which mental vagaries proceed. If some judicious friend had administered to your cousin Madeleine a little salutary medicine, and forced her to diet for a few days, she would have acted more reasonably. Talking of diet, that was a princely dinner the Marquis de Fleury set before us. He is really a very able and estimable member of society,—understands good living to perfection. I cordially reciprocate his wish that a lasting bond of union should exist between us. His brother-in-law, the young Duke de Montauban, is enchanted with my little niece. I say nothing: arrange between yourselves; but, by all means, marry into a family which knows how to value a good cook; take a young man who has had his taste sufficiently cultivated to distinguish of what ingredients a sauce is composed. Don’t despise a blessing that may be enjoyed three hundred and sixty-five times every year,—that’s my advice.”3

The blind adherence of aristocrats to outmoded ways of thinking is what causes them to fill the roles of the antagonists of Les Doigts de Fee. Because of overweening pride in her family lineage, the haughty countess looks down on her penniless orphan niece and will not allow her grandson to defile his noble blood by studying to become a lawyer. Her son, the count, shares her prideful attitudes, and remorselessly schemes against the young couple. Mowatt carries these traits over from the play, then exaggerates and extends them. In her hands, the countess becomes a marvelous, almost soap-opera style villainess, who is too haughty and proud to even be able to feed and clothe herself without the assistance of a trained staff. Her son, Count Tristan begins as almost a classic moustache-twirling manipulator, but quickly finds himself ensnared in his own traps. Mowatt establishes the out-sized personalities of her antagonists, then puts the aristocrats in a situation where they are not only more comic but more vulnerable by transferring the action to the United States where they are suddenly exposed and out of their element. This plotting choice adds drama, humor, and pathos entirely lacking in the original.

I think Bordeaux-born Mowatt must have found something nostalgic about this tale of obstinate Breton nobles, for she filled it with all sorts of personal references. For example, she added a somewhat dodgy minor character named Count Damereau whose name may reference the villainous Hubert Damereau from her second novel, Evelyn. The good and noble Ronald Walton shares a surname with the equally honorable Aria Walton, heroine of her first book, The Fortune Hunter.

Binding the author more closely to the text, I think, is an artifact she gifts to her heroine. A plot point invented by Mowatt is that the impoverished orphan Madelaine is still in possession of one last remnant of her family’s jewelry that she pawns to get the seed-money she needs to start out as a couturière.

Bertha opened one of the cases. A necklace, brooch, and ear-rings of brilliants sparkled within. The precious stones emitted a clear lustre which would have caused a connoisseur at once to pronounce them of the first water; but their setting was quaint and old-fashioned. The necklace was composed of diamonds fleur-de-lis, divided by emerald shamrock-leaves. A single fleur-de-lis, surrounded by the emerald shamrock, formed the brooch and ear-rings.

“Some of your ancestors must have come from the emerald isle: so, at least, we may infer from this shamrock.”

“Yes, my great-great-great-grandfather married the beautiful Lady Katrine Nugent, and these were her bridal jewels. You see that the shamrock of Erin is mingled with the fleur-de-lis of France.”4

Elsewhere in the book, Mowatt describes the fleur-de-lis as a lily pattern. “Lily” was Mowatt’s nickname from childhood. It’s my guess that Lady Katrine Nugent might be a fictionalized version of an ancestor of Mowatt’s or someone in the family line of her beloved stepmother, Julia Fairlie Ogden. Looking at genealogical charts, both of them have some English and Welsh ancestry. Family stories could have easily provided the novelist ample material needed to re-tool someone into a Scots-Breton noblewoman.

Mowatt’s sisters, nieces, and nephews served as her beta readers, listening to her works read aloud as she completed them to give her some idea of their fitness for publication. I believe that many of the autobiographical touches in her texts may be what we would term “Easter eggs,” references embedded in the narratives intended to be decipherable only to that select group and intended for their amusement as a reward for their loyal service to the author. An imaginary ancestress who might seem a little silly and pretentious to us could have struck a small in-group of readers as an endearingly ingenious invention.

Be that as it may, there are certainly an abundance of cameo appearances of characters who seem to be based on real people in Mowatt’s life throughout the novel. Mrs. Lawkins, Madelaine’s out-spoken English housekeeper, is almost certainly inspired by Maria Renshaw, Mowatt’s faithful companion since the traumatizing events of 1849, when the then wardrobe mistress had the presence of mind to save a ballet girl from burning to death in an accident that occurred at the farewell dinner for the Marylebone Theater. Renshaw had already served as the model for the very similar character of Mattie in the novella “Stella” from Mimic Life.

Madelaine’s assistant, Ruth Thornton, may be a fictive version of Mowatt’s protégée, Annie Frobisher. Frobisher was a young, aspiring writer from Boston who Mowatt’s sister, Mary Thompson, introduced to her. The two kept up a lively correspondence for years. Much of the best information we have about Mowatt’s later years comes from her letters to Annie Frobisher. In Fairy Fingers, Ruth Thompson also hails from Boston. Instead of desiring to become a writer, she dreams of becoming a designer and successful businesswoman like Madelaine. The novel gives her life story as follows,

The history of Ruth Thornton is one every day repeated, but not less touching because so far from rare. Born and bred in affluence which emanated from the daily exertions of her father, his death left his widow and three orphan daughters destitute. The eldest early assumed the burdens of wifehood and maternity. Ruth was the second child. A girl of high spirit, she quickly laid aside all false pride, and earnestly sought to earn the bread of those she loved by the labor of her fair young hands, until then strangers to toil. But where was remunerative occupation to be found? Needy womanhood so closely crowded the few open avenues of industry that it seemed as though there was no room for another foot to gain a hold, another hand to struggle. To become a teacher, or governess, was Ruth’s first, most natural endeavor; but, month after month, she sought in vain for a situation. She possessed a remarkable voice and very decided musical talent. The idea of the concert-room next suggested itself; but her naturally fine organ lacked the long cultivation that could alone fit her to embark upon the career of a singer. Her mind then turned to the stage; but, setting aside the difficulty of obtaining engagements, even to fill some position in the lowest ranks of the profession, she had no means, no time, to go through a long course of requisite study, or to procure herself the costly wardrobe indispensable to such a profession. She pondered upon the possibility of entering that most noble institution, the New York School of Design for Women. Here was meet work, hope-fanning, life-saving work for feminine hands: engraving on wood or steel; coloring plates for illustrated works; sketching designs for fashions to be used in magazines, or patterns for carpets, calicoes, paper-hangings, etc. But, on inquiry, she learned that a year’s study would be needful before she could hope to gain a modest livelihood through the medium of the simplest of these pursuits. From whence, in the meantime, could her mother, her sister, and herself derive their support? Next, she resolved to resort to her needle; yet how small was the likelihood of keeping it employed! and how poor the pittance it could earn as an humble seamstress! True, she might learn a trade; but how was she to exist meantime?5

Paralleling Madelaine’s mentoring of Ruth Thompson in the novel; Mowatt not only advised but actively lobbied her publishers for jobs for Annie. The Madelaine/Ruth relationship is yet another one of several strong, positive, supportive friendships and working relationships between women in this book and throughout Mowatt’s work that illustrate what can be called a proto-feminist theme she develops of women of good will and strong moral character working together to make a better world.

On the flip side though, not all the female characters in her books are noble and righteous — including some based on real people. In the mid-1850’s Mowatt was working with the Mt. Vernon Association. This group fought to have George Washington’s home preserved as a national monument. The Association had presented an important bill to the Virginia Legislature. Just when they were certain of success, they found their efforts had been undermined by some of their own members. The ringleader of the dissident band was a Mrs. John H. Gilmer. In what I doubt was even a little bit of a coincidence, the name of the most petty and grasping of all the “Washington wives” characters in Fairy Fingers is Mrs. Gilmer. Here’s how the narrator introduces her,

Mrs. Gilmer was one of those light-headed and light-hearted women, who float upon the topmost and frothiest wave of society, herself a glittering bubble. To win admiration was the chief object of her life. The breath of flattery wafted her upward toward her heaven,—that rapturous state which was heaven to her. To be the belle of every reunion where she appeared was a triumph she could not forego; and there were no arts to which she would not stoop to obtain this victory. Madame de Fleury was a woman of the same stamp, but with all the polish, grace, and refined coquetry which the social atmosphere of Paris imparts; and though she had far less personal beauty than Mrs. Gilmer,—less mind, less wit,—her capacity for using all the charms she possessed gave her vast advantage over the fair-featured young American.6

Apparently Mowatt felt that revenge was not only a dish that was, as de Laclos recommends, best served cold, but one that could be profitably left to simmer a while and then turned into a bit of a public feast.

Departing from my theme for this blog, I want to devote a little time discussing Mowatt’s leading male romantic protagonist, Maurice. I have no historical person I can confidently point to as a model for him. This is precisely why I wish to spend a little time discussing this character. I feel like this is a bit of a marked departure from an established pattern for Mowatt. In previous novels and short stories, I usually found it fairly easy to find traces of the real men in her life.

Maurice is the character whose personality changes most between the play and the novel. In Les Doigts de Fee, this character is called Tristan, a name that Mowatt gives to his scheming father. In the book, Maurice warns his grandmother and the count that if they don’t allow him to become a lawyer, he will use the energy he would have devoted to his studies on gambling and dissipation. He similarly warns Madelaine that if she rejects his proposal of marriage, he will fall into love-less affairs to console himself. The Maurice of the novel is too busy searching for Madelaine and just too noble a character to follow through on any of those prophesies. He also has the good fortune to be taken in by Ronald Walton and his family. Not only do they give him tons of love and positive reinforcement that lift his spirits, living in the U.S. gives Maurice a loophole around French laws that would have prevented him from studying law without his family’s permission before he reached his majority at age twenty-five.

In Les Doigts de Fee, however, Tristan turns into more of a roué after being rejected by Helene. As threatened, he gambles away his inheritance and has love-less affairs. The patient Helene must sacrifice to pay off his massive debts and forgive his sexual transgressions before they are finally reconciled.

Mowatt might have decided this level of misbehavior was trying the bonds of love too far for her straight-laced American reading audience. Instead, she inserted some instances of what if she was writing fanfiction would be called “hurt/comfort.” Early on in the book, Maurice collapses from nervous exhaustion while searching for her on the streets of Paris. Ronald Walton finds him and takes him in. Madelaine, posing as a sœur de bon secours (nun/nurse), attended to him for several weeks. Later in the book, Maurice’s father has a stroke at Madelaine’s house. Maurice and Madelaine, although she still cannot openly declare her feelings for him, share time together while watching over his father. Some of the most romantic passages in the book occur during these moments when the author gives Maurice or Madelaine the opportunity to look at the other unobserved as in the following:

When she looked up, at first timidly, but soon with security, Maurice was lying back in his arm-chair—his hands were calmly folded together, his head drooped a little to one side, the rich chestnut curls (for his hair had darkened until it no longer resembled Bertha’s golden locks) were disordered, and fully revealed his fair, intellectual brow; the pallor of his face rendered more than usually conspicuous the chiselling of his finely-cut features; the calm, half-smiling curve of his handsome mouth gave his whole countenance an expression of placid happiness which it had not worn, of late, in waking hours. Madeleine sat and gazed at him as she could never have gazed when his eyes might have met hers; she gazed until her whole soul flashed into her face; and if Maurice had awakened, and caught but one glimpse of the fervent radiance of that look, he would surely have known her secret.

There is intense fascination to a woman in scanning the face that to her is beyond all others worth perusing, when the soft breath of sleep renders the beloved object unconscious of the eyes bent tenderly upon his features. No check is given to the flood of worshiping love that pours itself out from her soul; then, and perhaps then only, in his presence, she allows the tide of pent-up adoration to break down all its natural barriers. However perfect her devotion at other times, there may, there always does exist a half-involuntary reticence, a secret fear that if even her eyes were to betray the whole wealth of her passion, it would not be well with her. Men are constitutionally, unconsciously ungrateful; give them abundance of what they covet most and they prize the gift less highly than if its measure were stinted. And women have an instinct that warns them not to be too lavish. Those women who love most fervently, most deeply, most internally, seldom frame the full strength of that love into words, or manifest it in looks even; that is, in the waking presence of the one who holds their entire being captive.7

Prior to this point, Mowatt’s stories frequently feature deeply flawed men seeking women who will redeem them like Twin Roses’ Herman Landor, The Mute Singer’s Monsieur De la Roche, or Gerald Mortimer from Mimic Life. Echoes of the high-rick behavior of these characters coupled to a strong dependence on the women in their lives can be found in the biographies of men in Mowatt’s life such as her husband and father’s repeated heavy losses after gambling in the stock market, Walter Watts’ deadly double life, and G.V. Brooke’s self-destructive career choices.

Maurice is a more idealized, perhaps less realistic, creation of a partner on the same level of sensitivity and nobility of character as her heroine. Maurice proves himself capable of equal self-sacrifice and devotion to the ennobling practice of labor as Madeline. Yet as you can tell from the above passage, Mowatt writes her heroine with a wounded heart, hesitant to open herself fully to the prospect of love. Perhaps Mowatt had finally allowed herself to move beyond re-writing the dysfunction of her relationships in fiction, but could not cease to reproduce her pain.

The last “character” that Mowatt added to Fairy Fingers who was not present in the play was the narrator. The novel’s narrative voice is in some senses exactly the sort of voluble Victorian creation you might expect – the sort of thing that would inspire your Creative Writing professor to run from your short story in horror like the turn of the century poet Stephane Mallarme fleeing the bourgeois horror of the Eiffel Tower or that might cause your film be blasted with Cinema Sins like a Catholic teenager in a confessional booth. Fairy Fingers has the kind of intrusively verbose third person narrator, in other words, that is so outrageously absolutely and completely out of style that it is probably on the verge of coming back into style. (Buy stock now.)

The omniscient narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly with editorial comments such as,

She wore a black velvet dress, which, after being on duty for a fabulous number of years, and finally pronounced past all further active service, had been resuscitated and remodeled, to suit the style of the day, by Madeleine. We will not enter into a description of the adroit method by which a portion of its primitive lustre had been restored to the worn and pressed velvet, nor particularize the skillful manner in which the corsage of the robe had been refashioned, and every trace of age concealed by an embroidery of jet beads, which was so strikingly tasteful that its double office was unsuspected. Enough that the countess appeared to be superbly attired when she once more donned the venerable but rejuvenated dress.8

The narrator of Fairy Fingers frequently uses a royal “we” and, just as in the above passage, tells you what they will not be doing in a rather satirical manner while they proceed to do a brief approximation of that very thing. This is a Victorian-style omniscient narrator who knows all, sees all, and tells all – just like my Aunt Jeanette used to do. If you attempt to reproduce this sort of writing, let me again caution you that the teaching assistant for your Creative Writing class will mar your opus magnum with green ink, loudly proclaiming that you have committed errors of point of view – despite the fact that Charles Dickens employed the same technique and that variations of the phrase “narrative genius of Dickens” appears in the latest draft of your T.A.’s dissertation more than one hundred and seventy-eight times. Hemingway mortally wounded this style of writing. It is probably stuffed and mounted on the wall of his house in Finca Vigia to this very day. Don’t try it at home, Dear Reader. However, I do still have a certain fondness for it. I particularly like the Victorian third person omniscient narrative voice as it is manifest in Mowatt’s Fairy Fingers because this is not an anonymous, generic, condescending, patriarchal voice. It has a distinctly feminine tone. Listen to the following sample,

Men are so unreasonable! Maurice resembled his sex in that particular. Then, too, he found his trunk packed, and he knew by whose hand that duty had been performed. Doubtless, he was grateful? Not in the least! It seemed to him that Madeleine was in too much haste to remove the last vestige of his sojourn near her.9

In 1865, a reviewer from the Times-Picayune (New Orleans always seemed to have a bone to pick with Anna Cora Mowatt), grumbled,

We prefer to see characters more fully developed by their words and actions than is the case in “Fairy Fingers,” and that less space should be devoted by the writer to descriptions of dispositions and temperature.10

Although this complaint is thoroughly in accordance with modern tastes in literature and cinema, I find it fascinating to hear this voice from a time when women were silenced telling us what was going on inside a woman’s head when she did not speak and what she imagined might be going on inside a man’s head as she does here,

Was it not surprising that such a noble-minded man as Maurice could make an observation so ungracious, so ungenerous, and one which in his heart he knew was so unjust, to the woman he loved? Yet it would be difficult to find a lover who is incapable of doing the same. Why is it that men, even the best, are at times stirred by an irresistible prompting, themselves, to wound the being whom they would shield from all harm dealt by others with chivalric devotion? Let a woman commit the slightest action that can, by ingenious torturing, be interpreted into a moment’s want of consideration for the feelings of her lover, and all his admiration, his tenderness, his reverence, will not prevent his being cruel enough to stab her with some passing word that strikes as sharply as a dagger.11

It may be downright un-American to say so in this day and age, but for me, the narrator in this story was not a tiresome time-waster keeping us from getting on with the all-important action of the plot. Fairy Fingers is not The Fast and the Flipping Furious. It’s a story that spends a delightful half of a chapter explaining to you what a “chiffon” is and its irreplaceable centrality to the world of successful social discourse circa 1860. There are occasions in storytelling when how a tale is told is more important than the tale itself. In such cases, the persona of the storyteller becomes of critical importance.

Madelaine, as the heroine of a Victorian novel, behaves in a manner that is quite atypical in many respects. She is very proactive. She extricates male characters from danger instead of the other way around. She is a successful businesswoman. She mentors other female characters. However, because she usually speaks and is described in the stereotypically demure and self-effacing manner of heroines of the period, it’s easy to dismiss what a progressive vision of womanhood she represents.

The narrator of Fairy Fingers is also a very unusual Victorian woman. Through her, we learn the thoughts and feelings of these silent and silenced women. We hear not just domestic joys, sorrows, and petty jealousies (as well as the apparently ever-present, irresistible lust for chiffons) but feelings that “proper” women of that time and of that class weren’t supposed to experience – ambition, anger, frustration, disappointment, and melancholy. While Madelaine chooses to bite her tongue and remain silent behind the carefully maintained façade of demure politeness that her class demands from her gender, the narrator gives expression to the daily exasperation she feels in maintaining the delicate balance between achieving the demands of her career and continuing to be granted the respect she feels she is due as a lady. Not only does our narrator manage to give us a sense of Madelaine’s negative emotions and the tension inherent in her novel-for-that-time social position, but she does so with the kind of sadder-and-wiser wit and humor that comes from having lived through these sorts of challenges.

In other words, Dear Reader, my favorite character that Anna Cora Mowatt added to Fairy Fingers was herself.

Anna Cora Mowatt and her novel "Fairy Fingers"
Anna Cora Mowatt and scenes from her novel “Fairy Fingers”

1. “Notices of New Books.” The Press – Philadelphia. Friday, May 26, 1865. Page 2, Col. 3.
2. Ritchie, Anna Cora. Fairy Fingers. Carleton, New York: 1865. Page 31-32.
3. Ibid, page 151.
4. Ibid, page 84.
5. Ibid, pages 170-171.
6. Ibid, page 230.
7. Ibid, pages 333-334.
8. Ibid, page 25.
9. Ibid, page 373.
10. “New Publications.” New Orleans Times. Thursday, June 1, 1865, page 2, col. 1.
11. Ritchie, Anna Cora. Fairy Fingers. Carleton, New York: 1865. Page 374.