Love, Sex, and Heroes
The truth is the majority of people don’t really care about history. Even many folks who say they’re into history – who listen to history podcasts, read history blogs – only do so to bolster their opinions on contemporary issues. Becoming truly immersed in a historical moment – trying to reconstruct all the mundane, obscure, and sometimes offensive minutiae necessary to re-create a context as closely as possible – is actually an activity as appealing to most people as being stuck in an elevator with their least favorite uncle’s most beloved Golden Oldies channel on blast.
I know this because I’ve taught history. I didn’t teach a standard-issue history class either. I taught classes on the history of Performance. You know — the fun stuff. There was a lot more cheerful and lively material about plays, prostitutes, and people doing rude skits about priests in my classes than there was gloomy data concerning battles, constitutional conventions, and the death of monarchs. And yet, students would assure me – quite kindly so as not to completely discourage me in my obviously foolish career choice – that no one in their right mind had any interest in history. Administrators’ eyes would glaze over as I went through my course proposals. At the end of my presentation, they would pointedly ask if I could please go back over the part about how my course could possibly prove to ever be useful in any way to anyone? (This is why I never believe it when anyone on the Internet claims they are doing something because they care about History. Others have already thoroughly explained to me that that no one in their right mind does.)
In these blog entries, I frequently make quite a point of demonstrating how Anna Cora Mowatt has relevance to an issue of contemporary interest. I almost reflexively go out of my way to scrape up links to topics of contemporary concern because for years administrators, teachers, and students have insisted that if I don’t do so, she is irrelevant and therefore completely uninteresting. However, I have always been fascinated by the ways Mowatt refuses to translate forward in history. Probably any researcher who has done an in-depth study of a figure from the past can identify with this sentiment — unless your subject was a person freakishly ahead of their time. There are always aspects of a historical personage’s life and personal outlook that do not have contemporary relevance. Although her experiences were extraordinary and her life philosophy was atypical, Mowatt was a Victorian. Her world-view and decision-making process was so deeply rooted in the framework of the age that some of her actions and attitudes make no sense outside her historical context. This is good news for the historian, since if there was no explanation required, there would be no job for me.
All this is to say that both the definition of ideal love and the characterization of male protagonists that emerges in Mowatt’s narratives are thoroughly steeped in ideas that are neither current nor modern. Her model of perfect love and lovers is both curiously unique and simultaneously firmly grounded in notions last prevalent when romance novel enthusiasts such as Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie were newlyweds. So, slip into your best lace collar, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and keep your gaiters firmly buckled while Louise Waller and I do our best to guide you through this one.
Since my title carries an implicit promise that I’m going to talk about sex, I’ll start with that. Given the time period during which Mowatt composed and published her works, it probably will not astound you at all to find that there are no explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse in any of her works. It may come as a bit more of a surprise that in order to properly contextualize her ideas about ideal love, I’m going to be presenting some quotes that involve angels talking about the kind of sex they have in heaven.
Louise Waller, when outlining major characteristics of Mowatt’s body of work for her 1958 thesis, made the following observation about the author’s treatment of sex in her narratives;
Again, atypically, Mrs. Mowatt often deals with the question of sex in a concrete way. While she pays obeisance to the general Victorian attitude towards a love story – the enchanted, sanctified, almost mystically religious interpretation of love – she nevertheless deals with a Colonel Damoreau and Evelyn, with Augustus Brainard’s indecent proposals to Arria Walton and with Lord Linden’s insulting of Madelaine de Gramont.1
In this series of blog entries, I have been liberally signposting what I thought were promising potential ideas for papers, theses, and dissertations. Dear Reader, what I am about to discuss is quite definitely fodder waiting to fill up the hungry blank pages of a needy scholar. (If you like quirky Victorian literary topics, take this odd little ball and run with it, my friend.) Mowatt’s conception of love isn’t almost mystically religious. It is mystically religious. I would argue that her conception of ideal love is another manifestation of her New Church beliefs. The power balance between her male and female protagonists as well as the plot structure of many of her narratives is modeled on the idea of a quest for the Swedenborgian ideal of conjugal bliss.
[Note: in the translations I have of Emanuel Swedenborg’s works, the word “conjugal” is usually spelled “conjugial” by many translators to signify that he is talking about a special, spiritual type of sexual relations between married people in heaven. Some translators also have speakers in his books saying “the sex” in place of “sex” perhaps as a too literal rendering of Swedenborg’s words in their original Latin. Both of these eccentricities make my word processing program spit red and blue in frustration. If I were writing a scholarly paper, I would make it deal with these foibles. However, in the more informal setting of a blog, I’m going to let the fussy little thing have its way. Be aware of my edits of the translations as you read the quotes in the sections below.]
The followers of Emanuel Swedenborg were, like the Millerites and the Mormons, among the many to break away from the established branches of Protestantism during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and found their own sect. Swedenborgism was quite popular among the intelligentsia in mid-century England and the Northeastern United States. Although the New Church does not continue to have the number of adherents that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Latter Day Saints still attract today, this group did have a profound lasting impact on popular culture. To this day, traces of Swedenborg’s visions of heaven and hell can be found in movies, books, and art.
Although the Bible promises that heaven will be a place of everlasting joy and rest, the celestial landscape described in the scriptures by prophets like Daniel is a bizarrely alien plane populated with frighteningly monstrous creatures. In the 1740s, Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg began to have a series of mystical dreams in which angels visited him and gave him a guided tour of heaven. He transcribed these dream-journeys into a series of books. The most popular of these, Heaven and Hell, was published in 1758.2 The celestial world of his visions has many more parallels to an idealized version of bourgeois life on Earth than do the apocalyptic visions of the prophets. Many post-18th century notions in Western popular culture of what heaven and its inhabitants are like are actually non-biblical and originate with Swedenborg or others influenced by his descriptions rather than with Christian scriptures.
Swedenborg goes into detail about the subjects of love, marriage, and sex in heaven in his 1768 work, The Delights of Wisdom Concerning Conjugial Love. The vision that begins the book describes a splendidly lavish procession to a wedding ceremony that he witnesses on a dream-visit to the celestial plane. The visitor is puzzled. Why would heavenly beings wish to get married? What purpose could marriage serve in heaven? His angel guide is a little appalled by this question. Of course marriage exists in heaven. It is one of the fundamental sacraments representing the relationship between God and Humanity. In fact, the procession the visitor just witnessed was a re-celebration of Christ’s marriage to the Church.
Because of the centrality of marriage as a potent symbolic signifier of the joyous intimacy of the love of the Creator for his Creation, the angels explained that such unions were available to all the inhabitants of Heaven. In parallel to earthly unions, heavenly marital partners had intercourse and produced offspring. However, as the angels try to clarify to their visitors in the following passage, the intercourse and offspring were transcendent in nature;
The angelic spirits answered, That no natural offspring was produced, but spiritual offspring: and the novitiates said, What is spiritual offspring? They replied, Two conjugal partners by ultimate delights more and more united in the marriage of good and truth, and the marriage of good and truth, is the marriage of love and wisdom, and love and wisdom are the offspring which is produced from that marriage; and whereas the husband in heaven is wisdom, and the wife is the love thereof, and also both are spiritual, therefore no other than spiritual offspring can be there conceived and born; hence it is that the angels, after delights, do not experience sadness, as some do on earth, but are cheerful, and this in consequence of a continual influx of fresh powers succeeding the former, which serve for their renovation, and, at the same time, illustration; for all who come into heaven, return into their vernal youth, and into the powers appertaining to that age, and thus continue to eternity.3
In Swedenborg’s visions, all inhabitants of Heaven are eternally young and beautiful because their inward qualities determine how they appear. These beings experience desire for each other. However, their yearnings are directed towards finding an ideal partner for the type of spiritual intercourse described above rather than mere physical stimulation. Using word choice that would scandalize his readers for generations, Swedenborg’s heavenly guides term this strong desire for spiritual coupling “the chaste love of sex” as in the following passage;
But at that instant there appeared in the midst of them angel from heaven, and he said, that they were singing the chaste love of sex; hereupon some of the by-standers asked, What is the chaste love of sex? And the angel answered, It is the love which a man bears towards a virgin, or towards a wife, of beautiful form and becoming manners, free from every idea of lasciviousness, and the same love experienced by a virgin or wife towards a man. As he spake these words, the angel vanished. The singing continued, and whereas the bystanders then knew the subject of the affection which it expressed, they heard it with much variety, everyone according to the state of his love; they who looked upon women with a chaste eye, heard it as a song of symphony and sweetness; but they who looked upon women with an unchaste eye, heard it as an unharmonious and sorrowful song; and they who looked upon women with a disdainful eye, heart it as a song discordant and grating.4
Reciprocity and mutual respect are distinguishing features of chaste love. As the above passage emphasizes, failing to value a potential partner properly bars one from experiencing the bliss of spiritual intercourse just as surely sexually objectifying them does.
The concept of “soulmates” is currently quite in vogue in certain areas of popular culture. Although Swedenborg does not use the term “soulmate” in his writing, the notion of perfectly matched spirits finding their complementary partner in the celestial realm is essential to the idea of marriage in between heavenly beings.
Earthly marriages did not necessarily have to continue in Heaven unless the partners proved to be each other’s perfect spiritual match. Individuals who had taken vows of celibacy were free on the celestial plane to seek out a heavenly marriage partner. Individuals who had never found an earthly mate would be free to search for one in Heaven. Those cynics who scoffed at marriage, Swedenborg warned, had best mend their ways. One was not required to be married in Heaven, but one did have to honor the sacred significance of the institution or risk being consigned to Hell.
In a parallel to cultural beliefs current at the time of the writing of his books, the angels in Swedenborg’s visions described each gender as having different but complementary inherent spiritual qualities. Men were associated with the powers of wisdom. Women were invested with the powers of love. Each gender was incomplete when not in partnership with the other. In the following excerpt, angel guides explain how outside a nourishing spiritual partnership, the positive characteristics of men can sour into negative attributes;
A third said, that there is given to women a perception of the delight of conjugal love, and inasmuch as their whole body is an organ of that perception, it must needs be that the habitation of the delights of conjugal love with its perception be beauty. A fourth assigned this cause, that the Lord took away from the man beauty and elegance of life, and transcribed it into the woman, and that hence the man, unless he be re-united with his beauty and elegance in the woman, is stern, austere, insipid, and unlovely, and one is wise only for himself, and another is foolish; whereas, when a man is united with his beauty and elegance of life in a wife, he becomes engaging, pleasant, alive, and lovely, and thereby wise.5
In Mowatt’s writing, the deepest, most passionate romances occur when people are lucky enough to find their perfect spiritual match on Earth instead of having to wait to encounter them in Heaven. These lovers don’t “fix each other’s brokenness” – to employ a cliché of some modern romance genres. It would be closer to say that they complete each other. To be more precisely accurate — ideal Swedenborgian lovers are magnetically drawn to together because they are complimentary halves faultlessly matched to form a whole that will allow them to function as a spiritually harmonious unit.
In “Armand,” the lead character describes the completeness he feels when interacting with his darling Blanche in the following passionately poetic terms;
King: This maiden, surely was no kin of thine?
Armand: No kin; yet more, far more, than kin could be I
Alike, we never knew those tender ties
Of kinship, which link man to man — yet all—
A father’s, mother’s, sister’s, brother’s place,
Each in the other’s soul had trebly filled!
King: You loved her then?
Armand: Loved her? the earliest page
In memory’s record held but that young love.
From boyhood up to youth — from youth to manhood —
Each tenderer thought — sublimer aspiration —
And purer hope was woven with that love.
Our very natures blended as we grew,
My spirit, gentleness from her’s imbibed.
And her’s its strength and vigor caught from mine!
Our childish tears upon each other’s breast
Were ever shed. Our childish laughter rang
The changes of its mingling mirth together.
And in each other’s joy all childhood’s blessings
Were mirrored — magnified — and multiplied!6
Armand describes his love for Blanche as a symbiotic relationship that makes them both simultaneously stronger and more vigorous, but also more gentle. As Swedenborg’s visions of heavenly marriages predict, within their ideal love, characteristics culturally attributed as the special spiritual gift of each gender feed the other, making both more resilient and complete beings.
Mowatt’s perfectly matched lovers are not always beautiful, fortunate, and glamorous. Ideal love can find even very humble folks like hard-working, under-appreciated Robin Trueheart and utility player Susan Trueheart from “Mimic Life.” Robin is the prompter for the theater where Sue works. He is a hunchback who looks older than his actual age and is often cruelly mocked by company members because of his disability. Mowatt describes the moment where Robin realizes that he is uniquely positioned to take action to support Sue;
That night, as Robin was conducting her home, he could feel the arm that was locked in his tremble violently. He kindly inquired the cause of her agitation; the poor girl burst into tears. In a voice broken with sobs she confided to her sole friend the insults to which she had lately been subjected. Poor Robin! This was a critical moment in his life. Day by day he had watched that human flower expanding in unsullied purity; he had unconsciously appropriated it, in thought, because it seemed as if no other had been sent for its guardianship. His deep and tender affection had strengthened in secret. He had never spoken to the young girl of love. It seemed so preposterous for him, a cripple, the “old hunchback,” as the actors called him, to offer his heart to a being so young and so beautiful! But his protection would be invaluable, she needed it so much; she seemed to cling to him, to come to him as her sole refuge, — he must speak!7
Robin in this paragraph is discarding barriers to uniting with the person who will prove to be his ideal partner. As in Swedenborg’s vision of Heaven, Robin is realizing that outward appearances are inconsequential. The most important matches for ideal lovers are on the spiritual level. Robin is experiencing a deep, ever-strengthening attraction to Sue (which he expresses with a floral metaphor indicating spiritual purity, by the way.) On a level that goes beyond words, he can sense her feeling of vulnerability and incompleteness. Despite the way others devalue him, Robin knows that he can perfectly fill that gap in her life.
After Robin proposes, Susan has a parallel moment in which she realizes her feelings of friendship and gratitude have deepened into love;
She lay down with a strange sensation at her heart; wonder and pleasure mingled with a sense of pain which she could not comprehend. Her first thought in the morning was, “Have I dreamt all this?” Then she remembered Robin’s tone and manner, and began to say to herself how much better she loved him than she imagined, the night previous, would be possible. The sense of pain had almost passed away; she had someone to lean upon, someone to look up to, someone to render happy, someone to fill up all the voids of her dreary life.8
As the bans are read making their engagement official, a deep feeling of peacefulness settles on the couple. The narrator switches from pointing out ways that Robin and Sue’s external appearances seem hopelessly mismatched to explaining how their attitudes and personalities either mirror their spouse’s exactly or complement each other in beneficial ways.
Merely finding your ideal partner does not guarantee lasting happiness in a Mowatt narrative, though. Often circumstances, antagonists, or antagonistic forces separate sets of matched lovers, leaving them vulnerable and agonized. In Fairy Fingers, Maurice de Gramont, when separated from Madelaine, is quickly transformed from being a pampered nobleman into a wounded wretch desperately searching the streets of Paris for his lost love;
When he last returned from Brittany, he had engaged one small, plain apartment in the Rue Bonaparte, the Latin quarter of the city,—a favorite locality of students. Here he again took up his abode, or, rather, here he passed his nights; he could scarcely be said to have a dwelling-place by day. From dawn until late in the evening he wandered through the streets, peering into every youthful countenance that flitted by him, quickening his pace if he caught sight of some graceful female form above the ordinary stature, and plunging onward in pursuit, with his heart throbbing madly, and his fevered brain cheating him with phantoms. His search became almost a monomania. His mind, fixed strainingly upon this one, all-engrossing object, lost its balance, and he could no longer reason upon his own course, or see its futility, or devise a better. The invariable disappointment which closed every day’s search, by some strange contradiction, only confirmed him in the belief that Madeleine was in Paris, and that he would shortly find her there; that he would meet her by some fortunate chance; would be drawn to her by some mysterious magnetic instinct. Every few days he visited the bureau des passeports, to ascertain whether her passport had been presented to be viséd.
To the friends he daily encountered he scarcely spoke, but hurried past them with hasty greeting, and a painfully engrossed look, which caused the sympathetic to turn their heads and gaze after him, wondering at the disordered attire and unsettled demeanor of the once elegant and vivacious young nobleman, who had graced the most courtly circles, and was looked upon as the very “glass of fashion and mould of form.”9
Wrenched from the nourishing companionship of his ideal match, Maurice is fractured into a dangerously incomplete state. During his search for Madelaine, Mowatt significantly describes the young nobleman’s mind as having “lost its balance.” Maurice, whose sickness of soul leads him to neglect the health of his body as well, nearly dies of typhoid. He recovers only when Madelaine, disguised as a nun/nurse, shows up to assist with his treatment.
Other of Mowatt’s paramours are not as lucky. Sometimes death separates some lovers in her narratives. However, the author gives us assurances that in accordance with her New Church beliefs, such perfectly matched pairs will be reunited in Heaven as she does at the tragic end of “The Prompter’s Daughter;”
For thee, poor hunchbacked prompter, with thy great, upright soul, not bowed to earth, but be lifted heavenward by thy mighty sorrows, go on thy way unmurmuring! Toil! Suffer! Struggle! plod through thy thankless duties day by day, night by night! Let the bigot revile thy calling, the self-righteous “pass by on the other side,” the ignorant stigmatize thee, — what matters it? Thou hast taken up thy cross, and borne it manfully! Thine was the true heroism of self-renunciation! Thine the heaven-descended love, that preferred the joy of those beloved to thine own, that willingly accepted misery as the purchase of their felicity! Thine will be the crown of glory, worn in eternal youth, when that deforming hump shall be shaken off with thy “mortal coil”! The Lord hath taken all from thee but to pay thee back a thousand-fold.
“God bless all our gains,’ say we:
But ‘God bless all our losses’
Better suits with our degree!”10
In harmony with New Church beliefs, the author’s exhortations promise that Robin Trueheart will reach Heaven forever young and beautiful in his ideal spiritual form to be reunited eternally with his sweet wife and child.
In contrast to her idyllic representations of the spiritual love of these matched pairs whose appropriateness can be sensed on a type of telepathic level by the partners, Louise Waller makes note of Mowatt’s unusual frankness in presenting instances of sexual harassment in her narratives. I believe that the writer’s attitudes on this subject too can be traced to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. He termed the opposite of chaste, conjugial love, adulterous, or scortatory love. According to Swedenborg, merely experiencing desire was not automatically sinful. Marriage was a powerful metaphor for God’s love for humanity; therefore it was permissible for humans to experience a divinely sanctioned echo of that holy bond. In Swedenborg’s view, problems lay when desire was expressed in a manner that was non-reciprocal. Today, we might term such problematic relationships as being non-consensual.
While the influence of Swedenborg’s notions of conjugal love on Mowatt’s writing can make the passion of couples like Armand and Blanche seem artificial and mannered to contemporary readers, the New Church’s condemnation of non-reciprocal desire as opposed to blanket disapproval of all sexual impulses can give scenes like the following a less antique feel. In this interaction from the novel, Fairy Fingers, Madelaine de Gramont becomes trapped in a conversation with Lord Linden. The two had a previous interaction several months before during which they experienced a strong attraction to each other. Linden employs some Swedenborgian-style language to express his desire for Madelaine. However, he makes clear his lack of respect for her in this encounter by offering her the position not of his wife, but of his mistress;
“You will pardon,” he began, “my refusing to accept your servant’s denial; I based my hopes of forgiveness upon the good tidings which I bring. My advocacy, or rather my sister’s (but that is entre nous), has not been used in vain with Mr. Rutledge; he had definitely made up his mind to cast his vote differently, but his gallantry could not withstand a fair lady’s solicitation;—he is too thoroughly an American for that, and you may depend upon his vote.”
“I am more deeply grateful to you than you can imagine! I thank you heartily!” exclaimed Madeleine, extending her hand with impulsive frankness, but the action was checked almost as quickly as made. For a moment she had forgotten the difference of station which she wished him to believe existed between them.
“Do not withdraw your hand,” he pleaded, making an attempt to imprison that hand in his own. But he had the good taste instantly to abandon his intention when he saw Madeleine’s reluctance. “As you will; I am more than satisfied by the assurance that I have a claim upon your gratitude.”
“You have, indeed, my lord; I am truly grateful.”
“I will only ask in return,” commenced his lordship, “that you will listen to me for a few moments; that you will allow me to tell you what is in my mind,—my heart.”
Madeleine saw that the evil hour could not be escaped, or postponed, and she answered with calm dignity which would have awed a man less under the dominion of passion, “You are at liberty to speak, my lord; yet what is there of importance which your lordship can have to say to the mantua-maker?”
Lord Linden, at first, found it difficult to avail himself of the privilege so frigidly given; but he soon collected himself.
“The mantua-maker? How little that title seems to belong to you! The proudest, the noblest lady could not have inspired me with the respect, the veneration I feel for you.”
“Respect is peculiarly grateful to one in my position;” answered Madeleine pointedly.
This answer seemed to suggest that he might be forgetful of the respect due to her, and confused him for a moment; but such an opportunity as the present was not to be lost. He went on with renewed animation.
“From the first moment that I met you,—from the moment when, during that memorable journey, you shone forth as the guardian angel of all the suffering—and especially mine”—
Madeleine tried to restrain him again, by saying, with a forced smile,— “An angelic mantua-maker! You have a great faculty of idealizing, my lord. I believe the extent of my services to you consisted in the sacrifice of an old pocket-handkerchief, torn into strips for a bandage, and the use of my own especial implement, a needle, with which the bandages were sewed.”
“I have those strips yet,” replied the nobleman with ardor. “I shall never part with them,—they are invaluable to me; for, from the moment we met, I loved you!”
Madeleine was about to answer, but he frustrated her intention and went on,—
“You were lost to me for six months, yet I could not forget you. I sought you unceasingly, and thought to find you in the society of—of—of those who are not, in reality, your superiors—not your equals even; I found you at last—but let me pass that over; since I have had the happiness of seeing you again, every moment has increased my admiration,—my devotion.”
Madeleine would have interrupted him, but was again prevented.
“If I had not the misfortune to be a nobleman, if I were not accountable to my family for the connection I formed, I would say to you, ‘Will you honor me by becoming my wife?’ Never have I met a woman who united in a higher degree all the attributes which are most beautiful in my eyes,—all that man could desire in a companion,—all the charms of person, intellect, soul!”
Madeleine took advantage of a moment’s pause, for his lordship found it sufficiently difficult to proceed, and replied, with glacial dignity,— “Were all your compliments as merited as you perhaps persuade yourself to imagine them to be, they would not alter the fact, my lord, that you are a nobleman and I a dress-maker.”
“True,” replied Lord Linden, undaunted by her chilling demeanor; “and it is not easy to break the iron bonds of conventionality. But, if the difference of our rank prevents my enjoying the triumph of presenting such a woman to the world as my wife, it does not prevent my renouncing the whole world for her,—it does not prevent my devoting my life to her,—my sharing with her some happy seclusion where I can forget everything except my vow to be hers only.”
This time Madeleine allowed him to conclude without word or movement. She sat with her eyes fastened upon the ground, and though a bright, crimson spot burned on either cheek, her manner was as calm as though the offer just made her were full of honor. When it was unmistakable that he had finished speaking and awaited her answer, she said, in a firm voice, the mild serenity of which could not fail to penetrate the breast of the man who had just insulted her,— “In other words, my lord, you have in the most delicate phrases in which infamy can be couched,—in phrases that are as flowers to hide the serpent beneath them, given me to understand that were I of your own rank you would address me as a man of honor might, and expect me to listen to you; but, as I am but a mantua-maker and you are a nobleman, you offer me dishonor in place of honor, and expect that I shall accept it as befitting my position.”
“You use harsh language, my dear Mademoiselle Melanie,—language that”—
“That clearly expresses your meaning, and therefore sounds harshly. I am accustomed to speak plainly myself, and to strip of their flowery entourage the sentiments to which I listen. It may be an ungraceful habit, but it is a safe one. I am persuaded that if vice were always called by its true name, shame, misery, and ruin would darken fewer lives.”
“Your candor is one of your greatest charms,” said Lord Linden, who was deeply impressed by her singular and open treatment of a proposition which it had cost him a struggle to make.
“I am glad that you approve of my frankness, for I must be franker still. When I asked you a favor I was impelled by motives which may perhaps be explained to you hereafter; I was exceedingly unwilling to make the request which you so promptly accorded,—but the strength of those motives urged me to set aside prudence and reserve. I will not pretend to conceal that I feared you might be placed upon a footing of less restraint through the performance of the service I solicited at your hands, and that you might make your visits more frequent than I should be inclined to permit,—but I did not dream that the price you set upon the performance of this act of kindness was the privilege of offering me an insult.”
“An insult? You do not imagine—you cannot suppose that I had any such intention?”
“You have spoken too plainly, my lord, to leave anything to my imagination; possibly, however, you may be acquainted with some fine phrase, unknown to me, in which you would couch what I have plainly styled, and as plainly comprehend to be an insult. Your advocacy with Mr. Rutledge has brought about a result which will benefit one who—who—who has the strongest claims upon me, and, under ordinary circumstances, I should have been your debtor. As it is, you and I are quits! The privilege of insulting me will suffice you! And now, my lord, you will excuse me, if, being a woman who earns her livelihood and whose time is valuable, I bring this interview to a close.”
Madeleine, as she spoke, rose and courtesied, and would have passed out of the room; but Lord Linden, forgetting himself for a moment, prevented her exit by springing between her and the door.
“You will not leave me without, at least, one word of pardon?”
“I have said we were quits. You demanded a price for the service you rendered me; I have paid it by listening for the first time to language which, had I a father, or a brother, could not have been addressed to me with impunity; I have neither.”
“Let me, at least, vindicate myself. You do not know to what lengths passion will drive a man.”
“You are right, I never knew until now; I have learned to-day. Allow me to pass without the necessity of ringing for a servant.”
“First you must hear me,” exclaimed Lord Linden, almost beside himself at the prospect of her leaving him in anger, and closing her doors henceforward against him. “I know how contemptible I must seem in your eyes. I read it in your countenance; I have no excuse to offer, except the plea that my love for you overleapt the bounds of all discretion.”
“I ask for no excuse,” answered Madeleine, freezingly.
“I only plead for forgiveness; I only entreat that you will forget the error of which I have been guilty, that you will allow me to see you again; that you will permit me to endeavor to reinstate myself in your esteem.”
“My lord, our intercourse is at an end. The service you have rendered me it is no longer in my power to refuse, but you have received its full equivalent. I can spare no more time in the discussion of this subject. Once more, I request you to let me pass without forcing me to ring the bell.”
“I obey you, but on condition that I may return, if it be but once more. Promise to grant me one more interview, and I leave you on the instant; I implore you not to refuse.”
He approached her, and before Madeleine was even aware of his intention, seized her hand.
The door opened; M. Maurice de Gramont was announced just as Madeleine snatched away the hand Lord Linden had taken, but not before the action had been noticed by Maurice.11
Mowatt’s attitude towards sex is not fully contemporary by any means, but her handling of sexual harassment scenes like the one between Madelaine and Lord Linden seems more like writing that might have been composed in the very early 20th rather than at mid-19th century. Scholars debate the extent to which the squeamishness about sex that has come to stereotype the Victorian era was actually prevalent at the time. However, because of the influence of New Church philosophies, Mowatt’s narratives do not automatically equate all instances of desire with sinfulness and wrongdoing as does occur in many popular culture texts of the period. This narrative, in a manner typical of Mowatt’s writing, does not paint Madelaine as a fallen woman because she was attracted to Lord Linden after falling in love with Maurice. Madelaine and Maurice have been separated for some time at that point in the story. She had convinced herself their relationship had no future. No undue blame is placed on Madelaine for finding herself in a situation in which Linden grasps her hand and proposes that she becomes his mistress. In this situation, the story makes it clear that Linden is the one who is trespassing, disregarding her repeated clear rebuffs, and is behaving disrespectfully.
To a reader sensitive to such signals, Mowatt lays a false trail mid-way through the story that leads us to wonder if Madelaine and Lord Linden are in harmony with each other and might turn out to be each other’s perfect match. However, after dropping a series of clues about the cynical and self-serving side of Linden’s personality, this scene definitively closes off the possibility of a relationship between the two. Mowatt uses this interaction to contrast Linden’s selfish desire for Madelaine with Maurice’s patient, respectful, self-sacrificing devotion. The difference between the amorous longings demonstrated by these two male characters neatly reflects Swedenborg’s definition of chaste versus scoratory love. The way these would-be lovers choose to act on their desires makes one man the hero of Mowatt’s narrative and transforms the other into a villain.
Over the course of this series of blogs, I have been discussing male and female protagonists separately. However, because of the importance of relationships in her religious/philosophical outlook and to the structuring of her plots, Mowatt’s narratives often feature couples who jointly share the position of protagonist as a team. These protagonist teams can be composed of male and female lead characters like Madelaine and Maurice who take turns as focal character. Another, more unusual option that Mowatt utilizes is to have a married couple who jointly share the role of protagonist. Robin and Sue Trueheart of “The Prompter’s Daughter” (joined eventually by their daughter, Tina) and the Lorimeres of “An Inconvenient Acquaintance” are examples of couples who share the spotlight in a Mowatt story. One could argue that “Fashion” is as much a tale of the woes of Mr. and Mrs. Tiffany as it is of their ward, Gertrude.
Rather than creating narratives that are peopled with individuals charting their own independent courses, when one begins to diagram Mowatt’s works and consider the influence of Swedenborg, it is clear her structure is more complex. Like the Swedish divine’s descriptions of the celestial planes, Mowatt’s story-universes are interdependent solar systems filled with coupled characters set in twined orbits networked with many satellites. The occasional rogue comet rockets disruptively through their paths, stirring drama in its wake before harmony of these spheres can be restored.
Merry or miserable, in order to properly understand Mowatt’s protagonists, one needs to realize that there are bonds of affinity tying them invisibly to other cast members ‘til death do them part… and beyond.
Next week: In Sickness and In Wealth: Men, Money, and Illness in Mowatt’s Narratives
- Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page 64.
- Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and its Wonders and Hell, From Things Heard and Seen. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott & Co., 1875.
- Swedenborg, Emanuel. The Delights of Wisdom Pertaining to Conjugial Love to Which is Added the Pleasures of Insanity Pertaining to Scortatory Love. Page 165.
- Ibid. Page 183.
- Ibid. Page 191.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Armand; or; The Peer and the Peasant. (New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1851.) Page 33.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Mimic Life; or Before and Behind the Curtain(Ticknor and Fields: Boston, 1856.) Page 208.
- Ibid. Pages 209-210.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fairy Fingers; a Novel(Carleton: New York, 1865.) Page 118.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Mimic Life; or Before and Behind the Curtain(Ticknor and Fields: Boston, 1856.) Page 316
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fairy Fingers; a Novel(Carleton: New York, 1865.) Page 286-289.