In Sickness and In Wealth: Men, Money, and Illness in Mowatt’s Narratives
[Content Warning: Suicide]
If you’re playing a drinking game that awards points for every time I mention the word “melodrama” negatively, you may have had a fairly dry time of it in the last blog entry while I drew connections between Emanuel Swedenborg’s visions of conjugal bliss among the inhabitants of Heaven and the ideal lovers of the narratives of Anna Cora Mowatt. This week, however, you can finally pick up your glass. I am returning once more to contrasting Mowatt’s characters and plotlines to the dominant popular culture genre of her day. Her works are infused with 19th century attitudes and liberally employ popular literary and dramatic tropes of that era. Mowatt’s manner of storytelling may call on the powers of pathos to awaken the sympathies of her readers. In other words, her stories can be quite melodramatic in the modern sense of the word. However, they deviate from the stock melodrama plots and characters on some significant points. For example, as I discussed last time, the idea of incomplete souls questing for their ideal partner provides a better model for describing the core of many (but not all) Mowatt’s narratives than does melodrama’s standard storyline telling of the defeat of villainy at the hands of the virtuous. This time, I want to focus on the ways Mowatt’s male protagonists deviate from the norms for the construction of heroes that melodrama would have us anticipate.
Look, I know what you’ve been thinking — “Dr. Taylor can say what she wants to about agency, folly, and celestial soulmates,” you grumble quietly to your cat. “So what if Mowatt’s villains aren’t too villainous and her lovers are all perfectly matched? I see that many fair, virtuous maidens in lead roles and I’m calling the dratted thing a melodrama!”
Well, I will grant you that many of Mowatt’s narratives carry all the necessary trappings of the genre. However, let’s dig deeper before we get all dyspeptic and get the cat involved in our dispute. What is the primary function of a male protagonist in a melodrama? A male lead is a square-jawed, brave, handsome, problem-solver who rescues the heroine from the antagonist and/or antagonistic forces just as Col. Howard does for Gertrude in “Fashion,” right? Okay. Rewind that plot in your head. (Or you can check a synopsis if you don’t happen to have the plotline memorized.) Did Col. Howard actually come to Gertrude’s rescue? No, he didn’t. In fact, he failed to come to her rescue. Twice.
In a previous entry, my brain malfunctioned and I stated that Count Jolimaitre’s interactions with Gertrude did not have any sexual overtones. I somehow managed to make this mistake despite the fact that I posted a picture of the conservatory scene where Jolimaitre makes a very blatant pass at Gertrude. Old Adam Trueman — who is later revealed to be Gertrude’s grandfather — is the one who comes to her aid in this scene;
Count: Sharp as ever, little Gertrude! But now that we are alone, throw off this frigidity, and be at your ease.
Ger: Permit me to be alone, Sir, that I may be at my ease!
Count: Very good, ma belle! Well said ! (applauding her with his hands) Never yield too soon, even to a title! But, as the old girl may find her way back before long, we may as well come to particulars at once. I love you; but that you know already, (rubbing his eye-glass unconcernedly with his handkerchief) Before long I shall make Mademoiselle Seraphina my wife, and, of course, you shall remain in the family!
Ger: (indignantly) Sir — !
Count: ’Pon my honor you shall! In France we arrange these little matters without difficulty!
Ger: But I am an American! Your conduct proves that you are not one! (Going. Crosses, r. h.)
Count: (preventing her) Don’t run away, my immaculate petite Americaine! Demme, you’ve quite overlooked my condescension — the difference of our stations — you a species of upper servant — an orphan — no friends.
[Enter Trueman unperceived, r. u. e.]
Ger: And therefore more entitled to the respect and protection of every true gentleman! Had you been one, you would not have insulted me!
Count: My charming little orator, patriotism and declamation become you particularly! (approaches her) I feel quite tempted to ’taste —
True: (thrusting him aside) An American hickory switch! (strikes him) Well, how do you like it?
Count: Old matter-of-fact! (aside) Sir, how dare you?
True: My stick has answered that question!
Ger: Oh! now I am quite safe!1
In this instance, Colonel Howard is denied the opportunity to come to his lady love’s rescue by the playwright. He is not present on the scene. However, in Act IV when Gertrude, in the midst of attempting to expose the Count, is caught in a compromising situation, instead of rushing loyally to her defense, Colonel Howard has a moment of despair. He wonders if she is the perfect match he had thought her to be, lamenting;
Howard: Gertrude, I have striven to find some excuse for you — to doubt — to disbelieve — but this is beyond all endurance! [Exit, R. H.]2
Contrary to the expectations set by genre norms of melodrama, it is Mowatt’s heroine who must herself initiate the sequence of events that unravels the twisted knots of the plot. At the beginning of the last act, Gertrude sits down and writes a letter that spells out the Count’s perfidy in plain terms that apparently can be grasped very quickly (thus saving the audience from multiple re-hashes of these plot points in the next few moments.) She then bravely sticks to her guns and insists that first Adam Trueman and then Colonel Howard read the letter. (Being brave and truthful are important positive qualities in Mowatt narratives.) After digesting the contents of this exceptionally concise and well-written missive, Trueman and then Howard realize their error and repent of their doubt and prideful folly. The two men then strive to mend their relationship with Gertrude. (Learning from mistakes is crucial first step towards happiness in stories by Mowatt.) These important tasks accomplished, the now unified protagonists are able to neatly foil the machinations of the antagonists, Jolimaitre and Snobson, in a matter of moments.
Mowatt’s men fall short of the classic Western stereotype of the rugged, indestructible male-problem solver. They aren’t the sort of heroes that Hemingway wrote or that John Wayne played in the movies or that Alex Raymond drew in the comic strips. These are characters who have vulnerabilities and doubts. They are not sufficient unto themselves. While not deeply flawed and/or broken men who need to be “fixed” by heroines, these characters are imperfect and incomplete on their own. At the beginning of their narratives, these men are frequently thwarted in their career goals and receive harsh criticism from family or employers. Although usually quite admirable and valiant individuals, these are men who can hold such high ideals that they stand in danger of becoming disillusioned and wrapped in despair when the world disappoints them. They fall in love quickly, deeply, and may become disastrously heart-broken. They can be too prideful for their own good or have difficulty managing finances. Mowatt’s men are surprisingly complex and vulnerable creatures who require emotional support from their heroines as often as they provide it.
Mowatt’s heroes and lovers cannot be classed with the male protagonists of classic Romantic Era literature being created in some cases only a few years before. There is no one in her body of work to compare with a Heathcliff or a Victor Frankenstein. However, neither are her men quite the sturdy paragons of status quo values that other writers of popular fiction in this century would produce. Unlike heroes in the Byronic mold, Mowatt’s men do not consider themselves completely outside or above society’s norms. They are stung by injustice, though, and have the potential to rebel no matter the personal cost. Her heroes have sensitive, artistic souls, and are powerfully swayed by sentiment.
Louise Waller describes Mowatt’s typical male protagonist as follows;
There is next the hero or lover. He is desperately infatuated with the heroine, but he is always hampered by an insurmountable block to the union of the couple at the beginning of the book. If by accident they did unite before the end of the book, that would indeed be the end. The hero is terribly devoted, eventually becomes religious, tries to act intelligently but does not always succeed, and is either rich or becomes rich in the course of the story.3
Rather than functioning in the narrative as steady, sure-footed problem-solvers, Mowatt’s male protagonists struggle with difficulties that constantly threaten to overwhelm them. They are very emotional individuals. They fall deeply, often obsessively, in love. Sometimes they lose control of their passions and take actions that cause harm to themselves. These are men of honor who are deeply committed to their principles. However, their lofty code of ethics can force them into moral dilemmas that paralyze them into inaction. In a few extreme cases, in trying too hard to conform to the high standards they attempt to live by, Mowatt’s men destroy themselves.
Because they love so deeply, calamities in their relationship to their ideal partner are frequently at the heart of these heroes’ greatest challenges. As I explained in the last blog, the heroine is not only someone who the male protagonist finds physically attractive, but is the soul who completes him spiritually. Therefore separations are profoundly traumatic. When he thinks that his true love Blanche has died, Armand’s lamentation expresses in an almost operatic form the utter despair Mowatt’s male protagonists feel at the sudden shutdown of the symbiotic interconnection of ideal partners;
Armand: ‘Twas her first kiss!
Thou pitying heaven, — let it not be her last!
She is not dead! dost thou not hear me, Blanche ?
No, no, she is not dead! It were to lose
The sun that warms with life — to lose the light
That tells the presence of that sun, — it were
To lose the air we breathe, to lose thee, Blanche!
I stifle at the thought! My life’s sole light
Is endless darkness now — Oh! Blanche, my Blanche!
My earth and heaven! all peace — all joys — all dreams —
All blessings, and all hopes, are gone with thee!4
In this passage Armand is speaking in the highly elevated, lyrical language of this particular play. Such poetic excess was not typical of all Mowatt’s works. However, his despairing farewell to his lady-love does neatly encapsulate many of the ill-consequences for members of matched pairs of lovers who have the misfortune to be separated from their partner in one of Mowatt’s narratives. As Armand alludes to here, these ideal partnerships sustain the couples both emotionally and physically. Heroes who lose their heroines can sicken physically as well as becoming severely depressed. They seem to develop a type of tunnel-vision in which they fail to notice cues in their environs that might benefit them. These men become unlucky, lose their motivating drive, and drift aimlessly through life until circumstances reunite them with their loved one. They become, to express the condition dramatically, soul-sick.
When a male protagonist’s passionate feelings of love come into conflict with his strong ethical convictions in a Mowatt narrative, the results may be disturbingly destructive. In the novella “The Unknown Tragedian” from Mimic Life, Gerald Mortimer stabs himself in the heart (sometimes Mowatt’s metaphors aren’t subtle) in a tragic mishap during a stage performance. The tragedian’s death frees the young woman he loves to marry the young man who Mortimer believes she loves more. Because suicide was not only condemned by most of the major religions of the era but also prohibited by U.S. and English law, Mowatt must have assumed that her readers might have strong negative reactions to a main character deliberately planning and committing to such a course. In the following passage, the author leaves some wiggle room to allow readers to decide if Mortimer’s act was suicide or just an accident;
Whether the fatal blow had been deliberately given, whether it was purely accidental, whether it had been inflicted in a state of uncontrollable excitement, produced by his portrayal of Bertram’s stormy passions, none knew to a certainty. If it were a deed of willful crime, God alone could judge him, — God alone beheld the maddening throes of his loving, yet renouncing, clinging, yet despairing, spirit.5
Whether his suicide was deliberate or accidental, (I personally think Mowatt gives very strong indications in the narrative leading up to the scene that his action was deliberate and pre-planned) Mortimer’s feelings of attraction, his obligations to other characters in the story, and his ethical impulses were conflicted in a manner that he did not feel he could resolve. His contradictory emotional impulses tore him apart.
An even more extreme case of a self-destructing male character occurs in the case of the novel Evelyn’s Walter Merritt. Due to the book’s epistolary format, the reader gets few direct insights into Mr. Merritt’s internal life. Kate Bolton, our primary narrator, tells of his horror of offending the rules of society. We get little dialogue in his voice. He appears stiff, formal, and reserved. Nothing prepares the reader for the emotion Merritt displays in his suicide note that we read at the very end of the book;
“The struggle is too great; I can no longer endure it; and, Heaven pardon me! I seek a criminal release!
“To behold you, Evelyn, would be to forgive. I know my own infirmity; I love you in spite of your shame! I would open my arms to receive you, though your name were ten times as blackened! But this cannot be. How could I meet the eyes of the world with a dishonored wife pressed to my heart?
“I must fly from myself and from you, for your image gives me no peace. Evelyn! too madly loved — too hopelessly ruined— your name will be the last upon my lips — thine and that of our child. Farewell!
“Yours in death as through life,
The above helplessly despairing letter could have come from the pen of a broken-hearted Armand or Maurice de Gramont instead of having been written by the coldly propriety-conscious young businessman who Kate Bolton’s letters lead us to believe has moved on from his failed marriage to a more career-appropriate relationship with socialite Laura Hilson. Despite the outward appearance that he carefully cultivated, Walter Merritt shared the — in his case fatal – vulnerabilities of Mowatt’s male protagonists.
After love, the next biggest challenge Mowatt’s heroes have to face is money – which itself can complicate their romantic entanglements. For Frederick Faulkner of the short story “Ennui and Its Antidote,” his wealth presents a seemingly insurmountable barrier to finding a partner who could help him shake the perpetual listlessness and lack of direction in life that is keeping him from finding the true course to happiness. At the beginning of his story, his friend Frank Gaylord chides him;
“Come, there is another panacea for ennui – matrimony. Why do you not get married?”
“To some woman who thinks ten thousand a year sufficient inducement to permit me to encircle her finger with a ring, and hang a chain upon my own inclinations? A rich man has not the privilege of marrying a wife, he can only expect to play the husband to a mercenary woman. That occupation is not to my taste.”7
Excessive concern that a gold-digger will pretend attraction to him only to gain access to his wealth has armored Faulkner to the point that he is teetering on becoming a cynical misogynist, unable to open himself up to enough to trust and respect women sufficiently to find love. Remember from the last blog entry that in Swedenborgian thought, marriage was a potent metaphor for Christ’s union with the Church that was supposed to have deep resonance in all pure spirits. Not being receptive to the possibility of romantic love therefore could be a sign that all was not right with one’s soul.
Adam Trueman becomes estranged from his daughter, Ruth, and granddaughter, Gertrude, due to paranoia similar to Faulkner’s about suitors seeking access to the inheritance that would fall to his heirs. Although his name has the word “true” built into it and he is presented as a plain-spoken character who is not the dupe of fashion, this failure to trust is one of the areas where this character falls into folly and must learn a lesson before the end of the play. After reconciling with his granddaughter, Trueman tells the story of his error to Colonel Howard in the following monologue near the end of the last act of “Fashion;”
Trueman: None ever saw her to forget her! Give me your hand, man. There — that will do! Now let me go on. I never coveted wealth — yet twenty years ago I found myself the richest farmer in Catteraugus. This cursed money made my girl an object of speculation. Every idle fellow that wanted to feather his nest was sure to come courting Ruth. There was one — my heart misgave me the instant I laid eyes upon him — for he was a city chap, and not over fond of the truth. But Ruth — ah! she was too pure herself to look for guile! His fine words and his fair looks — the old story — she was taken with him — I said, no — but the girl liked her own way better than her old father’s —girls always do! and one morning — the rascal robbed me — not of my money, he would have been welcome to that — but of the only treasure I cherished — my daughter!8
Although he has experienced this epiphany, unlike Fred Faulkner, Adam Trueman is not so completely reformed by the end of the play that he ready for love. Mowatt plays his curt dismissal of Prudence’s suggestion that perhaps the two of them should marry for laughs. However, she does not take the course she would do at the end of her novel, The Mute Singer, many years later and match the elderly male mentor to the gossipy older woman, thus ending her comedy with all the protagonists neatly paired in happy couples.
Let me note here that Trueman is a male character who serves as a protagonist, but does not fit into the category of hero/lover that I am focusing on in this blog entry. There are many red flags on his behavior that should warn a reader/viewer that Mowatt has created this character as another of her problematic paternal figures such as The Mute Singer’s Maitre Beaujeu or Everard de la Roche who cause such anxiety for the heroine and other protagonists that they briefly switch into the camp of the antagonistic forces several times over the course of the plot. Trueman is definitely not a kindly old grandfather. He goes beyond being a well-intentioned, plain-spoken truth-teller. Although the play exploits his behavior for comedy, to be aware of the impact he had on Mowatt’s original audience, we must bear in mind that Trueman is blunt and rude. His behavior violates many rules of common decorum of the era for polite upper-to-middle-class citizens. A surprise, uninvited guest in the Tiffanys’ home, he immediately begins making insulting, unprovoked comments about everything to everyone. He is even abrupt and ill-tempered with the servants, making abusive and racist comments about poor Zeke for no apparent reason. He constantly talks about himself – specifically his own wealth and wisdom — with a singular lack of humility. Trueman scolds Gertrude mercilessly if she so much as sneezes nearby – knowing all the time that she’s really his granddaughter. He’s an ill-tempered, uncouth, cranky old man who is very enamored of his own opinions. There are definitely reasons why Mowatt doesn’t reward him with true love at the end of “Fashion.” Trueman may have learned a lesson about loving people more than money, but he’s still got a long way to go before he can complete his redemptive arc.
There are many affluent characters in Mowatt’s works. The author often rewards protagonists with a promise of a bright financial future at the conclusion of their storyline. However, there’s also a great deal of skepticism about the corrosive effect of wealth on an individual’s character voiced in Mowatt’s narratives. In “Fashion,” Adam Trueman delivers the following tirade against the price his nouveau-riche friend, Antony Tiffany, seems to have paid for his sudden rise to New York’s upper class;
Trueman: Happy? You happy? Ah! Antony! Antony! that hatchet face of your’s, and those criss-cross furrows tell quite another story! It’s many a long day since you were happy at anything! You look as if you’d melted down your flesh into dollars, and mortgaged your soul in the bargain! Your warm heart has grown cold over your ledger — your light spirits heavy with calculation! You have traded away your youth — your hopes — your tastes for wealth! and now you have the wealth you coveted, what does it profit you? Pleasure it cannot buy; for you have lost your capacity for enjoyment — Ease it will not bring; for the love of gain is never satisfied! It has made your counting-house a penitentiary, and your home a fashionable museum where there is no niche for you! You have spent so much time ciphering in the one, that you find yourself at last a very cipher in the other! See me, man! seventy-two last August! — strong as a hickory and every whit as sound!10
Mowatt was not the only person at this time who had concerns around the intertwined issues of wealth and identity. I deal in depth with how the play “Fashion” reflects Victorian-era discomfort with Industrial age social mobility in Chapter Five, “Fear, Loathing, and Fashion: Self-Creation in Anna Cora Mowatt’s Drama,” of my book The Lady Actress . The humor of the play has its roots in the ripples of anxiety and hostility generated by the established upper class as they were unceremoniously uprooted from their privileged ancestral roosts by millionaire capitalists in the early 19th century. The established rules of centuries determined who held the reins of power were suddenly changing. The Tiffanys owe their identities in society to solely to their wealth – much in contradiction to European norms — as the French chamber maid Millinette explains;
Millinette: Monsieur is man of business, — Madame is lady of fashion. Monsieur make de money, — Madame spend it. Monsieur nobody at all, — Madame everybody altogether. Ah! Monsieur Zeke, de money is all dat is necessaire in dis country to make one lady of fashion. Oh! it is quite anoder ting in la belle France!10
As might be expected of someone born to privilege, Mowatt mercilessly mocks the pretensions of the upwardly mobile Tiffanys in “Fashion.” She is also particularly critical of characters like Everard de la Roche of The Mute Singer from noble European backgrounds who inherit riches without ever being called upon to earn a living.
Sylvie’s father belonged to an excellent family of Provence – a family who claimed to be the off-shoot of nobility. Everard de la Roche was born and bred a gentleman, according to the European acceptation of the word, which means he was born and fitted for no occupation – a gentleman of the aristocratic, do-nothing school. His father’s income had been sufficiently large to enable him to live luxuriously with prudence, but the son chanced to be wholly deficient in that inestimable quality.11
Mowatt much preferred characters, who, like herself, might be born into wealthy families or inherit money, but also had careers that saved them from this sort of character-blighting idleness. In the author’s version of a fairy tale ending, at the conclusion of “Ennui and Its Cure,” Fred Faulkner, through the means of finally seriously applying himself to an avocation, finds true love, and thus rids himself of his debilitating depression;
A few moments after the ceremony which united the young couple was ended, Frank Gaylord, who officiated as groom’s-man, whispered to Faulkner as he shook his hand, “My dear fellow, I wish you joy of the good angel which you have taken to yourself, to exorcise the blue devils!”
“Thank you,” replied Faulkner, “but since the day that I discovered that it was a curse to be of no use in the world, they have seldom attacked me. To ensure my happiness the good angel will only have to remind me that, ‘it brings a blessing to bless!’ She is pretty sure of doing that, by her own practical illustration of the maxim.”12
Because the redemptive power of labor was a theme that Mowatt returned to many times in her work, linking specifically not only to the mental health struggles of her characters but to her own problems with depression that she alludes to in her autobiography and other semi-autobiographical texts, I will be discussing “Ennui and Its Cure” in more depth in a future blog. For now, we will move on to another area of challenge that her male protagonists typically had to grapple with in her narratives. As Louise Waller summarizes, a bit gruffly, in her thesis;
Besides the thematic trinity of religion, beauty, and economic struggles, the books for the most part contain avid descriptions of diseases. Depending on their relative goodness or badness within the action of the book, characters so afflicted live or die.13
There’s a lot of sickness and suffering from injuries in these narratives. Whereas the generic hero of melodrama had to face down gunfire and on-rushing trains, a Mowatt man has about a 50/50 shot of ending up in a sick-room as either a patient or a care-giver. There are a number of plausible explanations for the amount of illness that occurs in these plotlines. Life-threatening diseases were an everyday fact of life in urban Victorian existence. Typhoid, diphtheria, and tuberculosis regularly ravaged the populations of large cities and towns throughout the 19th century. Mowatt’s career was frequently interrupted with bouts of serious illness. From early childhood, Mowatt went through long periods of ill-health. Her husband, James Mowatt, also faced serious long-term medical challenges.
Mowatt frequently harnesses the dramatic potential of illness to enhance the emotional intensity of characters or work around difficulties in her plots. An example of the author exercising both of these strategies can be found in Twin Roses when Jessie Landor falls ill of tuberculosis. Staying by her side during her close brush with death finally convinces her husband Herman to give up his career as an actor and return to England to reunite her with her twin sister, their daughter, and his parents.
“Now I can die happy!” exclaimed Jessie fervently.
It was months since Herman had heard her tones so clear and strong.
“Die, Jessie! And what would my life be without you? What would even the joy of restoration to my parents be worth? Oh! that you might live — that we might return together — that I might place you in my mother’s arms! We will sail at once!”14
In the novel, Fairy Fingers, Mowatt neatly manages to maintain plot tension generated by separating her lovers, Madelaine and Maurice, while simultaneously intensifying the emotional intensity of their relationship by having someone who was probably Madelaine in disguise minister to Maurice while he lies desperately ill. In the following scene, Maurice awakes and describes to friend Gaston a ministering presence who he might have hallucinated in his fevered state;
Another fortnight passed, and though he lay, as it were, in a grave of fire, the doctor’s prediction of typhus fever was not verified. At the expiration of this period, Ronald was the first to notice a favorable change, and to discover that the invalid had lucid intervals which showed his reason was re-ascending her abdicated throne. But he abstained from pointing out the improvement to Gaston, fearing that, in his joy, he might communicate the consolatory intelligence to the count, who would then insist upon seeing his son, and possibly reproduce the evil results by which his former visits had been attended.
Maurice had ceased to moan and mutter, and lay motionless as one thoroughly exhausted. He slept much, waking for but a few moments, and sinking again into a species of half-lethargy.
There was something inexpressibly sweet and pleasant in his present calmness; his mind seemed to have been mysteriously soothed and satisfied; the turbulent waves, that dashed him hither and thither against the sharp rocks of doubt and fear, had subsided. His features, especially when he slept, wore an expression of the most serene contentment.
The soeur de bon secours, who had watched him through the night, had yielded her place to the sister, who assumed the office of nurse during the day. Gaston entered soon after, and, finding the patient gently slumbering, sat down beside his bed.
After a time, Maurice stirred, drew a long breath, and slowly opened his eyes. They met those of his watcher. For some time the invalid gazed at him without speaking, and then said, in a tone that was hardly audible, “M. deBois.”
“My dear Maurice dear friend you are better, you know me at last,” exclaimed Gaston, joyfully.
“I knew you before; you have been the most faithful of friends and nurses. I knew you quite well, and I knew her too!”
Gaston bounded from his chair, breathing so hard that he could scarcely stammer out, “Her! who –o- o- om do you me-e-ean?”
“Madeleine,” replied Maurice, confidently.
“Mademoiselle Mad-ad-adeleine; you are dream- eaming!”
“No ! I thought so at first, and the dream was so sweet that I would not break it by word or motion, fearing that I should discover it was not reality. But it was no dream. Night after night, how many I do not know I could not count, I have seen Madeleine beside me! When the good sister moved about the room, in the dim light of the veillense, in spite of her coarse, unshapely garb, I recognized the outlines of Madeleine’s form; notwithstanding the uncouth bonnet, and the white bandage that concealed her hair and brow, and, passing beneath her chin, almost hid her face, I recognized the features of Madeleine. I watched her as she glided about the room, and with her delicate, noiseless, rapidly moving touch created the most perfect order around her. I heard her as she softly sang sweet anthems, and I could not mistake the voice of Madeleine. I felt her hand, her cool, fresh, velvety hand, upon my burning forehead, and it soothed me deliciously. I lay with closed eyes as she bathed my temples, and passed her fingers through my hair to loosen its tangles. I was afraid of frightening her away, or finding I saw but a vision. The water she held to my lips was nectar; when she smoothed my pillow, all pain passed from the temples that rested upon it, throbbing with agony before, and I sank into a sweet slumber, not unconscious slumber: I knew that I was sleeping; I knew that Madeleine sat there, filling the place of the sister of charity; I knew that when I opened my eyes I should see her, and I did, again and again. I never once spoke to her; I feared some spell would be broken if I breathed her name. In the morning she disappeared; but I knew she would come again at midnight, when all was quiet, and the light was carefully shaded. M. de Bois, my dear Gaston, I tell you I have seen Madeleine!”
M. de Bois sat still, looking too much astounded to utter a word.
“I see you cannot believe me,” Maurice continued. “She never came while you were here, and so you think it is a dream. A happy dream! a dream full of the balm of Gilead! for she has cured me! My brain was a burning volcano until her hand was laid upon my brow, and I gazed in her face, and knew it was no phantom. Do not look so much distressed, my dear Gaston. I am perfectly in my senses.”15
In this instance, the presence of Maurice’s ideal partner is both physically and mentally healing. During his search for Madelaine, he has become increasingly ill and unbalanced. Although the ruse of her disguise combines with his fevered delirium to postpone their official reunion, the strength of Maurice and Madelaine’s mutually nourishing love saves him at this point in the plot.
Mowatt also uses illness to reverse attitudes. Count Tristan, who had schemed against Madelaine at the beginning of Fairy Fingers, becomes dependent on her after he suffers a stroke near the end of the book. Everard de la Roche ceases to be an obstacle to the advancement of his daughter’s career after his head injury. Herman Landor’s attitude about reconciling with his family changes after his wife narrowly escapes dying of tuberculosis.
Male protagonists can serve as care-givers in Mowatt’s works. Although wives, mothers, and daughters are the first choice to serve as nurses, sometimes husbands, fathers, and sons are pressed into duty to care for ailing or injured loved ones. A few notable examples of male care-giving are: Herman Landor (even though he is a self-centered and immature person) cares for his wife, Jessie. (This situation occurs because he has separated her from everyone else in her life who might have helped out, though.) ((Herman Landor will never get a Husband of the Year vote from me.)) Robin Trueheart aids his wife Sue in looking after their daughter Tina when she is injured. After Maurice’s father has a stroke at Madelaine’s house, the two co-cooperatively spend time watching over him.
At the point in the story when Count Tristian has a stroke, Madelaine is still prevented by circumstances from declaring her feelings for Maurice. The count’s illness creates a literal and metaphorical space where the couple can share time together within the bounds of propriety while watching over his father. Although a sickroom does not seem like a romantic setting, some of the most intimate passages in the book occur during these moments when the author gives Maurice or Madelaine the opportunity to look at the other unobserved in quiet moments by the invalid’s side. Although I am talking about male protagonists — and Mowatt does provide a few paragraphs describing his beloved from Maurice’s perspective — I am going to give you one of the author’s most tenderly drawn portraits of one of hero/lovers from Madelaine’s point of view. This passage is one of my favorites. It is a rare specimen of the female gaze written in the language of 19th century narration;
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.17
Although, like any other popular writer of this period, Mowatt was fully capable of milking the illness of a character for sheer bathos, she frequently uses sickness to do more than draw cheap tears from readers. The author doubtlessly knew from her own experiences with long-term medical problems and care-giving the sudden changes in power, status, and emotional intimacy illness can sometimes unexpectedly render in relationships. Both male and female characters suffer the impact of sickness in her stories and must deal with its consequences.
There are issues other than money and health that Mowatt poses as challenges for her heroes. Armand, for example, is a peasant/soldier advancing through the ranks of King Louis’ army. Mr. Percy, from the novella, “Stella,” in Mimic Life, is a fledgling playwright attending the disaster-filled rehearsals of the production of his new play. Maurice de Gramont is an emigre French nobleman trying to persuade legislators to route a major railroad line to Washington, D.C. across land that he owns. Mowatt’s men are active and adventurous. Although her male characters share the same sort of worries of home and family as do her heroines, Mowatt did not write simple domestic dramas to house them. A different author could have taken each of the plotlines I listed above and spun them into a story or play which contained no domestic or romantic subplot at all.
My point is that unlike many other authors of her day, Mowatt writes male characters who face problems in the world as well as in their homes and love lives. They can be expert swordsmen who fight battles but also worry about balancing checkbooks. They are successful businessmen who might end up caring for their sick fathers. They are proud, high-born noblemen who are nagged by their families because of their career choices.
In terms of story mechanics, Mowatt’s tendency to create less-than-invulnerable heroes means that agency is usually spread more equitably among her protagonists. In a generic melodrama, a strong male protagonist rescues a heroine from a powerful villain or combination of antagonistic elements. In such a model, the hero and the villain make all the active choices that determine the course of the narrative. The female character plays a relatively passive role. She could be replaced by a bag of gold or a pretty pony or anything else that represents the stakes that the hero and villain are fighting to win. (There are many narratives that do replace the female character with some other desirable object.)
In a Mowatt narrative, because of the distribution of agency, one cannot replace the lead female characters with a bag of gold or some other shiny, inanimate prop. For example, Gertrude isn’t the most exciting role ever written, but she’s essential to the plot of “Fashion.” Remove her and there’s no one in the correct position with the right motivations to unmask Jolimaitre. Colonel Howard’s function in “Fashion’s” narrative is harder to define. He does not actively move the action forward in any way on his own. His disillusionment raises the stakes for Gertrude when she is caught with Jolimaitre. Their engagement serves as a payoff that provides a sense of closure for the narrative in the final moments of the last act. Rather than being an overwhelmingly powerful, problem-solving figure that a young male lover might be in a generic melodrama, in “Fashion,” Col. Howard is merely one member of large team of protagonists who work together to keep the plot moving forward in different ways.
In almost all Mowatt narratives, female characters take actions that are essential to determining the outcome of the plot. Her fair maidens are not gun-toting bad-asses by any means, but they do exercise agency – which, in the final analysis, the well-armored women-warriors of today’s popular culture offerings frequently don’t. Mowatt’s featured female characters, whether acting as part of the protagonist or antagonist team, have some degree of control over their own lives and the destinies of those around them. This dispersion of power amongst partnerships of male and female characters not only contrasts with the standard plots of 19th century melodrama, but I think still has some instructive pointers to offer on constructing modern pop culture-style stories which break free from the ways that agency has been monopolized by certain character types.
For this series of blog entries, I have been using Louise Waller’s 1958 thesis as a starting point. In the first entry, I gave a number of aspects that attracted me to that work. From the brief excerpts I have presented, it is probably difficult to appreciate how lively and opinioned that text is especially considering the restrictive context in which it was written. Reading Waller’s frequently feminist-leaning takes on Mowatt’s work, I kept smiling and saying, “Gurl, you luuuved the Sixties, didn’t you?”
Louise Waller’s time at Columbia University was the beginning of many important undertakings in her life. She married author Leslie Waller during their time there and became his editor for much of his career. Among Leslie Waller’s many best-selling novels was Dog Day Afternoon (1974). The novel was turned into a career-making movie starring the then virtually unknown Al Pacino.
Louise Waller served for many years as an editor for the publishing firm Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Among the well-known authors she worked with during her time at this New York publisher were Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Shultz, and Robert Frost. During the course of her career she was a top editor for Rand McNally, William C. Brown Publishing, St. Martin’s Press, and the Columbia University Press.
She died in the year of the writing of this series of blog entries – on March 12, 2022, at age 96. Her obituary describes her as a life-long Democrat who loved animals, and enjoyed theatre, literature, and art.
As another link in a great chain of women writing about women, I close with these words from the writer who fascinated us both to salute the memory of Louise Waller;
Oh! wear for me no sable hue,
No garb of blazoned grief– when I
Shall bid this gladsome earth adieu
And fling my spirit’s garment by!
Nor link my image with regret —
A pleasant memory I would be;
To consecrate and brighten yet
The scenes that once were dear to me!
Then weep not for the loved one fled
To realms more pure — a home more fair;
And call not the departed dead !
She lives — she loves — she waits you there.17
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fashion; or Life in New York. (New York: Samuel French, 1849.) Pages 21-22
- Page 46.
- Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Armand; or; The Peer and the Peasant. (New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1851.) Page 38.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Mimic Life; or Before and Behind the Curtain(Ticknor and Fields: Boston, 1856.) Page 404.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Evelyn; or a Heart Unmasked, a Tale of Domestic Life(G.B. Zieber: Philadelphia, 1845. Page 177.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Ennui and Its Antidote” The Columbian Magazine for Ladies and Gentlemen(1845) pages 255.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fashion; or Life in New York. (New York: Samuel French, 1849.) Page 53-54.
- Pages 18-19
- Page 1.
- The Mute Singer; a Novel(Carleton: New York, 1866.)
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Ennui and Its Antidote” The Columbian Magazine for Ladies and Gentlemen(1845) pages 255.
- Waller, Louise H. The Literary Career of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, a Re-evaluation. Thesis. Columbia University, 1958. Page
- Ritchie, Anna Cora. Twin Roses, a Narrative.(Ticknor and Fields: Boston, 1857.)Pages 261-262.
- Ritchie, Anna Cora. Fairy Fingers; a Novel.(Carleton: New York, 1865.)Page 129-130.
- Ibid, pages 333-334.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Oh, Wear for Me No Sable Hue.” The Columbian Magazine, 1845. Page 10.