In which Mrs. Mowatt, to save the family fortunes, daringly enters the world of performing readings for the public on stage

Career as a Public Reader

Mowatt's Portrait for Howitt's Journal

Engraving of Anna Cora Mowatt, circa 1848

 

Despite the success of Anna Cora's novels and her other shorter works, the Mowatts' publishing venture failed. James Mowatt also lost great amounts speculating on real estate. The strict enforcement of President Jackson's financial reforms caused a sudden state of bankruptcy for Mowatt. When it seemed certain that the Mowatts were to lose Melrose, Anna Cora decided to utilize her dramatic talents to help stabilize the couple's financial situation.

Although she was apparently not bold enough to leap directly from the role of society matron to the profession of actress, she decided to give a series of public readings in the style of Fanny Kemble and American actor and elocutionist George Vanderhoff.

After seeking and receiving consent to do so from her father and husband, she scheduled her first readings at the Masonic Temple in Boston, home of her good friend Epes Sargent. When she stepped on the stage of the Tremont Street Temple Place on Thursday, October 28, 1841, she became the first female to enter the career of public reader without a previous career on the stage. Her success spawned a small army of imitators.

Her readings included selections from Sir Walter Scott, Mrs. Felicia Hemans, Oliver Wendell Homes, Thomas Campbell, Lord Byron, Thomas More, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She also read "The Missing Ship," a sensational poem about the mysterious disappearance at sea of the steamship President, written especially for her by Epes Sargent. In Providence, one woman was so affected by Anna Cora's reading of this particular poem that she had to be carried from the hall in a fit of hysterics.

Edgar Allan Poe, who attended readings she gave in New York, described Anna Cora:

Her figure is slight, even fragile. Her face is a remarkably fine one, and of that precise character best adapted to the stage. The forehead is, perhaps, the least prepossessing feature, although it is by no means an unintellectual one. Hair light auburn, in rich profusion, and always arranged with exquisite taste. The eyes are gray, brilliant, and expressive, without being full. The nose is well formed, with the Roman curve, and indicative of energy. This quality is also shown in the somewhat excessive prominence of the chin. The mouth is large, with brilliant and even teeth and flexible lips, capable of the most instantaneous and effective variation of expression. A more radiantly beautiful smile is quite impossible to conceive. [See: Mr. Poe’s Favorite Actress]

The public readings were a critical and popular success, although some felt the success was largely due to Mrs. Mowatt's "radiantly beautiful smile." A percentage of her friends and family from New York's upper crust were shocked at her decision to exhibit herself in such a fashion. Several openly snubbed her. The readings also failed to solve the Mowatts' financial difficulties. The Mowatts sold Melrose and moved into apartments in the Astor House in 1842.

Anna Cora developed severe respiratory problems and abruptly ended her career as a public reader. She was an invalid for the better part of the next four years. In her autobiography, she reports that she began a series of mesmeric treatments from Dr. William Francis Channing at this time; however, letters by Epes Sargent in 1842 indicate that she was already under Dr. Channing's care while still engaged in public readings.

Epes Sargent

Epes Sargent, from a 1860 etching

Mowatt devotes an entire chapter of her autobiography to a description of the unusual cure she underwent. Epes Sargent echoes her account in his The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism published in 1881. According to Mowatt and Sargent, mesmerism not only relieved Anna Cora's respiratory symptoms but elevated her to a higher state of consciousness where she could do all sorts of incredible things. She could write and embroider in absolute darkness, predict crises in her illness in advance, diagnose illnesses in others, and remain insensible to pain. Mowatt, under mesmeric influence, developed a second personality who called herself the "Gypsy" and Mowatt's waking self the "little Fool." The Gypsy wrote many poems and stories and loved to debate philosophy and religion for hours with Sargent and James Mowatt. Sargent wrote of her:

It is rare that a subject reaches the high stage to which she has attained. In her case we see daily proved the most  replying vocally to my unuttered questions, and sometimes even anticipating my thoughts by placing her hand on my head.

During these mesmeric experiences, Anna Cora and James Mowatt converted to the New Church, following the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish visionary. Anna Cora reports that James was converted to Swedenborgism from his discussions with the Gypsy. He, in turn, encouraged Anna Cora to study this new religion of which she claimed to have no previous knowledge in her waking state.

 

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For more in-depth information and analysis
 of
Mowatt's life and career, read
The Lady Actress:
Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar

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