In which Mrs. Mowatt retires from the stage, becomes Mrs. Ritchie, and meets an untimely end

Later Years

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, Mt. Vernon Portrait
On June 7, 1854, Anna Cora married William Foushee Ritchie in an elaborate Richmond wedding. Two thousand invitations were issued. Among the invited guests were the President of the United States (Franklin Pierce), his cabinet, and a large number of the members of the Congress and of the Virginia Legislature.

The New York Times titled their coverage of the ceremony a "Fashionable and Elegant Fete" and declared it, "the most elegantly dressed, and in other respects, distinguished which has been brought together for many a day." They go on to mention the presence of Senator Stephen A. Douglas along with what they estimated to be five or six hundred other guests.

The bride, the reported wore a "dress of superb white silk, inlaid with lace, deeply flounced, and a long bridal veil of costly thread lace, secured by a white myrtle wreath." The writer declared the total effect to be "altogether exquisite, without sacrificing simplicity to extravagance."

During her years of marriage to Ritchie, Anna Cora became involved in the movement to preserve George Washington's home at Mount Vernon as a national historic site. She also wrote two fictional novels based on her experiences in the theatre. Mimic Life; or, Before and Behind the Curtain (actually three novellas collected in one volume) was published in 1855 and Twin Roses; a Narrative in 1857.
 

Mimic Life is Mowatt's autobiography in fictional form. The first story, "Stella," parallels Mowatt's own debut as an actress. Other incidents in "The Unknown Tragedian" and "The Prompter's Daughter" echo anecdotes Mowatt relates in her Autobiography. The book gives an invaluable backstage view of theatre life in the early nineteenth century. 

Broadway, Circa 1850 

Broadway, Circa 1850

 

Mowatt described the duties of the licensed puffer of the theatre, the purpose of the assemblies of actors in the green-room, the role of the prompter, and the shabbiness of typical backstage quarters. Mowatt gave descriptions of the preparations her heroines take to play roles she herself enacted such as Desdemona, Virginia, and Evadne that give insight into what Mowatt's acting must have been like.

Although Mowatt's heroines endure much tragedy, Mimic Life is hilarious reading in spots such as the following describing my favorite Mowatt character, the disaster-prone Mrs. Pottle, in an incident happening in days when actors were required to supply their own costumes:

Anna Cora Mowatt Reading
Mrs. Pottle next strutted on the stage. Her stunted, shrivelled-up figure was almost concealed in the folds of her far-spreading train, fashioned in flame-colored cotton velvet. She had prodigally adorned her diminutive head with a huge crown, cut out of foil. It was of her own tasteful manufacture, and being somewhat limp in construction, shook and rattled at every movement. Such a peal of laughter as broke from the audience when she turned to them her wizened face! Mrs. Pottle had been occupying her leisure moments in the green-room in the laudable pursuit of plain sewing. She chanced, at the moment when Fisk made his call, to be more deeply engrossed by her housewifely avocation than her professional triumphs. The queen had pompously stalked upon the stage without removing the spectacles, which glittered just beneath her gilt-paper crown. The hand which she lifted to give point to her declamation showed one finger armed with a shining brass thimble. The unconscious Pottle smiled benignly; and, when the diversion of the audience found vent in mocking applause, she curtseyed in the style in which she thought queens were wont to curtsey. It may be well to state that her conception of royalty was chiefly derived from the right regal dame chronicled in "Mother Goose" as diverting herself in the kitchen with the consumption of bread and honey.

Some individual in the gallery waggishly inquired whether her royal majesty had quite repaired the aperture in her royal consort's stocking. Mrs. Pottle's attention was consequently attracted to her thimble. She plucked the tell-tale armor, and hunted for a pocket; but pocket to her newly-made queenly garment there was none. She clutched at her spectacles; they were entangled in her hair, but, after, a several furious pulls, gave way, dislodging the wonderful crown. It sent forth a tinsel sound, as it lightly dropped on stage. The merriment of the audience now reached its height. Mrs. Pottle was decidedly crestfallen.

Mimic Life is, if nothing else, a marvelous document of nineteenth century American theatre.

Twin Roses started as a story Mowatt intended to include in Mimic Life. She expanded it to novel length. It is the story of the misfortunes of the twin sisters Jessie and Jeanie Garnett. Both fall in love with actor Herman Landor. The book is much the same in tone and character as Mimic Life. Along with the chronicling the twins' misadventures, Mowatt continued her fight to expose and nullify theatrical prejudice in passages like the following:

In Virginia, a canon of the church prohibits its members from attending dramatic representations. Thus the acted drama seemed placed without the pale of good. [Jessie] knew nothing of the arguments which might be used in extenuation of so narrow an edict. Much that to her seemed the growth of bigotry did not deserve a name so solemnly harsh. Traditional prejudice -- the excitement produced by the burning of a theater (1811), in which many valuable lives were lost -- perhaps some abuses of the theatre itself, and a want of desire, or power, to suppress them, on the part of the public -- these causes might have furnished a fitter appellation for the source whence the edict emanated.

In both Twin Roses and Mimic Life, Mowatt created sympathetic characters who suffer as a result of prejudice against the theatre.

In Mowatt's real life, things were not going well. Although biographer Marius Blesi vigorously denies problems in the Ritchie marriage, Anna Cora left her Richmond home never to return in 1860. She originally traveled to be with her ailing father, who died on April 5, 1860. On August 25, 1860, she sailed for Europe without William Foushee to visit one of her sisters who was also ailing. In Lady of Fashion, biographer Eric Barnes speculated that there might have been a difference of opinion on the issues of slavery and states rights between the Ritchies and hinted that William Foushee might have had a black mistress.

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, circa 1854

  

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie, circa 1854

 

Regardless of what the domestic situation was between the two, the outbreak of the Civil War effectively discouraged Anna Cora's potential return to Virginia. She lived in Paris from 1861-63. From there, she published The Mute Singer, A Novel in 1861.

The Mute Singer is the story of Sylvie de la Roche. Like the characters of Mimic Life, Sylvie is also a performer, but this time a singer rather than an actress. She is the daughter of extremely poor parents who do not recognize her talent, but is taken under the wing of their neighbor Maitre Beaujeau, a gruff old music teacher. He takes Sylive on as a pupil and secures her an opportunity to sing at the home of a rich count. She is a tremendous success, especially with young Marquis and Mademoiselle de St. Amar. Sylvie and the Marquis immediately fall in love, but she dares not hope to marry a man with such a high social position.

The count's concert master hires Sylvie, but the strains of rehearsals and excitement of performances cause her health to fail and she has a nervous breakdown. She recovers her health but seems to have permanently lost her voice. When her father is injured one day a few miserable weeks later, Sylvie, in a moment of panic, regains her singing, but not her speaking voice. Hence she becomes a mute singer. After much turmoil and melodramatic misunderstandings, Sylvie marries the Marquis and almost everyone lives happily ever after.

The Mute Singer was originally published in serial form in The New York Ledger. The story ran on the first page of the weekly issue of this publication from January 26, 1861, through March 30, 1861. It was evidently quite popular. Editor Robert Bonner bragged in an April 13, 1861, editorial that Empress Eugenie was among the novel's entranced readers:

We learn, through a private letter from Paris, that on a recent occasion, while the maids of Eugenie were preparing her toilette prior to her going to a grand ball, she amused herself with reading Mrs. Ritchie's story of "The Mute Singer" in the LEDGER. So absorbed did the Empress become in this fascinating story that she continued to read on after the maids had finished their work, without noticing that the hour had passed when she was to notify the Emperor of her readiness to depart. Napoleon, meanwhile, grew impatient at the delay, and finally sent his chamberlain to notify the Empress that he was "awaiting her pleasure" whereby she was recalled to herself, and bade "The Mute Singer" goodbye until she should return.

Whether or not the story actually found its way into the boudoir of the French Empress, it did enter many American homes. Robert Bonner claimed that in 1861 the Ledger made more money than any other American newspaper.

Anna Cora moved to Florence in 1863, where she produced Fairy Fingers, A Novel in 1865. In her article, "Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie's Fairy Fingers: From Eugene Scribe's?," Patti Gillespie claimed that the plot and characters of Mowatt's 1866 novel are identical to Eugene Scribe's 1858 play Les Doigts de fee. Both tell the same the story of a poor orphan of aristocratic stock who falls in love with a count's son. After a series of misunderstandings, she flees to America and opens a dress shop that quickly becomes the talk of Washington society due to her great skill at sewing. The count and his family visit America on business. They encounter Madelaine again when she is hired to make a ball gown for the daughter of the family. Other complications ensue, but through various acts of selfless heroism, Madelaine wins the approval of the count and countess. The family is reconciled; the complications are resolved; and the young lovers marry.

Gillespie reasoned there are three possibilities that would account for the similarity between Scribe's play and Mowatt's novel: Mowatt drew from Scribe; Scribe drew from Mowatt; or both drew from a third source. Since Mowatt had a history of drawing inspiration from other sources, Scribe characteristically cited even minor contributors to his works, and Gillespie could find no third source for the plot, she concluded that it is probable that Mowatt took the plot of her novel from Scribe's play. However, in a way that Scribe's text does not, Mowatt used the story of Madelaine the seamstress to comment on issues of health, the status of women, and the trials of working women. To Mowatt, on her own at this time and forced to be financially independent, these were all issues of crucial importance.

Portrait of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie

The Civil War deprived William Foushee of his fortune and primary means of income. Rather than returning to him in 1865, Anna Cora moved to England, hoping to resume her stage career. The damp climate brought on another attack of her chronic respiratory illness. She lived as an invalid, maintaining a meager income by selling articles on the London scene to American journals. Despite the longevity and severity of her illness, neither her husband nor any of her relatives were present when she died. Her old friend Epes Sargent was among the last people to visit her. He wrote:

I saw her two days before her death, and never did I witness such perfect, cheerful tranquillity as she manifested. In that supreme moment, when death seemed to have his hand on her, her thoughts and conversation were all of others, not once of herself.

Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie died in Twickenham, England, on July 21, 1870. She was fifty-one years old. Her body was buried in Kensall Green Cemetery in London with her first husband, James Mowatt.

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Cover for "The Lady Actress"

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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