Memoir in Howitt’s Journal
Anna Cora Mowatt met William and Mary Howitt during her time in London after her theatrical debut. The couples were editors of “Howitt’s Journal of Literature and Popular Progress” and “The People’s Journal.” They rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Tennyson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Although the Howitts were Quakers, like Mowatt, they were both fascinated with Swedenborgism and Mesmerism at the time she encountered them.
Mowatt breathlessly describes her star-struck first meeting with Mary Howitt in her autobiography:
The entourage of
friendships will render any locality a home.
The most genial of
social surroundings soon made us cease to feel like strangers in
Although Mary Howitt published over forty works of fiction and non-fiction during her lifetime in addition to several collections of verse and many co-authored volumes with her husband, the single contribution she for which she is remembered in literary history is writing the poem “The Spider and the Fly.” The journal she and her husband co-edited covered art, literature, and liberal causes of the day. In its pages were to be found profiles of figures such as George Sand, Hans Christian Anderson, and Jenny Lind.
It is, therefore with understandable pride and excitement that Mowatt reports in her autobiography of Howitt’s interest in printing a piece on her:
Her personal acquaintance with members of the dramatic profession had awakened an interest in the stage. But in what subject, affecting human welfare, does not Mary Howitt take a ready interest? Out of what unpretending ore would not the alchemy of her philanthropic mind strike a vein of gold? Our accidental introduction ripened into an attachment – at least on my side. We were constantly thrown into communication; and Mary Howitt’s visits, generally extended to some hours, ushered in my “white days.” She proposed to add mine to the collection of memoirs that had already flowed from her graphic pen, and desired us to furnish her with materials. In compliance with this request, my early history was related, principally by Mr. Mowatt. The memoir, which she used to pronounce “a labor of love,” was published in the People’s Journal. William and Mary Howitt were at that time the editors.2
It is of particular interest to me that Mowatt notes that much of the material about her early life was generated by James Mowatt. I had never noticed that fact until I was working on this article. The memoirs that were printed in “Howitt’s Journal” served as a starting point for “Autobiography of an Actress.” That work in turn significantly influenced Eric Barnes’ and Mildred Butler’s biographies of Mowatt, each of which devote a lot of sympathetic ink to her child-bride marriage to James Mowatt.
In my article on her autobiography, I talk about the writing of this work as an act of self-fashioning without ever accounting for the invisible hand of James Mowatt. Because it is impossible to know how much of this material he wrote, it is impossible to calculate how much posthumous influence this long-dead husband had on his wife’s telling of her life’s story.
It is striking in this abbreviated account of Mowatt’s life how each milestone of artistic development is paired with a biographical incident featuring Mr. Mowatt. This linking of creative achievements that Anna Cora made with acts of mentoring and support from James Mowatt puts a lot of emphasis on the contribution he made to her work as an artist without ever overtly making that connection. This coupling of the wife's acheivements with the husband's actions is not terribly surprising when one remembers that the narrative was relying on James Mowatt’s memory of events. However one must wonder if different events would have would have been included or excluded if Anna Cora had worked only from her own recollections.
What is easier to discern is that the Howitts immediately offered a framing device for Mowatt’s story that she would develop as a consistent theme in her autobiography – that of a person of high moral character reforming the public’s perception of the theatre as a place that is inherently corrupt and corrupting:
Our readers need not be told that we consider the stage as capable of becoming one of the great means of human advance and improvement; and for this reason it is that we especially rejoice to see amongst us ornaments men and women, not only of surpassing talent and genius, but which is far higher and much rarer, of high moral character and even deep religious feeling. Let not the so-called religious world start at this assertion; we know what we say, and we fearlessly assert that there is many a poor despised player, whose Christian graces of faith, patience, charity, and self-denial, put to shame the vaunted virtues of the proud Pharisee; nor Are they always the purest who talk most about purity.
Welcome then, and doubly welcome be all such reformers as come amongst us, not only with the high argument of their own pure and blameless lives, but who having passed through suffering and trial know experimentally how to teach, and who teach through the persuasive power of genius and the benign influence of a noble, womanly spirit! 3
Mary Howitt, whose husband and frequent co-author’s work was favorable commented on by Karl Marx, may have given conservative-leaning Anna Cora Mowatt a progressive pose to shelter her against her public relations problems. By framing her story as that of a virtuous underdog in the fight against overzealous moral guardians, Mowatt could avoid the unflattering option of coming off as an immodest rule-breaker touting her own overnight success.
Edgar Allan Poe in this 1845 review of her acting debut at Niblo’s Garden had also sounded similar notes about the inherent cultural value of the theatre and scolding those who shunned her socially because of her decision to become an actress.4
Mary Howitt’s description of Mowatt’s choice to go onstage and her first nerve-wracking rehearsals with the professional cast of Broadway actors emphasis Mowatt’s degree of consciously and courageously exercising agency in this norm-breaking career decision:
The gloomy theatre dimly lighted with gas almost chilled her. All the persons belonging to the theatre were collected round tie scenes ready to sneer or laugh, or with malicious pleasure to confuse the novice; but Mrs. Mowatt, summoning all her energies, resolved to do her very best, and regardless of all present, to act her part, exactly as she would do it before the public at night; she took all by surprise, as they afterwards frankly confessed, and when the second act was finished each, in the kindest manner, did his utmost to help her —the very actors themselves applauded, which is the highest species of praise, because it is the most unusual. No one doubted the success which awaited her.
The important morning of her debût was come, and without having the least misgiving she felt how momentous it was. She reviewed her past life, and saw that the very hand of
Mowatt quotes Howitt in her autobiography in her report of her thoughts as she deliberated on the wisdom of going onstage and follows them by saying:
These lines had not then been written, but they apply to many a woman, whom I have known, who bears the too often contemptuously uttered name of “actress;” women who, with hearts full of anguish, nightly practice forgetfulness of self, and of their private sorrows, to earn their bread by delighting a public who misjudges them.6
Howitt’s words could not have affected her decision, but they do seem to be shaping the way the tells the story of her decision-making process and its consequences. In Mowatt’s autobiography, she reports undergoing this same deliberative process on her own without male guidance. She even adds a dash of rather worldly-wise cynicism:
I pondered long and seriously upon the consequences of my entering the profession. The “qu’en dira t’on?” of Society had no longer the power to awe me. Was it right? Was it wrong? Were questions of higher moment. My respect for the opinions of “Mrs. Grundy” had slowly melted away since I discovered that, with that respectable representative of the world in general, success sanctified all things; nothing was reprehensible but failure. 7
Howitt’s “Memoirs” was written in 1848. Autobiography of an Actress wouldn’t be published until 1854. Howitt’s work is shorter and more compressed. Most of the anecdotes covered are expanded upon by Mowatt at length in the autobiography. Very few are omitted completely.
For the convenience of Mowatt scholars, we are attaching a complete text of “Memoirs of Anna Cora Mowatt” in a .zip file holding .jpgs of the original pages for compairison and the carefully edited text saved in two formats. Mowatt herself considered the article an important document when composing her autobiography and refers to it several times either to correct the record or as a source of inspiration. It is obvious to me that Mowatt modeled the framing of both the story of her career in the theatre and the fictional representations she presents in Mimic Life from Howitt’s more progressive political stance towards theatrical workers as representatives of an oppressed working class. Other revelations about underlying themes in Mowatt’s autobiography could be revealed by a close study comparing Howitt’s version of the material provided to her by James Mowatt and what ended up being included or excluded from the final version of her life story produced by Anna Cora Mowatt herself.