Evelyn; or a Heart Unmasked
A Tale of Domestic Life
Publication Date: 1845
(From Imogene J. McCarthy’s 1953 Master’s Thesis “Anna Cora Mowatt and Her Audience”)
Much of the tale takes place in that nineteenth century phenomenon of American society – the fashionable boarding house. Upon taking up residence there, Kate Bolton, our narrator, a spinster of energetic and charitable nature, renews acquaintance with the Willards, who, with nothing to live on are yet living in style. Mr. Willard, a defeated little man, fears loss of caste less than his wife’s displeasure; Mrs. Willard, a woman of beauty, shrewdness, and no scruples, is admirably fitted to live by her wits; their daughter Evelyn is a sixteen year old beauty, charming in her immaturity, affectionate, light-hearted, and light-headed; Ellen, the older daughter, is crippled physically by a curvature of the spine and emotionally by the knowledge that she is a rejected child; Dick, the only son, is an impoverished and eccentric lawyer affected in times of stress by a form of nervous palsy, and his functions in the story seem only to be that of embarrassing his family and the more serious one of introducing the villain to his sister.
Among their fellow boarders was a prosperous young merchant named Merritt, dull, conventional to a fault, and marked for success. So adroit was Mrs. Willard in her matchmaking that at the time Merritt and Evelyn were wed they believed she gave her consent only with reluctance. The young Merritts were soon installed in their new home on Union Park, and shortly thereafter Mr. and Mrs. Willard and Ellen joined the ménage so that Mrs. Willard might relieve her scatter-brained Evelyn of the housekeeping duties for which she was so ill-equipped. (The author gives her own compilations a mischievous puff by her descriptions of Mrs. Willard as talking like “Mrs. Ellis’ housekeeping books.”) This arrangement had much to commend it and might have become permanent had not Dick made one of his untimely returns, bringing with him a new friend, Col. Damoreau, from the South. The colonel was a wealthy and bored libertine whose only interest was in recounting his amorous conquests in long letters to a confidant in Georgia. Never was a woman’s virtue assailed by a more deliberate, patient, discreet campaign than that which he now waged for a period of two years. He destroyed Evelyn’s peace of mind, but failed in his objective; in fact his villainy might have been of little moment if it had not been supplemented by the equally wicked machinations of Laura Hilson, another resident of the boarding house. Laura had hoped to marry Merritt herself; and when Evelyn married him, Laura did not put away her mask of friendship but neither did she lay aside her ambition. She now persuaded Evelyn that her sins were much more than occasional wandering thoughts and troubled sighs, that in fact in the eyes of society she was an unfaithful wife, her husband shamed, her infant daughter disgraced forever. Evelyn suddenly disappeared and was seen no more until from her deathbed two years or so later she sent for her family and Kate Bolton.
Woven in with the pathetic little history of Evelyn is the brighter thread of Kate Bolton’s romance with Ernest Elton, and the rehabilitation of Ellen Willard by means of financial independence earned by her own labor as a school mistress, and the sublimation of her starved affections in charitable works. There is also a darker thread in the passionate tale of one of Damereau’s earlier victims who pursues him to New York and at last obtains revenge by blinding and disfiguring him with acid.1
Katherine Bolton – friend of the Williard family who serves as the book’s primary narrator
Mrs. Willard – Ellen and Evelyn’s manipulative mother
Mr. Willard – Ellen and Evelyn’s disengaged father
Ellen Willard – the oldest Willard daughter, rejected by her mother because her potential to make a good marriage is marred by the curvature of her spine
Evelyn Willard Merritt – the younger, beautiful, impulsive Willard daughter
Richard Willard – Ellen and Evelyn’s socially inept brother
Mr. Merritt – wealthy young lawyer who marries Evelyn
Colonel Hubert Damereau – an adventurous rogue from New Orleans who serves as the book’s antagonist and secondary narrator
Frederick Ruthven – Damereau’s friend
Claudine/Blanche – a troubled young woman who has lost most of her memory but is bent on deadly vengeance
Amy Elwell – a virtuous friend of the Willard sisters
Laura Hilson – another acquaintance of the Willards who is secretly a rival for Mr. Merritt’s affections
At the time she wrote Evelyn, Mowatt was reading the novels of Frederika Bremer. Bremer, often called “the Swedish Jane Austin,” enjoyed a wave of popularity in the U.S. in the early 1840s after her novels were translated into English by Mary Howitt. The distinctive epistolary style of Evelyn is one representation Bremer’s influence.
In her autobiography, Mowatt reports that she first negotiated a sale of the two volume novel with a London publisher. However, the deal fell through when the gentleman insisted that she must extend the work to a third volume as was the current fashionable length. Since Mowatt’s heroine had died at the end of the second volume, she felt unable to comply.2
It is possible that Mowatt might have originally intended Evelyn to have been published under her pseudonym “Helen Berkeley” just as her first novel Fortune Hunter had been. However, there was a delay in the publication date. Evelyn was published in 1845 after Mowatt had become famous as the author of “Fashion” and had debuted as an actress. Publishers Carey & Hart were quick to cash in on her newly-minted celebrity and print the novel under the name “Anna Cora Mowatt.”
Although the timing of the book’s publication may have boosted sales, the fact that Evelyn followed so closely on the heels of the premier of “Fashion” and Mowatt’s debut as an actress probably prevented the book from getting the kind of sober critical consideration the work deserved. The Albion, whose critiques usually took Mowatt’s efforts as a playwright and a performer quite seriously, seems to lightly dismiss the novel as just another part of the publicity campaign surrounding the actress’ debut;
The authoress of “Fashion” bids fair to be as
successful in making agreeable books as in writing delightful comedies.
In the work before us, the scene of which is laid in
Graham’s Magazine, in which Mowatt had published many poems and short stories and therefore should have known better, scolded the novelist for being so prolific and varied in her talents in this peevish post;
We have the authority of several critics for pronouncing this an excellent novel, but as we have not had time to give it a careful perusal we can say nothing concerning it. If we may venture a hint, we will say that we think the author is attempting too many things at once to attain very high excellence in all. In a little more than a month, we have had a comedy, a novel, and a debut as an actress. The public has been startled by the series of efforts, but cannot yet be said to have given a decided approbation to any one of them. Our own opinion is, that Mrs. Mowatt is a woman of genius, and that she wants but careful study and diligent application to succeed eminently as a writer of fiction.4
The next month, though, the writers at Graham’s seem to have gotten over their pique. After having actually read the book, their reaction to the novel was much more positive than their response to the hoopla surrounding Mowatt had been.
Mrs. Mowatt is well known as the author of the Comedy of “Fashion” and as a prominent contributor to the various periodicals of the day. The present novel is in every way worthy of her reputation. The style is flowing and sparkling, well adopted for narration, and full of spirit and grace. The plot is deeply interesting, and is developed with great skill and boldness. The passions are represented with much power. The characters are well drawn, some of them displaying an insight into the heart at once keen and comprehensive.
Evelyn, the heroine, is delineated with most graphic skill. The whole novel evinces more mental resources than usually characterize works of the kind. Some scenes are wrought up with tragic force, and there are passages of exquisite pathos. It is a work which will outlive the ephemeral romances of the day, for it is grounded deep in human passion and affection.5
By far the most thoughtful contemporaneous review was from journalist and early Women’s Rights advocate, Margret Fuller. Fuller, writing for the New York Tribune, contrasts the work with that of Balzac and Godwin. She finds it to be an imperfect in its portrayal of passion. I would agree that Fuller is correct in classing Evelyn with these authors from the early Realistic school, but I would argue that the passion portrayed in this novel is supposed to feel empty and hollow. Fuller’s comments read as follows;
This is a very well written tale. The characters and events are taken from our every-day experience and described with nature and simplicity. The story is remarkably well told, and the catastrophe brought on with but little semblance of improbability. There is a little; for these strange results which the workings of the passions produce in real life are incredible in fiction, unless the inward cause can be made as palpable as the outward phenomenon. Not to mention works of the highest genius; in those of Godwin and Balzac – the most singular facts do not surprise us, because we are led to expect them through the minds of the agents. But “the true is not always the probable,” and, in the tale before us, the difficulty in making it seem probable is not always met. We cannot conceive of Evelyn rejoining her lover, after returning home to see her child; this might happen; but we are not made to feel the possibility of it in this instance. – The tone of thought and feeling is very good. The tale is a moral tale; but its morality is animated by a gentle and feeling heart. Many details show that the writer makes her observations with the aid of good sense, good taste and discretion.6
Evelyn was a novel that critics seemed to appreciate more when looking back retrospectively on Mowatt’s career as a writer than they did when the work was originally published just as this reviewer writing in 1850 does;
These tales give us a higher idea of Mrs.
Mowatt’s talents as an authoress than her plays did. Taken in conjunction with
those dramas and with the pleasing powers as an actress displayed by the lady –
they not only establish a case of more than common versatility, but indicate
that with labor and concentration so gifted a person might have taken a high
place whether on the library shelf or on the stage. In another point of view
they are less agreeable. Alas, for those primitive souls who with a
perverse constancy may still wish to fancy
Although overshadowed by the spectacular success of theatrical pursuits, Evelyn is one of Mowatt’s most interesting literary efforts.
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1. McCarthy, Imogene J. “Anna Cora Mowatt and Her Audience.” Thesis. University of Maryland, 1953. Pages 35-37.
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Pages 187.
3. “Evelyn, or a Heart Unmasked.” The Albion. July 12, 1845. Page 336, col. 1
4. “Evelyn, or the Heart Unmasked.” Graham’s Magazine. Vol. XXVIII, No. 2. August, 1845. Page 96.
5. “Evelyn: Or, A Heart Unmasked. A Tale of Domestic Life.” Graham’s Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3. September, 1845. Page 144.
6. “Evelyn, or a Heart Unmasked – A Tale of Domestic Life.” New York Weekly Tribune. July 12, 1845. Page 6.
7. London Athenaeum. November 23, 1850. Quoted in The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt by Marius Blesi. University of Virginia, 1938. Page 138-139.
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