by Anna Cora Ritchie
Publisher: Geo. W. Carleton (New York)
Publication Date: May,1865
(From Marius Blesi’s 1938 Dissertation “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt”)
The story opened in a drawing room of an ancient chateau in Brittany where the Gramonts (who represent impoverished royalty) were in conference concerning their precarious financial situation. The Countess Dowager de Gramont, a violent and domineering person, and her only son, Count Tristan, who was haughty and wily by nature, had never sullied their hands with toil of any sort, and they fervently hoped that they would never have to associate with persons who work for a living – the common people. The Dowager and the Count plotted to get the Count’s son, Maurice, to marry Bertha de Merrivale, an orphan heiress who resided with them. Bertha, a sweet but rather ineffectual girl, did not love Maurice, but was attracted toward a likable young nobleman, Gaston de Bois, who, unfortunately, had an impediment in his speech.
Maurice was in love with Madeleine de Gramont, a poor relation of the family. Like Bertha, she was an orphan. Because of her ability to sew for the Dowager, Madeleine had received the appellation, “Fairy Fingers.” But sewing was only one of the thousand tasks that Madeleine capably performed. “Hers was a nature peculiarly susceptible to the pure delight of serving, aiding, sparing trouble to those whom she loved.”1
When the Dowager and the Count learned from the lips of Maurice that he intended to make Madeleine his wife, they were not only furious, but they villainously persecuted the girl until she secretly took her departure from the chateau.
The first half of the novel concerns Maurice’s wanderings in search of his lost Madeleine. Ill in Paris, he unknowingly was nursed at nights by Madeleine, who was disguised as a sister de bon secours. When he had recovered from his sickness, he once again set out on his travels and after some years had elapsed, came to America to study law. “In America, he saw men, self-made and self-educated, at an age when young Frenchmen have scarcely begun to be aware that they have any independent existence.”2
Madeleine, after the Paris episode, had come to the United States and had established herself as a fashionable dress maker in Washington, and had changed her name to Madame Melanie. Her shop soon became famous in the city. Senators’ wives fought for the privilege of wearing Madame’s “creations.” Madeleine’s “fairy fingers” rapidly made her a rich woman. “There was something in her own nature which responded to the spirit of self-reliance, energy, and industry, which are so essentially American characteristics.”3
When at long last Maurice found his lost Madeleine, he is sure that she would reward his diligence and his love with marriage. However, she bluntly told him she could never become his wife.
The Dowager and the Count, who followed Maurice to America, did not rejoice to learn that a de Gramont – and a poor relation – had stooped so low as to become a working woman. At first they refused to have anything to do with her but a series of circumstances forced them to acknowledge her.
Maurice had inherited from his uncle, the Count’s brother, a Maryland estate on which a railroad company wished to put through its trackage. This estate was held in trust by the Count, who had power-of-attorney over Maurice’s money. The Count had never used this power until he became heavily in debt; then, unknown to Maurice, he mortgaged the estate, gambling on the company’s putting through the railroad to repay his losses. In the meantime, Madeleine put up her own money to protect the Count and keep Maurice from becoming involved. Then she also used her influence with the wives of the executives – her dress shop patrons – to get their husbands to vote for the trackage through Maurice’s estate. Finally, when the Count suffered a stroke at Madeleine’s residence, Madeleine nursed him so carefully and devotedly that she expelled from his heart the last bit of hatred towards her. Later he gladly gave his consent for her marriage to Maurice.
Although Madeleine revealed her love for Maurice, she refused still to marry him until the Dowager gave her consent. When, at last, Madeleine saved the old lady’s life, almost at the expense of her own, the Countess de Gramont recognized the fact that “the hand of God” had shamed her, and she gave her consent to the marriage.
The story ends with the double marriage of Maurice to Madeleine, and of Gaston to Bertha.4
Labor is redemptive
Friendships between women are powerfully nurturing
True love overcomes all challenges
Countess Dowager de Gramont: proud and inflexible matriarch of the Gramonts
Count Tristan de Gramont: son of the Countess
Viscount Maurice de Gramont: son of Tristan, grandson of the Countess
Madeleine de Gramont: orphaned cousin of the Gramonts
Bertha de Merrivale: pretty young cousin of the Gramonts
Marquis de Merrivale: Bertha’s uncle, a gourmand who sees all the world through the lens of appetite
Gaston de Bois: neighbor of the Gramonts, friend to Madeleine and Maurice, secretly in love with Bertha
Baptiste: the Gramonts’ gardener
Baron and Baroness de Tremazan: neighbors of the Gramonts
Marchioness de Fleury: fashion-obsessed noblewoman
Mr. Hilson: an American businessman visiting Brittany, becomes an important contact for the Gramonts when they travel to the U.S.
Ronald Walton: an artist who aids and befriends Maurice and Gaston in Paris then helps them make connections in the U.S.
Mr. and Mrs. Walton: Ronald’s parents
Ruth Thorton: Madeleine’s protégé, her chief assistant at her Washington dress shop
Mademoiselle Victorine: forewoman in Madeleine’s dress shop
Mrs. Gilmer: fashionable young wife of a wealthy banker, becomes bitter rival of Madame de Fleury after her arrival in the U.S.
Lord Linden: English visitor to the U.S., becomes infatuated with Madeleine
Lady Augusta: Lord Linden’s sister, married to the English ambassador to the U.S.
Mrs. Lawkins: Madeleine’s no-nonsense housekeeper
Mrs. Gratacap: comically plain-spoken Yankee nurse hired to care for the Countess
Although not overtly credited as such, Fairy Fingers is a novelization of Eugene Scribe and Ernest Legouve’s 1860 play “Les Doigts de Fee.” Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie took the one hundred and forty pages of dialogue and scene descriptions that make up the five-act comedy and expanded it into a sprawling four hundred and sixty page novel, adding an entirely new second half to the plot taking place in the U.S. with scores of characters and events that do not appear in the original. Rather than stealthily concealing her source, she dubbed her novel with an English translation of the French title and retained several place and character names. In a few instances, the author re-christened characters with the name of the actor who had played the role in the play’s premiere at the Comedie Francaise.
International copyright laws were quite different in the 1850s and 60s. It was not uncommon for even established and well-respected playwrights in England and the U.S. to adapt French or German scripts without formally acknowledging their source material. Since Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s Fairy Fingers was not simply an English adaptation of Scribe and Legouve’s play, but a re-working to a different literary format that significantly changed and greatly expanded the source material, she may not have felt any legal or ethical obligation to credit the French comedy.
After the successful serialization of The Mute Singer in The New York Ledger in early 1861, Editor Robert Bonner touted a forthcoming novel from Anna Cora would soon commence a number of times in the columns of his paper. This work never materialized. Playwright Eugene Scribe died on February 20, 1861. If Fairy Fingers was the novel she was working on at that time and if there were negotiations going on for permission to adapt “Les Doigts de Fee,” Scribe’s death could have possibly complicated those dealings and delayed publication of the work in serialized form with Bonner in the Ledger.
The book was eventually published in 1865 by Geo. W. Carleton. This New York firm had a sterling reputation for producing high quality translations of French works. Carleton’s list of recent bestsellers at the time included the authorized English translations of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Michelet’s L’Amour and La Femme, and several works by Balzac.5 The publishing firm was no fly-by-night operation blindly churning out paper. Carleton’s was fully staffed with persons fluent in that language and seemed to have a robust appetite for introducing French literature to the U.S. reading public. It seems unlikely that this publisher would not have been aware of Fairy Fingers’ connection to Scribe and Legouve’s “Les Doigts de Fee” and the extent of their legal obligations to properly credit that work.
At the time of Fairy Fingers’ publication, the U.S. Civil War had only been over less than a month. With friends and relatives on both sides of the conflict, Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie had remained carefully neutral, making no public statement of sympathy for either side (although she had quietly done volunteer work to aid the Union Army during her stay with relatives in New York after the outbreak of hostilities.) Separated from her husband, the author had lived abroad for most of the war. The portions of Fairy Fingers that take place in the U.S. are set in a carefully ambiguous pre-War time-frame from which all sorts of issues and persons who might trigger thoughts of the all-too-recent conflict were scrupulously scrubbed. However, discussion of how Mrs. Ritchie had spent the war years overshadowed discussion of the merits of her novel in most of the reviews published in May and June of 1865.
The Boston papers, as usual, supported the author. Some writers did so in an indirect manner with positive reviews like the following;
Mrs. Anna Cora Ritchie, Late Mrs. Mowatt, has given us “Fairy Fingers,” a work which will be eagerly sought for. The scene is laid in France, where the author at present resides, we believe, and the manner and habits of the people are described with a happy pictorial effect not often equaled. The story leads captive both the heart and the imagination, appeals to the highest qualities of the mind, and calls forth none but the best sympathies; yet it is so strangely touching, so sweetly interesting, we do not wonder at the great success of the charming and versatile author. Just the book for summer reading.6
Others, like Epes Sargent’s Boston Transcript, took the opportunity put their loyalty on display with straight forward rebuttals to accusations;
“Fairy Fingers,” just ready, is by Anna Cora Ritchie, the well-known author and actress. I have not yet had the pleasure of reading it, but hear it highly spoke of by those who have read the proof-sheets. It is a story in praise of persistent and useful labor. The scenes are laid in France and this country, and the main characters are included in a noble and proud, but impoverished French family whose fortunes are minutely described. Since the rebellion broke out Mrs. Ritchie has been residing in Italy, and as her loyalty has been questioned by some, I would state on the authority of her friends that she does not share in the treasonable sentiments of her husband, the late Richmond editor, but is loyal to the interests and principles of the North.7
Partisan feelings, however, turned some reviewers positively nasty, though, as in this gratuitously scathing review from a Philadelphia. (Why did Anna Cora Mowatt always get so little affection from the newspaper critics of City of Brotherly Love?) The writer goes out of their way to include sexist ad hominem attacks on the author ad well as bitter speculations on her lack of loyalty to the Union to their disparagement of the novel’s merits;
“Fairy Fingers,” also published by Carleton, is the production of Anna Cora Ritchie, who may be remembered as Mrs. Mowatt, the actress-author, among other things, of an “Autobiography,” in which she ingeniously has evaded giving any information at all likely to let the reader know how old she is, and, with equal adroitness, gently omitting whatever, if truly and fully told, might not exactly raise the subject of her work in the estimation of its readers. When the Rebellion broke out, she was residing at Richmond, where her husband was proprietor of the Examiner, a daily paper which has since, in John Mitchell’s hands, been the bitterest antagonist of law, order, and freedom. Her political leanings keeping her from seeking an asylum in the North, and her personal antipathy to a scarcity in silks and satins at Richmond aiding her desire, she found her way to Europe, where she had resided for nearly four years – latterly holding a sort of court at Florence, like the Empress Catherine at St. Petersburg, and like her, “fat, fair, and fifty.” We freely give Mrs. Mowatt the credit of having written the whole of “Fairy Fingers,” which is more than we would like to say of sundry dramas which bore her name on the title page. It gives a lively view of society, Provincial and Parisian, in France, during the present or restored Empire. The true heroine is and antiquated Countess, vegetating in pride and poverty, in an old chateau in Brittany, with as son, grandson, and two nieces. One of these, very rich, declines to fall in love with Maurice, the grandson, and takes to a certain Gaston de Bois, afterward secretary to the French Ambassador at Washington, whose chief characteristic is that he stutters terrible when he does not curse awfully. The Countess Dowager de Gramont is as poor as Job, having little more than some acres in Maryland – a projected railroad through which will materially double their value, if it takes a particular route. With her son, grandson and one niece, (the other, only daughter of the Duc de Gramont, but dowerless, has been compelled, by ill-treatment, to quit Brittany,) this old lady crosses the Atlantic and takes up her residence at Brown’s Hotel, Washington, during the closing years of Mr. Buchannan’s Presidency. The time is certain, for it was before the Rebellion, and the party stop, en route, at the Fifth-avenue Hotel, which was opened about 1859-60. The missing niece, Madeleine, turns up in Washington, occupying a splendid mansion near the Capitol, and carrying on the trade of a mantua-maker, with so much profit that she has paid for the house, all but $10,000. The Marchioness de Fleury (an extravagantly draw character, but one of the best in the book,) patronizes and befriends her; but the old Countess proudly stands up against recognizing a mantua-maker as her niece. This dowager’s pride of birth, amid actual poverty, (which yet is no bar to her occupying an expensive suit of rooms with retinue to match, at Brown’s) is a caricature from first to last. Indeed, the scenes of Washington life are as absurdly drawn as if an English novelist who had never visited this country had merely imagined them. At last, the Count’s death somewhat subdues his very stupid old mother, and she consents that her grandson, the Viscount Maurice, who chooses to practice the law at Charleston, shall marry the ducal mantua-maker, the other niece espousing the diplomatic gentleman who rarely speaks plainly, except when he swears. There is a certain Ronald Walton, a South Carolinian Admirable Crichton, endowed with all virtues and talents, who though only child of rich parents, becomes a great Painter – being the first from that State, we dare to say, who ever achieved reputation in such a manner – but Mrs. Mowatt Ritchie desired, no doubt, to exhibit him as a specimen of the “Southern chivalry” she so exceedingly admires. There are a few lively scenes in this novel – between one Mrs. Gratacap, a Yankee Nurse, and the proud Countess. The noticeable point in this is that not only the Countess, but her son, nieces, grandson and several others, all speak English, as if by intuition, from the moment they settle down in Washington. Our judgement upon “Fairy Fingers” is that a more incoherent, indigested, improbable, and absurd novel has rarely been published. It might have been improved by judicious pruning, which would have cut it down from 460 to about 200 pages. It is its author’s worst-written book, and very few who commence reading it are likely to go through it to the end, as we, for our sins, were compelled to, in order to ascertain what manner of work it was.8
Even the reviewer from New Orleans, who was never a great friend to Mowatt during her acting career, didn’t allow themselves to get quite as spiteful;
This novel is written in a less elegant, but much more nervous and racy style, than either “The Autobiography” or “Mimic Life.” The plot, though comparatively simple, is carefully planned and the interest well sustained. We prefer to see characters more fully developed by their words and actions than is the case in “Fairy Fingers,” and that less space should be devoted by the writer to descriptions of dispositions and temperature. We positively object to any more love scenes being interrupted by the unexpected arrival of an “awful third party.” It is a piece of cruelty on the heroes and heroines of American fiction that is becoming as common as the burning of the Richmond Theatre. The distinction Mrs. Ritchie won in her former career as an actress, and the wide popularity of her previous writings, will ensure an immense sale of this new production of her pen.9
Only a few reviewers treated the novel with the sort of even handedness it would have probably received in pre-war years as in the following, who does, however, somewhat absurdly suggest that the author needs to spend more time abroad in order to make her characters seem more lifelike;
Fairy Fingers is the title of a novel by Anna Cora Ritchie, and is like herself, American by blood and French by birth. Her leading character are from the old nobility in Brittany, and, though strongly drawn, lack some little touches of vraisemblance that a closer acquaintance with life abroad would have given them. We have a stately old dowager, whose pride takes that brief step from the sublime to the ridiculous, a narrow-minded son, a half-emancipated grandson, and his two pretty cousins, one of whom, though the daughter of a duke, is the demoiselle of the fairy fingers, and has a high character joined to fine taste and great practical adroitness. Urged by poverty and the unkindness of her relatives, she maintains herself as a modiste, thereby putting her grand-aunt to aristocratic tortures. All the parties emigrate to America, and here the fair heroine passes through those marvelous trials which heighten by contrast the effect of her ultimate happiness. The book shows ability and interest as novels go, though crude in portions and overwrought throughout. The heroine is a miracle of self-sacrifice and a marvel in her powers of adaptation. One cannot help wondering that such prodigies should consent to at last be happy in the ordinary way.10
Only the critic from the Scottish-American Journal (based in New York) managed to achieve a truly upbeat tone;
This new novel, by the authoress of “Autobiography of an Actress,” (late Mrs. Mowatt, not only well known as an author, but bearing some celebrity as an actress) will no doubt be well received. It is now some time since this lady has appeared before the public, in either of her capacities, and from her well-earned reputation as a novelist, her book will be much run after.
The opening chapters depict life in Brittany, and the plot is simply as follows: -- The Countess Dowager de Gramont, an old lady with very aristocratic predilections, fully bent upon bringing between a favorite grandson, Viscount Maurice de Gramont and Bertha de Merrivale, her grand-niece, a wealthy heiress, is foiled in her endeavors by the said Maurice preferring to consider himself the best judge in these matters, and most waywardly chooses as his lady love, Madeleine, a poor but beautiful and accomplished protégé of his scheming granddame. Madeleine’s pretty face and sweet disposition soon make sad havoc with young Maurice’s susceptible heart, who at length declares his passion, and is rejoiced to find that it is reciprocated, but as the course of true love seldom runs smooth, many are the scenes of heart rendings, cross purposes, and “all the ills that lovers are heir to.” When a happy denouement takes place, resulting in a double marriage, which makes all parties reconciled to each other, concluding the story, which finishes in the United States, and hinges upon the maneuvering of the several characters trying to attain their several objects.
From the somewhat lengthened residence of Mrs. Ritchie in France, she has been able to portray the manners and customs of the people with admirable truthfulness and naiveté. Her story appeals to the mind, and calls forth one’s best sympathies, creating an interest throughout, and stamping it as the chef d’ouvre of this versatile lady. Fairy Fingers will certainly be a prominent work in the hands of novel readers this season and will help to while away many a pleasant hour on the sea-beach or at the Spa.11
I think this reviewer’s cheery suggestion for an appropriate setting for reading the novel neatly puts a pin in the explanation for the discordant reviews Fairy Fingers received. In May of 1865, mere weeks after Lincoln’s assassination, while pockets of resistance still raged despite the close of hostility in four years of the bloodiest fighting the U.S. had ever seen -- very, very, very few people had their minds on settling down at the beach or a spa with a frothy romance novel about comical bickering French nobles written by someone who had sat out the war in a beautiful villa in Italy.
Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie usually impeccable instincts for picking projects that perfectly matched the mood of the book-buying or theatre-going public. Fairy Fingers was one of her rare miscalculations.
Read the novel online here: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/fk3nv99f5d&view=1up&seq=9
Audiobook available here: https://librivox.org/fairy-fingers-by-anna-cora-mowatt-ritchie/
Further discussion of the novel:
Anna Cora Mowatt and the Real People behind the “Fairies” https://www.tla.wapshottpress.org/2020/06/29/anna-cora-mowatt-and-the-real-people-behind-the-fairies/
Anna Cora Mowatt and “Les Doigts de Fee”
Gillespie, Pattie. “Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s “Fairy Fingers”: From Eugene Scribe’s?” Text and Performance Quarterly, Vol. 9, Issue 2. Pages 125-134.
1. Ritchie, Anna Cora. Fairy Fingers. Carleton: New York, 1866. Page 371.
2. Ibid. Page 174.
3. Ibid. Page 37.
4. Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Pages 386-390.
5. Derby, James Cephas. Fifty Years Among Authors, Books, and Publishers. New York: George Carleton, 1884. Pages 204-242.
6. “New Romance.” Daily Evening Traveler. Boston. Thursday, May 25, 1865. Page 1. Col. 7.
7. “Carleton Publications.” Boston Evening Transcript. May 13, 1865. Page 4. Col. 4.
8. “Notices of New Books.” The Press: Philadelphia. Friday, May 26, 1865. Page 2. Col. 3.
9. “New Publications.” New Orleans Times Picayune. June 1. Page 2. Col. 1-2.
10. “A Semi-American Novel.” Springfield Republican. May 31, 1865. Page 1. Col. 2.
11. “Fairy Fingers.” Scottish-American Journal. May 27, 1865. Page 4. Page 5.
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