The Mute Singer


The Mute Singer

a Novel

by Anna Cora Ritchie

Publisher:  Originally published in serial form in Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger (Jan. 26 1861- March 30, 1861.)Chapter 1 of "The Mute Singer" in The New York Ledger, Jan. 26, 1861  Published in novel format by Carleton (New York)

Publication Date: 1866

Brief Synopsis:

(From Marius Blesi’s 1938 Dissertation “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt”)

Sylvie de la Roche was the daughter of extremely poor parents. Her father resembled, in his philosophy of life, Mr. Micawber; her mother, Mrs. Cummidge.  Their home, in a Parisian garret, was poorly furnished but neat.

Sylvie, a young girl in her teens, took voice lessons from a gruff old music teacher, Maitre Beaujeu, who believed in her abilities, even if her stupid parents did not. By careful laying of his plans, Beaujeu secured an opportunity for his pupil to sing at the home of a rich count.  In order to buy a suitable dress for Sylvie to wear, the musician had to pawn his rare violin.

The debut of Sylvie created a stir in Paris.  Two of her admirers were the Marquis and Mademoiselle de St. Amar – brother and sister of a rich French family.  The Marquis and Sylvie soon fell in love with each other, but she realized that she dare not hop to marry a man in such a high social position.  Monsieur Le Grand, the concert master, extremely pleased with Sylvie’s beautiful voice, engaged the services of both Sylvie and Beaujeu permanently.

But the strains of rehearsals and the excitement of performances quickly tore down the girl’s frail physique, and she suffered a nervous breakdown.  Although she slowly recovered her health, she lost her voice completely.  The tragedy of a mute singer!  Only by writing on a slate could Sylvie communicate her ideas and messages to others.

One day her father, who had been thrown from a horse, was carried into the house by some men.  The sight of his bloody face caused his daughter to shriek and sing out.  The shock restored her singing, but not her speaking voice.

In time Sylvie was again before her admiring public, but although she sang her way from one triumph to another, she never could carry on a conversation.  Her physician, Dr. Souvestre, fell in love with her, yet when he learned that she loved the Marquis, he surrendered to Honorine de St. Amar’s brother.1

Maitre Beaujeu, Sylvie, Stanislas, and Honorine

Major Themes:

The strength of friendship between women

Courage and faith in the face of adversity

Redemptive power of work


Sylvie de la Roche: talented contralto who falls under a condition of aphonia

Everard de la Roche: Sylvie’s father, a gentleman by birth, who has squandered all the family’s money

Madame de la Roche: Sylvie’s mother, a Cassandra, always complaining and expecting the worst

Maitre Beaujeu: an elderly music teacher who discovers Sylvie’s magnificent voice

M’am’selle Ursule Valette: a mantua-maker who becomes Sylvie’s confidante and advisor

Mathieu: disabled young man who lives near the De la Roches and is a friend to Sylvie

Honorine de St. Amor: a young aristocratic lady who becomes Sylvie’s biggest fan and best friend

Stanislaus de St. Amor: Honorine’s brother, who falls in love with Sylvie

Madame de la Tour: Honorine and Stanislaus’ cold and proud aunt

          Monsieur Le Grand: concert master, former colleague of Maitre Beaujeu

          Doctor Souvestre: Sylvie’s physician, falls in love with her


Publication History:

This novel was originally published in serialized form in the pages of Robert Bonner’s literary newspaper, the New York Maitre Beaujeu introduces Sylvie to M. le GrandLedger.  For this reason, The Mute Singer differs structurally from other of the author’s works.  The cast of characters is somewhat smaller and more tightly connected than that of The Fortune Hunter, Evelyn, or Fairy Fingers.  The action does not divert into the complex web of subplots featured in those works. Mute Singer’s chapters are of a roughly equal, substantial length and tightly focused on moving the plot forward in an engaging manner. There are no instances of the sort of experimentation with form of the epistolary novel Evelyn, or the amusing narrative indulgence of the sort the author engages in Fairy Fingers in which she devotes an entire chapter to discussing the meaning and importance of chiffons. Each chapter of The Mute Singer is like a short story about the life of Sylvie and her friends with a little cliff-hanger ending to keep the reader anticipating the next week’s installment.

Although the book was written several years before Fairy Fingers, it was not edited into novel format published until after that text had been printed.


Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger was home for the most successful writers of popular serial fiction in the antebellum era. Sylvanus  Cobb Jr., Mrs. E.D.E.N Southworth, and essayist Fanny Fern were among those signing lucrative contracts to publishAd for "The Mute Singer" serialized in the New York Ledger their work exclusively in the paper.  Bonner even secured rights to Charles Dickens’ only U.S. publication – a short story titled “The Haunted Man.”

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s Mute Singer was heavily advertised by Bonner in his usual, flamboyant style.  The first chapter of the book took up almost the entire front page of the January 26th issue. The editor’s hype and the writer’s careful tailoring of her text to the Ledger’s audience seemed to pay off.  In the February 2 issue, this note appeared,

“The Mute Singer,” by Anna Cora Ritchie, now publishing in the LEDGER, is exciting a degree of enthusiasm among our readers such as seldom greets the advent of any story.2

This might seem like a typical piece of editorial hype, but it was genuinely unusual for Bonner to make this sort of comment at that point in the run of the newspaper. Even more unique was this report of devoted interest of one particular reader described as follows;

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” good-bye until she should return.3

Sylvie, Maitre Beaujeu, and Madame Ursule go on a picnicShort of getting a tip of the crown from Victoria and Albert, it was hard to get a more glamorous acknowledgement than one coming from Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie in the 1860’s. Less glitzy, but more lasting was the tribute offered by this fan who wrote in to declare,

I have always admired the style of Mrs. Anna Cora Ritchie’s writings. Her last story, just completed in the LEDGER of this week, is a very excellent one. Indeed, I have never read a story with more delight and admiration than I read the “MUTE SINGER.” So attractive to me is her style of writing that I have named my little daughter, of a few months old, Cora, after the name of Mrs. Ritchie, of which I desire to inform her. Yours, &c., Mrs. M. Eliza Newcomer4

Although in 1861 Mowatt had lost her beloved father, her marriage would apparently begin to develop serious fractures, her country would break into civil war, and she would leave soon leave its shores never to return, at least her prose found a warm and welcoming home in the pages of the New York Ledger.

External Links

Read the novel online here:

Audiobook available here:

Image Files of "The Mute Singer" in serial form printed in The New York Ledger in 1861: Chapters 1- 2Chapter 3Chapter 4a,  Chapter 4b,  Chapter 5-6Chapter 7,  Chapter  8Chapter 9-10Chapter 11aChapter 11bChapter 12-13,  Chapter 14-16Chapter 17-19

Discussion of The Mute Singer: Anna Cora Mowatt and The Mute Singer



 1.    Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Pages 363-364.

2.    New York Ledger, February 2, 1861. Page 2.

3.     “The Empress Magnetized.” New York Ledger, April 13, 1861. Page 4.

4.    “Letters About Our Stories.” New York Ledger, April 20, 1861. Page

Return to Anna Cora Mowat index

 Back to Index Page

Cover for "The Lady Actress"

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

Hosted by Alpha Centauri 2 Forums