Florid page description here

          

Excerpt from Marion Harland's Autobiography;
The Story of a Long Life:

 

Chapter XXIX

Pages 288-296

ANNA CORA (MOWATT) RITCHIE - EDWARD EVERETT
GOVERNOR WISE - A MEMORABLE DINNER-PARTY

   

 IN 1854, Anna Cora Mowatt, "American actress, novelist, dramatist, and poet," as the cyclopædias catalogue her, left the stage to become the wife of William Foushee Ritchie of Richmond, Virginia.

        Mrs. Mowatt, née Ogden, was the daughter of a prominent citizen of New York. She was born in France, and partially educated there. Returning to America, she married, in her sixteenth year, James Mowatt, a scholarly and wealthy man, but much the senior of the child-wife. By a sudden reverse of fortune he was compelled to relinquish the beautiful country home on Long Island, to which he had taken his wife soon after their marriage. With the romantic design of saving the home she loved, Mrs. Mowatt began a series of public readings. Her dramatic talent was already well known in fashionable private circles. At the conclusion of the round of readings given in New York and vicinity, she received a proposal from a theatrical manager to go upon the stage. For nine years Anna Cora Mowatt Profileshe was a prime favorite with the American theatre-going public, and almost as popular abroad. She never redeemed "Ravenswood," and her husband died while she was in the zenith of her brilliant success.

        Her union with William Ritchie, who had admired her for a long time, was a love-match on both sides. He brought her to quiet Richmond, and installed her in a modest cottage on our side of the town, but three blocks from my father's house. The Ritchies were one of the best of our oldest families; Mrs. Mowatt belonged to one as excellent; her character was irreproachable. I recollect Doctor Haxall insisting upon this when a very conservative Mrs. Grundy "wondered if we ought to visit her."

        "You will see, madam, that she will speedily be as popular here as she has been elsewhere. She is a lovely woman, and as to reputation - hers is irreproachable - absolutely! No tongue has ever wagged against her."

        I listened with curiosity that had not a tinge of personal concern in it. It went without saying that an ex-actress was out of my sphere. The church that condemned dancing was yet more severe upon the theatre. True, Mrs. Ritchie had left the stage, and, it was soon bruited abroad, never recited except in her own home and in the fine old colonial homestead of Brandon, where lived Mr. Ritchie's sister, Mrs. George Harrison. But she had trodden the boards for eight or nine years, and that stamped her as a personage quite unlike the rest of "us."

        So when William Ritchie stopped my father on the street and expressed a wish that his wife and I should know each other, he had a civil, non-committal reply, embodying the fact that I was expecting to go North soon, and would not be at home again before the autumn.

        During my absence my father sent me a copy of the Enquirer containing a review of The Hidden Path, written by Mrs. Ritchie, so complimentary, and so replete with frank, cordial interest in the author, that I could not do less than to call on my return and thank her.

        She was not at home. I recall, with a flush of shame, how relieved I was that a card should represent me, and that I had "done the decent thing." The "decent thing," in her opinion, was that the call should be repaid within the week.

        No picture of her that I have seen does her even partial justice. In her youth she was extremely pretty. At thirty-eight, she was more than handsome. Time had not dimmed her exquisite complexion; her hair had been cut off during an attack of brain-fever, and grew out again in short, fair curls; her eyes were soft blue; her teeth dazzlingly white. Of her smile Edgar Allan Poe had written: "A more radiant gleam could not be imagined." In manner, she was as simple as a child. Not with studied simplicity, but out of genuine self-forgetfulness.

        She struck what I was to learn was the keynote to character and motive, before I had known her ten minutes. I essayed to thank her for what she had said of my book. She listened in mild surprise:

        "Don't thank me for an act of mere justice. I liked the book. I write book-reviews for my husband's paper. I could not do less than say what I thought."

        And - at my suggestion that adverse criticism was wholesome for the tyro - "Why should I look for faults when there is so much good to be seen without searching?"

        A woman of an utterly different type sounded the same note a score of years afterward.Edward Everett

        I said to Frances Willard, whose neighbor I was at a luncheon given in her honor by the wife of the Commandant at Fort Mackinac:

        "You know, Miss Willard, that, as General Howard said just now of us, you and I 'don't train in the same band.' "

        "No?" The accent and the sweet candor, the ineffable womanliness of the eyes that sought mine, touched the spring of memory. "Suppose, then, we talk only of the many points upon which we do agree? Why seek for opposition when there are so many harmonies close at hand?"

        Of such peacelovers and peacemakers is the kingdom of heaven, by whatsoever name they are called on earth.

        Mrs. Ritchie was a Swedenborgian. I had learned that in her Autobiography of an Actress. All denominations - including some whose adherents would not sit down to the Lord's Supper with certain others, and those who would not partake of the consecrated "elements" if administered by non-prelatic hands - united in shutting and bolting the door of heaven in her face.

        In the intimate companionship, unbroken by these and other admonitions, I never heard from Mrs. Ritchie's lips a syllable that was not redolent with the law of kindness. I learned to love her fondly and to revere her with fervor I would not have believed possible, six months earlier. It was not her fascination of manner alone that attracted me, or the unceasing acts of sisterly kindness she poured upon me, that deepened my devotion. She opened to me the doors of a new world: broadened and deepened and sweetened my whole nature. We never spoke of doctrines. We rarely had a talk - and henceforward our meetings were almost daily - in which she did not drop into my mind some precious grain of faith in the All-Father; of love for the good and noble in my fellow-man and of compassion, rather than blame, for the erring. Of her own church she did not talk. She assumed, rather, that we were "one family, above, beneath," and bound by the sacred tie of kinship, to "do good and to communicate." She had a helpful hand, as well as a comforting word, for the sorrowing and the needy. As to her benefactions, I heard of them, now and again, from others. Now it was an aged gentlewoman, worn down to the verge of nervous prostration, and too poor to seek the change of air she ought to have, who was sent at the Ritchies' expense to Old Point Comfort for a month; or a struggling music-mistress, for whom Mrs. Ritchie exerted herself quietly to secure pupils; or a girl whose talent for elocution was developed by private lessons from the ex-actress; or a bedridden matron, who had quieter nights after Mrs. Ritchie ran in, two or three evenings in a week, to read to her for half an hour in the rich, thrilling voice that had held hundreds enchanted in bygone days.

        To me she was a revelation of good-will to men. She lectured me sometimes, as a mother might and ought, always in infinite tenderness.

        "I cannot have you say that, my child!" she said once, when I broke into a tirade against the hypocrisy and general selfishness of humankind at large, and certain offenders in particular. "Nobody is all-wicked. There is more unconquered evil in some natures than in others. There is good - a spark of divine fire - in every soul God has made. Look for it, and you will find it. Encourage it, and it will shine.

        And in reply to a murmur during the trial-experiences of parish work, when I "deplored the effect of these belittling cares and petty commonplaces upon my intellectual growth," the caressing hand was laid against my hot cheek.

        "Dear! you are the wife of the man of God! It is a sacred trust committed to you as his helpmate. To shirk anything that helps him would be a sin. And we climb one step at a time, you know - not by bold leaps. Nothing is belittling that God sets for us to do."

        She, and some other things, gave me a royal winter.

        Another good friend, Mrs. Stanard, had notified me that Edward Everett, then lecturing in behalf of the Mount Vernon Association, was to be her guest while in Richmond, and raised me to the seventh heaven of delighted anticipation by inviting me to meet him at a dinner-party she would give him. Mrs. Ritchie forestalled the introduction to the great man by writing a wee note to me on the morning of the day on which the dinner was to be.

        The Mount Vernon Association had for its express object the purchase of Washington's home and burial-place, to be held by the Nation, and not by the remote descendant of Mary and Augustine Washington, who had inherited it. Mrs. Ritchie was the secretary of the organization.

        Her note said:

        "A committee of our Association will wait upon Mr. Everett at the Governor's house this forenoon. I will smuggle you in, if you will go with us. I shall call for you at eleven."

        When we four who had come together were ushered into the spacious drawing-room of the gubernatorial mansion, we had it to ourselves. Mrs. Ritchie, with a pretty gesture that reminded one of her French birth, fell to arranging five or six chairs near the middle of the room, into a seemingly careless group. One faced the rest at a conversational angle.

        "Now!" she uttered, with a playful presence of secrecy; "you will see Mr. Everett seat himself just there! He can do nothing else. Call it a stage trick, if you like. But he must sit there!"

        The words had hardly left her lips when Mr. Everett entered, accompanied by a younger man, erect in carriage and bronzed in complexion, whom he presented to us as "My son-in-law, Lieutenant Wise."

        To our secret amusement, Mr. Everett took the chair set for him, and this, when three remained vacant after the ladies were all seated.

        Lieutenant Wise and I, as the non-attached personages present, drifted to the other side of the room while official talk went on between the orator-statesman and the committee.

        The retentive memory, which has, from my babyhood, been both bane and blessing, speedily identified my companion with the author of Los Gringos (The Yankees), a satirical and very clever work that had fallen in my way a couple of years before. He was a cousin of the Governor. I learned to-day of his connection with the Everetts.

        He was social, and a witty talker. I had time to discover this before the Governor appeared with his daughter, a charming girl of seventeen, who did the honors of the house with unaffected grace and ease.

        I had met her before, and I knew her father quite well. Mrs. Ritchie had taken herself severely to task that very week for speaking of him as "our warm-hearted, hot-headed Governor."

        The characterization was just. We all knew him to be both, and loved him none the less for the warm temper that had hurried him into many a scrape, political and personal. We were rather proud of his belligerency, and took real pride in wondering what "he would do next." He was eloquent in debate, a bitter partisan, a warrior who would fight to the death for friend, country or principle. Virginia never had a Governor whom she loved more, and of whom she was more justly proud.

        This was early in the year 1856. I do not recollect that I ever visited the state drawing-room of the mansion again, until I stood upon a dais erected on the very spot where Lieutenant Wise and I had chatted together that brilliant winter day, and I lectured to crowded parlors in behalf of the Mary Washington Monument Association. Another Governor reigned in the stead of our warm-hearted and hot-headed soldier. Another generation of women than that which had saved the son's tomb to the Nation was now working to erect a monument over the neglected grave of the mother.

        When the throng had dispersed, "Annie" Wise, now Mrs. Hobson - and still of a most winsome presence - and I withdrew into a corner to speak of that five-and-forty-year- old episode, and said: "The fathers, where are they? And the prophets - they do live forever!"

        Of the group collected about Mr. Everett, on the noon preceding the delivery of his celebrated oration, but we two were left alive upon the earth.

        Of the Stanard dinner I retain a lively recollection. Among the guests were Lieutenant Wise; Mr. Corcoran, the Washington banker and philanthropist; his slim, engaging young daughter (afterward Mrs. Eustis), and Mr. Everett's son, Sidney. Mrs. Stanard was the most judicious and gracious of hostesses. "A fashionable leader of fashionable society!" sneered somebody in my hearing, one day.

        Mrs. Ritchie took up the word promptly. Detraction never passed unchallenged in her presence.

        "Fashionable, if you will. But sincere. She is a true-hearted woman."

        In subscribing heartily to the truth of the statement, I append what I had abundant reason to know and believe. She was a firm friend to those she loved, steadfast in affection that outlasted youth and prosperity.

        She made life smooth for everybody within her reach whenever she could do it. She had the inestimable talent of divining what would best please each of her guests, and ministered to weakness and desire.

        On this night, she did not need to be told that a personal talk with the chief guest would be an event to me. She lured me adroitly into a nook adjoining the drawing-room, and as Mr. Everett, who was staying in the house, passed the door, she called him in, and presently left me on his hands for half an hour. He was always my beau ideal of the perfect gentleman. He talked quietly, in refined modulations and chaste English that betokened the scholar. Like all really great men, he bore himself with modest dignity, with never a touch of bluster or self-consciousness. In five minutes I found myself listening and replying, as to an old acquaintance. His voice was low, and so musical as to fasten upon him the sobriquet of the "silver-tongued orator." I could repeat, almost verbatim, his part of our talk on that occasion. I give the substance of one section that impressed me particularly.

        We spoke of Hiawatha, then a recent publication. Mr. Everett thought that Longfellow transgressed artistic rules, and was disobedient to literary precedent in translating Indian names in the text of the poem. The repetition of "Minnehaha - Laughing Water," "The West Wind - Mudjekeewis," "Ishkooda - the Comet," etcetera, was affected and tedious.

        "Moreover," he continued, smiling, "I have serious doubts respecting the florid metaphors and highly figurative speech which Cooper and other writers of North American Indian stories have put into the mouths of their dusky heroes." He went on to say that, when Governor of Massachusetts, he received a deputation of aborigines from the Far West. In anticipation of the visit, he primed himself with an ornate address of welcome, couched in the figurative language he imagined would be familiar and agreeable to the chiefs. This was delivered through an interpreter, and received in blank silence. Then the principal sachem replied in curt platitudes, with never a trope or allegorical allusion. Mr. Everett added that he had learned since that the vocabulary of the modern Indian is meagre and prosaic in the extreme.

        The justice of the observation was borne in upon me when I sat in James Redpath's box at the Indian Exhibition I have spoken of in another chapter, and heard snatches of alleged oratory as transmitted by a fluent interpreter to the Newark audience. Anything more tame and bare it would be hard to imagine.


Return to Anna Cora Mowat index

 Back to Index Page

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

Hosted by Alpha Centauri 2 Forums