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Ritchie, Anna (Cora) Mowatt

RITCHIE, Anna (Cora) Mowatt

Born 5 March 1819, Bordeaux, France; died 21 July 1870, Twickenham, England

Wrote under: Helen Berkeley, Henry C. Browning, Cora, Isabel, Charles A. Lee, M.D., Anna Cora Mowatt, Anna Ritchie

Daughter of Samuel G. and Eliza Lewis Ogden; married James Mowatt, 1834 (died 1951); William F. Ritchie, 1854 (divorced); children: three

The ninth of 14 children, Anna Mowatt Ritchie was descended from old colonial families. Her early years were spent in France, but when she was seven, the family moved to New York, where Ritchie was educated in private girls' schools. Although "Lily," as she was called, was not outstanding at her studies, she was considered precocious by her family because of her ability to write and act in home theatricals.

At 15 she eloped with James Mowatt, a wealthy young lawyer, and moved to Melrose, his estate on Long Island. Here she wrote Pelayo (1836), a romantic poem in six cantos "founded strictly upon historical facts." Ritchie's preface to this poem reveals an extensive acquaintance with literature. It was not well received, however, and she retaliated with Reviewers Reviewed (1837), a satiric essay on criticism.

An attack of tuberculosis, her constant enemy, led Ritchie to visit Europe in 1838. Ironically, as her health improved, her husband's began to fail. Nonetheless, they returned to the U.S. and celebrated his "cure" with a ball at which Ritchie's blank verse melodrama in five acts, Gulzara; or, The Persian Slave, was presented with Ritchie in the title role. The play attracted much favorable attention from critics when it was published in the New World in 1841.

Her husband's fragile health and the loss of his fortune led Ritchie to give public poetry readings. When she became too ill to perform, she began to write articles for Godey's Lady's Book, Graham's Magazine, Democratic Review, and other magazines. Under the pseudonym Henry C. Browning, she wrote a life of Goethe, and as Charles A. Lee, M.D., compiled Management of the Sickroom (1844). In 1842 Ritchie won a $100 prize from New World for her novel The Fortune Hunter (1842). Ritchie's play Fashion (1845) had an unprecedented three-week run, and was long a favorite of audiences in England and America. The money she earned not only supported her and James, but three orphans she had taken into her childless home.

Even more profitable than writing was Ritchie's career as an actress. Starting as a star, she remained one for eight years of touring the U.S. and Great Britain. After Mowatt's death in 1851, Ritchie returned to New York. Again she turned to writing to supplement her income, and her lively Autobiography of an Actress (1854) was an immediate success. In 1854 Ritchie married a prominent Virginian and editor of the Richmond Enquirer. In 1861 Ritchie left her husband because of irreconcilable political and personal differences. She went to Florence, where she supported herself by writing novels and sketches. In 1865 Ritchie visited England, became too ill to travel back to Italy, and took a small house in Twickenham, where she died five years later.

Fashion (1845), Ritchie's most important work, is a bright, witty satire of 19th-century New York society. The basic plot line is a standard love story with melodramatic elements, but the sharp comedy has kept its freshness. The play reveals a remarkable sense of theater and a grasp of dramaturgy rare in a first effort. The action moves rapidly, the plot turns are cleverly planned, and the climax satisfies the comedic expectations. The first American social comedy, Fashion was successfully revived in 1924 and again in 1959.

Ritchie's early novels, The Fortune Hunter (1842) and Evelyn (1845), are also contemporary views of New York life; Ritchie draws upon her own experience as a member of upper-class society, giving these works more substance than is usual in such tales. She paints the evils of money marriages and juxtaposes them with marriages based on honesty in values and actions. Autobiography of an Actress (1854) is an amusingly frank account of Ritchie's years on the stage, distinguished by unusual modesty concerning herself and generosity toward others.

Most of Ritchie's later stories make use of her theatrical experiences in setting and characters; both background and types are recognizable and timeless. Her plots are traditional romantic love stories, and her characters are often embodiments of the sentimentality so prevalent in that time. They are seasoned, however, with humor and a Dickensian awareness of the ridiculous.

Ritchie's reliance upon action precludes the development of profound characters, but her use of detailed description removes them from the stock types in most popular novels of the time. She also differs from her contemporaries in her treatment of women, for she places a high value on independence. Dependent females in her stories invariably fall victim to circumstances or villains, whereas the heroines not only think for themselves but are usually self-supporting. Ritchie believed women should be wives and mothers, but she contemplated, and in some cases endorsed, the single life. A unique author, combining a European elegance with an American admiration for practical labor, she is, in the truest sense, the first transatlantic writer.

Other Works:

Armand; or, The Peer and the Peasant (1847). Mimic Life (1856). Twin Roses (1858). Fairy Fingers (1865). The Mute Singer (1866). The Clergyman's Wife, and Other Selections (1867). Italian Life and Legends (1870).

Bibliography:

Barnes, E. W., The Lady of Fashion (1954). Bernard, B., Tallis's Drawing Room Table Book (1851). Blesi, M., The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt (1938). McCarthy, I., Anna Cora Mowatt and Her American Audience (1952).

Other references:

Howitt's Journal (1848). Our Continent (1882).

—HELENE KOON

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