Critical Context

Mowatt’s interest in social history and customs dates from her earliest published work, Pelayo: Or, The Cavern of Covadonga (1836), a critically panned poetic romance dealing with the Asturias in 718. In the 1840’s Mowatt’s eyewitness accounts of European social customs appeared in several American periodicals including The Ladies’ Companion and Sargent’s Magazine. Detailed portrayal of New York social life appeared in The Fortune Hunter: Or, The Adventures of a Man About Town, A Novel of New York Society (1844) and Evelyn: Or, A Heart Unmasked (1845), novels published under the pseudonym Helen Berkley. These novels satirized New Yorkers’ romantic sentimentalism and pursuit of fashion; they also began Mowatt’s lifelong battle in defense of actors’ morality, a theme developed more fully in later novels: Mimic Life: Or, Before and Behind the Curtain, A Series of Narratives (1856), Twin Roses: A Narrative (1857), and The Mute Singer: A Novel (1866). Mimic Life includes several episodes that parallel Mowatt’s own experiences as described in Autobiography of an Actress: Or, Eight Years on the Stage (1853).

Melodramatic incidents are also a staple of Mowatt’s work. In Gulzara: Or, The Persian Slave (pr., pb. 1841), when the honorable young heroine is captured by Sultan Suliman’s soldiers and thrown in prison, she remains faithful to her true love, Hafed, who actually is Suliman in disguise. Likewise, in Armand, Or, The Peer and the Peasant (pr., pb. 1849), Armand defies King Louis XV to defend the virtue of Blanche. In Evelyn, the melodrama makes Mowatt’s social satire more biting as it leads to tragic results for the Willards.

Fashion, Mowatt’s best-known work, combines elements of social satire, melodrama, and farce. In the satiric tradition established by Royall Tyler’s comedy The Contrast (pr. 1787, pb. 1790), Mowatt clearly demonstrates the superiority of the United States’ agrarian values as both plays end with major characters discarding artificial European fashions in favor of simple rural life. First, though, misunderstandings place several characters in jeopardy: Gertrude’s virtue is questioned, Anthony may be imprisoned, and Seraphina appears destined to make a disastrous marriage. All problems are resolved, however, by improbable coincidences, expeditious revelations, and the wisdom of the sturdy American farmer.