Anna Cora Mowatt (MOW-uht) was born Anna Cora Ogden in 1819, She was the daughter of Samuel Gouverneur Ogden, a New York merchant, and Eliza Lewis, the granddaughter of Francis Lewis, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Samuel Ogden had taken his family to live in France while he conducted business related to his import-export company. Anna Cora was seven when the family returned to the United States. She was the ninth of her parents’ fourteen children.
Among the activities of this large family were the writing and producing of skits and plays. Anna Cora (called Lily by her family) was educated primarily at home. She loved to read, and by her own account had read and reread the plays of William Shakespeare by the time she was ten. She became the adapter, producer, and leading actor of the family’s amateur theatricals.
When she was thirteen she met James Mowatt, a wealthy New York attorney, thirteen years her senior. He took a great interest in Anna Cora’s education, and before she was fifteen he had proposed marriage. Because her father insisted that she not marry until she was seventeen, Anna Cora secretly married James in 1834, at fifteen.
James bought Melrose, an estate in Flatbush on Long Island. There, Anna Cora continued her education under the supervision of her husband. During her studies she became interested in epic poetry and wrote her own epic poem, Pelayo: Or, The Cavern of Covadonga. James had it published in 1836.
In 1837 Anna Cora, whose health had always been delicate, became ill and was diagnosed as consumptive (tubercular). She was advised to take a long ocean voyage. Accompanied by her aunt, Mowatt sailed for Europe. While in Europe, she wrote a play for herself and her sisters to perform when she returned home. The play was Gulzara: Or, The Persian Slave and was given a production in the family home, with Mowatt playing Gulzara.
In 1840 James began to lose his eyesight and could no longer practice law. Then, in the fall of 1841, he lost his entire fortune through speculation. Anna Cora realized that she must support herself and her husband. She found the thought of becoming a professional actress revolting, but she did decide that she would give public poetry readings. On the evening of October 18, 1841, Mowatt gave her first program of readings in the Masonic Temple in Boston. She read very successfully for three evenings and then went on to Providence and New York. Mowatt was the first American woman elocutionist to appear upon a public stage.
However, the strain was too much for her. After her second series of readings in New York, her health broke down completely. The doctors could offer little help. At last she did improve, with the help of mesmerism and prolonged hypnosis. When she began to plan her next season of readings, she soon realized that she had neither the strength nor the voice for it. She would have to make money with her pen.
Mowatt studied what was being published in the periodicals and began sending articles to magazines. Before the winter was over, she had become a regular contributor. Most of her pieces appeared under the name of Helen Berkley. She also became a ghost writer for a Mrs. Ellis, who wrote household manuals. Mowatt heard of a contest which the New World was launching for a one-volume novel, to be called The Fortune Hunter. The first prize was one hundred dollars, and Anna Cora won it. James decided to publish his wife’s writings himself and established Mowatt and Company. From September, 1843, to February, 1845, Anna Cora Mowatt compiled eleven books, wrote two original novels, and composed an unknown number of poems.
The Mowatts had...
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