Anna Cora Mowatt essay by Heather Scofield

A Fine-Tuned Persona = Success

During the Victorian Age women were viewed as porcelain dolls; fragile and delicate creatures who were incapable of engaging in intellectual discussion. Anna Cora Mowatt; however, was unique in that she used her rhetorical skills to subliminally convince her audience that she (a woman) was deserving of her own autobiography as both an intellect and a virtuous Victorian woman. In the following essay I will delve into the reasons why first person narratives by Victorian female authors were considered inappropriate, how Mowatt overcame these prejudices, and the strategies that she utilized in order to develop an accepted persona.

When an individual writes an autobiography, him or her tends to write in first person. Using the word “I” conveys the idea that the individual has knowledge of importance; consequently, Victorian women had difficulties persuading others to take them seriously. What superior knowledge could a woman possess? The only information that women were expected to understand/employ was knowledge of domestic matters (i.e. morality, virtue, being a good wife). Anna Cora Mowatt, who was a “spin doctor” of her time, used rhetorical strategies that aided in her effectiveness as a writer, actress, and public reader. I believe the successful impact of these strategies, signifies the importance of rhetorical studies in our education system.

First, Mowatt overcame the difficulties of writing as a woman in the Victorian Ages by giving solid, believable, and acceptable reasons for writing. More specifically, she developed a persona that was direct, sincere, and humble. When a woman is living in patriarchal times, she has to learn to be creative when attempting to convince her audience. Mowatt found a medium between self-denial and self-expression so that she could get her point across in a sympathetic (but not egotistical) manner. For example, Mowatt asked the readers at the end of her autobiography whether she had bad grammar and whether she was too egotistical. Perhaps leaving the reader with a feeling of humbleness, convinced her audience that she was deserving of this opportunity, as she preserved her feminine persona.

Likewise, Mowatt did not associate herself with the feminist movement taking place at the time to avoid discredit. In my opinion, her dismissal of the women’s movement played the biggest role in her success. Because Victorians were prude and patriarchal, women had to assume a subordinate role to be taken seriously, particularly because men were their only chance to be heard. Associating herself with the new group of feminists would have killed her career. Nevertheless, Mowatt did not abandon all that she stood for, she merely maintained a feminine nature while stressing the importance of intellectual/professional accomplishments and the social/moral respectability of actresses. Thus, the writer picked her battles, giving in on some to achieve success as a Victorian woman living in oppressive times.

Reprinted with permission


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