Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Often called America’s first bestseller, Charlotte Temple (1791) is a short didactic novel of primarily historical interest. In this, it is similar to Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette; both short novels urge their young female readers against corrupting entanglements with men and against extramarital romantic and sexual relations more generally. Both novels were very popular in their own time and then later dropped out of fashion, until they both were revived at the end of the 20th century by feminist critics examining women’s fiction and by American literature scholars who wished to historicize the republic’s early fiction beyond Charles Brockden Brown. Rowson, though, eschews Foster’s cumbersome epistolary style in favor of a preachy but brisk third-person narrator. Her politics, too, are different: Foster’s novel promotes American republicanism while Rowson was a British Loyalist. It’s no coincidence, her novel implies, that the disordered terrain to which her wayward heroine is seduced is America.
Charlotte Temple tells of a young woman who might be expected to behave well, since she is the daughter of a love match made by a man who charitably rescued his future father-in-law from debt and penury. But Charlotte is seduced as a teenager from her boarding school (with the help of a stereotypically corrupt French schoolmistress) by an English officer bound for America to serve in the Revolutionary War. Rowson introduces many complications that would give me less pleasure to recall than they did to read, but the upshot is that Charlotte finds herself pregnant and abandoned; she eventually dies, but not before her family re-embraces her and promises to rear her child. Moreover, those responsible for her trouble are duly punished—though not her seducer himself; as the only remotely complex character in the novel, he suffers remorse, often tries to do the right thing, and is sometimes extenuated by the plot (as when he is misled that Charlotte has been unfaithful).
The novel’s narrator is exceedingly interventionist, often sermonizing the reader on the necessity of rectitude and, more intriguingly, of mercy for the penitent unrighteous. In a late chapter, the narrator even reproves the reader for the anticipated objection that Charlotte Temple is melodramatic and tiresome:
“Bless my heart!” cries my young, volatile reader, “I shall never have patience to get through these volumes, there are so many ahs! and ohs! so much fainting, tears and distress, I am sick to death of the subject.” My dear, cheerful, innocent girl, for innocent I will suppose you to be, or you would acutely feel the woes of Charlotte, did conscience say, thus might it have been with me, had not Providence interposed to snatch me from destruction: therefore, my lively, innocent girl, I must request your patience; I am writing a tale of truth: I mean to write it to the heart: but, if perchance the heart is rendered impenetrable by unbounded prosperity, or a continuance in vice, I expect not my tale to please, nay, I even expect it will be thrown by with disgust. But softly, gentle fair one; I pray you throw it not aside till you have perused the whole; mayhap you may find something therein to repay you for the trouble.
Similarly, in her 2004 preface to this Modern Library edition, Jane Smiley distinctly implies that those who dislike Charlotte Temple are akin to her male classmates at Yale in the 1960s who challenged her to name one great female American novelist. According to Rowson, if her novel bores you, you are corrupt and un-Christian; according to Smiley, if Rowson’s novel bores you, you are reactionary and sexist.
You might think that all this special pleading from then till now suggests that Charlotte Temple is just not very good qua novel, and you would be right. While Rowson’s high-spirited narratorial persona is sometimes amusingly witty, as when in faux-irritation she answers the objection of an overly-literal reader wondering about some minor details—
I hope, sir, your prejudices are now removed in regard to the probability of my story? Oh, they are. Well, then, with your leave, I will proceed.
—this cannot allay the main literary problems. The characters are not even two-dimensional, the narrative arrangement is unbearably tendentious, the narrator constantly hectors the reader, the action is devoid of enlivening imagery, and the style is plain to the point of non-existence. But I reject Smiley’s implicit claim that to judge Charlotte Temple not very aesthetically interesting is to disparage women’s literary achievement: the first great American poet was a woman, Anne Bradstreet, as was Rowson’s English contemporary, the writer who would revolutionize the realist novel, Jane Austen. Recognizing that Bradstreet and Austen are better writers than Rowson is discriminating properly—on artistic, rather than identitarian, grounds.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to write off Charlotte Temple because its moral—counseling girls away from rakes and eroticism and toward marriage—is out of date. Is not, for instance, the point of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room to renovate for gay desire exactly this celebration of love and fidelity, exactly this disparagement of loveless sex and sensuality? Turning to popular culture, we find much the same sermon from some prominent pulpits. For example, those disappointed by the ending of Gilmore Girls missed the signals the series was sending all along: there is a reason Paris was the comic relief and not the heroine, a reason why Hillary Clinton was never mentioned on the show as anything other than a punchline, a reason why the earthy Luke and Jess form the show’s romantic horizon as against the Euro-identified aristo rakes Christopher and Logan, a reason why the series ends with the promise of progeny, with an intimation that Rory will abandon, like her mother before her, her worldly ambitions so that she can settle down with Jess.
This recommendation against individualism and of sentimental community is the aboriginal form of middle-class feminism and will be with us as long as we have the middle class. We now allow for more forms of sexual desire and more sexual acts than Rowson would countenance (though she does advocate mercy toward sexually active girls), but is her morality, her culture, really so different from ours?
[…] the tradition of the American novel had a double birth: there was the sentimentalism of Susanna Rowson and Hannah Webster Foster, yes, but there was also the Gothic of Charles Brockden Brown haunting […]
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