| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Susanna Haswell Rowson
Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (first published
in London, in 1791, as Charlotte, A Tale of Truth) became the first
American best-selling novel when it was republished in 1794 by Matthew Carey of
Philadelphia. Susanna Haswell was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1762.
Her mother, Susanna Musgrave Haswell, died from complications of childbirth, an
event that surely influenced Rowson’s fiction. Her father, Lieutenant William
Haswell, left Susanna in the care of relatives and went to Massachusetts. Late
in 1766, he brought his daughter, then almost five years old, through a
perilous sea voyage to the colonies. Haswell had remarried, and soon young
Susanna had two half-brothers.
The Haswells’ loyalty
to England made life in Massachusetts difficult for them during the
Revolutionary War. They were first detained by an American guard and later
conveyed by prisoner exchange to London. In England, Susanna Haswell worked as
a governess and wrote poetry, short stories, and novels. In 1786, under the
patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire, she published Victoria, a
sentimental novel in the style popularized by Samuel Richardson. She continued
to write prolifically in the following years, and her reputation and readership
grew on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1786, she married
William Rowson, a hardware merchant. When the hardware business failed, the
Rowsons decided to go on the stage. They toured in Britain and then signed with
Thomas Wignell’s theater company. In 1793 the company went to the United
States, where Susanna Rowson not only acted but was also a playwright and
lyricist. Her song “America, Commerce and Freedom,” in celebration of her
adopted country, was especially popular.
When the American
edition of Charlotte Temple appeared in 1794, it quickly sold out, and
Carey had it reprinted at least once and possibly twice in the same year. It
has been estimated that the book went through over 200 editions and was read by
as many as a half-million people. Its subtitle may in part account for its
immense popularity in a growing nation with a puritanical past. Though
novel-reading might have been regarded as a questionable activity, reading “a
tale of truth” could be excused, especially if that tale had been written by an
author who took every possible occasion to drive home a moral point, and in Charlotte
Temple the moral is clear: Charlotte unwisely elopes to America with a man
who falsely promises to marry her, is eventually forsaken by him, suffers both
physical and mental anguish, and dies after bearing his child.
gave up the stage and, in 1797, established a very successful school, Mrs.
Rowson’s Young Ladies’ Academy, in Boston, where she earned renown as an
educator, textbook author, and columnist for Boston Weekly Magazine. When
she died, she was one of the most celebrated women in America. In 1828, a
sequel to Charlotte Temple, a novel entitled Charlotte’s Daughter:
or, The Three Orphans (also called Lucy Temple) was published
Temple enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the nineteenth century, its
literary merit was questioned. Some critics characterized Rowson’s work as
sentimental and melodramatic. Other critics defended the novel, citing its
psychological power and insight, as well as its important portrayal
of standards of morality prevalent in eighteenth-century America. Rowson’s
depiction of the Revolutionary War as the background of her romance has also
been seen as significant in American literary history.
Literary scholars have
also disagreed on the extent to which Rowson was a feminist. Certainly in her
novels, and even more strikingly in some of her poetry, Rowson confirms the
established view of women as weak and in need of protection—either from parents
or a husband—although experiences from her own life belied this traditional
assessment. Yet there is in her depiction of the subjected and precarious
situation of women an incipient protest against it.
Critics who have not
taken Rowson seriously as a literary figure emphasize her appeal to an audience
of “housemaids and shopgirls”—in other words, to uneducated women employed in
low-paying jobs—just the people who might be receptive to a protest, however
mild and disguised, against the injustices women faced. Rowson’s feminism does
not consist of an open rejection of any established order or sentiment;
instead, she vividly describes a world of endless woes faced by women:
deceitful friends, false advisers, faithless lovers, disastrous pregnancies,
and fatal childbirths. One can find in these melodramatic situations an
incipient protest against the female condition and at the same time the source
of Rowson’s lasting power and appeal.
of New York
In the Heath Anthology
Chapter VI: An Intriguing Teacher (1794)
from Chapter I: "A Boarding School" (1794)
from Chapter VII: "Natural Sense of Propriety Inherent in the Female Bosom" (1794)
from Chapter IX: "We Know Not What A Day May Bring Forth" (1794)
from Chapter XI: "Conflict of Love & Duty" (1794)
from Chapter XII: [How thou art fall'n!] (1794)
from Chapter XIV: "Maternal Sorrow" (1794)
from Preface (1794)
Victoria: A Novel
Charlotte, a Tale of Truth
Mentoria, or the Young Ladies' Friend
Rebecca, or, The Fille de Chambre
Trials of the Human Heart
Reuben and Rachel, or Tales of Old Times
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Charlotte Temple, Susanna Haswell Roswson
The electronic text of Charlotte Temple, without any of the disclaimer material.
Four American Critics on Charlotte Temple
Critical writings about Charlotte from 1828 to 1905.