InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Rowson eventually 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 posthumously.

Though Charlotte 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.

Laraine Fergenson
Bronx Community College
City University of New York

In the Heath Anthology
Charlotte Temple
      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)

Other Works
Victoria: A Novel (1786)
Charlotte, a Tale of Truth (1791)
Mentoria, or the Young Ladies' Friend (1791)
Rebecca, or, The Fille de Chambre (1792)
Trials of the Human Heart (1795)
Reuben and Rachel, or Tales of Old Times (1798)

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


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.

Secondary Sources