I admit it: Although I’ve already begun to read and study for my oral exams, I still haven’t decided upon a single method of preparing my notes. Right now, I’m keeping a binder for each list and have begun to keep short notes for each reading, no more than a page in length. That being said, I also really want to keep notes on this blog. I feel strongly about keeping a blog because it will help me to fully flesh out my thoughts, help me to create more public scholarship, and, perhaps most importantly, I’ll be able to tag each entry which will make patterns between the texts far more clear. Long story short… I’m doing both the blog and the binder for now and we shall see where this all goes.

It might be surprising to hear that I insisted that both Charlotte Temple (1791) and The Coquette (1797) be included on my American list, which focuses on the gothic and the 19th century. However, not only do I very simply love seduction fiction, but I think that they play a vital role in the development in the American gothic romance. During my read-through of both, I noticed quite a few themes and elements with which the American gothic mode is also deeply concerned.

Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple was America’s first best-seller. It was so popular, in fact, that there exists a gravestone in NYC’s Trinity church-yard for the titular character.

Charlotte Temple’s gravestone

The novel tells the story of Charlotte Temple, a young woman in England who is seduced (with the conniving help of Mme La Rue and Belcour) by the British officer Montraville. She follows him to America despite her better judgement and duty to her parents. Once in New York, Montraville grows more and more distant from Charlotte as he becomes far more interested in the lovely and wealthy Julia Franklin. Charlotte also becomes pregnant with Montraville’s baby. Although Montraville promises to take care of her and the baby, a scheme by Belcour causes Montraville to believe that Charlotte is nothing more than an “artful” coquette. Homeless, impoverished, friendless, and sick, the very pregnant Charlotte walks through the snow in her summer dress to beg La Rue (now the wealthy and esteemed Mrs. Crayton) for shelter, but is refused. Charlotte dies shortly after giving birth in the home of a poor servant, but is able to see Mrs. Beauchamp (the only woman in America who demonstrated any sort of sympathy or friendship towards Charlotte) and her father, Mr. Temple, before dying. Montraville duels with and kills Belcour out of vengeance for turning him against Charlotte, but is doomed to suffer from guilt and melancholy for the rest of his life. Mr. Temple takes Charlotte’s baby Lucy back to England where he and Mrs. Temple raise her. Years later, a starving and impoverished Mrs. Crayton asks them for shelter. Despite knowing that this was the woman who ruined their daughter Charlotte, the Temples assist the “object in distress.”

There are a number of themes and moments that are particularly interesting and helpful to me.

First, there are a few decidedly gothic moments. After giving birth, Charlotte is raving on her death bed. She imagines her mother’s bosom “bleeding at every vein” with her “heart torn in a thousand pieces” (111).

There is a version of a home invasion when Belcour purposely waits for Montraville to visit Charlotte. Upon seeing Montraville on the road, Belcour sneaks up the stairs into Charlotte’s bedroom where she is sleeping, and lays down next to her (85-6). This moment is very similar to the moment in the garden where Boyer finds Eliza with Sanford in The Coquette. Sight and public performance are extremely important in both of these texts.

Finally, the ecogothic is also present. Charlotte undergoes two dangerous journeys within the novel: the first being her journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America, the second is when she walked through the snow while sick and pregnant in order to beg for human assistance. Prior to this second journey, Rowson repeatedly reminds the reader of the approaching winter season with a great sense of dread and foreboding.

Gothic literature is also very concerned with the tension between rationality and feeling. This tension is also greatly at play within Charlotte Temple, however Rowson clearly presents feeling and sympathy as far more important than rationality and reasoning. Mrs. Beauchamp is presented as an ideal woman who practices sympathy rather than selfish rationality. Despite knowing that Charlotte has a low reputation and no wealth or friends, she purposely initiates a friendship with her and works to “raise and reassure her” (74). Compare this to La Rue or the farmer’s wife who demands Charlotte’s rent. The farmer’s wife insists that “charity begins at home” rather than in the public sphere and refuses Charlotte any leeway in paying her rent (103). She claims that she wishes to “see the day when all such cattle were obliged to work hard and eat little; it’s only what they deserve” (104). I’d be very interested to compare this character to neoliberal attacks against public welfare, especially for single mothers. Perhaps Melinda Cooper’s Family Values will provide some good connections.

Finally, I think it’s important to highlight Susanna Rowson’s continued breaks in the narration to address her imagined readers. Each time she speaks directly to a different reader: the “sober matron,” the “sentimental” young woman, and the sarcastic, disbelieving, overly-rational male reader. Of particular interest are her “sober matron” and male characters. The mother figure is described as reading the novel before deeming it appropriate to give to her daughter. The male reader is is prejudiced and desperately seeking to find “every trifling omission” (106).

 

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple. Edited by Cathy N. Davidson, Oxford University Press, 1987.