Explaining the Success and Popularity of Susanna Rowson’s ‘Charlotte Temple’
In her novel Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, probably better known under the title of Charlotte Temple, Susanna Rowson relates the unfortunate life of a young girl for a specific purpose that she presents in the opening lines of her work, through the following words: “and may, I flatter myself, be of service to some who are so unfortunate as to have neither friends to advise, nor understanding to direct them, through the various and unexpected evils that attend young and unprotected woman in her first entrance into life” (Rowson 3). The author of this masterpiece probably ignored at that time the success that her work would encounter through the following centuries. Indeed, firstly published in 1791 in England, Charlotte Temple has gone over two hundred editions to this day and is still described as “entertaining and readable” nowadays (Parker 59). The fact that a conduct manual originally written to educate young girls of the late eighteenth century remains popular to this day is probably the result of countless factors. The purpose of this essay is to discuss three of the numerous aspects of the story that contributed to the popularity of Charlotte Temple. It will be suggested that the success of this novel comes, primarily, from the form which Rowson has chosen to compose her work; secondly, from the author’s intrusions throughout the tale and finally, from the verisimilitude of the plot.
In the first instance, this essay will thus focus on what is partly responsible for Charlotte Temple’s success, namely the form Rowson has selected to relate Charlotte’s story. The particularity of this tale is that it includes a certain number of letters, without however being categorized as an epistolary novel. This framework has allowed Rowson to exclusively select the benefits of the epistolary structure and, as it will be discussed later, to simultaneously avoid the negative effects that this form might cause. First of all, let us focus on four strengths of the epistolary form that are present in Charlotte Temple. Professor Donna Campbell brings up three of them, which are: “[to allow] feelings and reactions to be presented without authorial intrusion, [to give] a sense of immediacy because the letters are written in the thick of the action, and [to allow] the writer to present multiple points of view” (Campbell). Fourthly, I would like to suggest that the epistolary form globally leads the reader to get more implicated in the story. Hence, the combination of both, the benefits listed by Campbell and the aspect of implication, is a first approach to explain the success of Susanna Rowson’s novel. In accordance with the advantages put forward by Campell, it is true that Rowson takes the opportunity to let her characters express their state of mind by themselves through their letters. Mrs. Temple, for example, uses one of her letter to demonstrate her maternal affection towards Charlotte when she writes that “As to-morrow is the anniversary of the happy day that gave my beloved girl to the anxious wishes of a maternal heart” (Rowson 72). Charlotte also expresses her feelings back towards her mother, later in the story, when she mentions her remorse, asserting that “my heart bled at the thought of what you would suffer” (132). In the same letter, she also shares her pain by writing “Oh! never, never! while I have existence, will the agony of that moment be erased from my memory” (132). Eventually, she mentions her helplessness when she asks, “But how shall I proceed?” (133). By accessing directly to the feelings of the characters, the readers are given the opportunity to get to know better each of the letters’ writers and will consequently get more implicated in the story.
Besides the free expression given to her characters, Rowson also uses the “sense of immediacy” that Campbell praises in epistolary novels. Indeed, the author of Charlotte Temple applies the idea that the character composes his or her letter in the heat of the moment. This can be seen when Charlotte inserts the following detail in a letter to her mother: “(I feel the burning blush of shame die my cheeks while I write it)” (133). The same effect can also be noticed in Montraville’s letter to Charlotte when he adds “To-morrow – but no, I cannot tell you what to-morrow will produce” (158). These kinds of comments give the audience the impression that the characters genuinely wrote the letters, which brings verisimilitude to the story. Therefore, if the plot seems plausible or even entirely real to the readers, the latter will, once again, feel more implicated in it. Finally, Rowson has exploited the last advantaging feature that Campbell highlights regarding the epistolary form, namely its ability to allow several points of view in the same story (Campbell). She gives Lucy Temple, Montraville and Charlotte the opportunity to express themselves and share their inner thoughts through their letters. The multiplicity of the points of view shows to the reader that Rowson does not simply add characters to shape a story around the protagonist, but that she creates them fully, giving them the ability to write, to think and to feel, which, again, increases the plausibility of the plot and the reader’s implication in the story. Either it is with the genuine expression of the character’s feelings, the “sense of immediacy” or the multiplicity of the points of view, the readers are given every chance to get involved in the story. According to Janet Gurkin Altman, “the epistolary form is unique in making the reader (narrate) almost as important an agent in the narrative as the writer (narrator)” (Altman 88). It is true that , more generally, this form creates a feeling of implication in the story which is explained by Altman as “the result of a union of writer and reader.” (88) and by Blythe Forcey as a “correspondence between the writers within the novel but also a correspondence between the writer of the novel and its readers” (Forcey 229). The main idea behind these two explanations is that by adding letters in a story, the writer creates a connection between himself or herself and the readers. Therefore, thanks to this bond, as well as Campell’s list of the epistolary form’s benefits, Rowson’s readers feel more implicate in the plot which leads them to have a better appreciation of the story in general and this can primarily explain the extent of the success encountered by Charlotte Temple.
It is now legitimate to wonder why Rowson has not chosen to construct her novel entirely in the epistolary form as it possesses several silver linings. Blythe Forcey comes up with one main issue linked to this structure which can justify Rowson’s choice. When thinking of the exchange of letters as a reciprocal experience between the reader and the writer, as mentioned above, the audience has to interpret correctly what the author wants to convey. However, the period in which Rowson has written Charlotte Temple, as well as her purpose to write for young and innocent girls, were incompatible with such form, “[k]nowing that [she was] writing in a time of rapid transition and for many possible audiences (rural/urban, British/American, naïve/worldly, male/female, moral/amoral)” (Forcey 229). In this context, Rowson’s public was too diversified to be assured that everyone would interpret correctly the message the author wanted to communicate. Following, this idea, Forcey also points out that “all the characters, even the villains, are allowed to ‘speak for themselves’ through the inclusion of their letters, they each have an opportunity to attract the sympathy and identification of the reader” (233-34). As the purpose of Rowson is to offer a manual of conduct for young girls, it would have been, once again, too dangerous to let them interpret the story by themselves. Thus, “[w]ithout the protective boundaries established by a controlling narrative presence, the epistolary novel leaves the female protagonist exposed, vulnerable, and even invisible” (230) and hence, what prevented Rowson from writing her whole tale in the epistolary form is the lack of directions that the narrator needs to give to the reader in order to avoid misinterpretations, misunderstandings and the risk of being seduced at the same level as Charlotte was.
The second aspect that contributed to Charlotte Temple’s success as a conduct manual is Rowson’s participation to the novel as a “guardian” narrator. This specific appellation used by Forcey to describe the author’s voice is, according to him, a “warm, motherly presence, [through which] this narrator acts as an editor, moralizer, translator, and guide for her young reader” (Forcey 230). In addition to Forcey’s explanation, I would suggest that Rowson’s voice as a “guardian narrator” possesses three functions that all contribute to the popularity of the novel. It acts firstly as a counter-effect of the negative aspects of the epistolary form. Her intrusion in the story serves secondly to guide the audience by insisting on important aspects of the tale and finally, Rowson’s voice, by using direct address, aims at grasping her readers’ attention and giving them a sensation of individualization. Even if Charlotte Temple is not considered as an epistolary novel, the risk remains that naïve young girls get seduced by some of the letters written by “the villains”, as Forcey call them (229). To counter this danger, Rowson has simply chosen not to include some letters, whose content might attract young and innocent souls. For example, she substitutes Montraville’s letter by the following explanation:
Any reader who has the least knowledge of the world, will easily imagine the letter was made up of encomiums on her beauty, and vows of everlasting love and constancy; nor will be surprised that a heart open to every gentle, generous sentiment, should feel itself warmed by gratitude for a man who professed to feel so much for her; nor is it improbable that her mind might revert to the agreeable person and martial appearance of Montraville. (Rowson, 39)
Thus, Rowson has succeeded in writing her tale of truth and in conserving all its verisimilitude but without damaging her idea to make her novel a conduct manual adapted for young girls. Another function of Rowson’s voice as a “guardian” narrator is to insist on certain passages to make sure that the readers understand the message she conveys. This phenomenon occurs several times in Charlotte Temple. It is the case, for example, when she relates the early life of Mr. Temple and when, at some point, she explains that “Temple heard the news with emotion: he had lost his father’s favour by avowing his passion for Luca, and he saw now there was no hope regaining it” (34). At first sight, this summary of the situation given by Rowson can seem useless to any attentive reader. However, it is not impossible that young readers could have misunderstood the previous dialogue between Mr. Temple and his father. Extrapolating on the idea that she writes for innocent souls, it is true that the author’s comment is justified. This insistence on specific aspects of the story can be easily noticed with the introduction of new characters in the plot too. For instance, when she mentions Miss Weatherby for the first time, in addition of a preliminary description and the insertion of an illustrating poem, Rowson comments that “[s]uch was Miss Weatherby: her form lovely as nature could make it, but her mind uncultivated, her heart unfeeling, her passions impetuous, and her brain almost turned with flattery, dissipation, and pleasure” (32). The same process applies to the description of Montraville (57), a character with whom the reader is already familiar at this point of the story. Probably the most striking examples of Rowson’s insistence are the following: “The reader, no doubt, had already developed the character of La Rue; designing, artful, selfish, . . .” (92) and “Let not the reader imagine Belcour’s designs were honourable” (95). Thus, even if she is aware that the audience is, at this stage of the tale, well-acquainted with the characters of Charlotte Temple, the author keeps pointing out certain aspects on which the readers are expected to be focused in order that they cannot be confused later with any of the characters or with any of their intentions. Finally, the third function of the guardian narrator is Rowson’s ability to catch her audience’s attention thanks to direct address. Throughout Charlotte’s tale, she keeps speaking directly to them with interpellations such as “Oh my dear girl” (41), “thoughtless daughters of folly” (51), “Oh my friends” (85), “my dear young readers” (86), and so forth. Several times she goes further than just naming them and actually interrupts the story. It occurs when she devotes a whole chapter to the reader’s hypothetical reaction to her tale. Indeed, in the twenty-eighth chapter, Rowson anticipates the fact that the reader are getting tired of Charlotte’s misfortune and writes “my lively, innocent girl, I must request your patience. . . . I pray you throw it not aside till you have persued the whole; mayhap you may find something therein to repay you for the trouble” (169). In the same chapter, she also imagines the questions that are being raised by her readers and answers them (170). This interruption in the course of the story calls the readers to order and grasps their attention back. The idea that Rowson catches the interest of her audience can be seen in shorter passages as well. The following passage is a common example of Rowson’s brief intrusion in Charlotte’s tale :
Oh my dear girl – for to such only am I writing – listen not to the voice of love, unless sanctioned by paternal approbation: be assured, it is now past the days of romance: no woman can be run away with contrary to her own inclination: then kneel down each morning, and request kind heaven to keep you free from temptation, or, should it please to suffer you to be tried, pray for fortitude to resist the impulse of inclination when it runs counter to the precepts of religion and virtue. (41)
Further than just catching their attention, this extract even gives to the reader a sensation of individualization. This feeling comes from two main aspects. On the one hand, Rowson addresses directly her reader when she starts with “Oh my dear girl”. On the other hand, she dictates a certain behaviour through imperatives such as “listen not”, “be assured”, “kneel down”, and so on. These instructions resemble greatly the guidance of an older sister or a caring mother. And how could a lost and confused young girl ignore the advice of an older and caring relative? Another typical example of this motherly role appears when Rowson acts like a big sister in the name of mothers to underline the pain undergone by Mrs. Temple with Charlotte’s disappearance (85-86). Hence, Rowson’s voice appears to be a way to grasp the readers’ attention and even give them a sense of individualization that could explain the success of Charlotte Temple.
The third and last factor suggested to explain the success of Rowson’s novel is the verisimilitude of the story. This phenomenon is defined by The Oxford Dictionnary as “[the] appearance of being true or real” and the author of Charlotte Temple makes sure that her plot complies with this idea. Firstly, and from the very beginning of her novel, she draws the readers’ attention on the fact that they should “consider [Charlotte Temple] as not merely the effusion of Fancy, but as a reality” (3) and confirms the real existence of the protagonist when she claims that “an old lady . . . had personally known Charlotte” (3). This is what critics, such as Elias Nason, praise in Charlotte Temple by asserting that it is “a faithful transcription of real life, in 1774, and hence it is a living book, and criticise it as we may, the people after all will read it, weep over it and enjoy it” (Nason 47). Several factors contribute to the verisimilitude of the plot. As previously mentioned in this essay, the letters enhance the plausibility of Charlotte’s story thanks to the way they are composed, the multiplicity of their writers and their content. What also gives the story an aspect of reality is the recurrent shifting of the points of view. It is a way to remind the reader that life goes on after the departure of the protagonist to the New World and that although Charlotte is the centre of the story, other characters continue to exist. This can be seen when Rowson devotes a whole chapter to Charlotte’s parents who remain in England (Rowson 151-54). The same effect applies with Montraville when he has an argument with his father (61-64). The plausibility of the plot plays a major role for a conduct manual. Indeed, if the author wants to convince young girls by making them learn anything from Charlotte’s experiences, the plot must either be real or at least seem to be, so that it can have an impact on them.
Charlotte Temple has encountered a success that remained unrivalled for a long time and the reasons that could explain such popularity are probably countless. The purpose of this essay was to discuss three of these reasons. The first way to explain such success has been said to lay in the structure of the novel itself. The fact that Rowson chose to include a certain number of letters without relying entirely on the epistolary form allowed her to create the perfect framework for a conduct manual. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that this structure allows the reader to be confronted to the character’s feelings, to benefit from a sense of immediacy, to discover the story from several points of view and generally, to get more implicated in the plot. It has also been discussed why Rowson did not only rely on the epistolary form despite all its strengths. The second part of the essay has been devoted to Rowson’s voice, which plays a crucial role to reach the goal of her work, either in countering the negative effect of epistolary novels, in guiding her reader on important aspects of the story or in giving the audience a sensation of individualization. Last but not least, the third part of this essay has suggested that the verisimilitude of the plot was also necessary to the novel’s success. Further elements probably also contributed to the popularity of Charlotte Temple, such as the presence of morals throughout the story, the universality of the themes, the societal context of the end of the eighteenth century, and so on. But what can be therefore assumed at the end of this paper, is that the three aspects presented above can be considered as central pillars of the popularity of Charlotte Temple.
Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Ohio State University Press, 1982. Campbell, Donna. Charlotte : A Tale of Truth (Also known as Charlotte Temple) Brief Background Notes from Lecture on Rowson, public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/rowson2.html. Forcey, Blythe. “Charlotte Temple and the End of Epistolarity.” American Literature, vol. 63, no. 2, 1991, pp. 225–241. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2927163. Nason, Elias. Memoir of Mrs. Susanna Rowson, With Elegant and Illustrative Extracts from her Writings in Prose and Poetry. M.A. Albany: Joel Munsel, 1870. Parker, Patricia L. “Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson.” The English Journal, vol. 65, no. 1, 1976, pp. 59–60. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/814701. Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple. A tale of Truth. Third American Edition, ed., Stephen C. Ustick, 1797. “Verisimilitude: Definition of verisimilitude in English. “Oxford Dictionaries” | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/verisimilitude.
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