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Monday, March 14, 2011

What makes Susanna Rowson's "Charlotte Temple" Sexy

“Protect her,—and bless your dying—” Tableau illustration of the dying Charlotte passing the infant Lucy to her father. (London: H. Fisher, Son, & P. Jackson, 1831). Courtesy of Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

It [Charlotte Temple] has stolen its way alike . . . into the parlor of the accomplished lady and into the bed-chamber of her waiting maid . . . It has been read . . . by the school girl stealthfully in her seat at school. It has beguiled the woodman in his hut at night in the deep solitudes of the silent forest; it has cheated the farmer's son of many an hour while poring over its fascinating pages . . . it has unlocked the secret sympathies of the veteran soldier in his tent before the day of battle.”~ Elias Nason in Memoir of Mrs. Susanna Rowson, 1870.

Critics question what it is about Rowson's "sentimentalism, [p]athos, easy tears, high-flying language, melodrama, [and] moralizings without stint or number" that universally draws in and even seduces readers. The novel itself is not particularly sexy, though it was written after the style of Richardson's Pamela and Clarrissa. Pressing a lover's hand, fainting into his arms, and lying by his side are the raciest images with which Rowson tempts her readers. The narrative of the novel primarily focuses on women's thoughts about their roles in society rather than seduction itself even though Montraville's seduction of Charlotte initiates her downfall and Belcour's ensuing attempt to seduce her secures her demise. The question arises: why, then, when seduction serves only to initiate the novel's action and the rest of the novel is spent perusing the thoughts of Mrs. Beauchamp, La Rue, Charlotte, and especially Rowson herself with all of her didactic asides is Charlotte Temple described by Nason and others as "seducing," "unlocking," and "beguiling" to readers. Rowson's novel seduces by treating the roles of the sexes and how men and particularly women's choices bring them to or remove them from control of their own bodies and circumstances. Charlotte Temple is sexy because of rather than in spite of Rowson’s didacticism to "'sober matrons,' men 'of philosophic temperament,' frowning 'madams,' any 'Sir' who 'cavils' at the accuracy of her account, even her dear 'young, volatile readers'" (Douglas XXVI). Essentially, Rowson’s novel excites because it presents new perceptions of gender roles, while setting up to present ideal womanhood in the character of Lucy Temple, redemption from the naïve, fallen woman through a new generation, the educated, compassionate, even independent Lucy who like all women is “born for universal sway”.

The dawn of the Revolution necessitated a reexamination of traditional gender roles and challenged the idea that women are “errata” (Rust 53). Rowson refuted Benjamin Franklin’s statement that “Women are Books, and Men the Readers be, / Who sometimes in those books Erratas see” and its equivalent that “Women are books in which we often spy / Some blot[t]ed lines and sometimes lines awry / And tho perhaps some strait ones intervene / In all of them errata may be seen” (Rust 53). Up until the conclusion of Rowson’s novel, women were not extended the privilege of writing out their errata like men, but with the protection of the compassionate Mrs. Beauchamp, Rowson’s Charlotte writes to her father and redeems herself from a death without forgiveness and her daughter Lucy from a life without recompense. Charlotte’s legacy, Lucy, as well as the characters of Mrs. Beauchamp and Julia Franklin demonstrate the appeal of Rowson’s novel: The liberation of women through a moral education is what makes Charlotte Temple, the novel, and women in general so sexy.

This need for redemption through moral education can be seen in successive novels like Hannah Foster’s The Coquette. The following clip of Les Miserables' Fantine’s death and bequeathing of her child is reminiscent of Charlotte’s death and the sad fate of many naive, seduced women at her time.

Works Cited:

Rust, Marion. Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women. The University of North Carolina Press (2008): 53. Print.

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