Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson (1790)

Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson

Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson (1762 – 1824), sometimes known as Susanna Haswell Rowson) was the best-known work by this American-British author. It was also America’s first best-selling novel. First published in England in 1790 as Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, it was retitled Charlotte Temple in 1797.

With its classic theme of seduction and remorse, it sparked a great deal of controversy in its time. Yet it remained the most widely read novel of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Other than Charlotte Temple, Susanna Rowson’s prolific body of writings (which also included other novels as well as plays, poems, and school textbooks) has been largely forgotten. Though contemporary readers give this novel mixed reviews, judging from comments on Goodreads, Charlotte Temple has endured as an example of early American literature.

For all the novel’s faults, the following mid-twentieth re-evaluation might just tempt today’s readers to give it a try.


A 20th-century look at an 18th-century novel

From the original review in the Columbus (IN) Herald, June 6, 1958: Susanna Rowson, who wrote Charlotte Temple, had a far more romantic life story than her heroine. She was the daughter of William Haswell, an officer of the British navy. When she was eight years old she went with him to America.

Their ship had wrecked off Lowell’s Island in Massachusetts. There they lived until the start of the Revolutionary War when a patriotic call of duty recalled Lieutenant Haswell to England.

Susanna was married in London in 1786 to William Rowson. In 1793 — three years after Charlotte Temple was published — she and her husband sailed to America, but the rumor that our streets were paved with gold did not prove true. William Rowson went bankrupt, after which his wife made the family living as an actress.


Susanna Rowson on the true story behind the novel

After three years of acting on the American stage, Susanna found that school teaching and writing plays and novels were more profitable and less strenuous than acting. From the amount of writing she did, she must have been an exceedingly busy woman. She herself had this to say about her most popular book:

“This is a true story. The heroine’s real name was Stanley and she was the granddaughter of the Earl of Derby. Her betrayer was Colonel John Montressor of the English Army, a relative of the author’s. Charlotte’s grave is in Trinity Churchyard, New York, but a few feet from Broadway.

Charlotte’s daughter is said to have been adopted by a rich man and afterward to to have met the son of her father, unconscious of the relationship, and to have fallen in love with him. Her identity was discovered through a miniature of the girl’s mother, the unfortunate Charlotte, to whom she herself bore a striking resemblance.”

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Susanna Rowson, author of Charlotte Temple

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The plot of Charlotte Temple

The story is about the betrayal of an innocent maiden. Charlotte, at age fifteen, is a student in an English boarding school when her friendship with her French teacher, Mlle. La Rue, leads her to secret meetings with two British officers who are about to set sail for America to take part in the Revolutionary War.

The night before she is to be allowed to go home to her family — her father is the younger son of an earl — for the celebration of her birthday, she is persuaded to go with the officer with whom she has fallen in love. He promises to marry her when they get to America.

This promise, of course, is not kept. The officer conveniently falls in love with a girl with far more money than poor Charlotte has. And though he makes arrangements for her care and protection, the man through whom these arrangements are made proves false.

Charlotte is made to suffer and pay over an over for her unhappy adventure. In the end, when her family has learned of her whereabouts and her father is hurrying to save her, she gives birth to a baby girl and dies of malnutrition.

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Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson

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Weighed down by heavy moralizing

The plot was undoubtedly threadworn even in its day, but few writers have told it with so much suspense. Literary fashions of the late 18th century abound in the book. The ladies are forever fainting at the hint of bad news, or are thrown into hysterias. They never walk in the streets alone, but nearly always in the company of their husbands or some male relative, and they are always “hanging on his arm.”

Charlotte Temple is full of heavy moralizing, especially when concerns with seduction. The moralizing seems to take the place of the heavily sensuous background descriptions that usually soften the modern novelist’s fictional seductions. For instance:

Great heavens! when I think of the miseries that must run the heart of a doting parent when he sees his darling at first seduce from his protection, and afterwards abandoned by the very wretch whose promises of love decoyed her from her paternal roof — when he sees her, poor and wretched, her bosom torn between remorse and crime, and love for her vile betrayer …

     Oh, my dear girls, for such only am I writing listen not to the voice of love, unsanctioned by paternal approbation; be assured it is now past days of romance. No woman can be run away with contrary to her own inclination; then kneel own each morning and request high 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.


Trying to resist the seducer

At first, Charlotte virtuously determines never again to see Montraville, her seducer, again. And then must see him again, in order to tell him that she will not see him:

      Montraville was tender, ardent, and yet respectful, we are told, and we wonder just how he managed to be so:   
     “Shall I not see you once more,” he said, “before I leave England? Will you not bless me by an assurance that when we are divided by a vast expanse of sea, I shall not be forgotten?”
      Charlotte sighed.
    “Why that sigh, my dear Charlotte? Could I flatter myself that a fear for my safety or a wish for my welfare occasioned it, how happy it would make me.”
     “I shall ever wish you well, Montraville, but we must meet no more.”
     “Oh, say not so, my lovely girl; reflect that when I leave my native land, perhaps a few short weeks may terminate my existence; the perils of the oceans — the dangers of war —”
      “I can hear no more,” said Charlotte, in a tremulous voice. “I must leave you.”
      “Say you will see me once again.”
     “I dare not,” said she.
     “Only for one half hour tomorrow. It is my last request and I shall never trouble you again.”
     “I know not what to say,” cried Charlotte, struggling to draw her hands from him. “Let me leave you now.”
     “And will you come tomorrow?”
      “Perhaps I may,” said she.


Not an example of “sin and succeed” literature

But do not think this is any of your “sin and succeed” literature. Poor Charlotte, through her misplaced fidelity, is first neglected and then driven into the streets, with no one to befriend her.

While on the other hand, the completely amoral Mlle. La Rue deliberately breaks with Montraville’s companion, and by the time they arrive in America, she has found herself a rich and respectable husband. This hardly seems poetic justice, but on the very last page of the book, in very small print, all is made right:

      It was said that ten years after these sad events that Mr. and Mrs. Temple were obliged to go to London on particular business and brought their little Lucy with them. They had been walking one morning when on their return they found a poor wretch sitting on the steps at the door. She attempted to arise as they approached, but from extreme weakness was unable, and after several fruitless efforts, fell back in a fit.
     But she recovered enough to tell her story it was the former Mlle. La Rue, no longer the rich and powerful Mrs. Crayton — who had refused Charlotte help in her worst troubles — but an outcast, bent on confessing her sins:
   “Come near me, Madame, I shall not contaminate you,” she tells Mrs. Temple. “I am the viper that stung your peach. I am she who turned poor Charlotte out to perish in the street.”
      Looking at Lucy, she went on, “I see her now, such was the fair bud of innocence that my vile arts blasted ere it was half blown.”
      The Temples, being noble-hearted people, give her food and wine, and Mrs. Temple gets her into a hospital where she soon dies, “a striking example that vice, however prosperous, in the end leads only to misery and shame.”

And there the book ends. Though we may smile at its overwrought style and hackneyed characters, it is true that today’s reader might find that once they’ve start reading, it’s a hard story to put it down.


More about Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson

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