This is the first selection in our 19th Cent American Novels class this semester (even though, technically, it's an 18th cen novel), so I'm rereading. It'll be a challenge bc novels of this period are so different from ours---the horizon of expectations, shall we say, might as well exist in a whole other world. The key thing to getting into this book is understanding the social function of this genre: Charlotte Temple
---a huge bestseller all the way up to the early 1900s---is a seduction novel a la Pamela
, the latter of which really did explain it all ... seven volumes worth. As with these progenitors, CT
is full of stock characters, including the soon-to-be devirginated damsel, the rakish ne'er-do-well, the disappointed parents, and the older fallen woman who fails to preserve her charge's cherry. Then there are the authorial intrusions, all of them so exclamatory (dare I say shrieky) you'd be forgiven if you thought you'd tuned into Dr. Laura. Those are prejudices we'll have to overcome. The books also served a feminist agenda: they taught young readers that they deserved companionate marriages, cautioned them against the many pitfalls of men (not the least of which is the saying of anything to get into a woman's petticoat), and critiqued the novel's own dangerous power to propogate unrealistic fantasies of romance (not sex, romance). On the positive side, CT
is at least a bit more dramatically straightforward because, unlike The Coquette
, it's not an epistolary novel, which are brutal to get students into. Additionally, this edition has an excellent introduction that links the book's drama to Rowson's experience as a playwright and within the tradition of American melodrama. Still, this one to me is better suited to study than to enjoyment, and that will be the big obstacle. Facing it, I've figured out a gambit for kick-starting the discussion: I'll be using Caitlin Flanagan's excellent assessment of the Twilight
) to make a basic argument: Susanna Rowson was the Stephenie Meyer of her day--and I will mean it as a compliment.