Note: During my first year as a PhD student, I took a class on novels in the Early Republic. The class looked at authors such as William Hill Brown, Charles Brockden Brown, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and others. For the course, we had to write brief responses (2-3 pages) to the novels and discussions. While packing to move recently, I came across some of these responses and thought I would share some of them here over the next couple of posts. I am not altering what I originally wrote, unless it provides more clarity. There may be some questions contained within the posts that I did not have answers for when I wrote the, so I will leave those questions where there are, hoping they will spark conversation about the topic. I wrote today’s post on February 23, 2010.
Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1794 America) does more than just present us with our first look at a novel from the Early Republic written by a woman. It introduces a woman, La Rue, as a vital instrument in the downfall of Charlotte. To this point in the semester, we have encountered men as the sole perpetrators of seduction. In La Rue, we encounter a trusted teacher who, through her own logic and ambition, aids–whether purposefully or not–Montraville’s seduction of Charlotte. She serves not only as a foil for Charlotte and Mrs. Beauchamp but also as a warning to young women readers that they need to hold fast to the teachings of their parents and to choose their friends–male and female–wisely.
Upon our first lengthy introduction to Mademoiselle La Rue, before we even discover her name, we see that she is “not . . . the kind of [person] whose conversation and morals were exactly such as parents of delicacy and refinement would wish a daughter to copy” (26). Openly, she lived with different men, yet she still obtained, with help from a lady, a position at Charlotte’s school. Form the very beginning, La Rue undermines the lessons Charlotte receives from her parents. La Rue insists that Charlotte accompany her for a rendezvous with a gentleman. The encounter will be full of pleasure thatCharlotte’s youthful mind does not think “of the dangers lurking beneath those pleasures, till too late to avoid the” (27). In doing this, La Rue lies to Charlotte, saying the man is a relation, and she creates opportunity for Montraville to meet Charlotte outside of the gates of the school.
At this point, Charlotte still maintains her feelings of right and wrong, as she does throughout the novel. For example, at the rendezvous, she “grew thoughtful and uneasy” wishing to return to her own bed away from the disgusting behavior of her teacher and the gentleman (27). To continue her detrimental life lessons, La Rue, while discussing whether of not Charlotte should open the letter from Montarville and whether or not Madame Du Pont has discovered the ladies’s excursions, invokes her rhetorical skills and Charlotte’s sympathy to keep herself safe and happy. In regards to Madame Du Pont, La Rue cries “hypocritical tears” and turns the blame of what could be her punishment onto Charlotte (30). As for the letter, La Rue plays upon the visible affection that Charlotte has for Montraville. She ultimately convinces Charlotte that no harm can come from looking at the letter because Montraville will obviously be sent to America and possibly die very soon in war.
After this scene, Rowson interjects and shows the reader La Rue’s desires. The teacher eyes Charlotte and notices the the letter “awakened new emotions in [Charlotte’s] youthful bosom: she encouraged her hopes, calmed her fears, and before they parted for the night, it was determined that she should meet Montraville the ensuing evening” (33). Throughout the novel, La Rue continues to use the unsuspecting Charlotte to fulfill her own ambitions. Rowson continually points out the diabolical nature of Charlotte’s teacher, especially at the end of the first volume. After La Rue marries Crayton, the newly wedded Mrs Crayton looks “with an eye of contempt on the unfortunate but far less guilty Charlotte” (62). Even at the end of the novel, La Rue becomes a callous, unforgiving character who obtains her position and does not remember the generosity that allowed her to teach at Charlotte’s school in the first place.
While Rowson does not solely blame La Rue for Charlotte’s downfall, she does paint her as an agent that assists in the descent. William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789) and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) do not have female characters that carry Harriet and Clara over the edge. In fact, Clara does not really have a female friend to assist her from her downfall. Harriet, on the other hand, has a parental figure and friend that assists her through her tragic tale, trying to keep her on the right path. The friendship that appears in Charlotte Temple between Mrs. Beauchamp and Charlotte serves as a way for Charlotte to escape her downfall, but in light of certain circumstances, Mrs. Beauchamp leaves town for a while. In Rowson’s work, we receive a woman’s perspective that places a heavy emphasis on the role of other women in a young lady’s life to teach her, support her, and assist her. However my the prominent female “friend” to Charlotte serves as an example of the woman who should not be heeded.
Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.