Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

A Susanna Rowson Tale: From England to America and Back Again (And Then Back Again)

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Author. Actress. Educator. Susanna Rowson filled many roles in her lifetime. As one of the first novelists of the new American nation, she holds a preeminent position in considerations of women writers of the “long” eighteenth century. Her popularity, as well as her life, spanned the British Atlantic, and she is a fitting figure for the first blog entry on transatlantic women writers during the period.

Born 1762 in Portsmouth, England, Susanna Haswell Rowson was the daughter of a Royal Navy Lieutenant. She traveled with her father to colonial America as a toddler, where she resided until she was fifteen, when she and her Loyalist family became prisoners of war during the American Revolution, finally returning to England as part of a prisoner exchange in 1778. She married William Rowson in 1786, and returned to America with him in 1793, working in the Philadelphia and Boston theater circuits for several years. In 1797 she gave up her acting career to open and run the Young Ladies Academy in Boston, which schooled the daughters of many prominent families in the early Republic. She died a revered author and educator in Boston in 1824.

Over the course of her career, Rowson published nine novels (and an additional novel was published posthumously), four volumes of poetry, and six textbooks designed specifically for the education of young women. She wrote and starred in six dramas and also produced several songs that were exceedingly popular in her time. She was prolific to say the least. In terms of popularity, however, her most culturally significant work was Charlotte Temple. First published in England in 1791, this seduction novel received little initial attention. However, upon returning to America, Rowson republished the novel in 1794, and this work became the most popular best-seller in the new nation, only toppled from its prominent publishing position by the release of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. The popularity of Charlotte Temple reached a celebrity status not often seen in the eighteenth century; it was so beloved that a grave was erected to the fictional titular character in Trinity Churchyard in New York City. This grave site became a shrine/tourist destination for many readers well into the nineteenth century. Charlotte’s grave still stands today.

Rowson2

Rowson’s cultural popularity was solid until the early twentieth century. At that point, detractors dismissed her as a sentimentalist (as if that’s a bad thing) inside and outside of academia. Recent years have seen a surge in scholarship surrounding her work, as well as her inclusion in more literature courses, which highlights the importance of continued conversations about such “infamous scribblers.” I would like to stress two important aspects of Rowson’s career that help with such a conversation: her transatlantic influences and her persistent fight for female education. As a transatlantic figure herself, Rowson spent a good bit of her life traveling around the Atlantic, living in England, France, and America at different points. This is reflected in the Atlantic travels of her heroines in much of her work: Charlotte Temple’s removal from England to America by her military seducer, the influence of the Barbary captivity crisis on Slaves in Algiers, and Reuben and Rachel’s retelling of Atlantic exploration and conquest through multiple generations of women within a single family (to name only three examples) all point to a worldview that emphasizes Atlantic exchange (physical and ideological) as a lived reality at the end of the eighteenth century. As for women’s education, Rowson herself saw all of her work as an opportunity to promote the educational needs and equality of women. Her establishment of the Young Ladies Academy and publication of textbooks are overt examples of this fact; however, she saw all of her work, across genres, as an opportunity to both promote the education of women and actually educate women through her words.

I’m happy to introduce Susanna Rowson to the ranks of infamous scribblers in the “long” eighteenth century. Here position then, though little known now, deserves a little blog time at the very least.

Selected Works of Susanna Rowson:
Charlotte Temple (1790/94)
Rebecca, or, The Fille de Chambre (1792)
Slaves in Algiers (1794)
Reuben and Rachel: or, A Tale of Old Times (1798)
An Abridgement of Universal Geography (1805)
Sarah, or The Exemplary Wife (1813)
Lucy Temple (1828)

Selected Works About Rowson:
Atlantic Worlds in the Long Eighteenth Century: Seduction and Sentiment. Toni Bowers and Tita Chico, eds. NY: Palgrave MacMillan 2012. (Includes two essays devoted to Rowson and several essays which mention her work)

Melissa Homestead. “Susanna Rowson’s Transatlantic Career.” Early American Literature 45.3 (2010): 619-654.

Marion Rust. Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Press 2008.

“Sensible as I am that a novel writer, at a time when such a variety of works are ushered into the world under that name, stands but a poor chance for fame in the annals of literature, but conscious that I wrote with a mind anxious for the happiness of that sex whose morals and conduct have so powerful an influence on mankind in general.” Preface, Charlotte Temple

“I feel that I was born free, and while I have life, I will struggle to remain so.” – Fetnah, Slaves in Algiers

“When I first started the idea of writing “Tales of Old Times,” it was with a fervent wish to awaken in the minds of my young readers, a curiosity that might lead them to the attentive perusal of history in general, but more especially the history of their native country. It has ever been my opinion, that when instruction is blended with amusement, the youthful mind receives and retains it almost involuntarily.” Preface, Reuben and Rachel

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4 comments on “A Susanna Rowson Tale: From England to America and Back Again (And Then Back Again)

  1. Rachel
    March 24, 2013

    This is amazing! Do they have images of the fictional grave?

    • sclp1066
      March 29, 2013

      There are some hilarious images on Google of random people today posing with the gravestone. It’s worth a look.

  2. Pingback: Transatlantic Discourse as Defining Nineteenth Century from Twentieth Century Gothic Literature | MFA Creative Writing Portfolio

  3. pthalobluesky
    April 1, 2013

    This is great! Interesting read. I plan on looking into her works now. Thanks. 🙂

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2013 by .
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