Rejections of Patriarchal Authority and Expectations of Female Passivity in Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple

By Emma Reilly ’23

Majors: English, History; Minors: Journalism, Editing, & Publishing, Gender Studies

Brief Description: My paper examines agency and authority in America’s first bestselling novel. Close readings and analyses of relevant paratexts position the novel as distinctly anti-patriarchal. I argue that instances of narratorial and character authority encourage a proto-feminist reading of a seemingly genre-conforming seduction tale.

Contributor Biography: Emma is a senior with an interest in writing and interdisciplinary research. She is editor-in-chief of Washington College’s student newspaper, The Elm, managing editor of WCR, and a content creator for The Pegasus yearbook. Emma is working on two theses, one on Charlotte Temple and another on early American nationalism as it relates to post-Revolutionary print culture. She hopes to pursue a graduate degree in English or American Studies after graduation.

The following was written for ENG 394: Jane Austen

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth (1794) is a text steeped in melancholy. In the book, young Charlotte falls for a British soldier who convinces her to run away with him to America, against her parents’ wishes. Once overseas, however, Charlotte’s beau, Lieutenant Montraville, grows tired of her. Charlotte faces overwhelming sadness and uncertainty after her illicit lover manipulates, abandons, and ostracizes her. The book is often characterized as a stereotypical example of the then-popular seduction narrative. Seduction tales framed women’s sexual transgressions and rejections of patriarchal authority as their downfall, arguing that any young girl’s life would inevitably descend to ruin if she were to succumb to the temptations of desire. However, Rowson’s text is more nuanced; Charlotte, in some instances, contradicts genre-typical portrayals of female passivity and innocence. Such contradictions are particularly evident in moments when Rowson casts aside her narrator, instead focusing on Charlotte’s own—often unheard—voice. When Charlotte does speak, as she does in her letter to her mother and in her final moments, she displays an anachronistic level of agency indicative of Rowson’s pro-women leanings. When placed in conversation with foundational early feminist texts and modern interpretations, it becomes clear that Charlotte Temple’s viability as a proto-feminist text hinges on Rowson’s narrative choices.

Charlotte Temple became popular at a time when anti-patriarchal sentiments were coming to a head. In the years immediately preceding the novel’s American publication, two well-reknowned examples of early feminist writing were engaging readers in pro-women dialogues: Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792). In these pieces, Wollstonecraft and Murray share their perspectives on patriarchal systems, long-established gender roles, and women’s rights. Charlotte Temple entered cultural consciousnesses alongside these early feminist writings, which provide a useful framework for how Rowson’s own pro-women tendencies should be examined.

In Vindication, for example, Wollstonecraft argues that “sweet docility” means little in the face of “virtue” (31). To her mind, “the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex” (31). Thus, Wollstonecraft argues in favor of gender equality and urges definitions of femininity to be reconsidered. In Charlotte Temple, Charlotte is—in accordance with the seduction trope, which portrays young women engaging in illicit sexual behavior as morally lacking and deserving of a dismal fate—portrayed as extremely docile and wholly lacking virtue, according to most scholars. She is first an obedient and humble daughter; later, a passive lover guilty of sexual sin. This simplified reading of the character boils Charlotte down to an embodiment of the “womanly” qualities wrongly celebrated by the patriarchy by Wollstonecraft’s definition. This interpretation ignores the agency, sense of individuality, and virtuosity Charlotte displays upon relaying her downfall to her mother and handing her father her newborn daughter. Framing Charlotte as a proto-feminist heroine provides for a more refined reading of the character and the novel as a whole, as such a reading actively acknowledges those moments where Charlotte breaks her silence and embraces choice.

Murray concludes the poem portion of “Equality” in a similar vein to Wollstonecraft. She asserts that though men “declare [women] only trifles love,” “nature with equality imparts / And noble passions, swell e’en female hearts” (113). Murray reiterates here that women, like men, are capable of experiencing fierce love and emotion. Charlotte, in Rowson’s novel, is capable of experiencing these feelings, too. Though the narrator’s perspective often overshadows Charlotte’s, when readers are confronted with her unfiltered, unmitigated thoughts, those thoughts are often steeped with deeply passionate love, anger, and sadness. It is specifically Charlotte’s passion, which—to Murray’s point—is as laudable when felt by a woman as when felt by a man, that makes her a proto-feminist character. When Charlotte speaks, it becomes clear that she embodies those qualities ignored by patriarchal authorities and celebrated by early feminists like Wollstonecraft and Murray. Thus, Charlotte Temple is unignorably situated within the larger critical, philosophical, and political contexts that shaped early American literature and culture.

The ways in which Charlotte’s voice contradicts seduction trope norms are especially apparent in chapter XXII, “Sorrows of the Heart.” Before this point, the narrator exerts a significant amount of influence over how Charlotte’s story is constructed. In chapter XVIII, for example, the narrative shifts to focus on the narrator’s feelings, rather than Charlotte’s, as the girl’s abandonment is described. This structural technique forcefully distances readers from the main character, making it more difficult for Charlotte’s views to be fully understood. As a result, readers are left feeling that Charlotte does not have many feelings about it at all, other than “remorse” and “disappointment” (Rowson 50). The narrator’s generalized, philosophical diatribe in response to Montraville’s conduct goes on for more than a page, straying further and further from any direct connection to Charlotte. The narrator first asks, “who can form an adequate idea of the sorrow that preyed upon the mind of Charlotte?” (51). Afterwards, the speech refers only to “the wife,” “such a woman,” “some passing woman,” and “many an unfortunate female,” all of which are all rather vague identifiers (50-1). The chapter ends without a direct word from Charlotte as to how she might be feeling, besides sorrowful and embarrassed. Thus, it plays into the seduction trope’s characterization of women as feeble creatures who should, and do, feel nothing but guilt and despair when they stray from the morally correct path that has been laid out for them by patriarchal authorities. 

            On the other hand, chapter XXII is one instance in which the potential for Charlotte Temple to be read as a proto-feminist, anti-patriarchal text becomes evident. In this chapter, which is formatted as a letter from Charlotte to her mother, Charlotte finally speaks her mind. The epistolary form this chapter takes is more conducive to internal reflection to begin with because the words on the page are all coming directly from Charlotte, as opposed to being filtered through the narrator’s perspective before being presented to readers. At last, the main character’s perspective is foregrounded; Rowson gives Charlotte the agency to express a wider range of emotional reactions to her situation. Though she still describes feeling “the burning blush of shame” and “the thorn of never-ceasing regret,” that regret is, notably, pinned on Montraville (61). It is “he” who “planted the thorn” (61). Charlotte displays, in this letter, formidable passion and anger, feelings the narrator fails to ascribe to her in numerous reflections on her suffering.

As Charlotte continues to bash Montraville, these nuanced emotions bubble to the surface. “This man, this cruel Montraville,” she writes, “no longer looks on me with affection, but scorns a credulous girl whom his art has made miserable” (61). Though Charlotte disparages herself with the negatively-connotated “credulous,” the adjective highlights the fact that she sees herself as someone who has been taken advantage of unfairly, not as someone who is deserving of punishment for a sin for which she alone is culpable of committing. Clearly, Charlotte is a woman capable of feeling more than just sorry for herself; her letter makes clear that though she feels guilt, she recognizes that “cruel” Montraville is truly the one to blame. It is his “art” that led to the dreadful consequences she is being forced to bear, not her “own folly” (61). In “Sorrows of the Heart,” Charlotte’s voice is prioritized over the narrators. As a result, readers are able to come to a more complete understanding of her feelings and see that she is not a wholly melancholic, passive woman.

The passionate frustration and anger Charlotte displays in her letter to her mother starkly contrasts the sorrowful misery she is described as wallowing in for much of the book. Though the narrator constructs an image of Charlotte that aligns with the seduction genre, Charlotte herself paints a different picture. Charlotte is certainly sad; there is no arguing that she yields to feelings of guilt and regret. Nevertheless, she names Montraville’s flaws and lays out the degree to which she believes him to be at fault. This is atypical for the seduced character in such a novel to do, and thus reveals the ways in which Charlotte Temple pushes back against misogynistic, patriarchal literary forms in an effort to more fairly investigate culpability in instances of sexual transgression.

Charlotte’s death and the lead up to it, as outlined in chapter XXXIII, is yet another example of a scene in which the character displays agency and passionate emotion. Weak and ill, Charlotte is already bedridden by the time she goes into labor. Despite her seemingly wretched state, she earnestly declares that “it is a long time since I shed a tear for myself” (85). This goes against the seduction trope’s typical portrayal of “ruined” young women as hopeless, melancholic girls capable only of weeping. In sharing with Mrs. Beauchamp that she has not cried for herself for a while, Charlotte declares her difference: she refuses to languish in the self-pity so many seduced maidens succumb to. It could be argued that this lack of sadness signifies an emotional numbness on Charlotte’s part if not for her claim that her “head and heart are both on fire” (85). “Fire,” though on the surface a reference to her feverishness, could also be read as an allusion to the passionate fury she harbors for Montraville, the intense love she feels for her estranged parent and unborn baby, or the bitter regret her situation bred. It is evident that Charlotte feels deeply and intensely, regardless of the tears she does or does not shed. Meanwhile, the narrator’s descriptions reduce Charlotte to a sickly madwoman. The narrator recalls that Charlotte suffered from a “frenzy” so intense that she “raved with the greatest wildness and incoherence” (85). Still, Charlotte seems completely lucid when she speaks to her friend moments before and the “effort to get out of bed” that induced the episode—which the narrator seems to gloss over—further proves Charlotte’s desire not to wallow, but to take action (85). Even in her worst moments, Charlotte’s voice pushes back against the narrator’s. Her passion and persistence continue to align with ideas of agency expounded on by early feminists, thus supporting the assertion that Charlotte Temple is a proto-feminist novel.

Seduction novels, more often than not, end in the death of the seduced woman. Meant to teach a lesson, such tales were intended to dissuade young female readers from disobeying their fathers or having sex before marriage. Charlotte Temple is often seen as adhering to this structure. The novel certainly makes an effort to tug at readers’ heartstrings; the chapter in which Charlotte dies is dramatically titled “Which People Void of Feelings Need Not Read.” Nevertheless, some scholars read Charlotte’s death scene as a culmination of the character’s journey toward self-realization, rather than a fable-esque reaffirmation of female obedience. In her book Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women, Marion Rust argues that Charlotte displays marked agency in her last scene. Rust claims that, although Charlotte suffers the same fate that countless seduced women in similar novels face, her death is not the result of total passivity (68). Rather, Charlotte’s death and the birth of her daughter further align with a pro-women, anti-patriarchal reading of the text.

As Charlotte is giving birth, her father arrives. Mr. Temple is eager to reunite with his “poor, ruined, repentant child” (Rowson 86). Contrary to his reductive description of his daughter, Charlotte’s actions emphasize her ability to make strategic decisions to shape the trajectory of her life and, by extension, her daughter’s. In her final moments, Charlotte comes to and finds herself “supported in her father’s arms” (87). Soon after, she hands her newborn daughter to him. This scene could be read as a literal and symbolic return to patriarchal authority. Mr. Temple’s presence reminds readers that Charlotte began to descend into obscurity the moment she disobeyed her father’s wishes and followed Montraville overseas. By handing her off to Mr. Temple, Charlotte could be seen as subjecting her daughter to the same patriarchal system she herself rebelled against. Even so, the fact that Charlotte makes one last, decisive choice before she dies cannot be ignored. Her last verbal entreaty—the last time Charlotte’s voice shines through the narration—is an assertive command. “Protect her,” Charlotte tells her father (87). She does not ask; she does not mince words. Here, Charlotte demonstrates her own sense of self-determination and authority by making a decision on her own, to benefit herself and her daughter—something she struggled to do previously and which many women at the time never would have dared to do, even on their deathbed.

Meanwhile, the narrator stands in clear opposition to Charlotte’s passionate final words. While Charlotte herself uses the last of her energies to speak her mind authoritatively, the narrator continues to describe her in cliched, misogynistic ways. At the beginning of chapter XXXIII, she is said to “still [have] retained the semblance of a lovely woman,” an almost backhanded comment that reduces Charlotte’s worth to her perceived feminine beauty (85). Additionally, despite the words she so clearly speaks, the narrator actively silences Charlotte: it is said that “though her lips still moved her voice became inarticulate” soon after she gives a lengthy “address” (86). Charlotte’s final words stand out all the more as a result of the narrator’s dismissiveness.

A tableau illustration from the 1831 Fisher, Son & Co. edition of Charlotte Temple which accompanies Charlotte’s death scene builds on this tension between pro-patriarchal and pro-women readings of the novel. The drawing depicts Charlotte in bed, holding her daughter up toward Mr. Temple. Mrs. Beauchamp stands beside Mr. Temple on one side of the bed, and a nurse lifts Charlotte into an upright position on the other. The illustration is captioned with Charlotte’s dying words (Keralis 35). Here, Charlotte, Mrs. Beauchamp, and the nurse’s gazes are all focused on Mr. Temple—perhaps underscoring the fact that men, and fathers in particular, are the point around which Charlotte and Rowson’s complex social universes revolve. Juxtaposed against this focus on Mr. Temple is the gaze of Charlotte’s newborn daughter, who glows a radiant white against the rest of the drawing’s darker grayscale. The baby looks straight ahead, directly at the viewer (35). Almost confrontational, she forces onlookers to acknowledge the dislocation between Mr. Temple’s seeming significance and the command her mother uttered to determine her fate.

Scenes from Charlotte Temple and accompanying paratexts both demonstrate the complexity of the novel. Though it is often framed as a formulaic seduction novel, it can be argued that the book is proto-feminist. Charlotte’s words and actions reflect anti-patriarchal, pro-women sentiments characteristic of early feminists’ arguments for gender equality. Contrasted by the narrator’s genre-typical and occasionally misogynistic descriptions of Charlotte’s feelings, thoughts, and actions, descriptions of the same given by Charlotte herself reveal that she possesses a sense of agency and authority not often held by women characters. Narrative choices made by the author, particularly in chapters XXII and XXXIII, allow Rowson to play with narratorial and character authority in a way that encourages a proto-feminist reading of the seemingly genre-conforming text.

Works Cited

Keralis, Spencer D. C. “Pictures of Charlotte: The Illustrated Charlotte Temple and Her Readers.” Book History, vol. 13, 2010, pp. 25–57. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Nov. 2022.

Murray, Judith Sargent. “On the Equality of the Sexes.” The Massachusetts Magazine, or Monthly Museum of Knowledge and Rational Entertainment, March-April 1790, pp. 132-35, 223-26. Rpt. in Charlotte Temple, edited by Marion Rust, W. W. Norton, 2011, pp. 112-19.

​​Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple. Edited by Marion Rust. Norton Critical Edition, 1st ed., W.W. Norton, 2011, pp. 4-90.

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

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, edited by Eileen Hunt Botting, Yale UP, 2014.

I abided by the Washington College Honor Code in completing this assignment.

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