Charlotte Temple, Susanna Rowson, 1794
- being the most popular American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What? Yes! And you’d never heard of it, huh?
Charlotte Temple is another of those morality tales for women. Just like Evelina and Clarissa it warns of the danger that seductive men pose to innocent, susceptible ladies. Charlotte Temple, however, is much more susceptible than either Evelina or Clarissa. Those venerable ladies mount sustained resistance to their would-be seducers. Charlotte just gets confused and does whatever the closest person to her tells her to do. Sigh.
Poor Charlotte is pretty English girl of just fifteen when Mademoiselle La Rue, a teacher at her boarding school, colludes in her seduction by a handsome young soldier named Montraville. Her teacher! Outrage! La Rue is evil. Charlotte, La Rue and Montraville go to America. Montraville really does love Charlotte at first, but he abandons her to marry someone rich, as you do. When he finds out that Charlotte is with child he sends some money through a f(r)iend who pockets the money and tries to seduce the ruined Charlotte himself. Our downtrodden protagonist, pining for her loving and morally upright family back in England, appeals to La Rue. The conversation goes something like this:
Charlotte: It’s pretty much your fault that I’m here. Can you help get me out of this mess by buying me passage back to England?
La Rue: Whatever. I’m busy with trying to marry this gullible rich guy and sleeping around. Also, you’re poor and gross and a buzzkill. Get off my porch.
I would not call Charlotte Temple a great work of literature by any means, but it is my favorite of the 18th century seduction novels that I read, mostly because it is mercifully brief at only 82 pages. That leaves little, but still some, room for preaching. Rowson writes in a melodramatic style that is laughable, but entertaining.
Here’s an example:
“’Oh, my father!’ cried Miss Eldridge, tenderly taking his hand, ‘be not anxious on that account for daily are my prayers offered to heaven that our lives may terminate at the same instant, and one grave receive us both; for why should I live when deprived of my one friend.’”
This novel contains some truly, gut-wrenchingly sexist sentiment. Rowson describes Charlotte’s mother’s face as “tempered so sweetly with the meek affection and submissive duty of the wife.” My apologies if you lose your lunch after reading that. Here’s another piece of drivel, “Look, my dear friends, at yonder lovely Virgin, arrayed in a white robe devoid of ornament; behold the meekness of her gait; her handmaids are Humility, Filial Piety, Conjugal Affection, Industry, and Benevolence; her name is CONTENT.” See ladies, the path to happiness is filial piety, even if your dad is an asshole.
You might like Charlotte Temple if:
- you like books that are short.
- you like melodrama.
- you have a strong stomach when it comes to sexism.
You might not like Charlotte Temple if:
- the quotes above made you queasy.
Final thoughts: I am so glad I’m done reading 18th century literature. This genre of novel is worthless. Worthless! I find it hard to care about the astoundingly avoidable problems of the 18th century female literary heroine. If Charlotte’s parents had just switched this conversation:
Parents: Stay away from men.
Parents: We can’t tell you. It’s indelicate. We must protect your innocence.
for this conversation:
Parents: Stay away from men.
Parents: They are rascals. They will make you think they love you and then abandon you pregnant in the New World.
Charlotte: What does “pregnant” mean?
Parents: Take a seat, this may take a while.
none of this nonsense would have happened.