Amelia, Agency, and the Aesthetics of Mourning

James D. Lilley
SUNY Albany 

In a graduate seminar I taught this semester at SUNY Albany, one of the most immediate effects of sandwiching Amelia in between James Hogg’s The Memories and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Washington Irving’s The Sketch-Book was to emphasize the aesthetic and political versatility of modern forms of romance.  While not, perhaps, an obvious choice for a syllabus entitled “The Transatlantic Gothic,” Amelia proved an interesting and important addition to our semester, especially when paired with Rowson’s Charlotte Temple.

Our class began by broaching questions more traditionally associated with the sentimental romance and the seduction narrative.  I ask all my graduate students to make a brief, 15-minute presentation at the beginning of each seminar; and, in addition to this task, I also encourage them to post a “Blackboard” prompt online well before the class meeting so that they and the other students can begin discussing course materials before we get to class.  This week’s presenter posed a question evolving out of a quote from Marion Rust’s essay, “What’s Wrong With Charlotte Temple?”: “[W]hat [Charlotte] loses when she ‘falls,’” argues Rust, “is not, or at least not importantly, her virginity, but rather her independent agency” (103). “Do you agree with this reading,” the presenter asked, “and if so, does it undermine or enhance the ‘Gothicness’ of the novel as a whole? To say that differently: can choice and/or desire be considered vital components of the Gothic? How might one compare Charlotte’s agency, or lack thereof, to that of Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) or Adeline (Romance of the Forest) in attempting to trace a female Gothic tradition through British and American literature?”  Most of the responses on Blackboard voiced a dissatisfaction with Charlotte’s character and agency that I’ve found quite common when I teach Rowson’s novel.  “Charlotte comes to a standstill,” noted one student, “when she needs to make a critical decision at the moment of elopement.”  In the classroom, this dissatisfaction was also registered by an extended discussion about how the worldly Mademoiselle La Rue offered a more interesting (and agential) character study–a feminine version of the licentious Gothic villain whose desire threatens the oikos with dissolution and ruin.

Reading Amelia alongside Charlotte Temple helped students to resist reducing the function of the seduction narrative to a didactic paternalism focussed solely on the tragic figure of the ruined republican mother.  “I love her for trying!” exclaimed one student as we were discussing Amelia’s attempt to “publicly . . . vindicate her honor, and assert her rights.” Another student interpreted Amelia’s ultimate failure to escape the fate of the violated sentimental heroine as follows: “It is almost as if the text is not yet ready to explore how a power struggle between an empowered Amelia and Doliscus would turn out, and attempts to entirely foreclose its possibility.”  But if Amelia is “not yet ready to explore” this kind of agency, what is its function in the letters of the new republic?  Students were quick to point to another dimension of the seduction narrative: rather than focus our attention solely on the fate of the ruined woman/mother, the text seems to encourages us to identify with the mournful subject position of Amelia’s father, Horatio:  “[I]n a melancholy solitude he consumes the time; . . . his only recreation a daily visit to the monument, which he has raised in commemoration of Amelia’s fate.” What seems particularly significant about Horatio’s mode of memorialization is, as one student observed, the fact that he “continued to lament, but . . . forebore to reprobate.”  We compared Horatio’s blending of mourning and forgiveness with the figure of the “gallant MONTGOMERY” that opens the text.  As the footnote to Duncan and Ed’s lovely edition points out, “Richard Montgomery was a former British officer who accepted a commission . . . in the American army at the outbreak of the Revolution.  He was killed in 1775 during the Battle of Quebec,  but was notably treated with great respect by the British forces who discovered his body.”  We discussed how the figure of Montgomery hovered over the text, and adumbrated not only Horatio’s decision to care for the wounded Doliscus but also functioned as a hermeneutic device to foreground his particular mode of memorialization and forgiveness–a mode of mourning that would, we thought, have appealed to the post-revolutionary readers of this popular text, and enabled them to register the recent trauma of conflict while distancing themselves from its tendency toward fragmentation and faction.

In short, reading Amelia alongside Charlotte Temple helped us to consider the seduction narrative as a powerful and versatile political/aesthetic form, whether approached from the more didactic framework of ruined republican desire or from the imperative to memorialize, mourn, and forgive attendant on the father’s position in this same aesthetic framework.  These discussions offered a vital legacy to future class meetings: in the following week, for example, we encountered Irving’s own unique and influential reformulations of the proper relationship between memory and revolution in The Sketch-Book.  Thanks to Amelia, our discussion quickly focussed on the nascent politics of Rip Van Winkle’s forgetful slumber; and in Irving’s mournful memorialization of the Indian in “Philip of Pokanoket” and “Traits of Indian Character,” we began to see how romance forms quickly adapted to the new nation’s need to defuse the traumas of racial and imperial–as well as revolutionary–violence.


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