“Amelia and Charlotte and Bella and Me”

Lauren Klein
Georgia Institute of Technology

This year, I taught a special section of my “Formations of American Culture” course for Georgia Tech’s Building Construction majors. Since most Building Construction students are preparing for careers in construction management, I adjusted the course from its usual format—a fairly traditional survey of American literature to 1865—to focus, instead, on how the issues and themes that arise through the study of early American literature might relate to and inform the present day. Amelia thus appeared in a unit that also featured Charlotte Temple, as well as an episode of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and, pace Sarah Blackwood, the most recent film in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn Part I.

In the lead-up to Amelia, we’d discussed how certain genres might work in ways more subtle than initially expected. With the example of 16 and Pregnant, we’d talked about how people rush to denounce reality television for being voyeuristic and vapid, and for putting the worst parts of human nature on display. I’d introduced Charlotte Temple in that context, explaining how, in the eighteenth century, people denounced fiction—and the seduction narrative in particular—for similar reasons. And yet, like reality TV today, the seduction narrative could do things that other forms of writing could not. It could discuss sensational topics. It could stage moral dilemmas with vividness and urgency. It could represent ambiguity through multiple perspectives. And it could speak to multiple audiences at once.

By the time that the class arrived at Amelia, they had already acquired an understanding of how to read, and to read into the seduction narrative. With the more explicitly revolutionary frame of Amelia, I asked my students to consider the significance of the seduced heroine in the age of political revolutions, and of revolutions in social order more generally conceived. I asked what Amelia might tell us about burgeoning ideas about female sexuality and the role of women in the late eighteenth century. Finally, I asked my students to think about what Amelia might tell us about the seduction of reading—a seduction, I emphasized, that exists today in other forms of media, but has lost none of its psychic force.

My students responded strongly to Amelia, identifying clear parallels between its plot and themes and the American revolution. They found additional significance in the ways the anonymous author linked the struggle for national independence with a broader social struggle. “It shows the evolution of society,” one student wrote. “It’s not just that she’s a woman. She’s a commoner, an American, and a woman, aggressively seeking to assert her rights against a aristocrat, a Briton, and a man.”

Students related to Amelia and her decision to “publicly to vindicate her honor”—much more than to Charlotte Temple, who they found passive, unrelatable, and bland (7). To my surprise, they also found parallels between Amelia and Bella, the protagonist of the Twilight series. Like Amelia, Bella also finds herself unexpectedly pregnant—in her case, with a half-human, half-vampire fetus that threatens to kill her from within. But rather than view Bella’s decision to keep her baby, like Amelia’s death, as inevitable, a pre-determined consequence of the (conservative) society in which she lived, my students viewed Bella’s decision to proceed towards death as aligned with Amelia’s decision to sail to England to “assert her rights” (7). In classroom discussion, I challenged them to consider how Amelia’s death, like Bella’s ostensible “decision,” might point to social forces more powerful than a single person might overcome. In comparison to the clarity of Charlotte Temple, in which the cards are so clearly stacked against the eponymous protagonist, the ambiguities of Amelia proved more challenging—but ultimately, I believe, more rewarding—for my students to reconcile.

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