Amelia and Charlotte in the Liberal Arts Classroom

Toni Wall Jaudon
Hendrix College 

If, before class, you had asked many of the students in my senior seminar what they thought of Amelia, or the Faithless Briton, they would have likely told you that the best thing about Amelia was that it wasn’t Charlotte Temple. Amelia followed Charlotte on the syllabus, and my students’ responses to it had everything to do with their struggles to read Rowson’s novel. For these students, Charlotte was neither a novel they wanted nor one they knew how to study. It offered, in their assessment, a female protagonist unfit for sympathetic identification and a narrative devoid of craft, and it failed to yield complexity, ambiguity, and meaning when placed under the microscope of their close readings. Amelia, at least, had the virtue of an assertive female protagonist, even if it, like Charlotte, felt unreadable to them.

That my students had difficulty reading Charlotte and Amelia was, in some senses, the pedagogical outcome I intended. They came to these texts as part of a senior seminar on canonicity in c19 American literatures, a seminar I offered in part because I knew my students possessed strategies that would let them read Moby-Dick but not Charlotte or other texts like it. The department in which I teach does an exemplary job of training careful, attentive close readers, but places less emphasis on the historicist and contextualizing modes of reading that have been so important to scholars of the long nineteenth century. Hence my students’ resistance to Charlotte, and, initially, Amelia: both failed to send them on the hunt for hidden meaning that had, for many of them, defined their own developing critical practices. Yet as we talked about why and how scholars had come to study and value texts like Charlotte and Amelia—guided by the now-themselves-canonical arguments for recovery work by Jane Tompkins, Cathy Davidson, and others—my students began to see how they might ask other questions of the literary texts they read, questions that sought to ground interpretations in the places and times in which these works initially appeared. More importantly, they saw that questions about how to read literature are inseparable from our decisions about what is worth reading and why.From this vantage point, Amelia and the “Just Teach One” project fruitfully extended the methodological crisis that Charlotte initially posed. Just as learning to read Charlotte required scholars to develop new interpretive strategies and ask different questions, so Amelia challenged my students to revise the methods that had been devised to deal with Charlotte. In the process, the literary history I had intended to show them—in which expanding the canon meant changing the methods we use to study texts—became an ongoing endeavor in which they, too, could take part.

So how then did we read Amelia? My seminar’s members—all of whom identify as women and none of whom suffer fools lightly—found their way into the text through the agency, however limited, that Amelia affords its title character. They loved that, unlike Charlotte, Amelia responded to her seducer’s abandonment by chasing him across the ocean. Their pleasure in reading was inseparable from the pattern that Theresa Gaul has outlined, where the work of recovery troubles critical narratives that align woman, nation, and a static domestic sphere.[1] Yet in the end my students were most struck by a conclusion they drew from close reading: that Amelia, unlike Charlotte, can be easily read as a text by and for men. (They noted, for instance, that the author’s introduction identifies him as male and that the narrator is at least as interested in Horatio’s moral behavior—lauding him for refusing to cut off the ruined Amelia, for instance—as he is in Amelia’s fatal errors.) What did it mean, my students wondered, that this revision to the seduction story can be taken as male-authored and male-addressed? What happens, they asked, if we see the globetrotting agency Amelia manifests (and then, significantly, loses) as part of a male fantasy about women’s place in national life? The answers they marshaled to these questions had one common thread: that Amelia’s empowerment was in some important respects not her own. To revise Lauren Berlant’s suggestion that sentimentality allows women to “become public on behalf of privacy,”[2] my students saw Amelia as becoming transnational on behalf of a male-identified nation, and in particular, in the service of making its public and private worlds cohere. For my students, then, reading Amelia underscored not only the hemispheric and transatlantic investments of the early American novel, but also the ways in which those investments are complexly shaped by gender. In the process, it gave them a first-hand glimpse of why recovery work matters to how we read today.

[1] Theresa Gaul, “Recovering Recovery: Early American Women and Legacy’s Future,” Legacy 26.2 (2009): 274-9.

[2] Lauren Berlant, “Poor Eliza,” American Literature 70.3 (Sept. 1998), 647.

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