Amelia and Charlotte

Sari Altschuler
University of South Florida

I taught Amelia: Or the Faithless Briton this semester at the midpoint of my American literature survey paired with Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and it worked wonderfully. Students really enjoyed the novella and overwhelmingly preferred it to Charlotte Temple, with the discussion eventually turning (perhaps a bit reluctantly on the part of some) to how much more they had learned about the seduction narrative and gender in early America by reading both texts together. The students preferred Amelia for a variety of reasons: 1) The text is shorter and easier to discuss comprehensively in a 75-minute class period. 2) The students concluded, along with Marion Rust, that Charlotte was frustratingly passive. They delighted especially in the comparison between Charlotte’s habit of inopportune fainting and Amelia’s quick return from her fainting spell to wipe away “useless tears” and to embrace “boldness,” “enterprize,” and “the noblest fortitude” (7). Not only did they value Amelia’s strength and resilience, but they were also relieved that the anonymous text placed less blame on Amelia for her fate. Students who had read Charlotte Temple,Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, and Amelia were additionally able to recognize the rigidity of the seduction narrative’s form, and, thus, appreciated Amelia’s determination all the more. 3) Students really enjoyed the discussion of anonymity in the early republic (my thanks on that score to Ed White’s terrific presentation on the topic at the last Society of Early Americanist’s meeting). They were surprised to find out how common anonymous publishing was, and the discussion led one student to announce that she would love to take a course that featured only anonymous texts to get her out of a dependency on biographical reading.

I enjoyed teaching Amelia for many of the same reasons to which I would add a few others: 1) The students used better critical thinking skills, were more successful at close reading, and asked better questions when discussing Amelia. I suspect the students were more adept at handling the text because it is shorter and more direct. As a result, students felt smarter about their readings. 2) More specifically, Amelia helped them understand much more easily how a seduction narrative could be a political allegory. They were better able to engage the complexity of Amelia because they more readily understood the political nature of the text, and they got a lot of pleasure from trying to parse the allegory, which they were more reluctant to do with Charlotte Temple. That said, students were much quicker and smarter about reading the political messages in Charlotte Temple for having worked with Amelia. Our discussion of Doliscus’s politically tinged seduction rhetoric (pages 5-6) was particularly productive in this respect, helping the students to understand better both the nuances of revolutionary ideology and the fears about its misuse. This equipped students to recognize similar moments in later texts such as the seduction speeches in Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond. 3) Finally, Amelia unexpectedly and quite productively pushed me out of my own comfort zone. While I strive to be open to student reactions to the text and new readings that emerge in class, teaching Amelia made me realize how much I have come to depend on my own accumulated understanding of history and biography. While I cannot and would not wish to jettison my knowledge of the revolutionary period, the anonymity of Amelia helped set me on more equal footing with my students, which allowed them, in turn, to take greater interpretive risks.

My only hesitation in teaching a course that substituted Amelia for Charlotte Temple or The Coquette would be losing the sense of popular taste and historical texture that comes with the other works. The newness and anonymity of the text (overall a tremendous boon) here serve as drawbacks. The extra-textual elements of these popular novels—reception history, the scandal of Elizabeth Whitman, pilgrimages to Charlotte’s grave—give students not only a sense of the cultural significance of such works but also juicy details that texture late eighteenth-century America for students who might otherwise feel the period unimaginably distant. That said, Amelia is short enough that one need not choose. When I teach the survey again this spring, I look forward to teaching Amelia beside Charlotte Temple and very much appreciate the opportunity to rethink the survey course in light of such a terrific, little-used text.

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