Amelia in an honors section

John Funchion
University of Miami

I taught Amelia, or the Faithless Briton in an honors section of my introductory survey of early U.S. literature, which revolved around the legacy of the captivity narrative and discourses on feeling.  My students read this short novel after we had concluded our discussion of Charlotte Temple. Predictably, many of them initially did not care for Susana Rowson’s text. Raised on a literary diet that included martial female characters from Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series to Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games trilogy, they had little patience for fainting young women who fell victim to lecherous rakes. Their own tastes in reading, nevertheless, did not prevent them from engaging Rowson’s novel on its own terms. Even though they found her didactic voice generally off-putting, they recognized that Rowson’s commanding narrator anticipated their skepticism at every turn. And as we discussed the literary and cultural context of Charlotte Temple, they entertained—and many were even persuaded by—readings of it that asserted its capacity to generate a sympathetic community through the mourning of her death or its depiction of the perils associated with reproducing the English family in British North America.

Given the pedagogical aims of my course, Amelia paired well with Charlotte Temple. Two features of it that my students and I agreed made it worth reading were its noticeable departures from the typical sentimental novel and its explicit U.S. Revolutionary context. Alert to the conventions of the sentimental novel and the women’s captivity narrative, they anticipated the early events of the novel: Doliscus would have little difficulty in beguiling Amelia Blyfield and later disowning her after she became pregnant with their child. They noted that Doliscus, much like Montraville and Belcour, used his higher social rank as a vehicle for manipulation. This feature of the text resonated with the excerpts they read from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments that underscored the ease with which subjects express admiration for those of a loftier standing while struggling to find sympathy with the lower ranks of society. Beyond those details, they identified where it differed from Charlotte Temple. As the victim of an elaborately designed false marital ceremony, Amelia garnered more sympathy from my class.  They expressed surprise over her pursuit of Doliscus to England. When she “demanded a public and unequivocal acknowledgement of their marriage” at a social gathering in front of her lover’s associates, they saw her as a radically different kind of sentimental heroine even as the substance of her petition testified to her legal and cultural vulnerability (8). After this confrontation, they noted how the novel pursed a more predictable outcome: Amelia and her child die, her brother avenges her death, and her father spends his remaining life mourning the loss of his daughter. They marveled at the novel’s capacity for registering the possibility of more active female protagonist only to circumscribe her within the formal logic of the sentimental novel.

After cataloging the discrepancies between these two novels, my students drew a series of larger literary and cultural conclusions. Charlotte Temple’s relevance to the events of the U.S. Revolution always remained somewhat elusive. Amelia, on the other hand, firmly established how the sentimental novel could mobilize revolutionary affect and national feeling. They read Amelia’s demand for marital recognition as a political act—one that represented both the perils of womanhood and the colonies’ demand for greater political power. Amelia’s fall, moreover, could not be blamed on a wayward boarding school instructor. Instead they suspected that her misplaced trust in Doliscus stemmed in part from her father’s equivocal position during the Revolutionary War. Unwilling to pledge his fidelity to either nation, Horatio Blyfield provided his daughter with an untrue moral compass. Doliscus also perfectly embodied the vicious corruption of the British social hierarchy. They could not regard his downfall as just an anecdote from “the annals of private life”; it transmitted a revolutionary message with public consequences (2).

The general consensus among my students was that Amelia gave them a greater appreciation for the sentimental novel’s formal and cultural adaptability. It also helped set the stage for our subsequent discussion of The Scarlet Letter, especially when it came to drawing connections between the political content of “The Custom House” and the romance genre. When I informally surveyed the class, the majority of them felt that this text should be a fixture of my survey’s syllabus. I will certainly teach the text again.

 

 

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