Utah State University
I taught Amelia, or The Faithless Briton in a senior seminar titled “Literature, Politics, and Society.” Broadly, the course focused on the relationship between novels and the politics of nationalism and revolution from the 1770s through the 1820s. Since I regularly teach Charlotte Temple and The Coquette in my “Introduction to American Literature” course, I was excited to have a different sentimental novel to focus on for this senior seminar. Since most of my current students had also taken the earlier introductory course, I expected that Amelia would prompt some spirited comparisons about the role and representation of women in these novels. With these expectations in mind, as I prepared for class, my notes focused primarily on the character of Amelia—her actions, motives, characteristics, relationships, etc. I’d also asked my students to write their own short responses to get our discussion started, and as we worked our way through those responses, it quickly became clear that my students were much more interested in the other title character for this novel—Doliscus, the Faithless Briton.
My students’ interest in Doliscus initially surprised me. While he certainly plays an important role in the novel, I hadn’t given his character much detailed attention. In discussing the novel with other colleagues before I taught it, Amelia had typically been our primary focus—Doliscus rarely came up. Again and again, though, my students kept returning to Doliscus’s character— his status as an injured British soldier, his elaborate methods of seduction (particularly his arrangements for the false wedding ceremony), and his eventual repentance and dramatic death/suicide. Although we ultimately ended up discussing more than just Doliscusduring the week we studied Amelia, in the end, his character really defined my class’s engagement with the novel, and, as a result, I’d like to highlight some of their views and observations. As one student described it, “We read a lot of novels with women who cry and faint and sometimes try to change their roles and act differently, but can’t. Doliscus is definitely a bad guy, but he isn’t always the bad guy we expect him to be. He’s a rake, but there just seems to be something different about him.”
So, what’s different about Doliscus? For most of the novel, my students agreed that he seems like a pretty conventional villain, whose actions and attitudes readers are clearly supposed to condemn. They were particularly interested in his elaborate plans for seducing Amelia, especially the effort he takes to stage a false marriage ceremony, which is performed by a fellow British officer in disguise. For many of my students, this aspect of the seduction made Doliscus’s behavior particularly egregious since, as one student put it, he “makes Amelia violate her beliefs by allowing her to think she is entering a legitimate marriage.” Seducing Amelia under the guise of legitimacy made Doliscus “a kind of double-villain,” wrote another, since “aside from the secrecy of her marriage, Amelia is led to believe she has not done anything fundamentally wrong or dishonorable since she doesn’t give into Doliscus until she thinks they are really married.” When I asked my students to say more about this “double villainy” in class, they were quick to interpret Doliscus’s actions in allegorical terms, reading his deceptive seduction of Amelia as a cautionary metaphor for post-Revolutionary readers, warning US citizens to be wary of resuming any alliances or involvements with Great Britain, no matter how attractive and seemingly legitimate they might be.
This allegorical reading of Doliscus—as a figure meant to warn US readers of the dangerous and destructive (yet also attractive) dimensions of involvement with Great Britain—became a dominant framework for interpreting his character throughout the novel. This approach led us to some interesting conversations outside the text about the history of US-British relations after the Revolutionary War, and we spent some time talking about how the trope of seduction was a useful one for thinking about the postcolonial position of the US.
This allegorical interpretation of Doliscus, however, ran into some complications at the end of the novel when Doliscus’s villainous character changes. Shaken by his earlier encounter with Amelia, Doliscus accepts her brother’s challenge to a duel, but when he arrives, he expresses his regret for his actions, asks for forgiveness, and then willingly gives up his life in the duel by offering himself as a clear target for Honorius. “Nay, I come to offer a more substantial revenge for the wrongs I have committed, than merely the imputation of so gross an epithet—Take it, Sir—it is my life,” he tells Honorius, before “laying himself suddenly open to the pass of his antagonist.” “’Nobly done,’ cried Doliscus as he fell, ‘it is the vengeance of Amelia; and oh! may it serve to expiate the crime of her betrayer.” His final words go on to address the future safety of Doliscus, whom he advises to return quickly to the US where he will be protected “from the consequences of my fate.”
Doliscus’s death scene forced my students to reconsider their assessment of the transnational politics of this novel. On the one hand, this scene represents the heroic climax they’ve been waiting for. As Honorius, the virtuous American, defeats the faithless Briton, the novel seems to illustrate the triumph of American values over the corrupted, aristocratic culture of Great Britain. On the other hand, however, Honorius’s triumph is complicated by the role that Doliscus plays in causing his death. The novel makes it clear that Doliscus had the upper hand in this duel, noting that “Doliscus, for awhile, defended himself with superior address.” His defeat, therefore, is not clearly the result of American moral or martial superiority, but, rather, a combination of Honorius’s efforts and Doliscus’s own acknowledgment that he deserves to die for his dishonorable actions. Because Doliscus plays a decisive role in his defeat, acknowledging his own guilt and repentance for what he did to Amelia, he does not end up as the clear-cut villain he has been throughout most of the novel. Instead, wrote one student, “he ends up as a figure deserving of some degree of sympathy since he admits that what he did was wrong and takes steps, on his own, to make amends for it, even going so far as to try to protect Amelia’s brother from future harm from the British government.”
Given the harsh representation of Doliscus throughout the rest of the novel, my students found this shift in novel’s depiction of his character confusing. What does the novel accomplish by having Doliscus repent and give up his own life? Why not carry through with its critical representation of the “faithless Briton” and have him die as a reviled and unrepentant figure? At the very end, even Honorius expresses some admiration for Doliscus’s final actions (What a pity it is, exclaimed Honorius, that thou shoulds’t be a villain, for thou art brave”). If the majority of the novel seems geared toward stirring up suspicion and antipathy for this manipulative British character, my students wanted to know why it changes course at the end to make readers feel some degree of sympathy and respect for this act of repentance.
After much discussion, my students felt that this final scene offers a revised model for future relations between the US and Great Britain. In contrast to the novel’s own initial, cautionary message—where Britain emerges as a faithless and deceptive partner for the US—Amelia seems to argue that US readers ultimately need to move beyond this suspicious relationship and view Britain in more sympathetic, conciliatory terms—as a nation repentant for its prior wrongs, with whom the US can enter into a new relationship founded on, as one student wrote, “the sentiments of forgiveness and mutual respect.”
There is, of course, more to be said about this interpretation of the novel, and there are certainly many other ways to read the final fate of Doliscus. I’ll conclude here in the hopes that these observations will provide some interesting directions to take in future discussions of this novel. In the end, I found that my class’s interest in Doliscus opened up some new and unexpected ways to think about the gender relationships and the trans-Atlantic politics of Amelia. After a week spent re-reading his through my students’ eyes, I have to agree that Doliscus holds his own as a title character of Amelia or The Faithless Briton—and he’ll definitely be making a more prominent appearance in my discussion notes the next time I teach this novel, which will be making a regular appearance in my courses for the near future.