Race and Captivity in the Early Atlantic World

Siân Silyn Roberts
Queens College, CUNY

First off, many thanks to Ed and Duncan for producing such an elegant and teachable edition of this novella! What follows is a broad account of our class discussion, and I’ve included the in-class exercises I gave my students at the end of this report.

This semester I included Amelia: Or, The Faithless Briton (A) for the first time in my early American literature survey, 1592-1855 (this course is required by all English majors, but if also offered as a Gen Ed course, so it attracts a variety of students from different disciplines, at different stages of their degrees).  We read it alongside Charlotte Temple (CT), and both texts are included under a broader section on the syllabus entitled “Race and Captivity in the Early Atlantic World.”  So I introduce my students to sentimental literature as a variation of the captivity narrative, where the cultural purity of a vulnerable female comes under assault from a force that interrupts the cohesion of the original community.  Since this is a survey, my aim in this class is to introduce students to the broader principles and characteristics of representative modes of writing from the colonial, national, and antebellum periods (ethnography, captivity narrative, slave narrative, sentimental novel, sermon, gothic short story, etc.).  We only spend a week on sentimentalism, since this course spans a huge period of U.S. literary production.  It’s definitely a challenge cramming this enormously complex form into one short week.

Beginning with CT, then, we spent one day considering some of the discursive principles of sentimental writing, namely sympathy and communities of feeling; the libertine’s interference with paternal relations and the channels of correct emotion; didacticism and the moral authority of the author; and the nationalizing fantasy of the family.  On the day we studied A.,I asked my students to compare the preface from A. with Rowson’s address to the reader in CT (see attachment 1).  They pointed out that CT is concerned with establishing a community of female readers and authors (the “old woman” who conveys the tale to the author) and its veracity as a “Tale of Truth.”  We also discussed Rowson’s engagement with the politics of authorship and novel writing.  Amelia’s introduction, by way of contrast, evokes the historical and political event of the Revolutionary war as the setting and catalyst for the novel.  They pointed out that the “history of female affliction” (i.e. Amelia’s seduction) is cited in the Preface as an untold battle of the Revolutionary war, and this invites us to think of Amelia as a soldier and her body as a battleground.  They also liked the idea that “Amelia” might be related to the verb to ameliorate.  We spent a little time (although not as much as I would like) thinking about what might need ameliorating in a revolutionary context, and how the figure of the seduced woman is related.

I then asked them to think about why the author of Amelia might choose to stage the novel during Revolutionary war, and what kind of connections this asks us to make between seduction and revolution.  To think through this idea, we looked at the passage on pp. 5-6 of Duncan and Ed’s text, where Doliscus persuades Amelia that a covert marriage is as binding as a public ceremony.  Doliscus describes the marriage as a “nuptial contract,” so I asked my students to reflect on the purpose of a “contract” (protection, rights, guarantees, obligations, etc.).  I then suggested that the novel’s revolutionary setting places it squarely at the center of a debate over personal autonomy, personal liberty, and rights.  We then compared two structurally similar scenes from A. and CT., where each woman first discovers that her lover has betrayed her (see attachment 2).  We compared Charlotte’s emotional collapse to Amelia’s assertion of her “rights.”  We used this comparison to think through the different operations of sensibility and individual agency in both scenes.

Sadly, I suspect that many of my students had not read Amelia, as many of them had not finished Charlotte Temple either.  That said, the handouts helped facilitate discussion, but I felt that a broader perspective on the novella was lacking (I deliberately focused our discussion on specific scenes and ideas, because I entered class suspecting that students would not have finished the reading).  That said, students responded positively to the close reading exercises, and I would definitely teach Amelia again, although I would like to give the novella far more room on the syllabus.  I think it was too ambitious to cram CT and A into one week of a survey.  While Amelia’s length makes it an attractive choice for a survey, I would prefer to repeat this pairing in an upper-division elective on the American novel in future.

Finally – and this is just a point of personal curiosity – I would be curious to know if anyone discussed the novella’s resonances with Hamlet? Amelia (whose name seems to stand in homonymic relation to Ophelia) goes mad and sings of her lost love before her death; her brother comes to avenge her fate but dies prematurely in battle; and her father Horatio is the only character left alive at the end of the tale.  I didn’t have a chance to raise this with my students, but it seems that there might be some fun discussion points there.

—Siân

 


Attachment 1:

Charlotte Temple close reading exercise

Working on your assigned sentence(s) as a group…

  1. Circle any words/phrases that are unclear.  Discuss their possible meaning in the context of the sentence.  Then ask me if you want some further clarification.
  2. Go through each sentence carefully and thoroughly, identifying the key terms that the author uses to convey her meaning.  Are there any choice of words in these sentences that you find striking?  Does she use metaphor or simile to convey the meaning?  What is the author trying to convey?
  3. Write two or three sentences paraphrasing the author’s meaning.
  4. How does each sentence seem to relate to the broader tale of Charlotte Temple?

 

  1. Title: Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth
  1. For the perusal of the young and thoughtless of the fair sex, this Tale of Truth is designed; and I could wish my fair readers to consider it not merely as the effusion of Fancy, but as a reality.
  1.  The circumstances on which I have founded this novel were related to me some little time since by an old lady who had personally known Charlotte, though she concealed the real names of the characters, and likewise the place where the unfortunate scenes were acted: yet, as it was impossible to offer a relation to the public in such an imperfect state, I have thrown over the whole a slight veil of fiction, and substituted names and places according to my own fancy.
  1. The principle characters in this little tale are now consigned to the silent tomb; it can therefore hurt the feelings of no one; and may, I flatter myself, be of service to some who are so unfortunate as to have neither friends to advise, or understanding to direct them, through the various and unexpected evils that attend a young and unprotected woman in her first entrance into life.
  1. While the tear of compassion still trembled in my eye for the fate of the unhappy Charlotte, I may have Children of my own, said I, to whom this recital may be of use, and if to your own children, said Benevolence, why not to the many daughters of Misfortune who, deprived of natural friends, or spoilt by a mistaken education, are thrown on the unfeeling world without the least power to defend themselves from the snares, not only of the other sex, but from the more dangerous arts of the profligate of their own.
  1. Sensible as I am that a novel writer, at a time when such a variety of works are ushered into the world under that name, stands but a poor chance for fame in the annals of literature, I shall therefore shelter myself from the shafts of criticism under the friendly shade of obscurity: and conscious that I wrote with a mind anxious for the happiness of that sex whose morals and conduct have so powerful an influence on mankind in general; and convinced that I have not wrote a line that conveys a wrong idea to the head or a corrupt wish to the heart, I shall rest satisfied in the purity of my own intentions, and if I merit not applause, I feel that I dread not censure.

Amelia close reading exercise

Working on your assigned sentence(s) as a group…

a)     Circle any words/phrases that are unclear.  Discuss their possible meaning in the context of the sentence.  Then ask me if you want some further clarification.

b)     Go through each sentence carefully and thoroughly, identifying the key terms that the author uses to convey his/her meaning.  Are there any choice of words in these sentences that you find striking?  Does he/she use metaphor or simile to convey the meaning?  What is the author trying to convey?

c)     Write two or three sentences paraphrasing the author’s meaning.

d)     How does each sentence seem to relate to the broader tale of Amelia?

  1. Title:

Amelia: or the Faithless Briton

An ORIGINAL NOVEL, founded upon recent facts

  1. The revolutions of government, and the subversions of empire, which have swelled the theme of national historians, have, likewise, in every age, furnished anecdote to the biographer, and incident to the novelist [sic].
  1. The objects of policy or ambition are generally, indeed, accomplished at the expense of private ease and prosperity; while the triumph of arms, like the funeral festivity of a savage tribe, serves to announce some recent calamity – the waste of property, or the fall of families.
  1. Thus, the great events of the late war, which produced the separation of the British empire, and established the sovereignty of America, where chequered [sic] with scenes of private sorrow, and the success of the contending forces was alternately fatal to the peace and order of domestic life.
  1. The lamentations of the widow and the orphan, mingled with the song of victory; and the sable mantle with which the hand of friendship cloathed [sic] the bier of the gallant MONTGOMERY, cast a momentary gloom upon the trophies his valour had atchieved [sic].
  1. Though the following tale then, does not exhibit the terrible magnificence of warlike operations, or scrutinize the principles of national politics, it recites an episode that too frequently occurs in the military drama, and contains a history of female affliction, that claims, from its authenticity, at least, an interest in the feeling heart.
  1. It is the first in a series of novels, drawn from the same source, and intended for public communication, through the medium of the Columbian Magazine: but as the author’s object is merely to glean those circumstances in the progress of the revolution, which the historian has neither leisure nor disposition to commemorate, and to produce, from the annals of private life, something to entertain, and something to improve his readers, the occasion will yield little hope from the applause of the public, and nothing to dread from its candor.

Attachment 2: 

Charlotte Temple.  Charlotte’s reaction to discovering that Montraville has betrayed her (by marrying another woman).

“Married – gone – say you?” cried she, in a distracted accent; “what without a last farewell, without one thought on my unhappy situation. Oh Montraville, may God forgive your perfidy.” She shrieked, and Belcour sprang forward just in time to prevent her falling to the floor.  Alarming faintings now succeeded each other and she was conveyed to her bed, from whence she earnestly prayed she might never more arise.  Belcour stayed with her that night, and in the morning found her in a high fever.  The fits she had been seized with had greatly terrified him and confined as she now was to a bed of sickness, she was no longer an object of desire: it is true for several days he went constantly to see her, but her pale, emaciated appearance disgusted him: his visits became less frequent: he forgot the solemn charge given him by Montraville [to look after Charlotte]; he even forgot the money entrusted to his care; and, the burning blush of indignation and shame tinges my cheek while I write it, this disgrace to humanity and manhood at length forgot even the injured Charlotte: and attracted by the blooming health of a farmer’s daughter, whom he had seen in his frequent excursions to the country, he left the unhappy girl to sink unnoticed to the grave, a prey to sickness, grief, and penury; while he, having triumphed over the virtue of the artless cottager, rioted in all the intemperance of luxury and lawless pleasure (137-138).

Amelia. Amelia’s reaction to discovering that Doliscus has betrayed her (by fleeing to Britain)

It has often been observed that despondency begets boldness and enterprize; and the female heart, which is susceptible to the gentlest sentiment, is, likewise, capable of the noblest fortitude.  Amelia perceived all the baseness of the desertion meditated by Doliscus, she foresaw all its ruinous consequences upon Horatio’s peace, her own character, and the fate of the innocent being which she bore [her unborn baby], and, wiping the useless tears from her cheek, she resolved publicly to vindicate her honor, and assert her rights . . . the restoration of her injured fame and honor absorbed every faculty of her mind (7-8).

a)     Circle any words/phrases that are unclear.  Discuss their possible meaning in the context of the sentence.  Then ask me if you want some further clarification.

b)     Go through each paragraph carefully and thoroughly, identifying the key terms that the author uses to convey his/her meaning.  Are there any choice of words in these sentences that you find striking?  Does he/she use metaphor or simile to convey the meaning?  What is the author trying to convey?

c)     How do these two paragraphs compare with one another?

Open discussion question: why does the sentimental seduction story spend so much time on the fate of young women? What might make the young woman such a potent (i.e. important, resonant) figure for post-Revolutionary readers?

 

 

 

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