Teaching Amelia in an upper-level American Women Writers course

Sari Edelstein
University of Massachusetts, Boston

I taught in Amelia in an upper-level English course, “American Women Writers and Culture,” and we read it in conjunction with Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. I assigned the very short introduction to Jane Tompkins’ Sensational Designs on the first day of class, which gave students a vocabulary and a literary-historical context for popular, melodramatic fiction. The pairing of the two texts made the generic conventions of the seduction novel readily apparent; they were able to clearly recognize specific character types and plot devices. Given that Amelia and Charlotte Temple have so much in common, students were primed to observe and contemplate their differences and to assess how those variations contributed to vastly different kinds of “cultural work.” Thus, beyond comparison merely for its own sake, the juxtaposed portrayals of nation and femininity allowed us to discuss the stakes of representation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the class preferred Amelia to Charlotte Temple, largely because they preferred Amelia as a protagonist. They admired Amelia’s striking assertion of female agency, which we linked to her status as a daughter of the American Revolution. Even beyond their appreciation of her autonomy, my students were quick to shield Amelia from blame; they noted that her father invited the wounded British soldier into the family home, essentially inviting his daughter to fall in love with him. Moreover, they observed that Amelia, unlike Charlotte, actually believed she was married.  In other words, where Charlotte Temple aims to instill in female readers a respect for parental authority, Amelia’s lesson is simply “avoid the faithless British.”  There was class-wide consensus that the text truly blames Doliscus alone for the fate of the Blyfield family. Thus, the novel seems less invested in instructing naïve women readers than in suggesting the consequences, both political and familial, of becoming intimate with a national enemy.

Significantly, they noticed the inverted depictions of New York and London; in Charlotte Temple, New York is the alienating, class-stratified metropolis that rewards duplicity while Amelia represents London in precisely those terms. Cities, thus, function in both texts as barometers for national values.It is in foreign cities that both women die, and we analyzed the competing visions of the future offered in the two novels. In particular, I urged them to think about why Amelia’s baby dies and what this might mean for the future of the nation. While Charlotte Temple ends with the restoration of the British family, Amelia offers a far grimmer outlook for the nascent United States. With the older, single Horatio Blyfield as the sole survivor, we are given a vision of a new nation that may or may not survive, a surprisingly ambivalent conclusion in a novel otherwise so fervently nationalistic.

At the very end of class, I asked them whether the text seemed to be written by a man or woman. I was prepared to tell them that both male and female writers participated in the seduction novel tradition and that texts often bear no trace of authorial gender. The students posited that the absence of maternal direct address that punctuates Charlotte Temple gave them the impression that Amelia was written by a man. A few careful readers even noted the first page, which reads: “It was the singular fortune of Amelia, to be at once the admiration of our sex, and the favourite of her own.” Certainly this moment may reveal a female author’s attempt at posing as a male author, but nonetheless, I was delighted by their scrupulous attention to detail.

Amelia was an entirely beneficial addition to my syllabus. As a short novel, it was easy to fit into a course that ambitiously aims to cover American women’s writing from Mary Rowlandson to Alison Bechdel. I would not have otherwise been able to include another seduction novel, and rather than teaching Charlotte Temple in a vacuum, the inclusion of Amelia enabled me to begin the semester with a rich discussion of the versatility of genre, the politics of marriage, and the cultural work of popular fiction.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *