I’ll confess up front that I volunteered for this semester’s Just Teach One as I liked the idea of a shared pedagogical experiment. I had never heard of the selection, The Story of Constantius and Pulchera, though such distinctively named titular characters boded well for an interesting and odd read if nothing else.
My modest hopes were rewarded, and I opted to incorporate it into my upper-division historical feminist theories course for Women’s and Gender Studies majors and minors, subtitled “Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions.” I had already slated Susanna Rowson’s play Slaves in Algiers for a unit on Captivity, Romance, and Revolutionary Rhetoric, but there was room to include C&P. My students, all women, admitted being “consumed by the drama” of what they categorized as an early American soap opera, and, as one student put it, they appreciated how the narrative “reward[ed] [Pulchera’s] autonomy with what she wanted,” Constantius. They debated whether the resolution legitimated arranged marriage and patriarchy (since Constantius was chosen by her father, even if he later changed his mind). Would its eighteenth-century female readers see romance in obedience? Would they find an exhilarating freedom or a terrifying rootlessness in Pulchera’s shipboard adventures? Why didn’t it end with Constantius’s death and Pulchera’s continued adventures in drag? The story’s anonymity offered them a challenge in that they had to plumb the text in order to form opinions on possible feminist expressions and foreclosures rather than resort to what was often a too easy equation of female-authorship with radicalism and resistance.
Despite stimulating a great day of discussion, C&P did not maintain its hold upon my students’ attention. After devoting separate class days to each text in the unit, we concluded with a session in which we discussed them together along with a set of distributed contextual readings (Hannah Dustan’s and Elizabeth Hanson’s Indian captivity narratives, a chapter from Christopher Castiglia’s Bound and Determined, Deborah Sampson Gannet’s Address, and Mary Velnet’s Barbary captivity narrative). My students could more easily bring to bear their intersectional feminist training upon the overt themes of Rowson’s play—slavery, religion, sexual violence, nationhood, rebellion, race. C&P paled in comparison. Indeed, what for them had been the best part—Pulchera’s cross-dressing—now seemed self-indulgent, done in the service of love rather than God and country, as in the case of Gannet. Most students opted to write on Slaves in Algiers rather than C&P in their short papers for the unit, and only one student wrote on C&P in her final paper, a comparative analysis of emotional control in it and Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina.” If teaching it again, I would assign it in an early American literature course along with a seduction narrative (Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, for example) to link more explicitly the themes of domesticity and nationhood. In a Women’s and Gender Studies classroom, my student’s instinct to pair it with “Fantomina” demonstrates that it could illuminate eighteenth-century explorations of women’s sexual autonomy.
I’ll conclude with a surprising testimony I received just this morning. Though I question above how and if I would teach C&P again, it has transformative potential. A graduating senior wrote me that a second reading had inspired her to connect her feminist activism to her creative writing for the first time. The story made her “realize that writing about personal experience and love and sexuality” can be “actually revolutionary.” Indeed, the story’s anonymity, she argues, makes these seemingly private topics into a work of public “feminist praxis.” It strikes me that she would have heard this message throughout her major (i.e. the personal is political), one that curricularly emphasizes the present, but it was an odd little story from 1789 that crystallized the lesson. Brava early American literature!