C & P in the Atlantic World

Hester Blum
Penn State University

I taught The History of Constantius and Pulchera to twenty-four students in an upper-level undergraduate course on the American Novel to 1900 this spring. The class is one I teach frequently, and I vacillate between approaches: should a student taking such a class expect it to cover the canonical heavyweights presumed by the topic (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Scarlet Letter, Last of the Mohicans); or wish to be introduced to novels they might otherwise never have heard of (The Quaker City, The Morgesons, Clotel); or discover lesser-studied works by familiar writers (Pierre, The Heroic Slave, A Modern Instance)? When I talk with students about their own preferences, they too respond variously, some glad for the chance to discuss Moby-Dick in a classroom setting, others eager to learn about books that they might never otherwise encounter. I am realizing that what works best for my own pedagogical practice, if I can presume to have one, is to put a new-to-me text in direct conversation with a reliable classroom staple, and it was on these terms that I approached The History of Constantius and Pulchera.


Constantius and Pulchera was the second book we read, bookended in an Atlantic novel cluster by Rowson’s Charlotte Temple and Sansay’s Secret History. My introductory remarks continued the overview of the transatlantic literary marketplace in the early republic I had begun in our Charlotte Temple discussions, with a new emphasis on the conditions of the maritime world in the late eighteenth century (my research interests are in oceanic studies). My primary aim in doing to was to impress upon the students that the characters’ endless transformations of fortune, location, sovereignty, mobility, and social position were characteristic of the Atlantic world in the period–or at least characteristic of its literary representation.

I then had the students form small groups, and tasked them with assembling four lists from the events of the novel: 1. all the places that Pulchera travels to in the course of the story; 2. all the combinations of people that are traveling together at various points; 3. all the occasions in which Valorus/Pulchera is referred to as “he” or “him,” or when gender is mentioned or highlighted; and 4. all the promises or contracts or agreements that are made throughout the text (their lists are in an appendix below, unrevised from their original creation in class). To see the results of their literary data mining–and from such a short text–was arresting to the students. We traced the characters’ routes on a map of the Atlantic world, which helped us to imagine both the scale of their actual travel, and the extent of the colonial operations that underwrote such travel. The effort provided a context for Charlotte Temple’s singular Atlantic passage in the first novel we read, and helped amplify our reading of Secret History to follow.

Two of the stronger students in the class wrote their final papers on the novel, and I’ll summarize their arguments here as examples of the possibilities for undergraduate work on the novel. Andrew Bellwoar focused on inheritance in Contantius and Pulchera, observing that “the idea of inheritance is not confined to monetary inheritances, but the status [the characters] inherit as well.” Andrew pointed out that Pulchera’s negotiation of self-sovereignty (a concern in many of the works we read in the semester) resonates both in her forced engagement to LeMonte, and in her role as the male Valorus. Here is Andrew on that latter point, which I quote at length, as it is a terrific point:

Constantius is assumed “long (thought) lost” (23), taken to mean that Pulchera believed him dead. Despite this, she stays concerned with survival, content to do anything possible to achieve that. Perhaps the most significant result of this placement of survival above all else is Pulchera’s surrendering of her own gender. She did this, at the behest of one of the many captains she takes passage under, “in order to escape any ill usage from [her] captors” (14). This advice seems, at least on the surface, to be self-preservative; in fact, it seems to be the exact opposite. Rather than preserving Pulchera, she seems to surrender herself completely to Valorous. The use of the masculine pronoun for the majority of the story after she “becomes” Valorous does not appear to be coincidental, either; the use of this pronoun around dialogue could be easily explained as simply for the sake of appearance, a textual representation of her appearance to others. The use of the masculine pronoun in the narrative, though, betrays a surrender to the persona of Valorous.

Another student, Kelly Tunney, concentrated on what he called “economies of imprisonment” in the novel. His paper opens forcefully: “The History of Constantius and Pulchera can be read as a critique of how social stratification endangers agency for women and how British naval impressment creates a form of quasi-slavery for otherwise privileged demographics.” Like Andrew, Kelly too saw the novel as challenging the “class-based marriage system” as a version of “trading in human capital.” Kelly’s analysis of how impressment and other forms of oceanic slavery and imprisonment function in the novel can be seen in the following passage:

The economy of impressing prisoners kept the British Navy afloat for 150 years. As a form of de facto ownership, it parallels the continuing upward current of wealth caused by marrying “up.” Constantius was equally as wealthy as Pulchera, but Pulchera’s father wanted more, so he traded up to Le Monte. Meanwhile, British impressment had a rule where merchant ships would be forced to trade their best sailors for the worst of the naval ship, creating a constantly improving population.

These forms of social and political stratification are not confined to the maritime world, Kelly continues brilliantly in his analysis of Pulchera’s cross-dressing: “by sneaking up a rung on the ladder of agency, Pulchera/Valorus has discovered the freedom possible by pretending to be a member of a more inherently privileged demographic.” Noting that other characters we read about this semester (such as George Harris in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) successfully altered their identity, Kelly continues, “disguise is hardly unusual in fiction, but prolonged disguise indicates that there is an unfavorable power dynamic that needs to be circumvented.” These two outstanding papers impressed upon me the potential for The History of Constantius and Pulchera to continue to spur student and scholarly imaginations.

I am grateful to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for the opportunity to be a part of Just Teach One; their beautiful edition and excellent introduction was a joy to teach. Thanks, too, to Andrew Bellwoar and Kelly Tunney for permission to quote from their papers. I will certainly teach The History of Constantius and Pulchera again, and may next pair it with Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.

Appendix

1. PLACES PULCHERA TRAVELS
Philadelphia suburbs
On a ship on the Delaware river
Captured by British ship en route to Portsmouth and Holland
Stranded on an island
Picked up by American ship coming from France for America
Runs into British ship headed for Quebec
Stranded on different island (snowy)
Rescued by ship going to Halifax
Maine
Arrive in London
Portugal
France
Philadelphia

2. COMBINATIONS OF PEOPLE TRAVELING TOGETHER
Pulchera and Constantius
Pulchera taken home by father
Constantius impressed into navy
Pulchera and LeMonte on packet to France
British capture them; Constantius, Pulchera, LeMonte all together on British ship
All but Pulchera on long boat; Pulchera left on ship
Pulchera picked up by American Privateer, Captain M
Captured by British, Pulchera becomes Valorus (w. Captain M, British navy)
Shipwreck, split into parties; Valorus and two others
Bear!
Picked up by Massachusetts privateer
Valorus and privateer take brigantine
Imprisoned in Halifax; escapes
Escapees captured by British
Valorus travels alone from London to Lisbon and France
Constantius and Valorus, LeMonte and sister
Constantius and Valorus return to Philadelphia

3. USE OF GENDERED PRONOUNS, GENDER EXPECTATIONS
p. 2: “amusement of fair sex”; entertainment and amusement; constancy as feminine; pulchritude as beauty; revolution as social analogy; returned and refeminized soldier; female education, novel reading
p. 8: Pulchera’s suicide prevented by father
p. 11: on ship: captain notes gender, gives Constantius & Pulchera special care; women weaker, needing protection
p. 12 LeMonte challenges Constantius to duel; entitlement over P earned by duel; chivalric forms
p. 14: P is weakened when rescued by Captain M; M recommends that she cross-dress
p. 15 Valorus referred to as “she” initially; “they” when with other men on island
p. 18: Valorus becomes “him” when sacrificial choice
p. 20: Valorus becomes “she” when thinking of Constantius
p. 21: still “he” on ship
p. 22: befriends men as a “he”
p. 23: “her” back when LeMonte appears, when she thinks Constantius
p. 24: Pulchera is a female to Constantius and LeMonte
p. 25: Constantius speaks of Pulchera; Valorus enters and asks of Pulchera
p. 26: Valorus as “himself” when talking to Constantius
p. 26, 27: stays at Eagle as “gentleman”
p. 28-30 Pulchera is back as woman

4. PROMISES/ CONTRACTS MADE, BROKEN

Pulchera gave heart to Constantius, promised
BUT is engaged to LeMonte in contract between LeMonte and father
Promises father to listen to him
Capt. of English ship promises to get her to Portsmouth
LeMonte promises to relinquish her after duel
Capt. M promises to deliver her to America
Group effort to survive after shipwreck
Agreement to draw straws for cannibalism
Pulchera/Valorus agrees to die
Bear provokes agreement to stay
Pulchera/Valorus is promised prize money
Constantius engagement to LeMonte sister
Constantius agrees to tell sister of Pulchera’s return
Father promises to devote remaining days to happiness

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