I am grateful for being included in this ongoing experiment, particularly as one of the first cohort to teach The History of Constantius and Pulchera. Duncan Faherty enticed me by appealing to my research interest in early American Shakespeare adaptations, but I found that the prior readings on my syllabus produced a different—though still enjoyable–conversation.
The first two units of this undergraduate survey in American literature before 1865 were very historical in their focus. The students read only one text that we would properly call Literature—a selection of Phyllis Wheatley’s poems. Instead, they were focused on the ways that trade, war, and migrations (forced and voluntary) reconfigured geographies and group identities, setting the Atlantic rim in violent and perpetual motion. We read from Calloway’s The World Turned Upside Down, Michael Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marks, as well as Harriot’s Briefe and True Reporte. The second unit focused on captivity narratives, comparing those of Rowlandson, Dustin, and Marrant both to each other and to the fictionalized “Panther Captivity.” This segment immediately preceded Constantius and Pulchera, the first extended reading in fiction. Considering the onslaught of historical documents and scholarship, I could tell the students were relieved to be in territory that they associated with an English literature course.
As I had never read C+P before teaching the class, I can attribute its success in the course only to serendipity. As our first major text written after Independence, C+P offered an opportunity to speak about what I framed as the assertion of American national character. The sometime-villain Monsieur Le Monte, the British kidnappers, and Pulchera’s tyrannical father all served as foils for Constantius and Pulchera, who represent true love precisely to the extent that they represent the values of the fledgling republic. Drawing upon the informative introduction offered by Faherty and White, as well as the work of scholars of the British eighteenth century, I suggested to students that the marriage for love was being presented as a model of proper social relationships in the new republic. Its basis in contract—and, even beyond contract, in sentiment—marked Constantius and Pulchera as a story that suggested that “only in America” has the threat of tyrannical monarchy been thoroughly routed so that love can thrive.
Of course, one glaring exception to this assertion was France, which had undergone its own democratizing, regicidal Revolution. The presence of a student particularly interested in religious history allowed us to speak about why a Catholic country could not signify freedom. For, despite France’s contributions to the successful rebellion against England, lingering English judgments of Catholicism as superstitious, decadent, and hierarchical remained part of the new American assessment of France.
Discussion of these two areas appealed to my stronger students. In fact, one of my more enthusiastic students claimed that his mind was blown by the discussion of the father-daughter relationship and the marriage for love as allegories for absolute monarchy and democracy, respectively. That unsolicited outburst was certainly gratifying.
One thing I did not expect was that many of the female students would not just study but also perform the role of C+P’s idealized female readership. (Here, again, I must credit the excellent introduction, which provided the students an understanding of the attempt to create separate spheres—and markets—for male and female readers. Students retained this idea and revived it, without prompting, during our later discussion of Sansay’s The Secret History). These students were drawn to the proclamations of love. While most scholars would view these pronouncements as melodramatic, students wrote of these as illustrating the true meaning of eternal, unconditional love. The next time I teach C+P, I will ask students to talk about their assessment of the novella’s “realism.” What are the literary techniques that carry the aura of fact-based reality? What elements of this story are realistic and which are fantastical? Does gender affect our expectations of novels now? What type of literature do you consume outside of class and how might it affect your expectations of this novella?
In the wake of our reading of captivity narratives, C+P read as largely, but not entirely, secular. Though their story is not a spiritual autobiography, the young, American lovers are still beneficiaries of a Providential gift. Partly, for certain, because they aren’t like the evil, Catholic French or the tyrannical British. But we also discussed Providence specifically in relation to marriage. In this case, Providence aids young rather than old; Americans rather than French or British. Providence is responsible only for the good, unlike in Mary Rowlandson, in which every event, for good or ill represents God’s plan. After reading so many captivity narratives, it was notable that this text was devoid of Bible passages.
But what happened to my private desire to discuss early American Shakespeare? Much to my surprise, two students chose to write their second major essay on C+P, rather than Pym or Wieland. We’d spend only one day on the novella, and I thought that students would have chosen something we’d read recently and discussed more extensively. Nevertheless, they chose to read C+P as an American Romeo and Juliet. I was impressed with students’ recall of Romeo and Juliet, probably from their high school days. I might have liked attention to The Tempest to address the novella’s fateful storm, or to one of the transvestite comedies, as Pulchera passes for a time as Valorus. Nevertheless, without asking for it, I got my Shakespeare adaptation, after all.