Educating Pulchera

Desirée Henderson

University of Texas Arlington

I taught The Story of Constantius and Pulchera in an undergraduate course that surveyed the representation of female education from the 1790s to the present. I originally intended to pair Foster’s The Boarding School and The Coquette, particularly as The Boarding School is now available to us in (astonishingly) two new student editions. My intent was to provide my students with contrasting examples of, on the one hand, young women who are “properly” educated and comply with the gender norms of the New Republic (in The Boarding School) and, on the other, a young woman (The Coquette’s Eliza Wharton) whose education appears to fail, resulting in her seduction and death.  However, Duncan Faherty and Ed White persuaded me that Constantius and Pulchera would work well in place of The Coquette and provide a bracingly different version of early American femininity – and they were correct. Pulchera’s schooling is only briefly mentioned, when we are told that “her father had paid every attention to her education” (p.11). Yet, this seemingly appropriate and complete form of female education does not result in Pulchera following the rules of social and sexual propriety. Quite the opposite: Pulchera has sex outside of marriage, launches herself into sea-faring adventures, cross-dresses and passes for male, and pursues her love-interest across continents – and she does this with none of the hand-wringing and self-doubt that are the hallmarks of the traditional seduction heroine. As such, she embodies a much broader worldview on women’s opportunities than those presented to the students who attend Mrs. Williams’ Harmony Grove in The Boarding School. Our comparative discussions of these texts centered on different forms of education (classroom-based vs. experiential) and on the promises (realized and thwarted) that the rise in formal education made to women in the new nation.

My students completed a short writing assignment comparing the two texts and I gave them the option of adopting the epistolary form that characterizes the second half of The Boarding School. I invited them to write a letter from Pulchera to Mrs. Williams, imagining that Pulchera had been in attendance at one of Mrs. Williams’ lectures at Harmony Grove. They were to address, from Pulchera’s point of view, whether Mrs. Williams’ advice would or would not have assisted her in the trials she faced in Constantius and Pulchera. As you can guess, my students embraced this assignment and channeled Pulchera’s distinctive voice in surprisingly effective ways. The assignment yielded a fairly consistent response, one highly critical of the normative and limiting vision that Mrs. Williams articulates for young women. This is not to say that my students idealized Pulchera, as I have witnessed countless students do with Charlotte Temple, Eliza, and other sentimental heroines of the era. My students were actually quite critical of Pulchera and what they saw as her immature, whiny, and unstable character. Even so, they valued the idea that Pulchera grows and learns through her exposure to hardships – even absurd and implausible ones – rather than being limited to the safe but confining space of the boarding school.

Like the organizers of and other participants in the Just Teach One project, I am alarmed by the fact that it is increasingly difficult to gain access to teachable editions of new early American materials. As a faculty member at an institution with limited digital resources, I rely heavily upon print editions – so when publishers turn away from recovery and recovery research is marginalized professionally, it has a direct effect on what and how I teach. Just Teach One feels like a kind of guerilla response to the field-level challenges that all too often seem insurmountable and I am proud to have had the chance to do my part to demonstrate that stretching ourselves as teachers can yield remarkable intellectual and pedagogical rewards.

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