Piracy, Politics, Power: Teaching Constantius and Pulcher

James D. Lilley

University at Albany, SUNY

If we were not all creatures of the digital age, the syllabus for my undergraduate course on “Transatlantic Romance” would be written on a sheet of jaundiced A4.  Like the promise of distant runway lights underlighting English clouds, its scribbles, scratches, and stains would only emphasize the fogged contours of my optimism.  As a course in genre and the politics of the romance, we typically begin our flight with Frye, Auerbach, and the Yvain of Chrétien de Troyes, and then move briskly through various Revolutions (the Glorious and Oronooko; the American and Rip Van Winkle; the French and Burke; the Haitian and Sansay) only to end up with Poe and Cooper, thickly mired in the swamps of the 1830s like Winfield Scott during the Second Seminole War.  This semester, I was very happy to enlist Constantius and Pulchera in these improbable travels.  Sandwiched between Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution and Irving’s Sketch-Book, their bizarre transatlantic adventures provided some important and comic relief.

As Duncan and Ed note in their introduction to the text, the anonymous author of The Story of Constantius and Pulchera (1789) refuses to burden its heroine’s freedom with either the didactic baggage or the tragic conclusion of the traditional sentimental plot.  In sharp contrast with the fated demise of the many Amelias and Charlotte Temples that populate the fiction of the early Republic, Pulchera lives to enjoy her freedom and to showcase her significant powers.  In addition to surviving the many vicissitudes of nautical life–shipwreck, piracy, and war–by shifting gender and by eating bear, her happy reunion with the American Constantius at the close of the story feels like the least remarkable of her many achievements.  It is not hard to imagine why she was so popular—and so often reprinted—in the years following the revolution.

In their Blackboard responses to the text, my students focused on the character of Le Monte, and read the interruption of Republican desire that he forces between Constantius and Pulchera as a critique of the kind of patriarchal and aristocratic values that patterned our previous week’s encounter with Burke.  Le Monte, wrote one student, “is the epitome of French aristocracy, of ‘pomp’ and a life of ‘tinsel’d greatness.’”  Such values, she continued, echoed Burke’s “romanticizing of the French monarchy [by] circulating [his] “tinsel’d” image of the monarchy.”  In contrast, notes another student, “the rebellious Pulchera rejects Le Monte and her father’s command to marry. She assumes the values of the newly formed America: independence, courage and defiance. As America rejected the patriarchy of Great Britain, Pulchera rejects the patriarchy of her father and refuses to follow his commands.”

Continuing this engagement with the text’s critique of “the politics of passiveness and authority rule,” other students commented on the rare talents of Pulchera.  “Burkean values,” notes one student, involve “vulnerable females rescued by honorable and brave men.  Pulchera is the opposite of vulnerable.”  Thanks to her example, observes another student, the “ability to forge one’s own path or make one’s own decisions, as opposed to merely being dealt one’s lot in life upon birth, bespeaks a sort of prototypical ‘American Dream,’ while also mirroring the newfound ability to question an elected government’s authority.”  Working against such dreams of freedom and agency in the text are other repressive forces associated with Europe, with monarchy, and with the position of the Father.  Constantius’s impressment by the British navy, argues another student, lays bare the greed for resources and money that drive these other forms of political and domestic power: “Instead of being concerned with the humanity of Constantius, [the British] are guided entirely by profit, as Pulchera’s father is when he decides to renege on his promise, and dissolve the arrangement that sustains the happiness of his only child.”

In addition to the politics of its plot, students also assessed the rich significance of the text’s vocabulary.  “The resistance from [Pulchera’s] father,” notes one student, “is seen to be a type of tyranny: ‘Remember you are under my government, and that my will is your law’” (9).  Many students picked up on the unmistakable political register of the text’s language when it approaches relations of power.  And so when its heroes are described as “the greatest ornaments of the married state,” my class was also quick to point out the different ways in which this romance intervenes in and reconfigures the erotics of such statehood, especially in relation to Burke’s conservative celebrations of patriarchy and the fragile feminine.  Thus bookended by Burke and the hiatus of bachelorhood in Washington Irving, The Story of Constantius and Pulchera helped us to further trace the development of a rich and varied tradition of  “political romanticism” in the literature of the early Republic.



Leave a Reply

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