Pleasures of Plot

Martha Rojas

University of Rhode Island

This semester I included The History of Constantius & Pulchera in my undergraduate survey course of colonial and U.S. literature to 1855 where it proved to be a mid-semester sensation. The course is required of students double majoring in English and Secondary Education. It also meets General Education requirements and thus attracts both a cohort of similarly trained students as well as a significant number of students from a variety of disciplines, all at various points in their academic career. In their spoken and written comments students almost invariably reported the pleasure they took in reading The History of Constantius & Pulchera. To some degree that was to be expected as the syllabus turned to include more prose fiction along with narratives, poems, sermons, letters, and documents. Yet their enthusiasm differed from that generated by The Coquette with which I paired The History of Constantius & Pulchera, and seemed greater than that which in other iterations of the course had met Wieland, or Charlotte Temple.

The student who initiated the classroom discussion of the novella began with how much fun he had reading The History of Constantius & Pulchera, and invited us to consider why. Many described it as a riveting page-turner that could not (and given its brevity did not have to) be put down. Some spoke of their emotional investment in the “gripping narrative,” or of their attachment to Pulchera and their identification with the challenges her character faces. Others remarked on how they loved the book despite its utter implausibility: lovers separated, united separated, united, separated, and finally united at last; a cross-dressing heroine that goes undetected whether a castaway on a deserted isle or a visitor in a fashionable Parisian home; and shipwrecks after shipwreck.  Part Lost, part Survivor, part telenovela, part Shakespearean comedy. For these students a large part of the answer to that question of readerly pleasure turned out to be generic familiarity, an insight that created energetic investment in matters of form. We had previously started to discuss the history of the novel and other forms of prose fiction. The History of Constantius & Pulchera drew comparisons not only with The Coquette, but also with Royal Tyler’s The Contrast (as well Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice), the narratives of Equiano and Rowlandson, and later in the semester with Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and The Scarlet Letter, prompting questions about what might be shared by drama, fiction and nonfiction prose.

Students also enjoyed the fast pace at which The History of Constantius & Pulchera shifts between emotional highs and lows and moves through its plot points. A brief discussion of pacing, sensationalism and titillation in melodramas (reality television, soap operas, romantic comedies) turned to consideration of how a narrative like The History of Constantius & Pulchera creates suspense. This generated further a discussion of serial publication, the premise of the letter in epistolary novels, and indeed the very premise of the “episode.” Students learned to ask about the conditions and histories of publication and they continued to do so for the remainder of the semester. The relative brevity of the novella also served to underscore formal limits, or rather what limitations set by form can encourage and discourage. As sparse with description as it is thick with plot, some lamented the quickly sketched characters of The History of Constantius & Pulchera, longing for more development, more interiority. Others lauded that sparseness arguing that it allowed them to more readily interpolate themselves into the storylines, demanding that their own imaginations supply details that a more descriptive and lengthier text would have supplied and sparing them from overtly didactic narration.

When a student admitted to feeling frustrated by how long it takes for Pulchera to drop her disguise and reveal herself to Constantius (by this point presuming her dead and engaged to another), she compared the prolonged delay to the “Will They or Won’t They” arc of romantic comedies. Another added that the narrative delay allowed us (readers) to see something else: how much freedom of movement, independence, heroism, and agency Pulchera is permitted only so long as she masquerades as Valorus, — that is only as long as she stays in drag. The plot displays the social construction of gender by lingering on Pulchera’s performance of masculinity. In a way that encapsulates the dynamics of class discussion that day: a student would approach a plotline of The History of Constantius & Pulchera, another would eventually comment, question or theorize about one of the topics introduced by the plot. In a 75-minute class we thus discussed impressment, privateering, quasi wars, captivity tropes, Francophobia and Francophilia, anti-Catholicism, companionate marriage, female agency, the perils of Atlantic crossings, merchants, nobles, literary publishing, aesthetic value, canonicity, the legacies of revolution, cannibalism, extreme weather, how to survive on a deserted island and the tyranny of fathers.

Attempting to make sense of the twisting plot produced eerie familiarity with its narrative structure and put into relief the particularities, even strangeness of the post-revolutionary United States. For that alone I would repeat the experiment of including The History of Constantious & Pulchera on the syllabus for the historical survey. Assigning this text changed the arc of a course. It underscored continuities between pre- and post-1800 texts that the students were quick to grasp such as the prevalence and persistence of the trope of captivity. Students began to see Mary Rowlandson, Eliza Wharton, Pulchera, Hester Prynne, and Linda Brent as a line of figures that differently problematize agency, volition, and desire. I came to think of creating a syllabus more overtly as a kind of emplotment. More importantly, the 1794 preface that Duncan and Ed White included by in this edition along with the text of The History of Constantious & Pulchera authorized readerly pleasure. The “fun” that students had reading about the vicissitudes of life, love, and ocean travel injected enthusiasm to their practice of criticism that seemed to last through to the semester’s end.




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