Sincerity, Mary Kelley, and Jane Austen

Lisa West

Drake University

I taught the Just Teach One text Sincerity by Susanna Rowson in two different classes fall 2015 at Drake University. The first course was Approaches to American Literature Before 1900, which I was teaching with a focus on 1820s social issues, and the second was a First Year Seminar on Jane Austen and issues of “property” and “propriety.”    The Approaches course is a lower level English course that fulfills University requirements for “written communication,” certain criteria for the English major, and the American literature requirement for English Endorsement in Education.  Consequently, the course invariably ranges from first year students to seniors and includes students with a variety of experience in reading and writing.  Prior to reading Sincerity, students had read Hope Leslie (Catharine Maria Sedgwick),  Hobomok (Lydia Maria Child) and selections from the Boudinot-Gold letters in Theresa Gaul’s To Marry An Indian.  We had discussed epistolary technique in these texts, and student were comfortable thinking about letters in a variety of ways.  Students were initially interested in issues of form in Sincerity, particularly the way the text is BOTH a serial publication AND a series of letters.  They were interested in tracking the unusual pattern of correspondence, i.e. how Sarah, Anne and Elenor create a triangular correspondence pattern.  They likewise were interested in how the text breaks from the epistolary form as it continues, including portions of Sarah’s journal, “copied” letters from other characters, and interpolated backstories of multiple characters.   Because we had contrasted fictitious letters in Hope Leslie with the letters in the Boudinot-Gold collection, these students were quick to notice moments in the letters that provided plot information, moments that seemed to be more personal in nature, and moments that either exposed the letters as “fictions” or played with the boundaries between fiction and (alleged) nonfiction.  They also liked transitions between epistolary form and other generic forms.  Almost unanimously, this group thought of Anne as a narrator and felt that we, the readers, were distanced from both Sarah and Anne by the inclusion of the third correspondent, Elenor.  Elenor, as several students noted, never writes and never acts; she can only read, making Elenor the closest model for the readers.

I think the exposure to “letters” within fiction and nonfiction helped the students find interest in the form.  I think it would be difficult to address this text without first introducing students to epistolary fiction, letters or serial publications.  While we were reading the Rowson text, I assigned an essay by Mary Kelley on women’s reading and writing circles, and Kelley’s comments were also vital in shaping student responses to Sincerity – especially in connecting notions of epistolarity to the public forms of writing associated with magazines.  I think they benefitted from thinking BOTH about the novel as alleged private correspondence AND as a very public form of engaging in difficult social issues regarding women’s rights, education, marriage and health.  Several students felt that the inclusion of Elenor (and the readers) in the epistolary frame suggests a kind of “circle” or circulation of ideas beyond a specific audience.  Some readers felt Anne was inappropriate to share Sarah’s “private” concerns about her marriage, but others felt that it was her writing that made marital issues (and mental health – and domestic abuse) potentially part of a larger, public discourse.  From my perspective, the Kelley essay (or a similar text about public sphere, public discourse, public debate) opened up our discussions and allowed students to think more about possible social and political significance.  It was after reading Kelley that a student commented that she did not like the suggestion that readers could, like Elenor, “only” read as bystanders; she wanted to imagine “real” readers less passive than Elenor, engaging somehow with the issues raised in a more political forum.  Students also felt that Sincerity tended to create “circles” of women that functioned in more negative ways than the ideals in Kelley’s work; women, they often noted, failed to protect other women or create networks that trapped or undermined Sarah’s attempts to remain moral and solvent.  They also felt that the negative networks within the novel possibly suggested a counter example to networks that could be created by public discourse about these issues; readers of the magazine, in other words, would be warned against participating in negative circles of influence.  One student even suggested that the intended audience of the text was not young women, as is usually suggested, but older ones, reminding them of their need to be mentors, guides, support for younger women.

Students felt the text was unambiguous about the dangers of ill-suited marriages, controlling men, women’s lack of economic independence and “work” opportunities for women.   As a result, while we discussed such issues, they did not have a lot of variety in their responses.  I think including more work by Wollstonecraft, Murray, or others would have broadened our discussions about marriage and social issues.  Interestingly, we read Sedgwick’s A New England Tale after Sincerity, and students were eager to compare those two texts – so our discussions about marriage and women’s rights got better later in the course.

Lastly, I want to add that this particular class was fascinated by references to the connections between mental and physical health.  Students noted that references to “blood” often were linked to references to “tears,” and that in one case Sarah gets a nose bleed (that seems to take the place of the consummation of her marriage) and in another she CAUSES a nose bleed due to concern about sexual contact.   Blood, tears, sexual contact, personal boundaries interconnect.  This class also strongly was in agreement that Sarah’s unhappy and stressful marriage CAUSED her poor physical health. (Note: there are references to Sarah getting sick, run down, overworked or fatigued before her marriage, but students tended to focus on the later references.) They were fascinated at how similar many of the passage are to writings about mental health, domestic abuse and depression today.   I had several papers and a project on depression and mental health; reading this text brought insight to the ways other texts refer to connections between mind and body and to “healthy” states of mind, with student making connections to Crazy Bet, Faith Leslie, Mary Conant, Rosa, and Mrs. Fletcher from our other texts.  Overall, this class was fascinated with form issues and was drawn to mental health, abuse, and the physical manifestations of emotional pain more than to broader issues of women’s role in society or women’s rights.

My first year class read Sincerity after reading Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, two Jane Austen novels in which property (particularly domestic spaces) and  propriety play important roles.  I had to remind myself that the publication date of Sincerity is actually closer to the Austen novels than the Sedgwick and Child ones we read in the lower level English class; mentally I wanted to see Rowson as more distant from Regency England than from the American 1820s.  Teaching Rowson with Austen forced me to remind myself about the transatlantic possibilities of this text – and Rowson’s writing in general – and I was surprised and pleased how well it worked in this context.  I honestly was concerned that the students would need more “American” contexts (such as excerpts from The Coquette or Judith Sargent Murray), but they did fine without them.  This class was far less interested in form or the epistolary structure than the other class had been, which made sense to me since we had not worked on other epistolary texts.  They noticed issues related to domestic space, in particular noting “gothic” moments (or parodies) that connected this text to Northanger Abbey.  (They noted how gothic elements often were linked to Darnley’s affair or to threats for Sarah’s integrity.)  They also commented on how much travel occurs in this text – but how little discussion there is of actual travel or scenery.  They also were quick to find “the dramatic,” connecting back to notions of theatricality in Mansfield Park.  Teaching this text in such different contexts reminded me that students tend to frame an unfamiliar text (and one with no cliff-notes or little editorial apparatus) using the most recent assignments assigned prior to it.  Students ARE malleable and can read an unfamiliar text in different ways, but they are most likely to start where the previous text left off.  This class noted the gothic, the dramatic and travel, whereas my other class focused on issues more related to epistolary construction and reading/writing circles.

This Austen class had a much different perception of Anne.  Whereas the American literature class tended to dislike or mistrust Anne, this class as a whole felt that Anne was a “good friend” to Sarah.  Short writings and discussion commented on the lengths she went to find her in Ireland, her concern for Sarah, and the way the friendship lasted until one of them dies – more like a “marriage,” perhaps, than Sarah’s and Darnley’s.  One student contrasted female friendship in Sincerity compared to that in the Austen novels, noting that in Austen, female friendships tended to have ulterior motives, such as Mary’s befriending Fanny to access Edmund and the Mansfield world.  Even Eleanor and Catherine’s friendship in Northanger Abbey, while genuine, is less important to the novel than the romance between Catherine and Eleanor’s brother Henry.  Building on this observation, this class was in agreement that Rowson was more invested in writing about female relationships and showing their positive value than Austen; this class also thought Austen valued “marriage” as the ultimate social relationship, whereas Rowson quite clearly did not.

This class also felt Rowson was more “realistic” than Austen, since her ending was “not happy” and did not follow the rational logic that good characters get rewarded and bad characters punished at the end of a novel.  They were more invested in considering the message and ending of this text than was my American literature class.  The Austen-Rowson connection definitely seemed to drive comments about “novel-writing” and different forms of writing that could be included within novels.  They were more interested in how the epistolary format breaks down with Anne’s death, and they could see how the “notes” from the editor and other material seem to suggest a transition from serial format to novel.   They could easily relate narratorial comments from Austen’s novels to some of the later entries in Sincerity, pointing out ways the writer is self-aware about writing or addressing an audience.

Lastly, I received several papers from this class about the “worst” form of impropriety in Sincerity.  Every student who wrote on this prompt argued that marital infidelity was represented as the “worst” breach of propriety.  (Perhaps this consistency says more about my Midwestern location than the text, but I was fascinated at how marital infidelity trumped abuse, lying, gambling, losing money, and all the other poor actions.)  Students had different explanations, ranging from the effect Darnley’s affair has on Sarah’s health to how it represents betrayal as a whole to the “ripple” effect it seemed to have, affecting multiple characters.  As slavery is the underlying evil in Mansfield Park, infidelity is the underlying evil in Sincerity, according to this class.

I was surprised how easy Sincerity was to fit into my Austen class – and how willing the students were to read it even though the class clearly only mentioned Austen in the title.  While the inclusion of Rowson on the syllabus was an experiment, it made me realize how truly transatlantic her writing is – and how easy it can be to expand recovery of Rowson texts into courses not designated as “American” literatu

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