Charlotte Temple is titled after its main protagonist. We first meet Charlotte when she is fifteen and attending boarding school. She is pretty, innocent, and sweet. This makes her an easy target for her suitor, Montraville. While Charlotte knows she is overstepping the boundaries of propriety, she is egged on by both Montraville and one of her teachers, La Rue. During the promised last meeting before soldier Montraville is bound to sail to the United States she agrees to elope with him, accompanied by La Rue and another man. While Charlotte experiences severe doubts, she ends up on a boat to America. Soon she starts to experience the mental and other consequences of what she has done..
This is what you get for randomly picking one of the preloaded girlebooks books from your ereader based on alphabetized titles and book length. So yes, this is a cautionary tale, complete with all the warnings, sentiments, and drama you might expect from such a story written at the end of the eighteenth century. It was not the most riveting read imaginable.
Susanne Rowson often directly addresses the reader, particularly those girls of an impressionable age to whom she offers the book as advice. Her main argument seems to be that it is only a small step to utter ruin once you even start contemplating transgressing social conventions a little. In this regard, her Charlotte Temple portrays the exact message we might all expect in this type of novel: if you do not listen to your parents or anything they have told you, you might just be persuaded to elope, even if you have doubts other social actors might have such power of persuasion over you (or physical force) to make you oblige to their wishes, once you have taken the one step towards transgression, you will end up ruined, utterly ruined.. And ruin leads to health problems leads to loss of the joyful life you might have had..
What interested me though, was how in the middle of this conservative and expected message, there were small glimpses of a more liberal understanding of what happened to Charlotte. Firstly, her parents remain convinced that she is to be forgiven if she is found. Secondly, Rowson provides commentary on some characters with statements that read that the social boundaries between “innocence” and “ruin” might be too sharp, and that only a little kindness might save those on the wrong side of that line from further harm. Of course, this is inevitably overshadowed by ruin and doom, as cautionary moral tales were expected to end. But it were the little prods and glimpses of this other view that held my interest throughout what I mostly experienced as a not all that engaging and predictable story.
In the middle of this more sympathetic view of Charlotte though, she does lose most of her agency. Throughout most of Charlotte Temple, Charlotte is simply guided by the social forces around her. Whether it is the egging on and later the force of La Rue and Montraville, or the help she receives from some others.. Charlotte herself is a victim, a person being acted upon instead of acting herself, for most of this tale. It makes sense, having to keep Charlotte relatable and sympathetic, she has to be cast more as the victim than the perpetrator, but it also takes away from the small subversions that can be glimpsed in what I mentioned above. I do not judge the book for that, but as a modern reader it is quite difficult to shake the wish for more, even while realising that this might never have been possible.
Charlotte Temple, then, is mostly of interest within the history of cautionary or moral stories. The story in itself, for a contemporary reader, might offer too little out of the ordinary and a writing style that is not exactly engaging. However, it seems to take a particular place in the history of US novels, as it became a bestseller at the time.
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