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Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (also known as Charlotte Temple)
Brief Background Notes from Lecture on Rowson

From William Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America
See also the secondary bibliography on sentimentalism, sensibility, and domestic fiction.
Publication Facts
  • Charlotte was published in England in 1791, making it technically not an American but a British novel.
  • Rowson arrived in Philadelphia in 1793 but could not have known that Charlotte would become the best-selling novel in America before the advent of Scott.
  • Charlotte went through more than 161 editions; of these, 42 were printed before 1820 in seventeen cities.
  • Ten of these were produced in New York and seven in Philadelphia, compared to one in Boston: this shows that the middle region offered the greatest market for fiction.
  • When Mathew Carey, the American discoverer and publisher of 9 editions of Charlotte, was publishing a new edition at 50 cents each in 1812, he estimated that sales had already exceeded 50,000 copies .
  • In 1818, the leading figures in the novel were exhibited in a waxworks show in the frontier town of Columbus, Ohio.
  • According to Cathy Davidson, a grave in Trinity churchyard, New York City, was supposed to be that of Charlotte Temple and drew crowds who came to weep over the grave.
  • Rowson was well known as an actress in Philadelphia-Baltimore area and was a patriotic American
  • Her Reuben and Rachel (begun in 1796) is an historical novel of Columbus and his imaginary descendants down to about 1700, complete with wars and Indians. Before she finished it, she became a teacher and settled down in Boston.
Charvat: "Charlotte’s numerous villains, male and female, were all Europeans operating on American soil. Their villainies seemed to ‘come natural’ in the imagination of American readers who were already beginning to identify the fascinations of sin with Europe. In foreign countries, where
    • the individual’s very identification was based on his place in class and family
    • the law of primogeniture produced a class of irresponsibles, frequently army men
    • property laws made a woman the chattel of the male
    • a woman had a social existence just to the extent that she was an ‘under the protection’ of the male
    • men of the upper classes were condoned in considering the unprotected female fair game
    it was natural that fictional plots should be based on the pursuit of the female by the "gentleman officer," on lost-and-found parents, treacherous relatives, and incestuous situations which were the end product of bastardy."
Context The Early Novel and Charlotte: A Tale of Truth
(Note: This is a highly abbreviated and specific list.  For more information, see especially Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, and Cathy Davidson, Revolution and the Word).

I. Contemporary Works

  • 1740 Samuel Richardson, Pamela: the first English book that practially all readers are willing to call a fully realized novel.
  • 1747-1748 Clarissa
  • 1753 Sir Charles Grandison
  • All three are epistolary novels, novels told through letters written by one or more of the characters. This allows feelings and reactions to be presented without authorial intrusion, gives a sense of immediacy because the letters are written in the thick of the action, and allows the writer to present multiple points of view.

    Sentimental novel or novel of sensibility: This form reflects the sentimentalism of the eighteenth century as reflected in sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy. Pamela was the beginning of the vogue, although Fielding’s more realistic Tom Jones was written in protest. Examples of the eighteenth-century sentimental novel:

  • Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
  • Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771)
  • Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760-67).
  • Sensibility: A term for reliance on feelings as guides to truth and not on reason and law. This term is connected with primitivism, sentimentalism, the nature movement, and other aspects of romanticism. The high value that the 18th century put on sensibility was a reaction against the stoicism of the seventeenth century and the theories advanced by Hobbes and others that human beings were motivated primarily by self-interest. (See Temple’s conversation with Eldridge on p. 857) For a good article on this term, see the excerpt from Jerome McGann's The Poetics of Sensibility.

    Sentimentalism: Two meanings. 1. Overindulgence in emotion especially for the pleasure that this feeling provides. 2. Optimistic overemphasis on the goodness of humanity (sensibility), representing in part a reaction against Calvinism, which regarded human nature as depraved.

    Commentary Comments about Novel Readers in the Nineteenth Century
    (from Nina Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers)

    Ladies’ Repository, January 1845: "It is romance reading, more than everything else put together, that has so universally corrupted the tasted of the present age. If a man writes a book—a work of profound study and solid merit, no body will read it."

    Southern Literary Messenger, September 1849: Novel readers are "an enormous class, who have neither leisure, nor inclination, of graver and more solid studies."

    Harper’s, June 1853: "Hundreds of readers who would sleep over a sermon, or drone over an essay, or yield a cold and barren assent to the deductions of an ethical treatise, will be startled into reflection, or won to emulation, or roused into effort, by the delineations they meet with in a tale which they opened only for the amusement of an hour."

    Comments to D. Campbell.