Four American Critics on Charlotte Temple

1828: From Charlotte's Daughter; or, The Three Orphans. A Sequel to Charlotte Temple.
By Susannah Rowson. To Which is Prefixed A Memoir of the Author. [By Samuel L. Knapp.]
(Boston: Richardson & Lord, 1828)

No writer of fiction has enjoyed a greater popularity in this country than Mrs. Rowson. Of "Charlotte Temple" upwards of twenty-five thousand copies were sold in a short time after its appearance, and three sets of stereotype plates are at present sending forth their interminable series of editions, in different parts of the country. . . .

If we were required to point out a single circumstance to which more than all others this remarkable success is to be attributed, we should say it was that of her delineations being drawn directly from nature. Next to this, the easy familiarity of her style and the uniformly moral tendency of her works, have furnished the readiest passports to the favour of the American people. She cannot be pronounced a consummate artist, nor did her education furnish the requisite qualifications of a highly finished writer. Novel writing as an art, she seems to have con- [p. 12] sidered a secondary object. Her main design was to instruct the opening minds and elevate the moral character of her own sex. Fiction was one of the instruments which she employed for this laudable purpose. In using it, she drew practical maxims of conduct from the results of every day experience. Such a plan hardly admitted of extraordinary exhibitions of what is technically called power. Her pictures has been criticised for being tame. Admitting that they are occasionally so, it results from the nature of her designs and her subjects. . . . She was, however, by no means deficient in spirited representations of character, when the occasion required them. Her pathetic passages will be found to justify this observation.

1870: From Memoir of Mrs. Susanna Rowson, By Elias Nason, M.A.
(Albany: Joel Munsell, 1870)


In 1790, Mrs. Rowson, then in her twenty-eighth year, published in London, Charlotte Temple; or, a Tale of Truth, which at once engaged the attention of the public, and established her reputation as one of the ablest female writers in the department of literature she had chosen. It is a tale of sentimental fiction founded on fact; the hero, Montraville, being in reality, it is said, Col. John Montressor, who, while in service in the British army in 1774, persuaded Miss Charlotte Stanley, a young lady of great personal beauty, and daughter of a clergyman, who, it is affirmed, was a younger son, or of the family of the Earl of Derby, one of England's proudest peers, to leave her home and embark with him and his regiment for New York, where he most cruelly abandoned her, as Mrs. Rowson faithfully and tragically relates. She died at the age of nineteen years, and was buried in the grave-yard of Trinity church, New York, where the inscription of her name upon a long, moss covered slab, within a few feet of the [p. 47] living tide that surges through Broadway, may still be read.

"I had the recital," says Mrs. Rowson, in speaking of Charlotte Temple, in her introduction to the Trials of the Human Heart, "from the lady whom I introduce under the name of Beauchamp, I was myself personally acquainted with Montraville; and from the most authentic sources, could now trace his history from the period of his marriage to within a very few late years; a history which would tend to prove that retribution treads upon the heels of vice, and yet though not always apparent, yet even in the midst of splendor and prosperity, conscience stings the guilty, and

Puts rankles in the vessels of their peace."
Charlotte Temple is not then a creation of fancy, but a faithful transcription of real life, in 1774, and hence it is a living book, and criticise it as we may, the people after all will read it, weep over it and enjoy it. It appeals to the tenderest sentiments of the [p. 48] human heart, and sweeps across the chords of feeling as the evening breeze across the strings of the AEolian harp. It exhibits passages of beautiful description, as the one commencing: "It was a fine evening in the beginning of autumn"; of tender pathos, as the visit of Mr. Temple to Fleet prison, the sorrows of a mother and the death of Charlotte; of moral sublimity, as the agonizing struggles of a wounded conscience. The character of an intriguing, heartless teacher is well portrayed in that of Madam De la Rue, and that of a fiendish libertine in that of Belcour. As to Montraville, his course and character may perhaps be too favorably described; his punishment too light; but in him, we must recollect, the writer was dealing with an acquaintance, if not a distant relative of the Haswell family; nor had he, when the book was written, finished his career.

The plot of the story is as simple and natural as Boileau himself could desire; the denouement comes in at just the right time and place; and the reader's interest is enchained, as by magic, to the very last syllable of the book. A question has been raised as to the moral tendency of this work. I will attempt to answer it only by observing that it is a simple record of events as they transpired, as truthfully as Macaulay's sketch of Charles the First, or of La- [p. 49] martine's Columbus; and that whatever objection one might urge against it on the ground of immorality, might, with equal force, be brought against some of our very best works of history and biography. But let the decision be what it may, it seems quite certain that Mrs. Rowson wrote the story with the purest motive. She had seen something of the scandalous lives of the British land and naval officers of that period, and she determined to warn her fair countrywomen of their seductive arts. The bishop of London would have taken another course; but his voice would have failed to reach, as her cunning fingers did, the secret springs of the heart of the people.

Charlotte Temple is a literary curiosity. Twenty-five thousand copies were sold within a few years after its publication, and editions almost innumerable have appeared in both England and America. During the first quarter of the present century, this [p. 50] little book distanced in popular favor, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, Anne Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest, published 1791, Regina Maria Roche's Children of the Abbey, Frances Burney's celebrated Evelina, and every other competitor in the field; and it was not until the Great Wizard of the North began to enchain our attention, that the pathetic history of Charlotte Temple found a rival in the hearts of the people; and even now it is more than probable that a greater number of persons could be found in America who have perused this book, than Waverley itself.

It has stolen its way alike into the study of the divine and the workshop of the mechanic; into the parlor of the accomplished lady and into the bed-chamber of her waiting maid; into the log-hut on the extreme border of modern civilization and into the forecastle of the whale ship on the lonely ocean. It has been read by the grey-bearded professor after his "divine Plato"; by the beardless clerk after balancing his accounts at night; by the traveler waiting for the next conveyance at the village inn; by the school girl stealthfully in her seat at school. It has beguiled the woodman in his hut at night in the deep solitudes of the silent forest; it has cheated the farmer's son of many an hour while poring over its fascinating pages, seated on [p. 51] broken spinning wheel in the attic; it has drawn tears from the miner's eye in the dim twilight of his subterranean dwelling; it has unlocked the secret sympathies of the veteran soldier in his tent before the day of battle.

A great warm loving heart guided the fingers which portrayed the picture, and that is power; and ply the rules of rhetoric as we may, the people feel the power and they acknowledge it. The common mind of the common people is after all the true arbiter of the merit of the works of genius. This sanctions Homer, Shakespear, LeSage, Cervantes, Bunyan, Burns, Goldsmith; this sanctions the Aminta, the Gentle Shepherd, Paul et Virginie, Charlotte Temple; this sanctions Guy Mannering and the Pilot; this sanctions power!

1905: From Charlotte Temple, With an Introduction by Francis W. Halsey
(New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1905)


Of the twenty-four books and plays here enumerated, "Charlotte Temple" alone has survived. But what a survival that has been! Its early success in England merely foreshadowed the success it was destined to have in America, with scarcely an interruption down to the present day--a period of one hundred and fifteen years. As a survival among books of that generation it is probably matched in this country only by Franklin's "Autobiography," if indeed that book has matched it. Among novels it had no rival in its own day--not even "Evelina" or "The Children of the Abby." None of Scott's novels, which came a generation later, could have had so wide a reading here. Not until "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appeared [p. xxx] did an American work of fiction dispute its preeminence in point of circulation.

Perhaps even now, in the number of copies actually printed and read, "Charlotte Temple" has not been exceeded by Mrs. Stowe's work, because, being not protected by copyright, it has been constantly issued by many publishers in the cheapest possible forms of paper as well as cloth. The editions are innumerable. . . .

[p. xxxiv]. . . Reprints of it to this day are offered in department stores, on sidewalk bookstalls, and by pushcart dealers. In the little stationery stores of tenement districts it can usually be found on shelves where are kept some hundreds of second-hand or shop-worn paper covered novels. The shopkeeper will probably say he keeps "Charlotte Temple" constantly in stock, and that it is one of his best-selling books. . . .

In one edition which I have seen . . . issued in Philadelphia in 1865 . . . a thin, paper-covered octavo, with illustrations showing styles of dress worn in 1865--that is, ninety years later than the period of the story. Besides these sensational woodcuts in the text, [p. xxxv] it pretended to have a likeness of Charlotte, "taken from an original portrait," but looking like a fashion-plate, Charlotte being arrayed in an evening dress, supported by a hoopskirt. . . .

Other liberties, much more reprehensible, have been taken with the book. In the slums of large cities, many years ago, perverted editions were common, the text having been altered in a way to secure [p. xxxvi] large sales. With sensational titles, printed in type that suggests the "scare-heads" of newspapers, and representing Charlotte as a noted courtesan, copies were unscrupulously paraded on the streets and sold in large numbers. About 1870 a sensational story-paper, then just started in New York, printed, with one of its advertising posters, a large so-called portrait of Charlotte . . . One of the features of the paper to which particular attention was called in the advertisement was a serial story entitled, "The Fastest Girl in New York."

By means of these publications, now forgotten, Charlotte's character became much perverted in the minds of ill-informed people, among whom doubtless were persons of respectability and intelligence. Something of that influence has survived to this day in the impressions [p. xxxvii] which many retain of the real character of Charlotte Temple.


Mrs. Rowson's stories are pervaded by old-fashioned sentiment, which it has been the custom nowadays to mention as if it were a reproach. Sentimental they unquestionably are; but whether this be a reproach, may be left an open question. Our own period is distinctly not a sentimental age--at least in so far as concerns the expression of sentiment, about which we have grown somewhat squeamish. Human nature, however, has not changed. The average man and woman remain very much what their forbears for many generations have been in their susceptibility to emotion.

The situations Mrs. Rowson describes, the sympathies she evokes, appeal to what is elemental in our nature and what is also eternal. Rudimentary as to right [p. xxxix] thinking and right acting they may be, but they are wholesome, sane, and true all the same. As old as the hills, we may call this sentiment, but it will last with the hills themselves, immovable and fundamental in all our acts and thoughts, if not in our actual speech.

Mrs. Rowson was not gifted so much with creative imagination as with the power to delineate every-day human emotions. The situations which could move her were not those which she herself might have created, but those which she knew to have existed in the life she had seen. She wished always to draw some potent moral from them, holding up for emulation the staple virtues which keep the world strong and make it possible for men and women to be happy in one another's society. She was born to be a teacher, and a notable teacher she became in Boston. In her books she also aimed to teach, and in doing so adopted what we may call the "direct [p. xl] process" style in fiction, taking her scenes and characters from real life. . . . When she wrote "Charlotte" she founded a novelette on a tragedy that had occurred in her own day, the incidents in which she knew to be true, and the characters persons who once had been of flesh and blood, and at least two of whom she herself had personally known.

1921: From The American Novel, By Carl Van Doren
(New York: Macmillan, 1921)

Satire had to be helped by sentiment, however, before fiction could win the largest audience. Indeed, until Scott had definitely established a new mode of fiction for the world, the potent influence in American fiction was Richardson. The amiable ladies who produced most of the early sentimental novels commonly held, like Mrs. Rowson, that their knowledge of life had been "simply gleaned from pure nature," because they dealt with facts which had come under their own observation; but like other amateurs they saw in nature what art had assured them would be there. Nature and Richardson they found the same. Whatever bias they gave this Richardsonian universe was due to a pervading consciousness that their narratives would be followed chiefly by women. The result was a highly domestic world, limited in outlook, where the talk was of careless husbands, grief for dead chil- [p. 7] dren, of the peril of many childbirths, of the sentiment and the religion without which it used to be thought women could not endure their sex's destiny. Over all hangs the unceasing menace of the seducer, who appears in such multitudes that modern readers might think that age one of the most illicit on record if they did not understand Richardson's Lovelace is merely being repeated in the different colors and proportions. It is true, however, that the two most important novels of this sort, as well as The Power of Sympathy, were based on actual happenings. Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1797) recorded the tragic and widely known career of Elizabeth Whitman of Hartford, who, having coquetted with the Reverend Joseph Buckminster, was seduced by a mysterious rake generally identified with Jonathan Edwards's son Pierrepont, and died in misery at the Old Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1788. The Coquette saw thirty editions in forty years, and was known in almost every household in the Connecticut Valley. It has not survived as has Susannah Haswell Rowson's Charlotte (1794), one of the most popular novels ever published in the United States. Mrs. Rowson, an American only by immigration, had probably written the novel in England (where it seems to have been published in 1790), but Charlotte Temple, to call it by its later title, was thoroughly naturalized and has had its largest circulation here. It has persuaded an increasingly naive underworld of fiction readers--housemaids and shopgirls--to buy more than a hundred editions and has built up a legend about a not too authentic tomb in Trinity Churchyard, in New York, which since at least about 1845 has borne [p. 8] the name "Charlotte Temple" in concession to the legend but which probably contains the ashes of a certain Charlotte Stanley whom a British officer named Montressor seduced from her home in England and deserted in New York, much as in the novel. This simple story Mrs. Rowson embroidered with every device known to the romancer--sentimentalism, bathos, easy tears, high-flying language, melodrama, moralizings without stint or number; and yet something universal in the theme has kept it, in its way, still alive without the concurrence of critics or historians of literature.

The tradition that Abigail Stanley, mother of Elizabeth Whitman, was a cousin of Charlotte, serves to illustrate the process by which Charlotte Temple and The Coquette won a hearing from a community which winced at fiction: like sagas they stole upon their readers in the company of facts. . . .