The fact that a novel in the sentimental and seduction genre attained such heights of popularity is, in the first instance, evidence its impact and effect on the psyche and minds of the female readers of the novel. As one critic cogently notes:
Why a book which barely climbs above the lower limits of literacy, and which handles, without psychological acuteness or dramatic power, a handful of stereotyped characters in a situation already hopelessly banal by 1790, should have had more than two hundred editions and have survived among certain readers for a hundred and fifty years is a question that cannot be ignored.
The initial question that obviously arises therefore is what made this book so popular and in what way does this novel speak to the feelings and aspirations of the readers to make it such a perennial favorite. As Fudge ( 1996) notes,
It is tempting to say that popular taste given the choice between a better and worse book will inevitably choose the worse; but this is an anti-sentimental simplification no more helpful than its sentimental opposite number. Only certain bad books succeed, apparently not by the simple virtue of their badness, but because of the theme they have chosen to handle & #8230; (Fudge 43)
It will be suggested in the following discussion that Charlotte Temple was in many ways representative of a latent and inward desire for personal freedom among women in early America and of the search for identity and existential meaning in the developing social and cultural milieu of the country. In other words, while the book could and has been critiqued in terms of its literary qualities, it contains themes and elements that speak deeply to the underlying needs, feelings and intentions of the nascent female identity in the country. The following sections will therefore attempt to expose and expand on some of these aspects in the novel that were representative of the search for female identity.
3. A brief overview of central points in the novel
Before embarking on a more in-depth analysis of the text in terms of the reason for its popularity and the view that the novel is indicative of the search for female identity in the country, it may be appropriate at this point to summarize some of the central features of the narrative, as a precursor to its analysis.
Significantly, the novel opens with a discussion that illustrates a particularly male point-of-view. It begins with a conversation between Montraville and Belcour, who refer to their desire to "take a survey of the Chichester ladies as they returned from their devotions" (Rowson 9). From the beginning of the book, by focusing on the male perspective rather than the female point-of-view, the author sets the tone and indicates the social conditions and milieu of women in the young society. This refers to the way they are perceived and their identity as 'objects' to be 'surveyed'. As one critic notes, the social situation is one where "… men, even if sometimes playfully, are in a predatory posture toward women." (Whitson 211) The attention of the men, particularly Montraville is focused on the fifteen-year-old Charlotte Temple. Charlotte is in the care of Mademoiselle La Rue, the French teacher at the school where Charlotte undergoing her education.
It is also noteworthy that the villains in the process of seduction are not only male. The author is careful to point out that both sexes can be implicated in the process of seduction and in the distortion of innocent female identity. This can be seen in the way that Mademoiselle La Rue plays a decisive role in the seduction and ruination of Charlotte. She takes as bribe from Montraville so that he can meet Charlotte. This is the first step in Cahrlotte's "…journey away from obedience to her parental expectations." (Whitson 211)
The "parental expectation" that Whitson refers to is also another aspect of the social milieu and expectations that surround the young women of the time, and which also forms an important part of the narrative.
The above discussion points to the issue of female identity being determined and restricted by a social complex of norms and values. This is a point that will be expanded on in the following sections.
The predatory attitude towards women exhibited by Montraville and Belcour is offset by the more enlightened and progressive attitude of Charlotte Temple's father. He has observed how women were virtually prostituted into marriage with older men and holds more fair-minded ideas about the rights of women and their need for an identity that is more than merely being an object to be "surveyed." Charlotte's parents therefore form a counterpoint in the structure of the novel to the sexist and dominating views of women that tend to pervade the work. However, Charlotte is destined to "… ultimately fall into the snares that her parents hope to help her avoid." (Whitson 209)
The underlying moral dimension of the novel is an important part of work as a whole and this dimension becomes more apparent as the novel develops. We are made aware of the link between immorality and the road to seduction through the character of the French teacher, Mademoiselle La Rue, who is described as a woman who "lived with several men in open defiance of all moral and religious duties" (Rowson 26). This initiates a discourse in the novel between norms, morals and passion, with Charlotte's identity being tested between these extremes. As Fudge (1996) states in his analysis of the novel;
Charlotte is torn between her passion and her principles. Though in her first rendezvous with the gentlemen soldiers Charlotte is disgusted by their crudities and by the "liberties Mademoiselle permitted them to take" (27), her acuteness is slowly dulled as she continues to join their company.
( Fudge 44)
Charlotte at first rejects the advances of Montraville but this rejection is complicated by the respect and allegiance that she feels towards Mademoiselle La Rue. Her moral reason and innate human passion are conflicted and she finds that she is unable to sever ties with Montraville. She agrees to an elopement with him, on the promise of marriage. However, the larger moral interactions between the world represented by her parents and the world represented by of Montraville and Mademoiselle La Rue continually influence her life and sense of identity. She confronts her moral dilemma when her parents hold a birthday party for her and she decides to leave Montraville. This is her "triumph of reason over inclination," (Rowson 47) and she attempts to establish her identity in terms of her view of duty. However, this move on her part is countered by Montraville who threatens to kill himself as he cannot live without her. As a result she is virtually kidnapped by Montraville.
It is important to note that in social terms her elopement is as form of social suicide. The norms and values of the society tend to condemn the woman in this situation and, ironically, she is blamed for the 'loss of her virtue 'and not the man. This again highlights the social and moral milieu experienced by young women during this period. This aspect is clearly illustrated by the reaction of Charlotte's grandfather to her elopement. "My child is betrayed; the darling, the comfort of my aged heart, is lost. Oh would to heaven I had died but yesterday." ( Rowson 50-51) This sentiment is even more clearly expressed in the reaction of her mother: "…save her from the miseries which I fear will be her portion, and oh! Of thine infinite mercy, make her not a mother." (Rowson 53-54).
Charlotte is now at the mercy of forces that seemingly have caused her to lose her centre of moral orientation. She becomes the object of Balcour's lust and he is determined to have her for himself, once she has been discarded. Her identity is reduced to that of an object, a sexual prize.
In New York she becomes ensconced in a small house and becomes Montraville's mistress. She is also well aware that in such a position in society she has none of the legal or moral protection of a married woman. This point again makes the reader aware of the precarious position that women found themselves in a male dominated and patriarchal society, where marriage was the only respectable place in society for a woman. In other words, her identity was circumscribed and restricted by strict normative views and assumptions that were extremely biased in favor of men.
The above remarks refer to the central argument or thesis of this paper; that the popularity of this novel is indicative of certain awareness, a growing consciousness of the precarious situation of women in the early years of the development of American society. This awareness, projected by the author of Charlotte Temple and other works, is the element that was to resonate…