Susanna Haswell Rowson (17621824). Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. 1905.
Historical and Biographical Introduction
I. Mrs. Rowson
SUSANNA HASWELL ROWSON, the author of Charlotte Temple, was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1761. Her father was William Haswell, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and her mother Susanna Musgrave. In 1769 she came to America with her father, who settled at Nantasket, in Massachusetts, and remained here until 1777. She wrote, nearly twenty years afterward, in an introduction to one of her books:1
It was my fate, at a period when memory can scarcely retain the smallest trace of the occurrence, to accompany my father to Boston, in New England, where he had married a second wife, my mother having lost her life in giving me existence. Blessed with a genteel competency, and placed by his rank and education in that sphere of life where the polite and friendly attentions of the most respectable characters courted our acceptance, and enjoying a constant intercourse with the families of the officers of the British Army stationed there, eight years of my life glided almost imperceptibly away.
Her education was carefully supervised during her stay in Nantasket. She is said to have attracted the notice of James Otis, the orator and statesman, who called her my little scholar, and endeavored to inculcate in her mind his own political sentiments, but whatever success he may have had with the daughter did not extend to the father. She adds:
At that time the dissensions between England and America increased to an alarming degree. My father bore the Kings commission; he had taken the oath of allegiance. Certain I am that no one who considers the nature of an oath voluntarily taken, no one who reflects that, previous to this period, he had served thirty years under the British Government, will blame him for strict adherence to principles which were interwoven, as it were, into his existence. He did adhere to them. The attendant consequences may readily be supposed. His person was confined; his property confiscated. Having been detained as a prisoner two years and a half, part of which was spent in Hingham and part in Abington, an exchange of prisoners taking place between the British and American, my father and his family were sent by cartel to Halifax, from which we embarked for England.
A few years after her return to England she began to support herself. At one time she acted as a governess in the family of the Duchess of Devonshire. She also wrote verses, and in 1786 published a novel called Victoria, the characters in which she described as having been taken from real life. To assist in its publication, subscriptions were secured, and several came from notable persons, including General John Burgoyne, Mrs. Siddons, Sir Charles Middleton, and Samuel Adams. This work, the only one that appeared under Mrs. Rowsons maiden name, was dedicated to the Duchess of Devonshire, who introduced her to the Prince of Wales, afterward George IV., through whom was secured a pension for her father.
In the same year she was married to William Rowson, a hardware merchant, serving as trumpeter in the Royal Horse Guards. Mr. Rowson soon failed in business, in consequence, it is said, of losses through a partner in America. She and he, as well as her husbands sister, then decided to go on the stage.2 They made, their first appearance in Edinburgh in the winter of 17923, and afterward acted in several other British towns. Meanwhile she continued to write books. Victoria was followed by a story called Mary; or, The Test of Honor, and then came in succession The Inquisitor; or, Invisible Rambler, a work in three volumes, modeled on Sternes Sentimental Journey, 1788 (republished in Philadelphia in 1794); Poems on Various Subjects, 1788; A Trip to Parnassus; A Critique on Authors and Performers; Mentoria, being views on education, 1791; Charlotte; a Tale of Truth (such was the original title of Charlotte Temple, the Temple being omitted), two volumes, 1790, which within a few years reached a sale of twenty-five thousand copies; and Rebecca; or, the Fille de Chambre, an autobiographical novel, 1792, of which a revised edition was published in this country in 1814.
In 1793 Mr. and Mrs. Rowson entered into a contract to come to America and act in the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. When they arrived yellow fever was prevalent in that city, and the company for a time acted in Annapolis instead. For three years Mrs. Rowson continued her life here as an actress, appearing mainly in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. Coming to New York, she viewed the grave of the unfortunate Charlotte, and went to the house in which she died. Among the characters which she represented on the stage were Lady Sneerwell in The School for Scandal, and Dame Quickley in The Merry Wives Windsor. She wrote several plays, among them A Female Patriot, 1794; Slaves in Algiers, 1794; Americans in England and The Volunteers, 1793. The latter was a farce founded on the whisky insurrection in western Pennsylvania.
In 1794 appeared the first American edition of Charlotte Temple, which was still called Charlotte. William Cobbett (the once famous Peter Porcupine) printed a rather brutal attack upon her writings at this time, entitled A Kick for a Bite, in which he indelicately said that in Slaves in Algiers she had expressed sentiments foreign to her heart. She replied in an introduction to her next book, Trials of the Human Heart, described on the title-page as by Mrs. Rowson of the New Theatre. The literary world is infested, said she, with a kind of loathsome reptile, and then added that one of them lately crawled over the volumes which I have had the temerity to submit to the public eye. Trials of the Human Heart, in four volumes, 1795, was her most ambitious literary undertaking, but it had only a moderate success. Prominent persons, including Martha Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were among the subscribers for it. It was followed in Baltimore in the same year by The Standard of Liberty, being a patriotic address to the armies of the United States.
Abandoning the stage in 1796, her last appearance being made in Boston, Mrs. Rowson settled in Massachusetts. She taught for a time in Medford and Newton, and finally went to Boston, where for the remainder of her life she maintained a school in which were educated the children of many cultured families. Her experience as a teacher embraced twenty-five years. During this period she edited (18025) the Boston Weekly Magazine, wrote for several other periodicals, and published the following books: Reuben and Rachel; or, Tales of Old Times, 1798; Miscellaneous Poems, in which appeared original verse, including a song, America, Commerce, and Freedom, that enjoyed wide popularity, besides translations from Homer and Virgil, 1804; A System of Geography, 1806; A Spelling Dictionary, 1807; Sarah, the Exemplary Wife, 1813; A Present for Young Ladies, being a compilation of poems, recitations, and dialogs, 1811; Exercises in History, 1822; and, finally, Biblical Dialogues Between a Father and His Family, 1822; this being her last work, except a posthumous one, entitled Lucy Temple, Charlottes Daughter, a sequel to Charlotte Temple, but much inferior to it. Lucy Temple contained a brief memoir of Mrs. Rowson by Samuel L. Knapp. Many of these books were published through subscriptions obtained in advance, and the names of the subscribers were printed at the end of each book.
Mrs. Rowson died in Boston, November 2, 1824, and was buried in the family vault of her friend, Gotlieb Graupner, in St. Michaels Church, South Boston. A granite monument to her memory was in recent years set up in a family lot in Forest Hill Cemetery, Roxbury, by her grandnieces and nephew, Mary and Haswell C. Clark, and Mrs. Samuel Osgood, born Ellen Haswell Murdock, the mother of Mabel Osgood Wright, who designed the stone. Her body was not removed to this lot, however, inasmuch as identification of it after removal from St. Michaels Church had become impossible through the loss of a coffin plate. In 1859 the Rev. Elias Nason read a paper on Mrs. Rowsons life and work before the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, and in 1870 published in Albany a more extended memoir in book form, with a portrait.
Note 1. Trials of the Human Heart, Philadelphia (4 vols.), 1795. [back]
Note 2. The Rowson family appears to have included at least one other actress. In the Gentlemans Magazine for October, 1790, among the obituary notices, may be read the following: Of a billious fever, Miss Rowson, of Covent Garden Theatre, a beautiful and interesting girl, on whose character, notwithstanding the blandishments of her situation, suspicion had never breathed. [back]