Susanna Haswell Rowson (17621824). Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. 1905.
Historical and Biographical Introduction
MRS. ROWSONS 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 ageat 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 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 anothers society. She was born to be a teacher, and a notable teacher she became in Boston. In her books she aimed also to teach, and in doing so adopted what we may call the direct process style in fiction, taking her scenes and characters from real life. She began in this way with Victoria; she made Rebecca autobiographical, and one or two other books partly autobiographical; and she wrote plays that were photographic pictures of things she had seen. 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.
A tale of truth Mrs. Rowson declared Charlotte Temple to be, and Mr. Nason describes it as a simple record of events as they happened, and as truthful as Macaulays sketch of Charles I. Writing of the motive of the story, Mr. Nason says Mrs. Rowson had seen so much of the scandalous lives of land and naval officers in that period that she determined to warn her countrywomen against their seductive arts.1 Charlotte is described by Mr. Nason as a young lady of great personal beauty, and daughter of a clergyman who, it is affirmed, was the younger son of the family of the Earl of Derbythat is, of the Stanley family. Mrs. Rowson, in the story, seems to refer to this family in such expressions as the Earl of D, and the Countess of D.
Mr. Nason then explains that it was by a lieutenant in the British Army, who was afterward a colonel, and was then in service, that Charlotte, in 1774, was induced 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. Mrs. Rowson, in the Preface to Charlotte Temple, printed two years after the death of the officer who is accepted as the original of Montraville, said:
The circumstances on which I have founded this novel were related to me some little time since by an old lady2 who had personally known Charlotte, tho she concealed the real names of the characters, and likewise the places where the unfortunate scenes were acted. I have thrown over the whole a slight veil of fiction, and substituted names and places according to my own fancy. The principal characters are now consigned to the silent tomb: it can therefore hurt the feelings of no one.
Mrs. Rowson had ascertained who the original characters were, and where the events took place. When Cobbett assailed her for expressing sentiments foreign to her heart, she said in the course of her reply:
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 of his deatha history which would tend to prove that retribution treads upon the heels of vice, and that, tho 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.
The year of Charlottes arrival in New York was the immediate eve of the Revolutionary War. The Boston Tea Party had taken place the year before (December 1773), and in the same month New York had sent back to England a ship laden with tea, the captain of the ship being escorted out of town with much enthusiasm. In May, 1774, General Gage had been sent from New York to Boston as Governor of Massachusetts; on June 1 the port of Boston had been closed by decree of Parliament, and in September the First Continental Congress had met in Philadelphia. In the following year actual war began (at Lexington in April, at Bunker Hill in June), and eight days after the battle of Bunker Hill, George Washington, the new commander of the American Army, passed through New York to enter upon his duties in Cambridge.
Here, in New York, English sentiment at that time was extremely potent, officials owing their places to direct appointment from London, and the tone of society in the upper ranks being distinctly royal. But the people as a mass were notably patrioticquite as much so as the people of any other part of the Colonies. They had amply proved their loyalty in the Stamp Act controversy, and in the conflict which, under the name of the Sons of Liberty, they had had with British soldiers. Here, in fact, in 1770, had been shed the first blood of the Revolution. The town, when Charlotte arrived, was in a state of political and military turmoil such as it had not known since the Stamp Act Congress met in Federal Hall or the Battle of Golden Hill was fought in John Street.
New York at that time was only third in population among cities in the Colonies, Philadelphia and Boston both being larger. Save for a few houses around Chatham Square, the built-up parts did not extend north of the present City Hall Park, then an unnamed piece of vacant land, described in the Montrésor map of 1775 as the intended square or common. The only highway that led northward from the city first followed the line of the Bowery, and then, near the present Twenty-third Street, divided into Bloomingdale and Boston Post roads. Along this highwayin reality a great, and now an historic, thoroughfarepassed each day a varied procession of carriages, stage coaches, farm wagons, men on horseback, soldiers in red coats, and work-a-day pedestrians. Near the south end of the roadthat is, near the beginning of the Bowery as it exists to-day, and forming one of the houses in the Chatham Square neighborhoodstood the cottage to which Charlotte was taken by her betrayer, the small house a few miles from New York3 described in the story. The exact place has been identified by Henry B. Dawson, as follows:
Below Bulls Head,4 on the same side of the Bowery Lane, at a distance from the street, but near the corner of the Pell Street of our day (not then open), in 1767 stood a small two-story frame building, which was the scene of the tragedy of Charlotte Temple. A portion of the old building, removed to the corner of Pell Street, still remains, being occupied as a drinking-shop, under the sign of the Old Tree House.5
The house Mr. Dawson describes is plainly shown on the Plan of the City of New York, surveyed by Lieutenant Bernard Ratzen, of the British Army, in 1767, and published with a dedication to the governor, Sir Henry Moore.6 A part of this map, embracing the Chatham Square neighborhood, is here reproduced. Pell Street was subsequently laid out through land on which stood Charlottes home. It is the next street below Bayard, runs west to Mott, and is now chiefly inhabited by Chinamen.
Mr. Dawson wrote in 1861. Since his time that remnant of Charlottes home has been supplanted by a modern building, in which a drinking-shop is still maintained, the upper floors being used as a lodging-house of the better class for that neighborhood. Over the doorway one still reads the sign, The Old Tree House. This corner of the Bowery and Pell Street is the northwest corner. Next door to Charlotte, so that their gardens, joined, as stated in the story, lived Charlottes friend, Mrs. Beauchamp. It will be observed that the Ratzen map shows two buildings at that point in the Bowery.
Note 2. The Mrs. Beauchamp of the story, whose husband was an officer in the English Army and served in America. Mrs. Rowson heard the story from Mrs. Beauchamp after the Revolution, when the army had returned and they first met in England, where the book was written, and in 1790 first published. [back]
Note 3. From this point to the Battery the distance is about two and a half miles. [back]
Note 4. The Bulls Head Tavern occupied the site of the present Thalia (formerly the Old Bowery) Theater. [back]
Note 5. Introduction to New York City During the American Revolution; being a Collection of Original Papers Belonging to the Mercantile Library Association, published in 1861. [back]
Note 6. This map, as showing streets and houses, is the most important one we have for that period. Colonel John Montrésor, in 1775, published a map, reproduced elsewhere, which is more important in a military and topographical sense, but not so satisfactory in its details of streets and houses. [back]