Getting the Mother's Story Right: Charlotte Lennox and the New World

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Charlotte Ramsay Lennox (1720?27?29?-1804) wrote two novels about life in the New World, one at the beginning of her literary career -- The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself (1751) -- and the other at the end -- Euphemia (1790). Neither novel has yet received much critical scrutiny, while The Female Quixote; or the Adventures of Arabella, published in 1752 and the only novel of hers currently available in paperback, has received a great deal.(1) I think it is time, as we continue to explore the consequences of the "discovery" of the New World, to "rediscover" these two neglected novels, for Lennox was one of the few to write about the New World from the woman's perspective. Her novels have much to tell us about what the New World meant to the women of the Old. For Lennox, the New World served as a place to chart the unexplored territories of motherhood, female friendship, the powerful mother/child connection, and female subjectivity.

Because most readers of this essay will be unfamiliar with Lennox's two "American" novels, I will briefly summarize their very complex plots. The Adventures of Harriot Stuart employs the paratactic shapelessness of the picaresque novel to tell a tale of successive and successful amatory encounters. It begins in England with an affair that occurs when Harriot is eleven years old, and continues with her adventures in America, to which her family goes when her father is made a company commander there. In love with Dumont, she is about to be married to Mr. Maynard when she is rescued by Captain Belmein, who then tries to trick her into marriage. Subsequently, when her father dies, her mother sends her to her aunt in England. On her way there, Harriot and her governess are kidnapped by Spanish pirates but rescued by an English Captain who tries to rape her. After she wounds him with his own sword, his nephew Mr. Campbel protects her from the other men and accompanies her to London, where Harriot learns from her aunt's friend, Mrs. Dormer, that her aunt is mad. Alone, Harriot turns to Lady Cecilia, who finds a position for Harriot in the family of her sister. Sexually assaulted by the family's tutor, Repoli, Harriot is accused of assaulting him. She loses Lady Cecilia's protection and is forced to leave her sister's family. Harriot goes back to Mrs. Dormer, who proceeds to tell her story to Harriot. After this interlude, Dumont returns and they fix their marriage day. When Dumont fails to show up as prearranged, she is made to believe he has married someone else. Subsequently she is abducted and taken to a convent. In the convent she meets Mrs. Belville, who tells her story. Believing she is being rescued from the convent, Harriot is next taken by a Count to a "retreat" outside Paris, from which, she is, in turn, rescued by Mrs. Danville, a woman in man's disguise. Once in Paris, Harriot unexpectedly runs into Mrs. Belville, who offers to escort her back to England, where she is reunited with her mother and sister. She is about to marry Mr. Campbel when her long lost lover Dumont returns to explain that he was tricked just as she was. The novel ends with their marriage.

An epistolary novel, Euphemia includes a smaller variety of incidents and much greater detail. Volume One begins with a letter from Maria Harley to Euphemia Neville, narrating the stories of her uncle's marriage to a duplicitous woman and of his great dislike for a particular relative who long ago married the woman he truly loved. Euphemia, in turn, narrates the story of her father's death and of her mother's subsequent illness and straitened circumstances. To please her mother, Euphemia marries Mr. Neville; her mother dies happy just before Mr. Neville procures a commission that will take them to America. In Volume Two, Maria describes her romance with Edward Harley, the son of her uncle's enemy, and her uncle's eventual acceptance and encouragement of their union. In her letters, Euphemia gives details of her journey from London to New York, where she and the Bellenden family (Colonel Bellenden is her husband's superior officer) are received very ceremoniously. …