Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Alienated, Betrayed, and Powerless: A Possible Connection between Charlotte Temple and the Legend of Inkle and Yarico

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Alienated, Betrayed, and Powerless: A Possible Connection between Charlotte Temple and the Legend of Inkle and Yarico

Article excerpt

In the penultimate chapter of Charlotte Temple, the semi-reformed seducer Montraville, "tortured almost to madness" by news brought to him that the abandoned Charlotte is wandering about on a cold winter evening despite suffering from "illness, poverty, and a broken heart," searches desperately for her on the streets of New York City (116; ch. 34).[1] Spotting a funeral procession, he inquires about the identity of the deceased, and a soldier tells him "'tis a poor girl that was brought from her friends by a cruel man, who left her when she was big with child, and married another" (117; ch. 34). The woman, of course, is Charlotte, and, as critic Ann Douglas points out, the soldier's account "is Charlotte's version" of her love affair with Montraville. From Montraville's perspective, however, he considers himself more sinned against than sinning, his wicked friend Belcour having deceived him into believing that Charlotte has been unfaithful. Unfortunately for Montraville, the soldier's story "has become the popular and the true version," and Montraville "must subscribe to it" (xxxiii). This essay will argue that Charlotte's version becomes "popular and true," both within the novel and to its readers, in part because Susanna Rowson borrowed freely and judiciously from the highly popular legend of Inkle and Yarico, a tale of seduction and betrayal that many eighteenth-century readers believed to be a true story. Rowson transferred ready-made audience sympathy from the seduced and abandoned Native American Yarico to her similarly abused heroine Charlotte, thereby deepening her audience's identification with what Cathy N. Davidson calls Charlotte's "feelings of alienation and betrayal, her devastating loneliness, and her sense of powerlessness at the hands of those . . . who controlled her economic future" (Introduction xii). In addition to forging this power of sympathy for Charlotte, Rowson's clever reworking of the Inkle and Yarico legend also helped her to promulgate the broadly democratic, provisionally anti-commercial agenda that modern critics have long detected in Charlotte Temple, America's first best-selling novel.

The Inkle and Yarico legend, about an ambitious young seventeenth-century English merchant who seduces and promises to marry an Indian maid after she rescues him from near-certain death, but who later sells her into slavery for purely mercenary reasons, has been described by its most astute modern critic, Frank Felsenstein, as "among the most popular and widely retold within its country of origin, Great Britain, as well as elsewhere across Europe and into North America" (1). Although its roots lie in oral history, the legend first took written form in Richard Ligon's A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657; reprinted 1673), in which the author sympathetically but dispassionately records the plight of Yarico, a freeborn Indian slave at the plantation house where he lived. According to Ligon, Yarico had been brought from the mainland to Barbados by a young Englishman whose life she had saved when he and his fellow travelers had been attacked by Indians. Upon reaching safe port in Barbados, the trader casually sold Yarico into slavery (Felsenstein 55-80). Sir Richard Steele amplified the story and made it famous in the eleventh number of the Spectator series of essays on March 13, 1711. Steele injected emotionalism into the story and set it in the context of male-female relationships. The narrator of Spectator 11 hears the story during a visit to the apartment of Arietta, who relates it to refute the allusions made by another visitor, a "Common-Place Talker," to the effect that women are less constant in love than men and full of "Perjuries" and "general Levity" (48).[2] The narrator is so "touch'd" by the story's sad denouement that he leaves the room with tears in his eyes, "which a Woman of Arietta's good Sense, did, I am sure, take for greater Applause, than any Compliments I could make her" (51). …

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