A Medical Examination of Charlotte Temple: Critiquing the Female Healing Community in Susanna Rowson's America

By Tuthill, Maureen | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2011 | Go to article overview

A Medical Examination of Charlotte Temple: Critiquing the Female Healing Community in Susanna Rowson's America


Tuthill, Maureen, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


When Charlotte Temple reaches for her bottle of hartshorn after hear- ing that Montraville has left her for another woman, she signals her desire for healing in an uncaring__or, at best, indifferent__early American community. A fifteen-year-old British girl who is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned in the colonial New York of Susanna Rowson's novel, she has just received news that the father of her unborn child is now "attached" to the upscale and sensible young American woman, Julia Franklin. Her physical strength is immediately depleted, and she nearly faints: "At the word 'attached' a death-like paleness overspread the countenance of Charlotte, but she applied to some hartshorn which stood beside her" (105). "[T]he smell of a few drops of hartshorn," wrote physician Benjamin Rush in 1799, "restore [s] the system, from a state of weakness bordering upon death, to an equable and regular degree of excitement" ("Lectures" 140). By self-medicating with this volatile, Charlotte fights to survive in a community where no one cares enough to heal her and where, try as she might, she cannot heal herself. Her gradual descent into illness and death over the course of the novel and the failure of those around her to prevent this tragedy dramatize what Rowson depicts as a lack of compassion toward outsiders in the colonial American community. "While Charlotte Temple's virtue has been the major point of discussion on this novel for over two centuries, it is her health that dominates the text, if one pays attention to it. And her health is always linked to the power (or weakness) of her social connections. Seduction is certainly part of the tale Rowson has to tell, but the novel is less about women defining themselves against men than it is about women defining themselves against other women. It is less about emotion and pathos than it is about action and conflict. We notice these things only when we observe the protagonist fighting__and failing__to stay healthy. A medical reading of Charlotte Temple, therefore, changes the novel's identity.

In this essay, I will argue that reading this novel through the lens of health reveals Charlotte Temple to be quite a bit tougher than standard interpretations have suggested. Seeing her in this alternative light invites a reconsideration of major critical assessments of the novel. For instance, tracking the course of her illness enables us to see that she is not a passive waif who allows others to control the direction of her life but is an active strategist who orchestrates her own destiny within the limits of her circumstances. Her death is an indictment of the American community that fails to save her, as there is no safety net in place to catch a fallen woman such as she. With no ties to anyone in America, she is utterly disenfranchised once Montraville abandons her. She is at the mercy of a community that has strict notions of charity and no sense of how such charity might translate into medical care for a stranger. Examining the American colonials' response to Charlotte's illness, therefore, reveals Rowson's sharp critique of the way that community selectively heals on the basis of morals, class, and naturalization; such a fact is often obscured by a strong critical emphasis on the virtue of a single woman rather than on the virtue of the community as a whole. Finally, and as a means of contrast, I will show that Lucy Temple, Row-son's sequel to Charlotte Temple, portrays a socially supportive community in which Charlotte's daughter is a healer and an activist. The social network of early America, as depicted by Rowson, could not restore Charlotte Temple's virtue, but it might have helped to restore her health. However, this never happens in the novel.

Examining the healing dynamic in Charlotte Temple also refines the feminist interpretation of the text in two ways. It adds to what we already know about the gendered hierarchy that constrained colonial American womanhood by depicting the ways women within that hierarchy constrain one another. …

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