An excerpt from the first bestseller of the Federal period reveals prevailing attitudes about women’s sexuality.
Novel for a New Era
Charlotte: A Tale of Truth
“Frontispiece,” Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (Philadelphia: Printed by D. Humphreys, for M. Carey, 1812). New-York Historical Society Library.
WHEN Mrs. Beauchamp entered the apartment of the poor sufferer, she started back with horror. On a wretched bed, without hangings and but poorly supplied with covering, lay the emaciated figure of what still retained the semblance of a lovely woman, though sickness had so altered her features that Mrs. Beauchamp had not the least recollection of her person. In one corner of the room stood a woman washing, and, shivering over a small fire, two healthy but half naked children; the infant was asleep beside its mother, and, on a chair by the bed side, stood a porrenger and wooden spoon, containing a little gruel, and a tea-cup withabout two spoonfulls of wine in it. Mrs. Beauchamp had never before beheld such a scene of poverty; she shuddered involuntarily, and exclaiming—“heaven preserve us!” leaned on the back of a chair ready to sink to the earth. The doctor repented having so precipitately brought her into this affecting scene; but there was no time for apologies: Charlotte caught the sound of her voice, and starting almost out of bed, exclaimed—“Angel of peace and mercy, art thou come to deliver me? Oh, I know you are, for whenever you was near me I felt eased of half my sorrows; but you don’t know me, nor can I, with all the recollection I am mistress of, remember your name just now, but I know that benevolent countenance, and the softness of that voice which has so often comforted the wretched Charlotte.”
When Mrs. Beauchamp saw Charlotte, she was shocked. The girl was laying on a dirty bed. She was so sick and thin Mrs. Beauchamp could not recognize her. There was a woman washing clothes in the corner, and two half-naked children by the small fire. There was also a baby sleeping next to Charlotte on the bed. Next to the bed, there was a small bowl of gruel and some tea with wine in it. Mrs. Beauchamp had never seen anyone so poor; she almost fainted at the sight. The doctor wondered if he had made a mistake bringing her in, but Charlotte heard her voice and sat up. She said “Oh! Have you come to help me? I can’t remember your name, but I remember you helped me once.”
Mrs. Beauchamp had, during the time Charlotte was speaking, seated herself on the bed and taken one of her hands; she looked at her attentively, and at the name of Charlotte she perfectly conceived the whole shocking affair. A faint sickness came over her. “Gracious heaven,” said she, “is this possible?” and bursting into tears, she reclined the burning head of Charlotte on her own bosom; and folding her arms about her, wept over her in silence. “Oh,” said Charlotte, “you are very good to weep thus for me: it is a long time since I shed a tear for myself: my head and heart are both on fire, but these tears of your’s seem to cool and refresh it. Oh now I remember you said you would send a letter to my poor father: do you think he ever received it? or perhaps you have brought me an answer: why don’t you speak, Madam? Does he say I may go home? Well he is very good; I shall soon be ready.”
Mrs. Beauchamp realized who it was. She sat on the bed, took Charlotte’s hand, and started to cry. She could not believe it was the same girl she had once known. She pulled Charlotte’s feverish head to her chest and hugged her. Charlotte said “Oh, it is so nice of you to cry for me. I never cry for myself anymore. I feel so feverish, but your tears are cool and refreshing. I remember you said you were going to write to my father. Do you think he got the letter? Do you have an answer from him? Why don’t you speak? Can I go home? I can be ready to leave very soon.”
Mrs. Rowson, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (Philadelphia: Printed by D. Humphreys, for M. Carey, 1812). New-York Historical Society Library.
In 1794, Philadelphia printer Mathew Carey published the first American edition of Susanna Rowson’s novel Charlotte, A Tale of Truth. Susanna spent most of her early life in Massachusetts before her family was forced to flee during the American Revolution. She turned to writing as a way to support herself. Charlotte, A Tale of Truth became a bestselling book of the Federal period and an American cultural phenomenon. It has over 200 editions and is still in print today.
About the Resources
This excerpt and illustration, taken from the 1812 edition of Charlotte, A Tale of Truth, demonstrates how early American authors and publishers had to walk a fine line to create bestselling books. The illustration depicts the main character Charlotte as young and beautiful. Her dress is more revealing than most from this period of early American fashion. This is in line with the first half of the book, which depicts Charlotte’s relationship with her lover as romantic and thrilling. All of this was designed to entice and excite readers.
But the excerpt, taken from the end of the book, shows how the author punishes her main character for not following social customs and morals. In the final scene, Charlotte is poor, alone, and dying. It’s meant to serve as a warning for young women readers. As author Susanna Rowson said in her preface to the novel:
“If the following tale should save one hapless fair one from the errors which ruined poor Charlotte, or rescue from impending misery the heart of one anxious parent, I shall feel a much higher gratification in reflecting on this trifling performance, than could possibly result from the applause which might attend the most elegant finished piece of literature whose tendency might deprave the heart or mislead the understanding.”
edition: A version of a published text.
Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
Why do you think this book became so popular? What does this reveal about early American culture?
Why does Charlotte Temple suffer a tragic fate? What message does this book have for young women?
What can we learn about the past by studying literature?
Teach this source together with Seduction Suits and Life Story: Asenath Smith for a larger lesson about Federal period attitudes towards sex and the consequences for women.
American media continues to reflect the social mores of American society. After analyzing this excerpt of Charlotte, A Tale of Truth, ask students to reflect on the morality imparted in a recent example of fiction they encountered (a book, a film, a video game, etc.)