Charlotte Temple | America’s First Bestseller

Charlotte TempleCharlotte Temple (1791) by Susanna Rowson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my self-created Presidential Reading Project, I’ve decided to expand the reading of presidential biographies (in chronological order) to include reading a work of popular fiction from each time period of said president’s term in in office. Hence, I recently found myself reading this long-forgotten, once-upon-a-time best-seller.

Charlotte Temple was published when George Washington was leader of the brand new United States, and the book would hold the record as the best-selling American novel until a little old book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin came around in 1852. It’s amazing to think that the most popular novel in America for nearly half a century (there were over 200 editions) is now nearly forgotten. Until, that is, you read it.

Charlotte Temple is a cautionary tale of the highest order; the tragic story of a young English girl seduced by a British lieutenant named Montraville who whisks her from the shelter of boarding school to a ship bound for the American colonies on the eve of revolution. Once there, Montraville abandons Charlotte and marries another. Poor Charlotte is left alone, friendless and (gasp) pregnant, far from home, family and friends. Her plight is not a happy one.

Nor is her story a very complex one, absent a raft of colorful characters, subplots, or rich description of setting that typify classic 19-century literature. It’s simple and effective but hardly memorable, and surprisingly, though set against the exciting backdrop of the American Revolution, the conflict is never once mentioned.

Charlotte Temple was written for an audience of young women and at various points in Charlotte’s unhappy story, author Susanna Rowson speaks directly to the reader with words of warning and lessons in morality.

Then once more read over the sorrows of poor Mrs. Temple, and remember, the mother whom you so dearly love and venerate will feel the same, when you, forgetful of the respect due to your maker and yourself, forsake the paths of virtue for those of vice and folly.

Indeed!

This excerpt demonstrates that, though written in the formal parlance of the day, Charlotte Temple is surprisingly readable and briskly moves along. (The book is slim, just over 100 pages.) And while it doesn’t contain the most cleverly plotted story, you feel for Charlotte and her child and want the best for them in the end. There’s also an evil French teacher who figures prominently in Charlotte’s downfall, which adds a bit of juicy melodrama. As a glimpse into this period of history through literature, Charlotte Temple makes for an enjoyable and interesting afternoon read.

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