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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.2 (2001) 331-334
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The Seduction Novel of the Early Nation: A Call for Socio-Political Reform
The Seduction Novel of the Early Nation: A Call for Socio-Political Reform. By Donna R. Bontatibus. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999; pp. 126. $16.95 paper.
In the wake of the American Revolution, privileged white women in the new nation began to write against colonial oppressions, particularly the laws and customs that severely limited women's educational opportunities and denied their political participation. As early as 1776, Abigail Adams urged her husband to "Remember the Ladies," only to be told, "Depend upon it, we know better than repeal our masculine system" (21). Adams, and other women with social capital in the early American nation, felt obliged to speak and write against the common perceptions of women's moral and intellectual inferiority. Novel writing was among the few professional arenas in which educated women were able to articulate their understanding of social and political oppression. Seduction novels were a popular genre in the new nation, which was, not unlike the novels' protagonists, struggling for liberation from colonial authority.
Donna Bontatibus argues that late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novelists Susanna Rowson, Tabitha Tenney, Hannah Webster Foster, and Judith Sargent Murray manipulate the seduction genre in an effort to combine critiques of neocolonialism and instructional narratives for women with the formulae of sentimental novels. Bontatibus points out the ways the novels position seduction as a "complex signifying practice determined and reproduced by limited educational opportunities, colonial laws and customs, circumscribed roles for the middle-class woman, and the existence of a rape culture" (5). Drawing from feminist theory, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory, she delineates a call for sociopolitical reform that is itself multidimensional and nonreductive. Bontatibus intends to make problematic the assumption that seduction novels are demoralizing for women because they portray women as willing victims of their own poor decision making. She convincingly positions the seduction novels of Rowson, Tenney, Foster, and Murray as both representative of the Puritan and Calvinist values of their time and indicative of a burgeoning feminist consciousness. Her analysis should be of general interest to a wide variety of scholarly interests. For that reason, I take each of Bontatibus's three major chapters in turn, mapping the development of her argument and discussing its relevance to cross-disciplinary interests. [End Page 331]
Seduction novels such as Charlotte Temple were the best selling novels in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. The seduction novel and its reader, however, quickly gained a reputation for emotionality, irrationality, and escapism. In order to lend the genre an air of professionalism and reveal the author's intent, the novels were marketed as educational, truth-based accounts of women's victimage. In "Intervening Before the Fall: Re-educating the 'American Fair,'" Bontatibus illustrates the numerous ways in which both the novels and their authors espouse the importance of education. Some authors, such as Rowson and Foster, explicitly tailor their books to the educational needs of women, while others, like Murray, published political tracts echoing the themes embedded in their novels. All three authors stress the importance of self-understanding and a balanced education for "control of one's mind, body, and spirit" (43). Their work reveals the emergence of an early and important feminist theme amidst the progressive individualist orientation of colonial America.
Like Rowson, Tenney prefaces Female Quixoticism with a letter that attests to the educational value of the novel. Unlike the other novelists, Tenney develops a protagonist who has benefited from "private instructors and an extensive family library" (45). Intelligent, quick-witted, and altruistic, Dorcasina's seduction is as much her own calculation of her privileges as a member of the upper class and her constraints as a member of the female gender as it is a conquest by the "mischief loving scholar" Philander. Bontatibus describes a scene in which Dorcasina contemplates marrying her suitor, Lysander, so that she may emancipate the slaves of his plantation. The...