- Reasonable Conversions:Susanna Rowson's Mentoria and Conversion Narratives for Young Readers
By the time Susanna Rowson published Mentoria; or, the Young Lady's Friend in 1794, most literate British and American readers had encountered a plentiful supply of juvenile conversion narratives—stories that illustrate children's dedication to Christianity, often on the deathbed, the most striking example of which is the classic Calvinist text A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (1671-1672; American edition 1700) penned by English Puritan minister James Janeway.1 The work collects the stories of children who convert and ultimately die at an early age, all related with an explicit didactic goal of promoting readers' conversions as well.
A hundred years later a wave of seduction novels flooded the literary marketplace in Britain and America, some of which appropriated conventions of the sacred conversion form and secularized it for eighteenth-century audiences by merging the concept of moral transformation with Enlightenment-era models of rational education. Though not well known, Rowson's Mentoria—a curious conglomeration of thematically-related pieces from multiple genres, including the essay, epistolary novel, conduct book, and fairy tale—offers particularly fertile ground for thinking about the nexus between eighteenth-century didactic books and earlier works for young readers.2 At the heart of Mentoria is a series of letters describing girls who yield, with dire and frequently deadly consequences, to the passionate pleas of male suitors.3 Fallen women populate Rowson's world, and scholars have traditionally read Mentoria within the familiar bounds of the eighteenth-century seduction novel.4 However, Rowson's creation transforms the older tradition of didactic, [End Page 185] child-centered conversion literature in response to the marked cultural shifts in the way adults viewed youth and education, particularly under the influence of John Locke.
An examination of Mentoria underscores the book's conversionary agenda even as Rowson disrupts the definition of "conversion" in juvenile texts. Where earlier works like Janeway's couch conversion within a religious framework, warn against the seduction of Satan, and urge readers to experience passion for Christ, Rowson's writing preaches a secularized sermon, embodies seduction in the male libertine, and situates conversion largely within the realm of eighteenth-century rationality. Its principal argument rests in its exhortation to convert from thoughtless passion to measured rationality. Rowson supplies vivid characters and intriguing plot lines to educate and transform—to convert, that is—youthful readers into children governed by reason. The world is full of dangers for the genteel eighteenth-century youngster, and Mentoria illustrates this point through characters who succumb to passion over rationality, a yielding that leads to ruin and death as surely as Janeway's characters face damnation should they ignore the lessons represented by his characters. However, reason—not passion for Christ—ultimately triumphs at the end point of this conversion.
Drawing upon the conventions of the conversion narrative and its imagery, I first contextualize Mentoria by tracing the role that books like A Token for Children played in teaching young readers about religious conversion before turning to my central concern: the manner in which Rowson redirects the conversion narrative as she emphasizes her own lessons about logical behavior and sound educational practice, values influenced by the writings of Locke. Rowson focuses on carnal instead of spiritual passion and makes the acquisition of reason the principal outcome of conversion. Placed within this broader framework of children's literature, Mentoria reads not merely as an eighteenth-century seduction narrative but as a work that positions conversion within a secularized context and strives to educate its juvenile readers about the salvation of rationality.
James Janeway and the Juvenile Conversion Narrative
As members of the first consciously child-centered culture, seventeenth-century British and American Calvinists published a significant number of sermons and books that described youthful piety and conversion, as well as the dire consequences should a child reject these values and acts.5 Around a central motif of death, such narratives reinforced the necessity of conversion, not only for the characters within the pages but for readers as well. Conversion...