- Tempestuous Passages:Storms, Revolution, and the Status of Women in Rowson's Fiction
Susanna Rowson has never been thought of as a writer much concerned with the natural world. Because her most widely read works, Charlotte Temple (1791, 1794) and Slaves in Algiers (1794), center on seduction or captivity, we tend to assume that most of the significant action in a Rowson text takes place indoors in enclosed, even claustrophobic, settings such as the rural New York house where Montraville keeps Charlotte after seducing her or the apartment at the Dey's where the American captives reside in Algiers. But if one reads more widely within Rowson's extensive opus, it becomes clear that storms make frequent appearances in her writing. Just as often as her characters are enclosed in confining spaces, they are confronted with violent weather in situations where no shelter or safe haven can be found. In her poetry, storms function as fairly conventional metaphors.1 But in the fiction she wrote during the early 1790s—Charlotte Temple, The Fille de Chambre (1792, 1794), and Trials of the Human Heart (1795)—she uses storms to convey pivotal transitions in the lives of her heroines. Storms, in these texts, become a means of working through and developing her own conflicted views on women's behavior in the face of both restricted opportunity and revolutionary change.
The ubiquity of storms in her fiction may in part reflect Rowson's personal experience. As she herself acknowledges in the preface to the 1814 edition of Rebecca, the protagonist's stormy transatlantic crossing was based on Rowson's own traumatic first passage to America at the age of five, when her father, a British naval officer, returned to England to bring her to Massachusetts colony, where he was stationed and where he had remarried and started a new family.2 (Rowson's mother died at her birth.) During this voyage, Rowson, her father, and the nurse who accompanied them faced winds that she [End Page 205] describes as "rising almost to a hurricane," weeks of tossing about in the stormy North Atlantic, and meager rations that threatened them with starvation.3 When they finally arrived in sight of land, their ship wrecked on a reef and they had to evacuate it by descending an icy ladder while waves washed over them. Susanna Rowson, considered too young to manage the ladder, was lowered into the rescue boat with a rope wrapped around her waist.4
The frequent appearance of storms in her fiction can also be explained by the fact that storms—by definition violent phenomena beyond human control—are an appealing trope for a writer obsessed with women's increasingly limited opportunities for achieving agency in their own lives in the 1780s and 90s.5 As scholars such as Linda Kerber and Marybeth Norton have shown, the American Revolution called into question "the standard belief in feminine weakness, delicacy, and incapacity."6 But in the decades following the Revolution, the ideology of republican motherhood, though it enabled women to claim a political role, obscured the ways in which women were still marginalized and denied full citizenship. Marion Rust's discussion of the complicated position of white female residents of the United States during the 1790s—a post-war period of economic opportunity and prosperity—is particularly useful for understanding Rowson's representation of storms. Rust writes that "throughout this decade, the range of behaviors available to women expanded, even as their attempts to avail themselves of these new opportunities were increasingly stigmatized."7 The most obvious example of this is that the decade saw "an explosion of published novels" while there simultaneously arose a "national outcry against novel reading."8 Since women were the "implied reader[s] of most of the fiction of the era" and women readers were also "the main object of censure" in the barrage of criticism directed at novels, women who hoped to maintain or achieve respectability were put in the position of having to deny themselves the enticing abundance of reading material that was increasingly available and was often directed primarily at them.9 Similarly, female residents of Philadelphia during this decade "found themselves...