- Intermediality, Cultural Capital, and The Social Space of Immobility in Susanna Rowson's Rebecca
After Charlotte Temple, Susanna Rowson's Rebecca; or The Fille de Chambre is the most popular novel written by "the most prolific and widely read novelist of the United States' first half-century."1 First published in London in 1792 and again in Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1794, Rebecca would go through at least five more editions in America before 1835. Its circulation was substantial enough for Frank Luther Mott to include the novel in his list of early "best-sellers" or early American books of close to best-selling popularity, one of only twenty books in this decade which he feels deserve the distinction.2 The popularity of Rebecca as well as that of its author, its extended descriptions of revolutionary America, and its transatlantic publication and setting would seem to place the novel at the center of a number of scholarly interests. So it is surprising, to say the least, that Rebecca has not generated more critical consideration. The few references to the novel to date have either discussed its representation of the American Revolution in terms of Rowson's own life experience or have briefly noted the novel's representation of class.3 This essay seeks to expand on these observations by analyzing Rebecca's complex representation of social space.4 Rowson's fiction, as many scholars have noted, rarely recommends "class equality and social mobility" and Rebecca is certainly no exception.5 The various narrative trajectories contained within Rebecca contribute to the depiction of a social space marked by immobility and associated with the reproduction of an aristocracy whose legitimate form is characterized by liberality and taste. What makes the novel's depiction of immobility remarkable, however, is the degree to which it identifies the struggle between different forms of capital in the reproduction of this [End Page 223] social space.6 Rebecca examines the fluid relationship between cultural, social, and economic capital and genteel distinction with particular attention paid to cultural capital's relationship to mobility.7 The novel contrasts two forms of cultural capital—articulated within the text as fashion and taste—and endorses the latter since whatever mobility is associated with it works alongside, as opposed to independent of, prior institutions for genteel distinction.
Rebecca's intermediality, I argue, is central to the imagination of this social space of immobility. By intermediality I refer to the intertextual use of one medium (such as painting) within another (such as prose fiction) or what Irina Rejewsky identifies as an "intermedial reference."8 In general, intermedial configurations are those "which have to do with a crossing of borders between media, and which therefore can be differentiated from intramedial phenomena as well as from transmedial phenomenon (i.e., the appearance of a certain motif, aesthetic, or discourse across a variety of different media)."9 Intermedial critical perspectives depart from traditional comparative approaches to the arts—which tend to conceive of the literary in temporal, the visual in spatial terms—in that they urge "the reader not to give preference to one medium or the other but to consider both."10 "Acknowledging intermediality as a constitutive element in fiction," Janet Aikins explains, "enables us to perceive that the reader of any verbal narrative is also a spectator to narrated action, and most especially so when in the presence of an actual 'iconotext,' a verbal narrative that makes use of an image, either by reference or allusion (real or imaginary) or explicitly, in the case of an illustrated edition."11 The sophisticated iconotextual practices of Rebecca necessitate moving beyond comparative approaches to the arts in order to understand the novel as a "vernacular form of representation" or "mixed media."12 In what follows, I demonstrate how the iconotextual practices of Rebecca address the problem that the downward distribution of culture to the middling poses for the symbolic capital of the aristocracy. The extensive intertextual references to portraiture in the novel, I contend, provide the occasion from which the proper disposition to culture and thus the proper relationship between cultural capital and mobility might be practiced.