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  • The Redemptive Power of Suffering in Lucy Temple
  • Steven Epley (bio)

Susanna Rowson's last novel, Lucy Temple, is a tour de force of suffering. As Anne Dalke cleverly puts it, the Wheel of Fortune seems always to be headed down in this sequel to Charlotte Temple,1 which was discovered among Rowson's manuscript papers at the time of her death in 1824 and posthumously published four years later. Characters from all walks of life and socioeconomic levels suffer hideous financial, spiritual, familial, and psychological woes. Marriages tend either to end in misery, as in the case of Lucy's friend, Lady Mary Lumley, who goes insane after her husband is killed in a duel and her young child dies, or to miscarry even before they start, as happens when Lucy, daughter of Charlotte Temple and Montraville, cannot marry her lover, Lt. John Franklin, because he turns out to be her half-brother. However, the novel's last word (and thus the last word in the Rowson corpus) is "happiness," which the narrator attributes to Lucy on account of her "various and comprehensive schemes of benevolence,"2 such as founding a female seminary in the wake of her traumatic discovery about Franklin's identity. I will argue that Rowson, by the end of her life, had come to identify suffering as the primary, if not the only, means to attaining happiness. Moreover, the sharp contrast between Lucy's turn toward philanthropy and Franklin's successful search for a speedy battlefield death indicates the markedly different ways in which gender determines the particular form of each character's response to suffering. As Rowson imagines it, men and women both experience suffering, but women have have a better chance of gaining happiness through the performance of charitable deeds. War in Rowson's novels causes great suffering, but it never leads to happiness for the men, like John Franklin, who wage it. While Franklin is "devoted to his country" ("devoted" here carries potentially tragic overtones, as we shall see), Lucy is "set apart for the holy cause of humanity" (240). Both characters' fates are redemptive, but only Lucy's can result in happiness. [End Page 249]

Clearly, the world is a very harsh place in Rowson's last novel. Rev. Matthews, the surrogate parental figure for Lucy and the other two orphans with whom she is raised, seems to speak for Rowson when he says that happiness is "hardly attainable in this world" (196). Indeed, the penultimate moral lesson imparted by Rowson's famously didactic narrator links Lucy's "happiness" to "those pure emotions and lofty aspirations whose objects are raised far above the variable contingencies of time and sense" (264). The vague language here suggests that the solution to suffering comes in life after death, but the matter returns to earth when the final didactic thrust of Rowson's narrative voice praises, "in the events of [Lucy's] life, that benignant power which can bring, out of the most bitter and blighting disappointments, the richest fruits of virtue and happiness" (265). Suffering, then, lies at the novel's thematic core because, given its pervasiveness, it must be experienced and then transcended with God's help if the characters are to achieve redemption and have any chance of happiness, as Lucy does. On the basis of "the healing and religious light" that Lucy's "admirable submission to the trying hand of Providence" is said to have "shed over the world and all its concerns as they appeared to her view" (241), Donna R. Bontatibus goes so far as to categorize Lucy, in redemptive fashion, as a "Christ-like figure who brings light into a world where darkness reigns."3 Marion Rust has likewise shown how Rowson's later works emphasize "women's capacity to better their world, both within and without the domestic realm."4

I would go further to argue that the redemptive actions of both Lucy and Franklin speak powerfully against what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his study of the Suffering Servant figure in the book of Isaiah, calls "common worldly insistences that suffering is a dead end with no future and that there is no newness, only endless...


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pp. 249-265
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