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  • "Oh That I Were a Man!":Susanna Rowson's Lesson on Marital Entrapment
  • Jennifer Desiderio

In the fall of 2015, I had the opportunity to teach Susanna Rowson's Sincerity thanks to the hard work of Duncan Faherty and Ed White and their Just Teach One project. I included the novel in an upper-level undergraduate course titled "The Rise of the American Novel, 1798–1853." The syllabus was divided into three units: "The New Republic," with Charles Brockden Brown and Rowson; "The American Frontier," with Lydia Maria Child and Catherine Maria Sedgwick; and "The American Renaissance," with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fanny Fern, and William Wells Brown. My goals for the class were to familiarize students with the concept of recovery, deconstruct the linear narrative of the American novel, and reveal to them the anxiety and excitement surrounding print, specifically the novel. Sincerity supported these goals perfectly. Rowson represented a recovered author, and Sincerity offered an exciting publishing history with its first printing as a serialized novel within the pages of the Boston Weekly Magazine in 1803 and 1804 and its subsequent reprinting in book form in 1813. While teaching the novel, I discovered that Sincerity's initial serial publication has particular importance for provoking class discussion on the text's moral message. Sincerity's critique of marriage and marital confinement becomes much more visible when students consider the periodical's reputation, Rowson's public identity in 1803, and the title page and epigraphs added in the 1813 edition.

On our first day with Sincerity and on the heels of reading Charlotte Temple, I told my students that I was unsure if I was supposed to applaud Sarah's fortitude or critique the marriage system that promotes such fortitude in the face of marital abuse. As other readers have noted, Sincerity starts where many novels end. Sarah opens her first epistle with a most unhappy marriage declaration, writing, "yes! Anne, the die is cast—I am a wife!" (4). Sarah then traverses through the English and Irish countrysides at the mercy of the demands and dictates of her cruel and abusive husband. After a tumultuous and loveless marriage, Sarah dies with no reward except the one that she imagines she will reap in the afterlife. At the close of the novel there is very little payoff for the reader, especially since there is no punishment of Mr. Darnley, unlike Montraville's [End Page 151] madness in Charlotte Temple. Rather, our heroine dies unhappy and disappointed with her life, leaving readers to ponder the novel's lesson.

My confession to my students was intended to promote a discussion about whether we should read the novel as a conservative lesson in patience or as a progressive critique of marriage. To my surprise, my students overwhelmingly read Sincerity as a pedagogical novel. Jared Gardner has written that Sincerity "eschews the didacticism of Charlotte Temple, denying us the alternately comforting and chastising schoolmistress/narrator through its choice of an epistolary format" (108). Yet despite the absence of a "schoolmistress/narrator" figure such as the one Gardner describes, my students displayed a staunch adherence to an interpretation of Sincerity as a clear example of a strictly instructive text. In retrospect, I wish I had reminded them that Sincerity not only lacks a morally minded narrator but in its original Boston Weekly Magazine version did not contain the moralistic preface that was added to the novel when it was published ten years later. In the 1813 preface, Rowson tells her readers to practice "patience, forbearance, and in many cases perfect silence" in all marriages (108). This advice stands counter to the novel as Sarah vocally reminds Darnley on several occasions, including her wedding day, that she does not love him, and she writes often of her marital woes to Anne. In addition, the epistolary format of the 1803–4 edition, particularly as it appeared within the periodical, offers readers a cacophony of voices that further resists any clear didacticism. Here, the contradiction between the preface's message on silence and the protagonist's loquacity invites students to question the sincerity of Rowson's moral precept in the 1813 preface.

The periodical context of the original edition contains...


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pp. 151-161
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