Rowson, Susanna (1762–1824)
Rowson, Susanna (1762–1824)
Bestselling English-born novelist, essayist, poet, dramatist, lyricist, actress, and educator. Born Susanna Haswell on or about February 5, 1762, in Portsmouth, England; died in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1824; daughter of William Haswell (a British naval officer) and Susanna (Musgrave) Haswell (who died shortly after her daughter's birth); educated at home; married William Rowson, in 1786; no children.
Brought to America by her father (1767); returned to England (1778); served as governess until publication of her first novel (1786); continued writing novels and joined a theatrical touring companywith husband (1792); joined Philadelphia New Theater Company (1793) and then Federal Street Theater in Boston (1796); retired from stage (1797); established a Young Ladies' Academy in Boston where she served as headmistress until her retirement (1822).
author of the first bestselling novel in American history, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth (London, 1791, Philadelphia, 1794); also wrote eight other didactic novels, five plays on patriotic themes, two volumes of poetry, and six pedagogical works on geography, history, religion, and spelling.
In 18th-century European and American society, middle-class women were expected to marry, raise a family, and limit their activities to the domestic sphere. But what if one's parents were suddenly plunged into poverty and/or the man one married was a poor provider, as happened to Susanna Rowson? In such cases, a woman was forced to work, and that is what Rowson did, from her 16th year in 1778 until her retirement in 1822.
A versatile, talented woman of great sense and sensibility, Rowson is a lesson in survival. Her mother Susanna Musgrave Haswell, the daughter of a commissioner of customs at Portsmouth, England, died less than ten days after her daughter's birth. A few years later, her father William Haswell, a captain in the British Navy, had to leave his daughter in the care of her nurse and relatives when he was appointed a collector of royal customs in the colony of Massachusetts.
In America, Captain Haswell married Rachel Woodward, the daughter of a Hingham merchant, and they settled in a charming house at Hull on the tip of Nantasket Peninsula near Boston. In 1767, Has-well returned to England to fetch his five-year-old daughter and her nurse. The voyage to America almost ended in tragedy, for food supplies ran dangerously low and the ship was almost wrecked as it entered Boston Harbor during a wintry storm. Later, the themes of death in childbirth and shipwrecks were to appear in several of Rowson's novels.
From 1768 to 1774, Susanna lived an idyllic life in Massachusetts, educated at home and so well read by the age of 12 that the Haswells' summer neighbor, the famous patriot James Otis, referred to her as "my little scholar." However, the American Revolution ended this idyll, and by 1775 Captain Haswell's property was confiscated when he refused to side with the Americans. Susanna and her family endured considerable hardship for the next three years. Finally, in 1778 the Haswells were exchanged for American prisoners in Canada and set sail for England via Halifax.
By the time Rowson returned to England she was 16, her two half-brothers were less than ten years old, and her father and stepmother were ill and penniless. In all probability, Susanna served as a governess for the next eight years. She also sold lyrics to music publishers and, hoping to supplement her meager income, in 1786 she published her first novel, Victoria. Rowson found a patron who could guarantee her subscribers, and she dedicated her novel to Georgiana Cavendish (1757–1806), duchess of Devonshire, an intelligent and learned patron of the arts who also wrote poems and novels. Struggling to support herself and her family (which now included a third half-brother), and past her 24th year, Susanna put aside her misgivings and later that year (1786) married William Rowson. An acquaintance of her father's, William was a handsome and affable man, a fine trumpeter, and a horseman of the guard. In addition, he was part owner of what Susanna's father believed to be a thriving hardware business.
Susanna's misgivings about William were soon confirmed; he was a poor provider with a drinking problem. As a result, after her marriage Rowson continued to write and publish novels, most of them about women like herself who, against terrible odds, sought to earn a living while maintaining their virtue. However, at that time few novelists could make a living from their writings. For example, her classic novel of seduction and betrayal, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth (1791), brought her instant fame, but very little money.
To make matters worse, by 1792 William's hardware business collapsed and dire need drove Susanna, William, and his younger sister Charlotte Rowson to seek employment in English provincial theaters. Each of them had some talent as musicians, singers and dancers, but they earned less than a bare subsistence on the stage. In 1793, the three eagerly accepted a contract with the New Theater in Philadelphia. That year, Susanna embarked on her third and last voyage across the Atlantic.
When the Philadelphia company went bankrupt in 1796, the Rowsons joined the newly opened Federal Theater in Boston. Within a year, however, that theater also closed and Susanna, Charlotte, and William were forced to abandon the stage. Between 1793 and 1797, Susanna had acted 129 different parts in 126 different productions. In addition, she had written at least five musical plays on patriotic themes, such as Slaves in Algiers (1793), that were published and performed in Philadelphia and Boston.
Aware that schools for well-off young women aged 11 to 16 were the rage in the young Republic, in November 1797, and helped by a wealthy patron, Rowson decided to establish a Young Ladies' Academy in Boston. The school, which was moved several times in the Boston area, was a success and for over 20 years was to provide the financial stability that previously had eluded Susanna. Though largely self-educated herself, Rowson was an experienced governess whose novels and other writings were didactic in purpose. She offered her students a thorough education that included arithmetic, geography, geometry, grammar, history, reading, religion and writing. For an extra fee, the older students could also take classes in dancing, French, embroidery, needlework, music, and painting.
Rowson was an innovative and imaginative "preceptress" who offered classes in piano, a new instrument that was just appearing in wealthy American homes. In addition, she was highly aware of the importance of sea power in history; in her textbooks on history and geography and even spelling, she taught her students about navigation in history. She was also a pioneer in women's studies. In three of her six textbooks, she included considerable material on women, especially learned women who were models of bravery, intelligence and intellectual accomplishment. Her feminist intent was clear—to prove that women are the intellectual equals of men. In Rowson's texts and in her teaching she also wanted her students to associate ideas and to think for themselves so that they could continue their education on their own, as she had done.
Susanna made a deep impression on her students. One of them, Eliza Southgate Bowne, described her as "an amiable lady, so mild, so good, no one can help loving her; she treats all her scholars with … tenderness…. No woman was ever better calculated to govern a school than Mrs. Rowson." Another student, Mary Batchelder, near death in 1869, wrote of Susanna: "dear, generous, kind hearted woman. Lord grant that we may meet in heaven." Endowed with many gifts, and goaded on by a lifelong need to earn a living, Susanna Rowson led an eventful and productive life in an exciting time of revolutionary change in America and Europe.
Dexter, Elizabeth Anthony. Career Women of America, 1776–1840. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
Nason, Elias. Memoir of Mrs. Susanna Rowson. Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1876.
Rowson, Susanna Haswell. Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Parker, Patricia L. Susanna Rowson. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1986.
Weil, Dorothy. In Defense of Women: Susanna Rowson (1762–1824). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1976.
Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio