Female industry would temper the steel of American democracy, which was still considered to be a political experiment; time and its prudent usage would be the means for a young America to steer a safe course. Politically connected and Irish-born, Mathew Carey (1760-1839) immigrated to Philadelphia and established a printing and publishing house with seed-money supplied by the Marquise de Lafayette (Leary 1984: 20). Carey was a founding member of the First Day Society, a secular Sunday school established in Philadelphia in 1790 promoting literacy education (Rainier 1996: 79). Carey hoped to cultivate a broad audience of female readers in the new America and published The Lady’s Pocket Library (1792) offering prescriptive advice on life and comportment. Carey published the first American edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1794 (Green 1985: 24). He published everything from romances to religious tracts, but recognized that the Word was the American bestseller. He earned his fortune and reputation by publishing the first American Catholic Bible and numerous editions of the King James Version of the Bible (Leary 1984: 79).

Carey also published the first bestselling novel in American. American-born Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) wrote Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth in the British style of the novel and it was England in 1790. In her introduction, Rowson wrote “I flatter myself, be of service to some who are so unfortunate as to have neither friends to advise, or understanding to direct them, through the variations and unexpected evils that attend a young and unprotected woman her first entrance into life (Rowson 2009: 7).” This cautionary tale described the seduction, and subsequent betrayal, of an unworldly boardinghouse student by a young British army officer. Betrayed first by a trusted teacher, she was lured across the Atlantic to America where her family could offer no guidance. Abandoned, pregnant, and destitute – Charlotte represented every parent’s worst nightmare – and she presented a warning to young women to avoid rakish men. After giving birth to a girl without assistance, Charlotte lost her senses (what Sarah Fielding referred to as “calm mind”), and tragically died alone.

Columbia was in the midst of her awkward youth. In 1812, Carey wrote Rowson, “Charlotte Temple is by far the most popular & in my opinion the most useful novel ever published in this country & probably not inferior to any published in England (Bradsher 1912: 50).” He continued, “… It may afford you great gratification to know that the sales of Charlotte Temple exceed those of any of the most celebrated novels that ever appeared in England. I think the number disposed of must far exceed 50,000 copies; & the sale still continues. There has lately been published an edition at Hartford, of as Fanning owned 5000 copies, as a chapbook – & I have an edition in press of 3000, which I shall sell at 50 or 62 ½ cents (Bradsher 1912: 50).”

Hannah Webster Foster (1759-1840) anonymously wrote the second best-selling American novel called The Coquette, or, The History of Eliza Wharton: A Novel Founded on Fact (1797), based loosely upon the life of poet Elizabeth Whitman (1752-1788) who rebelled against gender limitations in real life. This story presented an opposite extreme from Charlotte Temple by depicting a thirty-seven year old spinster who sought an egalitarian marriage in her youth. The Coquette, first published in Boston by S. Etheridge, described American locations like those in Charlotte Temple that became popular tourist destinations. Eliza rejects many suitors, only to choose the wrong man as a husband. In a tragic story of self-destruction, Eliza is a strong woman of independent means, who demonstrates undesirable characteristics and dies alone and friendless in childbirth. In the story, Eliza’s virtuous friend Lucy Sumner (happily immersed in a good marriage) advises: We are dependent beings; and while the smallest traces of virtuous sensibility remain, we must feel the force of that dependency in a greater or lesser degree. No female, whose mind is uncorrupted, can be indifferent to reputation. It is an inestimable jewel, the loss of which can never be repaired. While retained it affords conscious peace to our minds, and insures the esteem and respect of all around us (Foster & Locke 2009: 132).”

While Austen was beginning to draft her first novels in epistolary form, Columbia subverted her former mother country England with a natural beauty rather than the more flamboyant beauty established in the European courts. Industry was depicted as the feminine ideal in various religious, social, and political messages in order to develop Columbia’s character. While the United States won economic independence, America remained culturally dependent on England until the conclusion of War of 1812. Cosmopolitan Americans continued to read British books, order British products, and emulate English models of metropolitan behavior. Teaching literacy to the working class children spread throughout American communities shortly after it spread through British communities and expanded markets for literature.


Bradsher, Earl L. Mathew Carey, editor, author, and publisher: A Study in American Literary Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1912.

Foster, Hannah Webster, and Jane E. Locke. The Coquette: the history of Eliza Wharton, a novel founded on fact by a lady of Massachusetts. [Charleston, N.C.]: BiblioBazaar, 2009.

Green, James N. Mathew Carey, Publisher and Patriot. Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1985.

Leary, Lewis. The book-peddling parson: An account of the life and works of Mason Locke Weems, patriot, pitchman, author, and purveyor of morality to the citizenry of the early United States of America. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1984.

Reinier, Jacqueline S. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775-1850. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. Rockville MD.: Serenity Publishers, 2009.

Diolog[ue]s and Conversations

September 18, 2014

Emma (1814) was the only work Jane Austen (1775-1817) to be published in the United States during her lifetime. Austen’s romantic fiction remains more popular in the United States than the work of gritty bestselling American female authors of the same era including Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840). Austen merged several female literary genres including the fable, the dialogue, and epistolary fiction to create conversations that women could emulate. The semantics of conversation in the context of Austen’s work refers to “behavior; manner of acting in common life (Johnson 1785, 2: CON).” American publishers did not embrace Austen’s work until the 1830s, and the choice of Emma as her introduction to American readers creates a curious subtext of changing women’s roles that came with the emerging American nationalism between 1790 and 1820. Sensibilities of disenchantment run throughout Austen’s plots creating adult exemplum without fairies. The enduring American fascination with Austen’s character, as well as the authoress herself, has lingered with the excitement of a meeting between two cousins long-separated by a family dispute; it reveals an inclination of American readers to read about domestic conflicts in the private sphere abroad rather than public conflicts mirrored in the familial sphere at home in the United States.

Women were generally self-taught and garnered intellectual access to male-dominated fields through the genre of the dialogue or conversation. The dialogue provided a non-threatening literary mechanism so women could read about science without drawing attention. Austen would have been familiar with Sarah Fielding (1710-1768), the younger sister of novelist Henry Fielding, who wrote the first full-length novel for adolescent girls The Governess, or, The Little Female Academy (1749), which was noted for its innovative adaptation of John Locke’s educational theories. The Governess utilized literary devices innovated by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) but it lacked plot complexities found in novels written for adults. Its frame story centered on the daily activities in a boarding school for adolescent girls – it presented a familiar conversation going on between students and their teacher and among each other.

British editions of The Governess could be found in affluent colonial households and the first American edition was published in Philadelphia in 1791. Its lessons would have been familiar to American girls, but culturally and economically a great divide existed. The vast majority of American girls would have little need to attend to a “female academy” unless their families were affluent enough to pay for finishing schools, they would have been modestly educated at home by mothers using primers that might use fables to inculcate very distinct behavior. Fables and fairy tales in Fielding’s story were repeated as mnemonic devises built upon themes of how passion, lying, and cunning adversely affected a girl’s chances for happiness (Fielding 1968: 280). Fielding employed neither “high-sounding Language, nor the supernatural Contrivances” to tell stories, suggesting to readers that great care be taken not to be “carried away, by these high-flown Things, from that Simplicity of Taste and Manners which is my chief Study to inculcate (Fielding 1968: 166).”

Austen’s characters, like Fielding’s, were seldom elegant, but she resolved plotlines with the moral precision characteristic of didactic fairy tales. Austen’s greatness came from embedding themes utilized by Sarah and Henry Fielding in characters that were placed in conversations familiar to readers in the growing middle-class in an industrializing British society. At a time when every girl had little chance for social advancement beyond her choice in marriage partner, Austen mastered a realistic fairy tale where fantasy was spun into reality transposing ordinary into extraordinary. Austen promoted the notion that a girl’s indigenous goodness in any circumstance would bring goodness into her life, and her success in asserting this logic was that she wrote about conversations that were very familiar to her. Austen would later advise her niece Anna Austen Lefroy, an aspiring novelist; against including desultory conversations in her stories, “You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath… there you will be quite at home (Austen 2003: 101).”


Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s letters. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, 2003.

Fielding, Sarah. The Governess, or, Little Female Academy. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Johnson, Samuel. A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. London: J. F. and C. Rivington, l. Davis, T. Payne and Son, T. Longman, B. Law [and 21 others in London], 1785.