J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 09, 2018

“In a situation similar to the one described here”

In 1814 Susanna Rowson had her novel The Fille de Chambre republished in Boston, giving it the new title Rebecca. She added an introductory chapter and footnotes that highlighted the autobiographical aspects of the story because she, like every good fiction writer, had stolen from real life.

In the chapter relating Rebecca’s passage to America, Rowson’s notes make clear that she was the model not of the heroine but of a young girl along for the ride. Describing how provisions ran low while the ship was at sea, she wrote:
Mr. Seward had on board the ship with him, besides two fine boys, the one fourteen, the other twelve years old, a charming little girl scarcely seven. Mrs Seward had been dead some years, and the child was accompanied by her nurse. The chief anguish this faithful servant felt was in contemplating her little charge, and thinking how she was to be preserved; indeed, to such a height did her affection rise, that she voluntarily deprived herself of part of the very small portion allotted her, that she might lay it by against a time of more eminent necessity for this darling of her heart.
The footnote to that paragraph stated:
This was a fact, the dear woman who accompanied the author in her first voyage across the Atlantic actually lived, for many days, on half a biscuit a day, to reserve the other moiety [half] for her.
After describing a similar kindness from a seaman, the third-person narration breaks into this paean:
Exalted humanity, noble, disinterested sailor, may you ever experience from your fellow creatures the same benevolence that expands and elevates your own heart. May your days be many, and your prosperity equal to your deserts.
And as if that didn’t break the spell of the fictional world enough, a footnote added:
This apostrophe is the genuine emotion of gratitude, the author having, in a situation similar to the one described here, experienced relief bestowed in the same disinterested manner.
Rowson thus argued for the genuineness of her fiction—even if not all the details were accurate.

TOMORROW: The passage from fiction to nonfiction.

1 comment:

Don Carleton said...

Since the word "disinterested" is used in both of your Rowson quotes to describe a positive personal attribute, it's worth underlining that in this context it means to be free from motives of personal interest, a virtue of great importance to the founding generation.

These days, "disinterested" seems to be used more often to mean "uninterested"--acceptable usage per Merriam-Webster, rather to my pedantic surprise just now. Evidently the positive meaning Rowson and her contemporaries used the word to convey became current in "our" 18th century, appropriately enough, but is perhaps now being eclipsed by the other meaning, a development that may have contemporary political resonances of its own.