Last reviewed: June 2018
English-born American novelist, playwright, and educator
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England
March 2, 1824
Susanna Haswell Rowson (ROWZ-uhn), a prolific author and educator, lived during the years of the early American republic. She was the daughter of Susanna Musgrave Haswell, who died giving birth, and of William Haswell, whose family had lived in Portsmouth since the early 1600s. Her father, a British naval lieutenant, left his daughter under a nurse’s care when he was sent to Massachusetts in 1763. William Haswell met and married Rachel Woodward, whose father was a successful merchant living in Hull on the Nantasket peninsula. In 1766 Haswell returned to England to bring Susanna back to Massachusetts, but the return voyage on the sailing brig proved dangerous. The ship’s provisions ran out when it navigated off course because of storms and flat winds. When the brig finally entered Boston Harbor, the wind, ice, and snow created treacherous conditions so that young Rowson was tied and lowered down the side of the ship. These dramatic events influenced her to include perilous sea adventures endured by characters in the novels Mary: Or, The Test of Honour, Rebecca, and Trials of the Human Heart. Portrait of Susanna Rowson.
Portrait of Susanna Rowson.
During the years in Hull, Rowson began her self-education by reading historical, geographical, and literary works from her father’s small library. William Haswell’s loyalty to England resulted in confiscation of his property. The family was sent back to England in 1778, where Rowson and her father attended numerous theatrical performances. This began her long interest in writing and performing plays. By age sixteen, Rowson was the chief financial support for her family. Working as a governess, she developed her talents and skills in teaching and conversing, in singing, in needlework, and in knowledge of history, geography, and literature. Teaching concerned Rowson throughout her life, as both her fiction and nonfiction included social and moral lessons for readers, particularly young women readers.
Three key events in Rowson’s life occurred in 1786, the first when William Haswell and other loyalists petitioned claims for confiscated property and for imprisonment. He received a settlement and a pension, which enabled the family to be financially independent again. Rowson then met and married William Rowson, a hardware merchant who played trumpet, sang, and performed on stage. The marriage proved difficult throughout Rowson’s life because of William’s excessive drinking and irresponsible behavior. In Sarah: Or, The Exemplary Wife, Rowson included pessimistic comments on marriage, while supporting the sanctity of the marriage vow. The third event was the publication of her first novel, Victoria, written in the epistolary form common in eighteenth-century novels. Its theme of the dire consequences of disobedience to parents occurred throughout Rowson’s later works.
During the next seven years, husband and wife joined several theater companies, and Rowson wrote A Trip to Parnassus, a thirty-page poem describing actors and writers approaching Apollo’s throne; The Inquisitor, the picaresque adventures of a man whose magic ring enabled him to witness the lives of others; Mary: Or, The Test of Honour, published anonymously and intended for lower-middle-class women; Mentoria, an experiment in genre; Charlotte Temple, her most enduring work, published in more than two hundred editions; and Rebecca, a quasi-autobiographical work. She also wrote numerous songs and performed in a variety of stage roles, ranging from a dancing sailor to the nurse in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595–96).
From 1792 to 1793, Rowson and her husband were part of a British theater company brought to the United States by Thomas Wignell to perform at the Philadelphia New Theater. The theater opening was postponed for a year because of the yellow fever epidemic, but during this time, Rowson wrote the play Slaves in Algiers, which reflected public interest in Barbary pirate attacks on American ships. The play’s themes of tyranny in general, but tyranny of men over women in particular, foreshadowed nineteenth-century concerns with abolitionism and with women’s rights. Because of Rowson’s preoccupation with the education and rights of women, she was attacked as a biased female in a pamphlet by William Cobbett.
Two years later, Rowson and her husband moved to Boston to join the Boston Federal Street Theater, and the following year Americans in England was published. After Rowson’s final stage appearance, she opened her first school, the Young Ladies’ Academy, in Boston. During her years as an educator, she introduced music, painting, drawing, embroidery, and French as additions to curricula in literature, history, and geography. She wrote and published several textbooks, including An Abridgment of Universal Geography, a 256-page text of geographical information including instruction in navigational principles, and Youth’s First Steps in Geography, a succinct text in question-and-answer format. Both of these works clearly showed Rowson’s belief that all young people benefited from historical and geographical knowledge. A Present for Young Ladies, a collection of recitations, presented historical sketches of courageous women, particularly those who had endured physical hardships. These stories provided models of self-reliant women for young readers.
Rowson’s last years were plagued with debts incurred by William. Her ill health prevented her from paying off these debts because she had to retire from school duties. Two years before her death, she wrote her last textbook, Biblical Dialogues, which combined some material from ancient history and the history of the medieval church with a retelling of the main stories from the Old and New Testaments. This text reflected Rowson’s concern with a rational approach to religion, in her case the Protestant religion.
Rowson wrote didactic fiction and nonfiction focusing on political and democratic issues important in the early United States. Her works also expressed her preoccupation with the importance of education for women to live successfully in both the domestic and public spheres.