Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rowson, Susanna

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ROWSON, SUSANNA (1762–1824), novelist and actress, born at Portsmouth in 1762, was only daughter of Lieutenant William Haswell, of the British navy (d. 1805), and his wife, Susanna (Musgrave), who died at the birth of her daughter. Having settled in New England, Haswell returned in 1766 to conduct his daughter to his home on the promontory of Nantasket beach, Massachusetts. Haswell soon married a second wife, Rachel, daughter of Ebenezer Woodward, by whom he had three sons.

Susanna showed a fondness for books, and at an early age read Dryden's Virgil, Pope's Homer, Shakespeare, and Spenser. She attracted the attention of James Otis, the great American lawyer and statesman, who called her his little scholar, and instilled in her democratic principles. In consequence of the American war of independence, Haswell's property was confiscated, and for a while he and his family were prisoners of war. In 1778 they returned to England. Susanna turned governess until her marriage in 1786 to William Rowson, a hardware merchant and trumpeter in the royal horse guards. In the same year Mrs. Rowson published by subscription ‘Victoria,’ a tale in two volumes. The characters were drawn from real life. Among the subscribers was Mrs. Siddons. The book was dedicated to the Duchess of Devonshire, who introduced Mrs. Rowson to the Prince of Wales. The prince bestowed a pension on her father. In 1788 came out at London ‘The Inquisitor, or Invisible Rambler,’ a novel in three volumes, modelled on Sterne. It was reissued at Philadelphia in 1794. Mrs. Rowson's most notable book, ‘Charlotte Temple, or a Tale of Truth,’ was published at London in 1790. It had a great success, twenty-five thousand copies being sold in a few years. It was republished at Philadelphia, Concord, and New York, and in 1835 was translated into German. In America this melodramatic story, based, it is said, on fact, was long a popular classic. Soon after its publication Rowson became bankrupt, and his wife, while still engaged in literature, turned to the stage to increase her means of livelihood. In 1792–3, with her husband and her husband's sister, she appeared at Edinburgh. In 1793 they migrated to the United States, and between that year and 1797 Mrs. Rowson acted at Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. In the last city she closed her theatrical career, at the Federal Street Theatre, when she played in a comedy of her own composition, ‘Americans in England.’ It was acted three times, and well received. The printed book is rare. Among Mrs. Rowson's parts were Lady Sneerwell in the ‘School for Scandal’ and Dame Quickly in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor.’

On leaving the stage in 1797, Mrs. Rowson opened a school for girls at Boston. From 1802 to 1805 she also edited the Boston ‘Weekly Magazine,’ and was for many years a contributor to other periodicals. The school proved successful and was continued until 1822, when failing health made retirement necessary. Mrs. Rowson died at Boston on 2 March 1824, and was buried in the family vault of her friend, Gotheb Graupner, at St. Matthew's Church, South Boston. Her husband survived her.

Despite the popularity of Mrs. Rowson's ‘Charlotte Temple,’ her literary work possessed few of the elements essential to a permanent reputation. Cobbett assailed her books with coarse vehemence in ‘A Kick for a Bite.’ Verse more fluent than strong is scattered through her works, and she is the author of one popular song, ‘America, Commerce, and Freedom.’ It figures in a volume of her miscellaneous poems published at Boston in 1804. A portrait of Mrs. Rowson, engraved by H. W. Smith, appears as a frontispiece to Nason's ‘Memoir.’

Mrs. Rowson published many schoolbooks. Her other works include:

  1. ‘Mentoria, or the Young Ladies' Friend,’ 1791, 1794 (Philadelphia).
  2. ‘Rebecca, or the Fille de Chambre,’ 1792, an autobiographical novel, of which a revised edition came out in 1814.
  3. ‘The Volunteers,’ a farce founded on the whisky insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, 1793.
  4. ‘The Slaves in Algiers,’ an opera, 1794.
  5. ‘The Female Patriot,’ a farce, 1794.
  6. ‘Trials of the Human Heart,’ 4 vols. 1795.
  7. ‘The Standard of Liberty, a Poetical Address to the Armies of the United States,’ 1795.
  8. ‘Reuben and Rachel, or Tales of Old Times,’ 2 vols. 1798.
  9. ‘Sarah, or the Exemplary Wife,’ 1802. After her death in 1828 was published ‘Charlotte's Daughter, or the Three Orphans,’ a sequel to ‘Charlotte Temple,’ with a memoir by Samuel L. Knapp.

[Elias Nason's Memoir (Albany, 1870) is the main authority; cf. Appleton's Encyclopædia of American Biography, v. 393; Allibone's Dict. ii. 1885.]

E. L.