How did I miss this article from the Times last December? It’s about one of my favorite lower Manahattan secrets — a place I like to take visitors and students while walking around downtown. In the mid nineteenth century, someone installed a stone in Trinity Church’s graveyard with the name “Charlotte Temple” on it. The name belonged to the heroine of one of America’s first bestselling novels, Charlotte, a Tale of Truth (or just plain Charlotte Temple, as it’s now widely known), by Susanna Rowson, published in England in 1791 and in Philadelphia in 1794, after Rowson had moved to America to work as an actress on the Philadelphia stage.
Set partially in New York, Charlotte Temple tells the story of a young British schoolgirl’s seduction by a British officer, who tricks her into sailing with him to America, where he’s bound for the Revolutionary War. Once they arrive, he abandons her and marries another. Charlotte gives birth and then dies, after spending time wandering New York City’s streets mid-winter, having been turned out of doors by a greedy landlady. Her father arrives too late, but does manage to rescue the baby, whom he takes with him back to England. We’re told in the novel’s closing pages that her seducer, Montraville, falls into a delirious fit out of guilt, “during which he raved incessantly for Charlotte: but a strong constitution, and the tender assiduities of [his wife] Julia, in time overcame the disorder. He recovered; but to the end of his life was subject to severe fits of melancholy, and while he remained at New-York frequently retired to the church-yard, where he would weep over the grave, and regret the untimely fate of the lovely Charlotte Temple.”
Sorry for the spoiler! But, really, this is a late-eighteenth-century seduction novel, which means you know the poor girl’s going to wind up dead in the end.
Like Montraville, plenty of New Yorkers and tourists visited the grave and wept — all the way into the twentieth century. The Times piece I missed at the end of last year reports that a church historian, with the help of a construction crew, actually raised the headstone last year in an attempt to find out if there were a family vault beneath. No such luck: just hard-packed earth. (The church’s blog has its own account.) Is there, as nineteenth-century legend attested, a single grave, then, if not a vault? Perhaps the grave of Charlotte Stanley, the supposed prototype for the story? We may never know. The church seems unlikely to undertake an actual dig.
As my guest editor’s introduction to the current issue of Common-place would suggest, I’m a sucker for tourist-destination-literary-heroine graves. (The issue of c-p also includes Barnard Prof. Lisa Gordis’s account of her pilrgimage with students to Charlotte’s grave, as well as UT-Austin Prof. Michael Winship’s take on the novel’s “bestseller” status.) Have you ever visited Charlotte’s grave? For those readers who don’t live in the city, you can do it virtually — and leave virtual flowers — at findagrave.com.
Many thanks to Kristen H., a long-time expert on Charlotte’s grave, who directed me to the Times piece and the Trinity blog during our discussion yesterday in my early American novel grad seminar. Thanks, too, to Pat B., who mentioned the findagrave site.