June 2, 2011

Brown: felicity unspeakable!

On June 2, 1798, the Weekly Magazine printed the last of Charles Brockden Brown's so-called "Henrietta Letters" (others remained unpublished in Brown's lifetime). The magazine's editor printed the letters as a true correspondence between its author and "Henrietta G." Though critics soon deemed the letters were fiction, their veracity remains unclear. If real, evidence suggests Brown's correspondent was Henrietta Chew, the daughter of prominent Philadelphia lawyer/judge Benjamin Chew. Yet, even if based on a true relationship, the interchanges almost certainly never truly occurred.

Featuring a persona Brown will refer to as "Rhapsodist," the letters are romantically-charged. He tells Henrietta that he speaks from the heart and imagines himself joining her, otherwise alone, in her bedroom: "Would my presence profane the chamber? I yet feel the warmth of her embraces. They have made me miserable. To what a precipice have they conducted me? ...Encircled by those arms and leaning on that bosom — felicity unspeakable!" He then pleads, "Be my guide, my genius, my spouse." In one of Henrietta's responses, she writes, "Thou saucy and impetuous creature! Dost thou think thou has a property in my lips or that I will suffer such perplexing and incessant interruption from thy kisses? In good sooth I will act with more discretion for the future." If that isn't sexually suggestive enough, in another letter, "C.B.B." (as his character is signed) imagines himself hiding in her closet and he sees her take off her night dress. As he observes her naked body:

How suitably adapted to the purpose of love! to shroud without obscuring your resplendent beauties, to shade without concealing that angelic bosom. Could my eyes be otherwise than intoxicated by the sight[?] ...What effect... must all these circumstances have unavoidably produced on a rambling and unsanctified imagination like mine? Was it possible for my glance to have been less passionate and eager[?]

Brown would have been 16 years old when he met the slightly older Henrietta Chew; the letters were published when he was 28. By the end of the year, his writing style had matured and he published his novel Wieland, or the Transformation, one of the earliest Gothic novels in the United States.

*For information in this post, I turned to Peter Kafer's Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic (2004).

1 comment:

  1. Rob, you saucy boy! Reading American Lit for all the randy bits?