Susanna Rowson Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 1600’s. 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.

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...

(The entire section is 947 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Susanna Haswell Rowson’s remarkably full, active life began in Portsmouth, England, where she was born in 1762. Her mother died shortly after, and Rowson’s first visit to America occurred when her father settled and married in Massachusetts and, in 1767, brought his daughter to join him, his new wife, and his three stepsons. Some of Rowson’s experiences during this visit, including a shipwreck, appear later in Rebecca. By 1778, she was back in England, her father’s apparently doubtful loyalty having led the fledgling American government first to confiscate his property and intern his family and him and then return them to England.

Rowson’s initiative and independence soon revealed themselves. By the time she was in her twenties, she had secured a position as governess in the family of the duchess of Devonshire, beginning a life of service through teaching and writing; she also helped her father gain a pension, and she began publishing her fiction and poetry.

Rowson was twenty-four years old when her first novel, Victoria, appeared in London in 1786. The work’s subtitle, a sign of her aims and interests as a novelist, declared that Victoria was “calculated to improve the morals of the female sex, by impressing them with a just sense of the merits of filial piety.” Later in 1786 she married William Rowson, and though he was apparently an ineffectual person, they shared an interest in music and theater...

(The entire section is 542 words.)