The big literary celebration this year will be the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth (Feb 7), but 2012 also marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the only novel by a little-known American author, Rebecca Rush. Her novel Kelroy was largely overlooked upon its publication due to the outbreak of the War of 1812, but it has since become recognized as one of the best novels of the period. Kelroy appeared during the same time that Jane Austen was penning her famous novels in England, and it is similarly considered a novel of manners. Both authors emphasize the dependence on matrimony if women are to have any economic security, but Rush paints a much darker picture of this reality, ironically showing a young America that was no more liberated for women than the aristocracies we had left behind: If a woman did not have wealth, youth, or drawing-room charm her options were severely limited.
At the center of Kelroy are the Hammonds – a newly widowed mother and her daughters Emily and Lucy who, upon the death of Mr. Hammond, suddenly find their high-living lifestyle in jeopardy. The calculating widow feels she is too old to stand a chance in the marriage market herself, so she hides from her daughters their financial problems (while proceeding ever further into debt) in order to keep up appearances in the hope that her daughters will attract wealthy suitors. Meanwhile, Emily has fallen in love with Edward Kelroy, who has also recently lost his father, but Mrs. Hammond forbids their marriage because of Kelroy’s financial difficulties stemming from his late father’s failed real-estate investments. Driven by a materialistic culture and personal greed, Mrs. Hammond becomes a truly reprehensible monster who will do anything to preserve her standing within her social circle. This book is filled with varied, complex characters and contorted, deceitful social situations that should be of interest to fans of Austen and other Regency novelists.
To avoid spoilers, readers might want to first read the novel, and only then return to Dana Nelson’s Introduction and Cathy Davidson’s Foreword which provide informative insights and historical context about the early years of our republic and our supposedly classless society.
Very little is known about the life of Rebecca Rush. For other novels by early American women writers, you might try The Coquette by Hannah W. Foster (1797) and Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson (1794).