American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE HISTORY OF CONSTANTIUS AND PULCHERA, OR, CONSTANCY REWARDED (1801). Anonymously authored, The History of Constantius and Pulchera is a forty-six page sea romance. The story opens in Philadelphia with sixteen-year-old Pulchera, daughter of a successful merchant, locked in her bedroom. She is due to set sail for France with Monsieur LeMonte, son of a French nobleman and the man her father is forcing her to marry. Her true love, Constantius, has been abducted and reportedly killed by British seamen while attempting to rescue her from being forced to follow her father’s will. All hope of rescue exhausted, Pulchera embarks on her voyage with LeMonte.

The sea functions, as it does in ancient Greek romances, as an obstacle to the lovers’ union. A few weeks into the voyage, Pulchera and LeMonte’s ship is overtaken by a British warship. Taken aboard the latter, Pulchera discovers that Constantius is also a passenger, alive and well. A storm destroys the warship, and from here on the couple must endure shipwrecks* and separations.

The larger part of the narrative focuses, however, on Pulchera. Washed up alone on a beach, she is rescued by an American privateer, forced to pretend she is a sailor by the name of Valorus when again captured by the British, and once more shipwrecked. Pulchera and her fellow sailors struggle to survive a winter in a frozen wilderness before they are finally picked up in the spring by a ship bound for Great Britain. She travels to France, where, having withstood the forces of patriarchal control, British and French imperialism, and nature, she is reunited with Constantius. Monsieur LeMonte releases her from her engagement; Constantius and Pulchera sail for America, where her father, repentant, gives his blessing. They marry and, one assumes, live happily ever after.

As Thomas Philbrick commented in James Fenimore Cooper* and the Development of American Sea Fiction (1961), Constantius and Pulchera is “[t]he earliest American example of the extensive use of nautical elements in prose fiction. ... But in spite of all this prolonged and violent nautical action, the author gives almost no sense of the ship, the sailor, or the sea” (29-30).

Ellen Gardiner