Charlotte Temple was Susanna Rowson's second novel, and her first to receive financial success. The novel is a didactic melodrama, intended to teach young women how to behave honorably and avoid falling in with unsavory people, whether they be men set on seducing innocent girls, or fallen women looking to corrupt their younger counterparts.
The novel is significantly influenced by Rowson's background in theatre; although melodramatic novels were still relatively new in 1791, theatrical melodrama had already spawned several smash hits and was a very fashionable genre (Douglas, xvi). As Rowson frequently mentions in Charlotte Temple, she expected middle-class girls to be the main readership of the book. However, she frequently slips and refers instead to "sober matron[s]" and "Sir[s]" who might be reading the book, suggesting that she anticipated a much wider audience. If this were the case, she would have been sorely disappointed by the book's release in England in 1791. It did not sell well and received bad to mediocre reviews.
The book's 1794 release in America earned a radically different reception. The book held sales records for fiction for over 50 years, and was popular among men and women of all classes. Some thought Charlotte's story was true, and believed she was buried in the Trinity churchyard in New York, where there was a grave for one Charlotte Stanley. The inscription on the headstone was later changed to Charlotte Temple, and for many decades, this stone received more flowers and visitors than the nearby one of Alexander Hamilton.