Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840)
Contributing Editor: Lucy M. Freibert
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Teaching Hannah Foster's The Coquette raises four issues: (1) the lack of name recognition of both author and work, (2) the questioning of quality, as the work has previously been excluded from the canon, (3) twentieth-century prejudice against didacticism associated with the "sentimental" tradition to which the seduction novel belongs, and (4) the effort required on the student's part to extract the plot from the epistolary structure.
Strategies for dealing with these issues include the following: (1) Explain the lack of recognition by pointing out that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, publishers, influenced by academics and critics, discontinued the publication of works by women, who had been extremely popular in the earlier part of the century. (2) Select several interactive letters from The Coquette, and ask a group of articulate students to present them to the class in a "readers theatre" format. For the same session, ask the other students to do a close reading of the letters in order to determine how Foster makes the characters believable and interesting to twentieth-century readers by delineating sex roles and including customs, manners, and conventions. This combination of approaches will enable the students to recognize Foster's artistry. (3) In a subsequent class, point out how Foster's use of distinctive voices representing various perspectives eliminates didacticism and sharpens her feminist focus. Especially helpful in this regard is Sharon M. Harris's "Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette: Critiquing Franklin's America" in Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995). (4) Small group discussions enable students to clarify questions about the plot structure.
The issue students bring up most frequently is the dependence of men in these novels on the money they would acquire by marriage to women of means. The question asked by both male and female students is: Why didn't Sanford expect to have a regular job? A question frequently asked by young men is: Why didn't Eliza want to marry? Young women want to know: Why didn't Eliza get herself a job? These questions are asked by people from middle- and lower-middle-class families. Students in other economic circumstances might have very different queries.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Teaching Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797) within the context of the National Period offers students opportunities to acquire historical, cultural, and literary insights. As Walter P. Wenska, Jr., points out in " The Coquette and the American Dream of Freedom" (Early American Literature 12.3 [Winter 1977-78]: 243-55), The Coquette raises "the question of freedom, its meaning and its limits, in a new land newly dedicated to births of new freedoms," a theme treated subsequently by many American writers. Wenska sees Eliza Wharton as a rebel who seeks a freedom not typically allotted to her sex, and he shows how she consistently rejects the advice of friends who encourage her to settle into the "modest freedom" of marriage.
Like Wenska, Cathy N. Davidson in Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) recognizes The Coquette as much more than "simply an allegory of seduction." Davidson reads it as "less a story of the wages of sin than a study of the wages of marriage" and as "a dialogical discourse in which the reader was also invited to participate if only vicariously." Davidson's analysis of The Coquette is indispensable reading for anyone who would teach the novel seriously, as are Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's "Domesticating 'Virtue': Coquettes and Revolutionaries in Young America" (Literature and the Body, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), Kristie Hamilton's "An Assault on the Will: Republican Virtue and the City in Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette" (Early American Literature 14, 1989), John Paul Tassoni's "'I can step out of myself a little': Feminine Virtue and Female Friendship in Hannah Foster's The Coquette," (Communication and Women's Friendships. Bowling Green: State University Popular Press, 1993), and Sharon M. Harris's "Hannah Foster's The Coquette: Critiquing Franklin's America," cited above. Harris argues cogently that Foster imagines alternative lifestyles for women, challenges "the 'truth' of patriarchal structures established to guide -- and to control -- women's lives, by satirizing the Franklinesque use of maxims . . ., [and] illuminates the political ideology of excluding women from citizenship and systems of power that is fostered in the social milieu."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The American novel had its origin in the seduction novel appropriated from the British sentimental tradition of Samuel Richardson and his followers. To make the sensational story of the "ruin" of an innocent girl palatable to readers steeped in Puritan thought, early novelists emphasized the factual and educative nature of their works. Alexander Cowie in The Rise of the American Novel (1948) says that didacticism was, in fact, a " sine qua non of the early novel."
Although the novel as genre had come into its own by the time Foster wrote The Coquette, authors continued to claim basis in fact in order to justify the publication of risqué materials. The Preceptress in Foster's The Boarding School explains the prevailing objections: "'Novels, are the favorite and the most dangerous kind of reading, now adopted by the generality of young ladies. . . . Their romantic pictures of love, beauty, and magnificence, fill the imagination with ideas which lead to impure desires, a vanity of exterior charms, and a fondness for show and dissipation, by no means consistent with that simplicity, modesty, and chastity, which should be the constant inmates of the female breast. . . .'"
While voicing opposition to the novel in general, Foster and other novelists characterized the reading of their own works, which were "founded on fact," as warnings, to keep young women from peril. As Lucy Sumner's last letter in The Coquette (LXIII) states: "From the melancholy story of Eliza Wharton, let the American fair learn to reject with disdain every insinuation derogatory to their true dignity and honor." In The Boarding School, a former student justifies reading Samuel Richardson's novels by claiming "so multifarious are his excellencies, that his faults appear but specks, which serve as foils to display his beauties to better advantage."
A very effective way of handling student inquiries as to who read The Coquette is to read to the class a passage from Elias Nason's biography of Susanna Rowson. Writing in 1870, Nason describes the readership of Rowson's best-selling novel, Charlotte Temple, with which The Coquette competed during the National Period, as follows:
"It has stolen its way alike into the study of the divine and into the workshop of the mechanic, into the parlor of the accomplished lady and the bed-chamber of her waiting maid, into the log-hut on the extreme border of modern civilization and into the forecastle of the whale ship on the lonely ocean. It has been read by the grey bearded professor after his "divine Plato"; by the beardless clerk after balancing his accounts at night, by the traveler waiting for the next conveyance at the village inn; by the school girl stealthfully in her seat at school."
Insofar as this description applies to Charlotte Temple, it likely applies to The Coquette.
It is much too early to say whether current interest in novels like The Coquette will be lasting or whether the novelty of discovering these earlier writers will wear off. It is exciting to the current generation of students that these books are now available.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Novels that invite comparison and contrast with The Coquette are William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789) and Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1794), with which it competed for favor through the early decades of the nineteenth century. Frank L. Mott discusses the popularity of these novels in Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1947).
All three works treat the seduction theme and claim to be based on fact. The British title of Charlotte Temple was Charlotte, A Tale of Truth (1791); the seduction possibly involved Colonel John Montrésor, a cousin of the author (Richard D. Birdsall, "Susanna Haswell Rowson," Notable American Women 3 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971]). The Power of Sympathy drew on the seduction of Frances Theodora Apthorp by her sister's husband, Perez Morton (William S. Kable, "Editor's Introduction," The Power of Sympathy [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969]); and The Coquette, on the seduction of Elizabeth Whitman of Hartford, Connecticut, by a person of disputed identity (Aaron Burr and Pierrepont Edwards, son of Jonathan Edwards, being among the "accused"). Extensive, yet inconclusive, discussion of the Elizabeth Whitman story appears in Jane E. Locke's "Historical Preface" to the 1855 edition of The Coquette (Boston: William P. Fetridge and Company, 1855), Caroline Dall's The Romance of the Association: or, One Last Glimpse of Charlotte Temple and Eliza Wharton (Cambridge: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1875), and Charles Knowles Bolton's The Elizabeth Whitman Mystery (Peabody, Mass.: Peabody Historical Society, 1912).
Significant differences separate The Coquette from The Power of Sympathy and Charlotte Temple. Characters in Charlotte Temple follow relatively stock patterns. Only the villainous Mademoiselle La Rue and Belcour display individuality. Charlotte, generally passive, succumbs easily to La Rue's temptations and threats, Montraville's persuasion, and Belcour's deceit. The characters in Brown's novel have interesting potential. Harriot, for example, displays strong powers of observation, and Ophelia speaks forcefully. But they employ the same voice as Rowson's narrator--the voice and style of the sentimental novel.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Students should be asked to consult the Oxford English Dictionary for the meanings of coquette and rake, paying special attention to the changes in meaning through time. They might also be asked to investigate the concept of dowry, noting what brought about the end of the practice of providing a dowry. Ask them to find out whether the epistolary form is used in novels today.
2. Paper topics may include the following:
argumentative --Eliza Wharton and Peter Sanford are/are not equally responsible for Eliza's death, or Eliza Wharton's fall was entirely her own fault.
analytic --a character study of Eliza Wharton using her letters alone, or a character study using only the letters of others.
research paper --compare The Coquette to a British epistolary seduction novel, focusing particularly on social issues.
research paper (nonliterary)--a study of property rights of men and women in eighteenth-century America.
Helpful sources have been provided above. Both students and teachers might find quick access to the beginnings of the American novel in the introduction, didactic, melodrama, and satire/humor sections of Hidden Hands: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1790-1870, edited by Lucy M. Freibert and Barbara A. White (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985).