Hannah Webster Foster
Along with Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1794) and
William H. Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), Foster’s The
Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797) topped the American
best-seller lists of the 1790s. Frequently reprinted in the nineteenth century,
the novel has had several twentieth-century printings as well. The success of
her work did not bring Foster wide recognition, however; the book appeared anonymously,
as written by “A Lady of Massachusetts.” Not until 1866—twenty-six years after
her death—did Hannah Foster’s name appear on the title page.
Born in Salisbury,
Massachusetts, the eldest daughter of Hannah Wainwright and Grant Webster, a
prosperous merchant, Hannah Webster began life in comfortable surroundings. Her
mother died in 1762, and it is likely that Hannah Webster was then enrolled in
an academy for young women, somewhat like the one she later described in The
Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils (1798). The
wide range of historical and literary allusions included in her works reflects
an excellent education. By 1771 the young woman was living in Boston, where she
began writing political articles for local newspapers. Her publications
attracted the attention of John Foster, a graduate of Dartmouth, whom she
married on April 7, 1785. The couple lived in Brighton, Massachusetts, where
John Foster served as a pastor until his retirement in 1827.
Before she reached her
tenth year of marriage, Foster bore six children. A year after the birth of her
last child, she completed The Coquette, and the following year, The
Boarding School. Thereafter, she returned to newspaper writing and devoted
herself to encouraging young writers. When John Foster died in 1829, Foster
moved to Montreal to be with her daughters Harriet Vaughan Cheney and Eliza
Lanesford Cushing, both of whom were also writers.
follows the epistolary tradition first used by Samuel Richardson in his novel Pamela
(1740). The story of Eliza Wharton’s temptation, seduction, distress, and doom
is revealed in letters between friends and confidants. Eliza Wharton falls
victim to the rake, Peter Sanford, referred to as “a second Lovelace”—an
allusion to the seducer in Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa Harlowe
(1747–1748). Like the heroines of countless novels, Eliza dies in childbirth.
Yet unlike those countless novels, The Coquette offers characters torn
between love and their own worldly ambitions, between virtue and vice.
On another level, The
Coquette serves as a prototype for the American quest-for-freedom novel,
raising questions about the extent to which individuals can remain free in a
society. Eliza is a coquette, but she is also an intelligent, spirited young
woman unwilling to bury herself in a conventional marriage with a man (the Rev.
Boyer) whom she finds agreeable but immensely dull. She would gladly enter an
egalitarian marriage like that enjoyed by her friends the Richmans, but she
finds herself without such an opportunity. For Eliza, “Marriage is the tomb of
friendship. It appears to me a very selfish state” (Letter 12).
The letters in The
Coquette treat subjects ranging from friendship and marriage to economic
security and social status. They expose, according to Cathy N. Davidson, the
fundamental injustices of a patriarchal culture that places opportunities for
women within a limited domestic sphere. Given contemporary marriage laws
and restrictive mores, the novel illustrates the extent to which women and men
were constrained by social expectation. In this, the novel contrasts women’s
and men’s views of marriage.
Foster’s novel is
deeply embedded in the American experience. Her claim that The Coquette
was “founded on fact” was not merely a nod to the convention employed by early
novelists to justify lurid or sensational works. She based her story on the
experience, nearly a decade earlier, of her husband’s distant cousin Elizabeth
Whitman of Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of parents highly respected in
clerical, political, and social circles. After rejecting two ministerial
suitors, Whitman engaged in a clandestine affair that left her pregnant and
abandoned. Her story became public knowledge when the Salem Mercury
(July 29, 1788) reported that “a female stranger,” secluded at the Bell Tavern
in Danvers to await her husband’s arrival, had given birth to a stillborn child
and had subsequently died. Reporters and preachers cited Whitman’s story as “a
good moral lecture to young ladies.” Foster’s contemporaries had no difficulty
identifying the real-life counterparts of the “coquette” and her ministerial
associates, though the identity of her seducer remains subject to dispute.
Foster’s second work, The
Boarding School, does not fit easily into any literary category. The
subtitle, however, suggests a didactic commentary on female education. The
first portion of the work fulfills that expectation: a description of the
finishing school run by Mrs. Maria Williams, it includes exhortations on social
conduct, reading, and general preparations for survival. The second part,
containing letters from the students to the preceptress and to each other,
demonstrates the beneficial effects of Mrs. William’s instruction. In Foster’s
day, The Boarding School may have seemed the predictable work of a
minister’s wife. Today, it illuminates the gender conflicts underlying Foster’s
classic, The Coquette.