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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

The Coquette 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.

Lucy M. Freibert
University of Louisville

In the Heath Anthology
The Coquette; or, the History of Eliza Wharton
      Letter I: "To Miss Lucy Freeman" (1797)
      Letter II: "To the Same" (1797)
      Letter III: "To the Same" (1797)
      Letter IV: "To Mr. Selby" (1797)
      Letter LXV: "To Mr. Charles Deighton" (1797)
      Letter LXVIII: "To Mrs. M. Wharton" (1797)
      Letter LXXI: "To Mrs. Lucy Summer" (1797)
      Letter LXXII: "To Mr. Charles Deighton" (1797)
      Letter LXXIII: "To Miss Julia Granby" (1797)
      Letter LXXIV: "To Mrs. M. Wharton" (1797)
      Letter V: "To Miss Lucy Freeman" (1797)
      Letter VI: "To the Same" (1797)
      Letter VIII: "To Mr. Charles Deighton" (1797)
      Letter XI: "To Mr. Charles Deighton" (1797)
      Letter XII: "To Miss Lucy Freeman" (1797)
      Letter XIII: "To Miss Eliza Wharton" (1797)
      Letter XVIII: "To Mr. Charles Deighton" (1797)

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A Celebration of Women Writers
  A text of Foster's The Coquette.

Early American Authors
  Links to two brief biographies digitized and published on the web by the UVA Library.

Perspectives in American Literature
  Selected bibliography of secondary resources and a complete list of primary materials.

Secondary Sources