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One of the earliest American novelists, Hannah Webster Foster wrote two books of note. Her epistolary novel, The Coquette; or The History of Eliza Wharton (1797), was one of the first of its kind in America, and is considered perhaps the finest sentimental novel of the early national period. Foster s other novel, The Boarding School; Or Lessons of a Preceptress to her Pupils (1798), was one of the first fictional accounts of education in the United states. By the twentieth century, Foster was considered a major spokesperson for greater female liberty in early American writing because of the content and spirit of her two works.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised in Massachusetts
Foster was born Hannah Webster on September 10, 1758, in Salisbury, Massachusetts. she was the daughter of Grant Webster, a merchant in Boston of some social standing, and his wife, Hannah Wainwright Webster. There is little of substance known about her childhood and education. Her mother died in 1762, and Foster was sent to a boarding school to receive her education. Also, as a girl and young woman, she was locally known for her cleverness and beauty.
By the early 1770s, Webster was living in Boston, and in the 1780s, she began publishing short political pieces in local newspapers. These articles attracted the attention of Reverend John Foster, a popular minister who was a graduate of Dartmouth College, lived in Brighton, Massachusetts, and was the pastor of the First Church there. The couple married in April 1785, and she moved into his parish. There, Foster became a leader in social and literary activities, and had six children with her husband between 1786 and 1796. Soon after her marriage and the birth of her first child, Foster also became an author.
In 1797, Foster published The Coquette; or The History of Eliza Wharton, one of the earliest epistolary novels—in which the story is told through a series of letters—in the United States. An immediate success and best seller, it was based on a well-known story of the time period about Elizabeth Whitman. This well-educated thirty-seven-year-old unmarried woman from a prominent Connecticut family died in childbirth at an inn in 1789. In the novel, Wharton had become pregnant by Sanford (based on Pierrepont Edwards), her lover and perhaps husband, if they did secretly marry as the novel hinted. John Foster was distantly related by marriage to Whitmans’ father, and it is believed that Foster probably knew most of the facts and rumors about the Whitman case.
Foster offered a sympathetic take on Whitman’s story, emphasizing how American society of the time period circumscribed women’s lives. She also claimed that the novel’s worth arose from its didactic or educational value—a popular justification for novels in the early republic—but it was also read for its details of seduction and betrayal. Some critics derided Foster for using her imagination and not adhering to the facts of the story, including identifying Whitman’s unknown seducer. Like other novels published in the new United States, The Coquette raised important questions about the nature of the new country, including the role of women and if their freedoms should be restricted. The American Revolution, which saw the United States form its own country after breaking away as colonies of Great Britain, and the nation-making that followed opened up avenues for women as they participated in debates over the shape of the new nation and women’s role within it.
Question of Authorship
Because Foster’s name was not on The Coquette, there was also some question of the author’s true identity during her lifetime and in the decades after. It was merely signed ”A Lady of Massachusetts” during its original printings as well as during its peak of popularity, from 1824 to 1828. Indeed, Foster’s name did not appear on the novel until the 1866 edition. The Coquette remained popular throughout the nineteenth century.
Educating About Education
In 1798, Foster published her only other novel, The Boarding School; Or Lessons of a Preceptress to her Pupils. Also published anonymously, the work takes the form of a series of lectures to students from a preceptress (a female teacher), while presenting ideas about female education. The teacher, Mrs. Williams, educates at a very select boarding school where only seven students are admitted at a time. She lectures on such subjects as temper and manners, dress, politeness, reading, and filial and fraternal affection.
Foster counsels against reading novels—except those which teach moral improvement—and discourages romantic ideas about love and marriage. The Boarding School was not popular at the time, though the topic was. Many early American novels emphasized better education for young women as a way to empower them to make decisions that would lead them away from damnation and toward morality. Plot lines of novels in the time period often emphasized the idea that if women received adequate education, they would be able to guard themselves against the advances of immoral men.
Contributed to a Journal
While Foster primarily focused on her family after the publication of The Boarding School and did not write any other published novels, she did contribute anonymously to The Monthly Anthology or Magazine of Polite Literature, a Federalist journal. After Foster’s husband died, she moved to Montreal, Canada, where two of her daughters—Elizabeth Lanesford Cushing and Harriet Vaughan Cheney—lived and wrote essays and magazine articles. She died on April 17, 1840, in Montreal, in the home of Elizabeth Cushing, the wife of Dr. Frederick Cushing. Foster was eighty-one years old.
Works in Literary Context
While both of her novels were considered sentimental, Foster was addressing common themes, including the plight of young women living in a conservative American society. She chronicled the changing values of the new country in The Coquette and The Boarding School, including those related to young women, their marriage prospects, and their sexuality. Foster also addressed some of the fundamental gender and political issues of the 1790s, especially in The Coquette. In addition, both novels were written not primarily as straightforward narratives but at least partially as epistolary novels.
In both of her novels, Foster includes ideas about social changes that she believed would benefit women of all ages. The Coquette focuses on social change through the character of Eliza Wharton. Though the novel was considered sentimental fiction, Wharton is not a fainting, stereotypical sentimental heroine, but a rebel. She tries to define herself against the limitations society imposed upon late-eighteenth-century women, as she tried to remain true to her heart while remaining a respected member of the established social order. Forced to choose between two suitors—Sanford and Reverend Boyer—she essentially wants neither, and is later rejected by both. Her relationship with the married Sanford, when she is in her late thirties and a spinster, is an act of calculated self-destruction rather than coquetry. In The Boarding School, Foster advocates better female education. The novel also castigates the double sexual standard, insisting that a girl once seduced is not necessarily a “bad” woman and should not be ostracized by her society. Foster also insists that men be held much more accountable for their sexual behavior and transgressions and be made to share equally the burden of their illicit actions.
Both of Foster’s works can be considered examples of epistolary novels. An epistolary novel is told through the medium of letters written by one or more of the characters. In The Coquette, Foster uses the epistolary mode, a powerful means of characterization, creating personal levels of diction that vary among the characters who seem to be writing from their souls. Eliza Wharton’s letters, for example, are especially revealing of her changes in mood and temper. Because the letters are written by multiple characters, her multiple-point-of-view technique allows the main correspondents to describe and comment on a single event from two or even three different angles. These partly overlapping accounts together form a double- or even triple-layered story. The Boarding School is a cross between an epistolary novel and a conduct book. It essentially lacks plot, but is a series of thinly disguised lectures on female conduct and virtue, followed by a series of letters gleaned from the correspondence between Mrs. Williams, the teacher, and some of her former students. The lectures are a series of moral vignettes on conventional conduct-book topics, while the letters attempt to create a narrative for the novel.
Works in Critical Context
While The Boarding School was not embraced when it was originally published, The Coquette was popular from its initial printing and has remained in print into the twenty-first century. Modern critics have lauded both books for revealing much about late-eighteenth-century attitudes towards women as well as Foster’s own beliefs about how society unduly restricted, if not failed, them. In both works, reviewers have noted, the author proves herself to be an important spokeswoman for changing social values.
The Coquette; or The History of Eliza Wharton
Critics consider The Coquette one of the best examples of the sentimental novel published in the early United States. Psychologically astute, well plotted, and carefully written, reviewers have noted that the novel sensitively portrays the life and death of Whitman. In its depiction of an intelligent and strong-willed heroine, the novel is believed to transcend many of the conventions of its time and place. Originally read as a seduction novel in the vein of the novels of Samuel Richardson, it is now considered one of the key texts of early American literature. It is particularly appreciated for the intelligent and artistically convincing ways in which it reexamines familiar dichotomies such as personal integrity versus social responsibility, personal versus universal freedom, and passion versus reason.
Modern critics also laud Foster’s handling of epistolary style in the novel, noting how she employs letters to present multiple points of view, and how she uses written versus spoken language to distinguish between levels of intimacy and formality in the communication between characters in the novel. In Essays in Literature, Dorothy Z. Baker noted:
The Coquette is considered a tragic novel in that it depicts the seduction and fall of a young woman, and the reader can track the tragic disintegration of Eliza Wharton against her flagging commitment to precision and clarity in her language, her mode of self-expression. However, Foster’s emphasis on the value of language alerts the reader to another movement in the novel . . . the voice of her society is awakened to its compromised public voice regarding virtue, honor, and friendship.
The Boarding School; Or Lessons of a Preceptress to her Pupils
While critics have lavished praise on The Coquette since it was put in print, The Boarding School was not the best seller or popular success that its predecessor was. Early reviewers and readers were not impressed by Foster’s plain and pragmatic critique of conventional domestic gender relations. Writing in 1801, a reviewer in The American Review and Literary Journal reproached Foster for having failed to at least provide a good model for letter writing and argued that her moral lessons were not original. The reviewer concluded:
In these days, when so many books of questionable utility are published, it may be thought some commendation to say of the present volume, that if it is not calculated to do much good, it will do little harm, unless to the bookseller.
Modern critics have noted that The Boarding School was didactic and prosaic, lacking in art and ingenuity. They also point out that the letters in the novel lack the narrative unity and epistolary dynamics that Foster successfully employed in The Coquette. Despite the lack of critical kudos for the novel, modern critics have lauded Foster for advocating changes to social values to benefit young women. Some such critics have noted that if the novel is read not as novel but as a guide to society life for middle-class women, The Boarding School offers the contemporary reader fascinating sociological insight into the daily life of the average American woman at the end of the eighteenth century.
- Richards, Jeffrey H. ”The Politics of Seduction: Theater, Sexuality, and National Virtue in the Novels of Hannah Foster.” In Essays in Performance and History, edited by Della Pollock. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998, pp. 238-257.
- Baker, Dorothy Z. ”’Detested be the epithet!’: Definition, Maxim, and the Language of the Social Dicta in Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette.” Essays in Literature (September 1996): 58.
- Bontatibus, Donna. ”Foster’s The Coquette.” The Explicator (Summer 2000): 188.
- Brown, Gillian. ”Consent, Coquetry, and Consequences.” American Literary History (1997): 625-652.
- Korobkin, Laura H. ”’Can Your Volatile Daughter Ever Acquire Your Wisdom?’ Luxury and False Ideals in The Coquette.” Early American Literature (Winter 2006): 79.
- Review of The Boarding School; Or Lessons of a Preceptress to her Pupils. The American Review and Literature Journal (1801).
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