What if women had never taken part in history? Would they still be acknowledged as equally important as men? Throughout the centuries, women have always been important for society. For instance, Brooks (2013) points out that during the American Revolution, women would take the role of a spy to take down the British empire or write in an attempt to encourage and empower others. As such, the significance of a woman can both be explicit and implicit depending on people’s views. When it comes to writing literary works, women tend to have different topics, subjects, and purposes than men. In this essay, I will be addressing several questions regarding a particular American woman writer, Hannah Webster Foster, along with her literary work entitled ‘The Coquette’.
The particular author of my choice is Hannah Webster Foster, who is an early American novelist of the Revolutionary era. Hannah was born in Salisbury, Massachusetts, United States, on September 10th, 1758, to a wealthy family: Grant Webster, a rich merchant, and his wife, Hannah Wainwright (Freibert, n.d.). After her mother died in 1762, she was sent to an academy for women. By 1771, she began writing political articles for the local Boston newspapers, and she then met Reverend John Foster, a graduate of Dartmouth, in 1785 and married him. As a result, they had six children while settling in Brighton, Massachusetts. She moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to live with her daughters, Harriet Vaughan Cheney and Eliza Lanesford Cushing, when John Foster died in 1829 (Freibert, n.d.). She died there at the age of 81 on April 17th, 1840. In total, she had written two novels throughout her lifetime, which are ‘The Coquette or The History of Eliza Wharton’ (1797) and ‘The Boarding School or Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils’ (1798).
There are two reasons as to why I chose Hannah Foster as the subject of my essay. The first reason is that I notice men writers of the Revolutionary era tend to be more overrated than women. At one point, a number of women writers of the Revolutionary era were long-forgotten, and fortunately, their existence has been discovered by feminist scholars (VanSpanckeren, 1994, p. 25). I assume the cause of this phenomenon is as a result of the great significance and success of men writers that overshadowed the women’s works, roles, and contributions to literature and history themselves. By picking Hannah Foster to represent my essay, I aim for the women writers, along with their works, of this discussed period to reflect their true intentions and ways of life through Hannah Foster. The second and most important reason is that I feel she is much more underappreciated in terms of literary influence compared to other women writers. For instance, Judith Sargent Murray’s idea of the equality of the both sexes from her essay entitled ‘On the Equality of the Sexes’ (Debra Michals, 2015), and Mercy Otis Warren’s influence on colonial rights and liberties that later resulted in the American Revolution through her political writings (“Mercy Otis Warren,” 1999/2019). As such, my main reason is to explore the grey area of Hannah Foster’s literary works to bring more awareness of her literary purpose and find out more about her contribution and influence that she made during the era in which she lived.
Personally, what makes Hannah Foster stand out compared to other American authors is her interest and sense of purpose in her two novels for the sake of women. To be exact, she explored and wrote about real but rarely-discussed social conditions in her era, which is solely about gender roles, particularly women and their mandatory roles in society. For instance, in her epistolary novel 1 entitled ‘The Coquette or The History of Eliza Wharton’, she wrote about freedom and the deviation of gender roles (Osborne & Akatsuka, 2015/2019).
While in ‘The Boarding School or Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils’, she wrote about female education, and how important it is for them to prepare for their own “survival” (Freibert, n.d.). In addition to her distinctiveness, she also did not assume a male persona and use masculine or gender-neutral pseudonyms. Unlike other women writers’ pen names, such as the name “The Gleaner,” which was used by Judith Sargent Murray (Michals, 2015), and Mercy Otis Warren’s alias, “a Columbian patriot” (“Mercy Otis Warren,” n.d.)
Despite Hannah Foster’s undocumented life, there are still some interesting facts about her. The first fact is ‘The Coquette’ was one of the best-selling American novels of the 18th and early 19th century, and it was even said to compete with the Bible in terms of popularity (Marchione, n.d.). The second one is she published her two novels under the pseudonym “A Lady of Massachusetts” (Freibert, n.d.). As a result, the big success of her novel entitled ‘The Coquette’ did not bring her great recognition and publicity as a writer back then. Fortunately, her name was recognized twenty-six years after her death. The third one is Hannah’s two daughters, Harriet Vaughan Cheney and Eliza Lanesford Cushing, got their chance to become popular 19th American-Canadian writers (Rubin & Casper, 2013, p. 431).
Hannah Foster’s literary work of my choice for this analysis is ‘The Coquette or The History of Eliza Wharton’, or only ‘The Coquette’ for short, and the following is a short summary of it. The story begins with Eliza Wharton, who is a beautiful but flirtatious young woman. She was once engaged to Mr. Haly, a man she did not sincerely love, who died due to illness. Soon, she captured the attention of Mr. Boyer and Major Sanford by continuously happily flirting with them, but she is reluctant to give up her freedom as a single woman as told to her mother and friends. At the same time, her friends keep encouraging her to marry Mr. Boyer. Due to the pressure of society, Eliza agrees to marry Mr. Boyer but doesn’t want to say when to marry him. One day, Mr. Boyer leaves her after catching her in the garden of her house talking with Major Sanford. As a result, Mr. Boyer and Eliza’s friends insult and shame her after the rumor goes out, and a few days later, Major Sanford also leaves her to marry a rich woman from the South. Not having men to marry anymore, she becomes desperate and resumes her “friendship” with Major Sanford. The story ends with Eliza’s death at a tavern near Boston, and she is revealed to have given birth but shortly died after it, along with the baby.
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I chose the work entitled ‘The Coquette’ because of two reasons. The first reason is because of the uniqueness of both the main protagonist, which is Eliza Wharton, and the genre of which the story is structured, which is through letters, a.k.a epistolary. Truth be told, there are two other female characters in other 18th century literary works, such as Samuel Richard’s ‘Clarissa’ and Susanna Rowson’s ‘Charlotte Temple’, that have the same plotline as ‘The Coquette’ (Moran, 2014). However, in her defense, what makes Eliza Wharton from ‘The Coquette’ more unique as Moran (2014) points out is her full awareness of how bad the options of her given circumstances are because, in early America, women did not realize the options they truly have. The second reason is that I am quite interested in learning and finding out more about her purpose and motive behind writing such work entitled ‘The Coquette’. To be exact, to know her reason for writing the literary work based on the real case of Elizabeth Whitman.
This particular literary work’s reflection on the writer’s life is shown in many aspects. The first one is the way Hannah Foster wrote the story. In the story, her choice of words is sophisticated, and she used literary devices to get her points across to the readers. Particularly, she used a wide array of historical and literary allusions (Freibert, n.d.), such as the mention of Queen of Sheba in “LETTER IV” on page 39 of ‘The Coquette’, and Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ is also mentioned on page 82. Knowing allusions means that the writer in question was knowledgeable, read a lot of books, and rich in literary experience.
Secondly, she was also a determined feminist who looked after other women through her implied meaning in the story. From my own analysis, even though the literary work may appear as ordinary escape literature, it has a deeper meaning than that for women to watch their behavior and actions so that they would not end up like Eliza Wharton: alone and died at the end of the story. She also wrote the story based on a real case of her cousin’s death, Elizabeth Whitman (“Elizabeth Whitman – The Mysterious Coquette of 1788,” 2015/2019). From my standpoint, I think she wanted to shed light on the said situation and did not want her cousin’s case to remain in silence anymore.
Third is that based on my own interpretation of the story, it also correlates with her marriage since Eliza Wharton was bored and found Mr. Boyle, a reverend, dull in terms of personality. However, she liked Major Sanford, a handsome womanizer, better and more charming. To put this in perspective, Hannah Foster was also married to a reverend named John Foster. I assume that the writer also indirectly reflects her own hidden inner desire of wanting to have someone more romantic and not boring in terms of personality and occupation. In addition, Hannah probably longed for the life in which people wouldn’t judge women based on their behaviors and appearance.
The following is the literary work’s reflection in terms of the period of which the writer lived in: the late 18th and early 19th century, specifically during the post-revolutionary era. First, at that said period, Americans were dependant on letters as means of communication, which is depicted through the genre of ‘The Coquette’ was written and structured: epistolary (Graf, 2005, p. 4). Back then, letters were used to gossip, share news, court a lover, and do businesses. Letter writing was seen as a mandatory and important skill for literate people, which was seen as a sign of proper education for people that made them distinct in terms of social hierarchy (p. 14).
Next, in my opinion, due to the fact that Eliza Wharton is a flirtatious woman in the story, the writer tries to satirize the gender roles of women in society in terms of what they should have done to be accepted by following certain norms and pleasing people. Since the work was written a decade after the American revolution, gender roles were pretty strict since households were seen as a source of stability and order (Krawczynski, 2003, p. 323), and because the country was still figuring out its identity as a new nation, the people found it difficult separating freedom from tradition (Osborne & Akatsuka, 2019). As a result, in terms of attitude and contributory in action, most women remained mostly submissive, for they were stereotypically needed for a fixed role as caretakers of households. Though the American revolution happened, there was no real social revolution to women in particular.
To conclude this essay, women’s roles are more than stereotypical ones: they are not meant to be confined of their awareness and ideas in a household, and they can also be as sophisticated and educated as men when it comes to writing. Hannah Webster Foster had a great sense of purpose: through her work entitled ‘The Coquette’ as an outlet of entertainment and ideas, she tried to offer help and empower women by satirizing gender roles. Personally, choosing Hannah Foster is a good opportunity to learn more about her life and what her literary works truly reflect.
- Brooks, R. B. (2013, February 21). The Roles of Women in the Revolutionary War. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from History of Massachusetts: https://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-roles-of-women-in-the-revolutionary-war/
- Debra Michals, P. (2015). Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820). Retrieved October 13, 2019, from National Women’s History Museum: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/judith-sargent-murray
- Elizabeth Whitman – The Mysterious Coquette of 1788. (2019). Retrieved October 18, 2019, from New England Historical Society: http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/elizabeth-whitman-mysterious-coquette-1788/ (Original work published in 2015)
- Foster, Hannah Webster. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2019, from Encylopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/foster-hannah-webster
- Freibert, L. M. (n.d.). Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840). Retrieved October 13, 2019, from Cengage Learning: http://college.cengage.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/author_pages/eighteenth/foster_ha.html
- Graf, E. M. (2005). The Historical Significance and Function of Letters in Shaping American Identity, 1790-1865. Columbus: The Ohio State University. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from https://kb.osu.edu/bitstream/handle/1811/339/thesis.pdf
- Krawczynski, K. (2003). The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (History in Dispute Volume 12). Thomson Gale. Retrieved October 18, 2019, from https://1.cdn.edl.io/ll7MogYMuRD3DHlKIYq6mrn0pxQx6R6BSgkHjcrL4ONolocW.pdf
- Marchione, W. P. (n.d.). Hannah Foster: Brighton’s Pioneer Novelist. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from Brighton Allston Historical Society: http://www.bahistory.org/HistoryFoster.html
- Mercy Otis Warren. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2019, from American Battlefield Trust: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/mercy-otis-warren
- Mercy Otis Warren. (2019, October 15). Retrieved October 13, 2019, from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mercy-Otis-Warren (Original work published in1999, July 2)
- Michals, D. (2015). Judith Sargent Murray. Retrieved October 18, 2019, from National Women’s History Museum: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/judith-sargent-murray
- Moran, C. K. (2014, April 3). The Coquette: Freedom, Flirting, and Falling from Virtue. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from The Toast: http://the-toast.net/2014/04/03/the-coquette/
- Osborne, K., & Akatsuka, N. A. (2019, October 18). The Coquette Essay Questions. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from GradeSaver: https://www.gradesaver.com/the-coquette/study-guide/essay-questions (Original work published in 2015, March 17)
- Rubin, J. S., & Casper, S. E. (2013). The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved October 12, 2019, from https://books.google.co.id/books?id=_lMAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA431&lpg=PA431&dq=Harriet+Vaughan+Cheney+and+Eliza+Lanesford+Cushing+hannah&source=bl&ots=JPKZerbFvj&sig=ACfU3U2R5jYxrRo2SwkNqOo4QOeIM03xuw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiE-NqLr5nlAhWCjeYKHRIVBgUQ6AEwB3oECAkQAQ
- Van Spanckeren, K. (1994). Outline of American Literature. The United States Department of State.Retrieved October 10, 2019