My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette is a 1797 American epistolary seduction novel and a roman à clef about the death of Eliza Wharton (modeled on the real-life Elizabeth Whitman). Wharton, a woman of the Connecticut gentry, is impregnated by a married man and then dies in a tavern after giving birth to his stillborn child. (An interesting fact: Whitman’s seducer may have been the grandson of the Great Awakening divine, Jonathan Edwards—a possibility that Foster leaves unmentioned.) The Coquette is a novel of primarily historical value, both as an early instance of American fiction—here patterned after such European models as the epistolary seduction novels of Richardson and Rousseau—and as a window onto the sexual mores of the upper class in the early republic.
Foster’s heroine favors her freedom to choose a mate over any particular man she might decide to marry; but this desire to enjoy liberty leads her to be mistaken for a mere coquette. She becomes entangled by slow degrees in the snares of the decaying-aristocrat libertine, Sanford, a seemingly inevitable fate after she forfeits the love of the pious minister, Boyer. Through this narrative of decline, Eliza’s friends, Lucy and Julia, send her letters that frame the story as a moral tale: they urge American ladies to guard their virtue by preferring reason to fancy, domesticity to coquetry, duty to pleasure, and truth to art.
Despite feminist critics’ understandable desire to read a subversive message into the novel, its characters incessantly moralize, and its tendentious plot ensures that the guilty are punished. A novel that spends as many words on flat didacticism as The Coquette does is unlikely to be a radical tract in cipher. The book is rather an eloquent, if none too complex, statement of civic republicanism, an instance of 18th-century American neoclassicism. This ideology is not incompatible with an idealist and elite model of proto-feminism, but is hardly revolutionary, even by the standards of its own day:
It is said she has many admirers, and I conceive it very possible that this may be one of them; though, truly, I do not think that she would esteem such a conquest any great honor. I now joined in the general topic of conversation, which was politics; Mrs. Richman and Miss Wharton judiciously, yet modestly, bore a part; while the other ladies amused themselves with Major Sanford, who was making his sage remarks on the play, which he still kept in his hand. General Richman at length observed that we had formed into parties. Major Sanford, upon, this, laid aside his book. Miss Lawrence simpered, and looked as if she was well pleased with being in a party with so fine a man; while her mother replied that she never meddled with politics. Miss Wharton and I, said Mrs. Richman, must beg leave to differ from you, madam. We think ourselves interested in the welfare and prosperity of our country; and, consequently, claim the right of inquiring into those affairs which may conduce to or interfere with the common weal. We shall not be called to the senate or the field to assert its privileges and defend its rights, but we shall feel, for the honor and safety of our friends and connections who are thus employed. If the community flourish and enjoy health and freedom, shall we not share in the happy effects? If it be oppressed and disturbed, shall we not endure our proportion of the evil? Why, then, should the love of our country be a masculine passion only? Why should government, which involves the peace and order of the society of which we are a part, be wholly excluded from our observation? Mrs. Lawrence made some slight reply, and waived the subject. The gentlemen applauded Mrs. Richman’s sentiments as truly Roman, and, what was more, they said, truly republican.
Now to aesthetics: is The Coquette a good novel qua novel? Not especially, alas. While a novel in letters might offer its writer an opportunity to “do the police in different voices,” Foster gives almost every character the same stiff and formal register. Only the libertine villain, Sanford, expresses himself at all tartly, but even he is mostly frozen in elevated and euphemistic rhetoric: “Good news, Charles, good news!” he writes to his confidant after having finally slept with the unfortunate heroine, “I have arrived to the utmost bounds of my wishes—the full possession of my adorable Eliza.” Eliza’s friends speak the hectoring and monitory language of social consensus, and her would-be lover, the minister Boyer, is an especially insufferable prig—so much so that here even I suspect Foster of satire. The novel is without physical description or sensuous reality; it takes place in a wholly abstract world of mere social forms.
As for Eliza herself, she remains something of a blank. This blankness is in fact the novel’s one minor glory, as it renders its heroine prophetic of things to come in American fiction. Eliza boldly begins her first letter by announcing her pleasure that her dull fiancé has just died, months after her own father:
An unusual sensation possesses my breast—a sensation which I once thought could never pervade it on any occasion whatever. It is pleasure, pleasure, my dear Lucy, on leaving my paternal roof. Could you have believed that the darling child of an indulgent and dearly-beloved mother would feel a gleam of joy at leaving her? But so it is. The melancholy, the gloom, the condolence which surrounded me for a month after the death of Mr. Haly had depressed my spirits, and palled every enjoyment of life. Mr. Haly was a man of worth—a man of real and substantial merit. He is, therefore, deeply and justly regretted by his friends. He was chosen to be a future guardian and companion for me, and was, therefore, beloved by mine. As their choice, as a good man, and a faithful friend, I esteemed him; but no one acquainted with the disparity of our tempers and dispositions, our views and designs, can suppose my heart much engaged in the alliance. Both nature and education had instilled into my mind an implicit obedience to the will and desires of my parents.
From this defiant beginning, we might expect Eliza to pursue a determined course of rebellion, or at least to vacillate on principle, in the name of ontological freedom itself—one wishes to hear the ghost of Anne Hutchinson rustling among the novel’s pages. And Eliza does get some good lines:
She thought Major Sanford too particularly attentive to me, considering what had previously happened. She said it would be noticed by others, and the world would make unfavorable remarks upon any appearance of intimacy between us. I care not for that, said I; it is an ill-natured, misjudging world, and I am not obliged to sacrifice my friends to its opinion.
In such all-too-brief moments, we get a glimpse on the horizon of those antinomians of our literature: Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer, Edna Pontellier—even Captain Ahab and Bartleby. But Foster’s intention seems wholly pedagogic and her heroine insufficiently characterized. Eliza suffers from a moral lapse that may be attributed to mere love of sensual pleasure—a motive that would be beneath the dignity of the great American anti-heroines.
In his Studies on Classic American Literature (a crazed treatise that would not deign to attend to an early female-authored sentimental novel), Lawrence sets out a manifesto for the critic of American fiction:
The artist usually sets out—or used to—to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.
Now we know our business in these studies; saving the American tale from the American artist.
The Coquette is best in those moments of Eliza’s rebellion when readers can rescue the heroine from the author’s pious design. But these moments are infrequent, and so this is not a great American novel. It does, however, stand at the head of a line of great American novels, those in which the soul’s conflict with society is allegorized as a problem of female desire: The Scarlet Letter, The Portrait of a Lady, The Awakening, The House of Mirth, Quicksand, Sula—which makes it a work of literary-historical interest that students of American fiction should certain peruse.
The Coquette may even have special relevance to today’s bewildering sexual morality, its bizarre two-fisted barrage of puritanism and pornography. We are seeing one of feminism’s periodic bouts of sex skepticism even as we witness a perhaps unprecedented boom in explicit sadomasochistic pornography by and for women. Hannah Webster Foster would no doubt approve of a puritan stance toward female (and male) sexuality, but Eliza Wharton might well be curious, in the name of art and pleasure and in contempt of the preachers cluttering her pigeon-holes with their black-and-white moral missives, to view all those storied shades of gray.