Monday, June 6, 2022

The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster

"From a scene of constraint and confinement, ill suited to my years and inclination, I have just launched into society. My heart beats high in expectation of its fancied joys. My sanguine imagination paints, in alluring colors, the charms of youth and freedom, regulated by virtue and innocence. Of these, I wish to partake ... I recoil at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine me to the duties of domestic life"  - The Coquette

The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster (1797) is based on the true story of Elizabeth Whitman who came to the Bell Tavern in Danvers Massachusetts in the spring of 1788.  She was pregnant and told the owners of the tavern she needed a place to stay and that her husband would be along shortly.  He never arrived and Elizabeth Whitman died a few months later after having given birth to a stillborn baby.  

The local newspaper printed this tragic story but when Elizabeth's real name became known (she had been staying at the inn under the name Walker) it became a national story since Elizabeth Whitman came from a relatively prominent family and so how could she have ended up pregnant and alone and who was the father?

The author Hannah Webster Foster, a distant relation of Elizabeth Whitman, decided to write a novel, The Coquette published in 1797, about this matter. The book takes a sympathetic view towards its protagonist Eliza Wharton modeled after Elizabeth Whitman.  The author tries to explain how a well brought up, virtous woman could end up in such a predicament.  The Coquette is also a cautionary tale advising young women to steer clear of rakes and scoundrels and certainly in Major Peter Sanford, the father of Eliza's baby, we have a scoundrel.  Upon first meeting Eliza he writes to his friend:

"Were I disposed to marry, I am persuaded she would make an excellent wife; but that you know is no part of my plan, so long as I can keep out of the noose. Whenever I do submit to be shackled, it must be from a necessity of mending my fortune. This girl would be far from doing that. However, I am pleased with her acquaintance, and mean not to abuse her credulity and good nature, if I can help it."

In The Coquette, Eliza is faced with a choice.  There is the decent respectable Reverend Boyer who all her friends are urging her to marry and then there is Peter Sanford who her friends are telling Eliza to stay away from.  They know his reputation and the young women prior to Eliza who he has deceived and then cast aside.  

But Eliza is young and feels that her friends have misjudged Major Sanford.  She had been set to marry Mr. Hoyer, her parent's choice but he became ill and passed away.  She admired Mr. Hoyer but didn't love him. And now Eliza wants to take her time, enjoy the company of friends, attend parties etc before immediately settling down.  

Given the time in which Eliza lives a young woman sowing her oats is not the best course of action. Eventually Mr. Boyer catches Eliza in a compromising position with Peter Sanford.  Boyer storms off, ends their relationship and now only Sanford is left, a man who has no interest in marriage and is skilled in the art of seduction.

Though Eliza is not too smart when it comes to suitors in other ways she is quite smart, independent and vivacious.  She also has a good heart and when her reputation begins to take a hit I am pleased to say her friends and her mother do not abandon her.  

The novel is well written and told in letter form, most of which are written by Eliza.  I enjoyed this novel which I found superior to Charlotte Temple by Susannah Rowson, published around the same time.  Charlotte Temple may have been more popular in its day but I felt The Coquette gives a more realistic look at the lives of young women in the 18th century and how central the subject of marriage and therefore guarding one's reputation was in a woman's life.  

The Coquette fulfills the Back to the Classics Category - choose a classic written prior to 1800.