Hannah Webster Foster Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hannah Webster Foster 1758-1840

American novelist.

Although Hannah Webster Foster only published two novels, her first novel, The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797), was one of the best-selling novels of its time. Thirteen editions appeared in the thirty years that followed its first publication, with its greatest popularity occurring between 1824 and 1828, when it was reprinted a total of eight times. Psychologically insightful and well written, the novel recounts in fictionalized form the life and tragic death of Elizabeth Whitman, an accomplished poet of the day. Foster's sensitive portrayal of this intelligent and strong-willed heroine manages to transcend many of the sentimental conventions of its genre. Her second work, The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils (1798), was less successful but featured many of the same themes as her earlier work, including the plight of young women living in a conservative American society.

Biographical Information

Foster was born in 1758 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, the daughter of Grant Webster, a wealthy Boston merchant, and his wife, Hannah Wainright. Young Hannah was sent to boarding school in 1762, following her mother's death. Almost nothing is known about her childhood and adolescence, but biographers have noted that comments in her second novel, The Boarding School, imply that she had a positive educational and social experience at her school. In the 1770s she was living in Boston, and in the 1780s she began publishing short political pieces in local newspapers. In 1785 she married the Reverend John Foster, who soon began to serve as pastor of the First Church in Brighton, Massachusetts. The couple had six children, the first of whom died shortly after birth. Although busy with motherhood and the many duties expected of a minister's wife, Foster published her first novel in 1797, and a second just one year later. She did not publish again, but was a staunch supporter of the writing of her daughters, Eliza Lanesford Cushing and Harriet Vaughan Cheney, who she lived with until her death in 1840.

Major Works

An epistolary novel of seduction in the style of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, The Coquette was, as it informed its readers, founded on fact—on a then recent, much-publicized incident. Foster's fictional heroine, Eliza Wharton, is based on Elizabeth Whitman, a thirty-seven-year-old New England minister's daughter and a respected poet who died of complications following the stillborn birth of her illegitimate child at a roadside tavern in Massachusetts. Whitman's acquaintances, as well as the general reading public, were shocked upon reading about these events. Soon her misfortune was attributed to Whitman's excessive reading of romances which, it was thought, created unreasonable expectations and made her into a coquette. But Foster reinterpreted Whitman's situation for The Coquette, underlining the fact that the real and the fictional Elizabeth both faced the same dilemma: how to remain true to themselves and to obey their hearts while at the same time remaining respectable members of society. Writing within the narrow moral parameters of her time, Foster informed her novel with a bourgeois morality and ideology, yet critics point out that she also subtly undermined it. Eliza's independence of mind makes it hard for her to conform to the wishes and expectations of society and she is quite aware of the shortcomings of both of the men in her life. The Reverend Boyer, the respectable marriage candidate, is pompous and pedantic, and represents a life of stultifying convention. On the other hand, Eliza recognizes that Sanford, the seducer, is a shallow and flamboyant womanizer. She is not pleased with either of the two choices presented to her and her letters show her vacillation. Foster emphasizes the fact that an intelligent, strong-willed woman in the early American republic cannot easily be assimilated into society and she implies that perhaps this is a fault of that society. Eliza's act, Foster shows, is more one of calculated self-destruction as a result of having to choose between two unsatisfactory choices than it is a case of coquetry. Eliza fights against the limitations society imposes upon her, but her rebellion is doomed against the overwhelming power of conservative mores.

Foster's second and last novel, The Boarding School, was published anonymously a year after The Coquette. A cross between a conduct book and an epistolary novel, it entails a series of lectures delivered by Mrs. Williams, the widow of a clergyman, to the girls in her modest boarding school. At first glance the lessons simply teach the girls how to behave as respectable daughters, wives, and mothers, but critics have pointed out that Foster's ideas about the education of women echo those of Mary Wollstonecraft in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Though Mrs. Williams warns her pupils about the dangers of excessive novel reading, as well as of music and dancing, Foster was trying to teach young women how to cope with being the objects of public gaze. In the context of the early American republic, The Boarding School was also an attempt to consolidate the family as the cornerstone of society and to show a fundamental concern for the well-being of the social fabric.

Critical Reception

In the late twentieth century, The Coquette enjoyed a remarkable revival and many critics now consider it one of the key texts of early American literature. No longer read as a seduction novel in the Richardsonian vein, it is appreciated particularly 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. Critics such as David Waldstreicher and Sharon M. Harris focus on the language of The Coquette, examining the various codes of sentimental language and the ways in which Foster uses language to expose the sexist basis of the new American republic. Perhaps the most notable trend in criticism of The Coquette, though, is its examination in the context of political ideology in the early republic. Caroll Smith-Rosenberg analyzes how the novel contributed to the definition of an emergent middle class, characterized by a desire for individualism and risk-taking. In a similar direction, Gillian Brown writes about the need for self-determination on the part of women in early America, whereas Julia A. Stern explores the parallels between individual liberty and the freedom of the imagination in nineteenth-century America. Frank Shuffelton observes that women in Foster's time were caught between a religious morality that no longer held pervasive influence over their lives, and fashionable dictates that created a new kind of morality. Though The Boarding School has received much less critical attention than The Coquette, commentators note two approaches to it: that the novel is intended to build and maintain the feminine status quo in early America, or that the novel depicts a powerful circle of female friends outside and independent of the male-dominated society in which it participates. Claire C. Pettengill claims that the story of what happens to the group of female friends in The Coquette is just as central to the novel as the seduction plot, and Jeffrey H. Richards writes that in both The Coquette and The Boarding School, women are taught how to act on the social stage, but expected to resist its attractions.