Hannah Webster Foster Essay - Critical Essays

Foster, Hannah Webster


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.

Principal Works

The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (novel) 1797

The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils (novel) 1798


Frank Shuffelton (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Mrs. Foster's Coquette and the Decline of Brotherly Watch,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 16, 1986, pp. 211-24.

[In the following essay, Shuffelton discusses The Coquette in the context of the changing culture in eighteenth-century America, focusing on how fashionable behavior displaced religious dictates as the standard of morality.]

If one makes an informal survey of the novels written by Americans and published in New England before 1800, one is struck by the overwhelming preponderance of sentimental fictions about beleaguered females, hapless orphans, and seduced and abandoned heroines.1 The earliest of these...

(The entire section is 6192 words.)

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Domesticating ‘Virtue’: Coquettes and Revolutionaries in Young America,” in Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons, edited by Elaine Scarry, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, pp. 160-84.

[In the following essay, Smith-Rosenberg examines Eliza as representative of the nascent middle class in eighteenth-century America, characterized by a desire for individualism and risk-taking. According to Smith-Rosenberg, in The Coquette Foster reevaluates the place of women in society within male notions of nationalism and class.]

Passion corrupting virtue, libertines destroying happiness, independence misused, seduction, betrayal...

(The entire section is 8903 words.)

Claire C. Pettengill (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Sisterhood in a Separate Sphere: Female Friendship in Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette and The Boarding School,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1992, pp. 185-203.

[In the following essay, Pettengill analyzes the function of the circle of female friends in The Coquette and The Boarding School, asserting that the parallel plot involving what happens to this powerful group of women is equally integral to the novel as the seduction plot.]

Much recent scholarship interprets the early American novel in light of complex economic and social forces that, in the wake of the Revolutionary war, transformed institutions...

(The entire section is 8216 words.)

David Waldstreicher (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘Fallen under My Observation’: Vision and Virtue in The Coquette,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1992, pp. 204-18.

[In the following essay, Waldstreicher evaluates the unspoken communication of sentiment that aids characters in interpreting one another's actions, noting that women's subjective experience comes under the closest scrutiny.]

It seems appropriate, particularly for the student of American literature, to publish The Power of Sympathy and The Coquette in a single volume. The novels are representative pieces of early native fiction, exhibiting the weaknesses and the strengths of the many...

(The entire section is 6703 words.)

Sharon M. Harris (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette: Critiquing Franklin's America,” in Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901, edited by Sharon M. Harris, The University of Tennessee Press, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Harris suggests that in The Coquette, Foster satirizes women's social reality and sentimental language in order to expose the sexist basis of the national political ideology.]

Crime has no sex and yet to-day
                              I wear the brand of shame;
Whilst he amid the gay and proud
                              Still bears an honored name.
Can you blame me if I've learned to...

(The entire section is 9354 words.)

Gillian Brown (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Consent, Coquetry, and Consequences,” in American Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1997, pp. 625-52.

[In the following essay, Brown interprets Eliza's plight in The Coquette in terms of her self-determination, or desire to create her own individual identity. Brown points out that women's role in the social contract of the American republic did not necessarily benefit them or even ensure their rights.]

When Eliza Wharton, the heroine of Hannah Foster's best-selling novel The Coquette, frankly describes her engagement as the sacrifice of her own “fancy in this affair” (5), she is voicing a standard criticism about the constraints on female...

(The entire section is 11871 words.)

Julia A. Stern (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Beyond ‘A Play about Words’: Tyrannies of Voice in The Coquette,” in The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel, The University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 71-151.

[In the following excerpt, Stern explores the connection between women's imagination and freedom in The Coquette, concluding that women lacked true freedom in the American republic of the time.]


Lucy's programmatic diatribe [in Foster's The Coquette] on the heroine's failure of resolution is followed in the same letter by perhaps the most fascinating and certainly the least explored passage in Foster's...

(The entire section is 19236 words.)

Jeffrey H. Richards (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “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, The University of North Carolina Press, 1998, pp. 238-57.

[In the following essay, Richards examines the motif of theatricality in The Coquette and The Boarding School as a paradigm for women's lives in the America of Foster's era, noting that women were called upon to know how to act on the social stage, yet they were expected to resist its attractions.]

The novels of Hannah Webster Foster (1759-1840) show a thematic richness and a complexity of text that have only recently begun...

(The entire section is 9821 words.)

Further Reading


White, Devon. “Contemporary Criticism of Five Early American Sentimental Novels, 1970-1994: An Annotated Bibliography.” Bulletin of Bibliography 52, No. 14 (1995): 293-305.

Brief bibliography of The Coquette that includes editions and secondary sources.


Baker, Dorothy Z. “‘Detested Be the Epithet!’: Definition, Maxim, and the Language of Social Dicta in Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette.Essays in English Literature 23, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 58-68.

Examines Eliza's use of language in The Coquette, asserting that her struggle to take...

(The entire section is 379 words.)