Hannah Webster Foster

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,242 words.)