The Coquette and Women in Society

A review of Hannah Webster Foster’s novel The Coquette.

The paper examines Hannah Webster Foster’s “The Coquette” written at the end of the 18th century. It discusses how the main character Eliza Wharton, is actually based on Elizabeth Whitman who Foster knew, who was involved in a scandal at the time with an evangelical minister. The topic of the story together with the seduction, betrayal and death in childbirth of Elizabeth Whitman, made Foster the first woman born in America to publish a novel. It looks at how the work is as revolutionary in its own way as much of what men were writing in the late 18th century, but her words were of less effect and soon forgotten because they concerned the inalienable rights of women, not men at a time in which women themselves believed in their own right to liberty or the pursuit of happiness.
“Certainly in its own time the novel was popular in large measure because of the real people whom its readers believed to lie behind the characters. But it must also have been at least to some extent popular then (as it is still appealing to us today) because it allows us a compassionate view of the ways in which women were constrained by their society. The Coquette is a story of powerlessness of women, certainly, but it is more importantly about how women can refuse to accept such powerlessness as their due. Foster’s own refusal to accept the social role designated for her as a minister’s wife cam in the brief period between 1797 to 1799 when she wrote her two novels. After this, she would devote herself to raising her six children and helping her husband.”