By Céillie Clark-Keane
On July 29th, 1788, the Salem Mercury published a story about Elizabeth Whitman, an educated, single woman from Connecticut who died alone and away from home at the Bell Tavern in then-Danvers, Massachusetts, after giving birth to a stillborn baby. The story was quickly picked up by papers in Boston and throughout New England. The early nation became intrigued by Whitman’s fate and speculated whether she was meeting her lover, the baby’s presumed father, and which respected community member he might have been.
The public craved still more of Whitman’s tragic story and, as a result, she left behind both the mystery of her lover and an enduring literary legacy thanks to Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette.
Hannah Webster Foster was born into a successful Massachusetts family in 1758. Her father Grant Webster was a wealthy merchant, and when her mother Hannah Wainwright Webster passed away, he sent his young daughter to a boarding school, where she received an exemplary education. By the 1780s, Foster was regularly contributing anonymous political pieces to Boston newspapers. In 1785, she married Reverend John Foster, whose distant cousins were the Whitmans of Connecticut. The young couple settled in Brighton, where John Foster served as minister. It was there that Foster wrote both of her novels.
Based explicitly on Whitman’s tale, Foster’s first novel The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton, was initially printed by Samuel Etheridge at Cornhill, Boston, for local bookseller Ebenezer Larking, and the author was “A Lady of Massachusetts.” The Coquette was an immediate success: the book went through at least thirteen editions before the end of the 19th century, and despite the first anonymous printing, the work and its success were quickly attributed to Foster.
The success of the novel was bolstered by the young nation’s interest in Elizabeth Whitman and her tragic story, but interest in The Coquette endures because of Foster’s progressively sympathetic treatment to the book’s main character, Eliza Wharton. Foster structures the novel in letters, the majority of which are by women to women. She relates Eliza’s decision between two suitors as a rational, if ultimately misled, search for the most compatible match. Perhaps most importantly, she positions Eliza’s education and interest in reading positively. The real-life Whitman was a respected poet, and many, including the Boston Independent Chronicle, used her fate as a warning to the nation’s young women about the dangers of reading, especially reading novels and romances. In her sympathetic portrayal of the similarly educated and accomplished Eliza Wharton, Foster challenges this.
Foster’s second novel, The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils, makes her stance on female education more explicit. Published in 1798 to significantly less acclaim, The Boarding School is a novel about Harmony Grove, a school for young women located just outside of Boston. A series of lessons to graduating pupils constitute the first portion of the book, and the rest consists of letters between graduates. Throughout the didactic text and the letters that follow, Foster stresses the importance of reading widely - histories, poetry, and even novels - and of writing.
Although it is clear that Foster herself continued to write, few other pieces and little biographical information remains. An early edition of The Coquette includes a forward by Jane E. Locke of Boston, who explains that Foster destroyed her papers and manuscripts shortly before her death in 1840. Despite this, Foster’s The Coquette continues to be taught in classrooms as a progressive seduction novel, one that significantly contributed to the debate on women’s education. Today, Foster and both of her novels continue to contribute to Boston’s rich literary history.
Céillie Clark-Keane is a writer living in Boston. She holds a Master's in English & American Literature from Northeastern University, and she currently works in educational publishing. Find more work at ceillieclarkkeane.com.
Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette; or, The history of Eliza Wharton. A Novel: founded on fact. By a Lady of Massachusetts. Boston, W. P. Fetridge and company, 1855.
--. The boarding school; or, Lessons of a preceptress to her pupils; consisting of information, instruction, and advice, calculated to improve the manners, and form the character of young ladies. To which is added, a collection of letters, written by the pupils, to their instructress, their friends, and each other. By a lady of Massachusetts; author of The coquette. Boston, G. P. Peaslee, 1829.
Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Waterman, Bryan. “Elizabeth Whitman's Disappearance and Her ‘Disappointment.’” The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. 66, No. 2 (Apr., 2009), pp. 325-364