Revived 18th Century Epistolary Novel

Hannah W. Foster’s The Coquette.

This epistolary novel anonymously published in 1797 and claimed later is based on a the factual death of Elizabeth Whitman which was sensationalized as a cautionary tale about the fatal consequences for women who have premarital sex.The real life person died in a tavern while giving birth to a stillborn, and was used as an example of what happens to women who do not behave. Hannah W. Foster introduces the novel as “founded in fact”  in this fictionalized account with several overlapping truths.

In the novel, Eliza Whitman becomes Eliza Wharton, the recently almost-widowed daughter of a priest, grieving her late fiance and regaining what freedoms she enjoyed before their engagement. Her musings on marriage as capture, on identity, and female friendship have given way for contemporary critics to interpret the recently revived novel as feminist text. The novel makes some serious claims about the danger of societal gender roles for men and women through the letters narrated by multiple men and women. The book contains many of the same scenes told through the eyes of different people including the Eliza’s villainous suitors, allowing readers to understand the real danger to Eliza’s well being was not one she ever had control over.

The letters also function to humanize Eliza as a fully feeling and complicated human being with motives and a conscience, not the immoral sinner the newspapers made her out to be after her death. This story represents factual fiction because it stays so close to the events and personalities of Elizabeth Whitman’s history. The fictionalized aspects come from the added characters and their accounts of interacting with Eliza, moving the plot along, and filling in the spaces between the key events leading to Eliza’s downfall. There is also an added pressure of the mother character representing the old widow Eliza could become, and the younger friends who do not understand her resistance to marriage.

In reading historical literature we do have to remember that it is only fiction, not hard evidence of the lifestyle from the time and region, yet The Coquette brings an indisputable authenticity to letters that it reads as a nonfiction account. However, the pacing of the book suffers at the hands of accuracy. The book spans a little over a year and includes the full length of Eliza’s pregnancy, during which not much happens.

Often when reading, there is little to no opportunity to ever truly determine authorial intent behind a piece, but the anonymous nature of the text and the revealing introduction gives some insight as to why the author chose to write the novel. There is such a noble intent by the author to make Whitman’s story heard fairly, and there seems to be a feminist solidarity in the act of writing and researching this novel. I found the criticisms of the novel to be more entertaining than the novel itself; it is quite dated and hard to get through, but the story and the history behind its conception is truly fascinating.

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