Letters Among the Nortons:

Two 19th Century Readers' Responses

A Final Project, English 341, Laura Arnold

This page is the result of the final project for English 341. It is a series of letters between a brother and sister in the year 1828 regarding Hannah Foster's The Coquette, written in 1797. The project sets out to present the reactions of two 19th century young people to a specific work in order to demonstrate the nature of Reader Response Theory.

 

Links...

 

Godey's Lady's Book

 

19th Century Women Writers

 

19th Century American Literature

 

19th Century America

 

English 341:

Gender & Sexuality

 

Reader Response Theory

Author's Note:

 Not only was The Coquette immensely popular during its initial publication in 1797, but it was also repeatedly reprinted throughout the following years. It reached another period of great popularity between the years of 1824-1828, during which the preceding letters are supposedly written. The popularity of the first printing is easily understandably considering the images of women existing at that time: The Coquette was clearly what Amelia Norton calls a "morality play," marking out the dangers to which young ladies who practice the fine art of coquetry can be exposed. It was a soap opera tale, full of tragedy and sentimentality that could appeal to audiences for simple entertainment.

 During the period from 1824-1828, however, The Coquette might have been read somewhat differently. This is a period of American history when women's views of themselves and their roles in society were beginning to change. The 1820's preceded a decade in which feminism was dawning; the 1830's would begin the transition from woman as homemaker to woman as reformer, both for herself and for her world. Thus, reading Hannah Foster's story in the 1820's would have caused a different response in a young lady, such as that as we see from Amelia Norton. While her brother Charles clings to traditional views of women as weak and in need of permanent protection within the domestic sphere, Amelia begins to question the confinement of women, the lack of education for women, and the problem of manipulative and dangerous men such as Major Sanford in society.

 Amelia's letters reflect the enduring tradition of marriage being the only real option for respectable ladies; however, she does begin to demonstrate the changing ideas of what a women does in between youth and middle-age, and during her married years. While Charles has plenty of access to literature about the necessary virtues of young women, Amelia has less from which to quote: Margaret Fuller was only eighteen when these letters were written, and female authorship was only then beginning to come into its own. Ladies magazines were only just beginning to publish anything other than words designed for women contained within the domestic sphere; even female authors were still undermining women's roles beyond the household. The letters between Amelia and Charles demonstrate this teetering position of women in American middle-class society during the late 1820's.

 One final note on the epistolary form: Cott notes in her book that far more letters from young women of this period exist than from middle-aged women: this can be easily explained by the fact that middle-aged women most likely had little time to sit and write letters to friends or in diaries. Once Amelia marries, she, like Lucy Freeman, will most likely have greater ties to her husband than to her friends and family and thus will find less and less time to continue corresponding with Charles.

 

Compiler's Note:

The following letters were found wrapped together around a faded copy of Hannah Foster's The Coquette, publication date 1828. They chronicle a brief correspondence between Amelia Norton and her brother Charles Edward Norton. We have some very basic information about Miss Norton culled from her letters: she was most likely between the ages of eighteen and twenty; she grew up in a middle class household consisting only of her father and brother; she had access to a more than average education through local ladies' schools; and her brother was approximately three years older than Miss Norton, away at an unknown college preparing to enter her father's business. Most likely, Miss Norton was doing all the things that young women of this period did, such as entertain suitors, visit with female friends, and prepare herself for her role as wife and mother. These letters betray a unique vision of a young woman's place in society during the 1820's, through her responses to Mrs. Foster's tale of Eliza Wharton.

 

THE LETTERS...

Darling Charles,

I hope this letter finds you quite well, and I must first apologize for my tardiness in maintaining our correspondence; I have been quite consumed by a recent piece of literature, but I shall return to that in a moment. For now, I must pass along that all is well in the household currently, with father working his customary long hours while Mrs. Briggs fusses over his lack of appetite and proper hours of rest. However, I know that this not surprise you, Charles, being standard for our home! I myself am well, if experiencing some traces of boredom watching the rain fall and waiting for spring. Ellen and Nina and I are attempting to plan a final picnic for the group before Mary is carried away to Virginia by Bernard. I hope that you are enjoying better weather, dear. Shawnessay is frolicks only less than usual, even with the unpleasant weather, but that dog never has allowed much to influence his nature. Still, I know he misses lying by your feet in the evenings while you read. We all anxiously await your spring recess, Charles, for some enlivening of the house.

And speaking of reading, y brother, while I quite realize that you are simply overcome with your coursework, I have discovered a novel that you simply must read; Mrs. Hannah Foster's account of that Elizabeth Whitman tale is truly an original that is not to be ignored, even for a gentleman such as yourself. I would most highly recommend THE COQUETTE for your next literary adventure; and because I anticipate your argument of an absolute lack of time for what you will most certainly call frivolity, I have enclosed a copy of the tome with my most earnest assurance that it is an expedient bit of reading, as well as being rather enlightening! I should beg your indulgence if for no other reason than it is at the request of your most loving sister---

Amelia

 

 

Dear Amelia,

I was much pleased to receive your letter, your words do much to offer a reprieve from some of the tedium created by my work here at school. As much as business calls to my man's mind, I still long for the gentle thoughts from a female pen. And as your older brother I realize it is my ritualized place to indulge your woman's whims; as such, I assure you I shall read your little story that you have been so kind to send as soon as my schedule allows. We will have a brief break from classes next week and I should be able to locate a few spare moments in which to peruse your COQUETTE -- it should be an interesting rest from mathematics and Mr. Smith's theorizing about economics. Such an intriguing title, although I must admit that I do hope it is not another foolish account of some frivolously immoral young woman. I most unhappily note that during our age, we have enough propaganda inciting young ladies to quite ridiculous levels of idiocy. Yes, Mellie, I do cite some of these lower class women seeking positions in the work force that seem to interest you so much. A woman's place is beside her husband, providing him with children and raising those children; not, I emphasize, attempting to assert some sort of absurd independence by slaving away outside of home and family. I reiterate our Father's gratitude that you have not succumbed to such foolish ideas.

But I suppose that fulfills the portion of my letter dedicated to your welfare; I know you very little appreciate the concern of father and myself. On another, less difficult subject, it is pleasant to hear that little has changed around the household. I, too, look forward with great anticipation to spring recess when I may join you all again. I, like Shawnessey, have missed our evenings by the fire, reading and conversing with father. And some of my most pleasant memories recall watching my beloved sister working her embroidery or playing the pianoforte. You make a splendid feminine addition to our family gatherings, Mellie dear. Although I cannot slight the presence of Mrs. Briggs and her delectable food! What evening would be complete without her rolls and tea?

As for me, I am indeed swamped with the work for my courses, trying the hurry and finish all the projects coming due before I may escape for spring recess. Still, you remember that business matters have always appealed to me, and thus the work is only tedious, not distasteful, something for which I am grateful. The skills I acquire here will be invaluable once I take over the accounting aspect of Father's shops. I look forward to being able to take some of the more pressing matters out of his hands that he may rediscover his appetite and desire for sleep!

In any case, I shall write again once I have finished Mrs. Foster's story, and until then I remain your loving brother,

Charles

 

 

Dear brother,

As much as I appreciate your kind concern for my well-being, I shall thank you once again for not expounding further on what I know is Father's -- and your -- favorite theme, namely my status in society. It should not be difficult for both of you to avoid noticing the fact that I am a grown woman now, and as such am somewhat capable of having my own thoughts; it becomes increasingly more exasperating to have you establish yourself as my second father -- it would appear that the two of you have come to the conclusion that I require two male parents to make up for the loss of my mother! Charles darling, I assure you that I have no plans to follow the young ladies who choose to work outside of the home, both because I thankfully have no economic reason to do so and also because I look forward to fulfillment in my own household through marriage.

Continuing in this theme of feminine free will, however (how else does one describe it?), I must chastise you for your unfounded conclusions regarding Mrs. Foster's story. As a point of fact, the tale actually emphasizes the perils of coquetry in its retelling of poor Miss Whitman's tragic tale. And the other stories being published are certainly not "foolish" as you wish to call them. Mrs. Catherine Sedgewick has printed a number of very enlightening tales about women, as have Mrs. Lydia Child and Mrs. Margaret Bayard Smith. You must, dear brother, attempt to restrain your opinions regarding books that are not taught at institutions such as yours. I must admit, though, that there is something about Mrs. Foster's approach that strikes me as somewhat unorthodox. Still, I shall leave further comment until you yourself have perused the tale. Until then, I remain your

Amelia

 

 

Dearest Amelia,

First of all, my dear sister, as much as I realize that your dislike the concerns of Father and myself, you are at once a woman who requires our concern. Even you must recognize that women are simply more susceptible to such rakes as presented in the form of Major Sanford. Thus, Father and I will continue to watch over you until your husband relieves us of the task. We do only do this out of love for you, Mellie.

On another note, I must admit, I was surprised by my own interest in THE COQUETTE. It was an interesting morality tale against the coquetry indulged by Eliza Wharton. The story quite explicitly revealed the inevitable effects of playing the coquette; namely, bringing shame upon oneself and one's family. It was clearly the lack of a father that led to Miss Wharton's loose morality and absent sense of duty; that and her obvious lack of true intellect. The only thing gained by Miss Wharton's sowing of her wild oats was misery, for herself and worse, for her family. Such is obviously what becomes of young ladies enchanted by this sense of freedom for women. I was equally surprised by the sentiments presented about the value of virtue. As much as I hold such pieces of writing in distaste, I do conclude that the results make a modern -- if absolutely inferior -- corollary to one of the Proverbs, namely "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price if above rubies." A gentleman such as myself might hope that some of the lower class young women would be able to glean such information from the piece. I should like to pass the book on to a few friends if you do not mind--

Charles

 

 

Charles dear,

I cannot argue with your reading of Miss Wharton's fate; it is obvious to me as well that her troubles began when she rebuffed the kindly Reverend Boyer in favor of the rakish charms of Major Sanford. However, brother, I wonder if you misread poor Eliza. To me she seemed quite intelligent, only perhaps misguided in her longing to pursue to greatest limits enjoyment of life. After following the wishes of her family and placing herself with the Reverend Haly, I cannot see it as necessarily wrong that she might wish to explore the world on her own terms. True, without a father or brother to guard after her ultimate best interests, she was already in danger of having advantage taken of her. But still, why is it so bad for a woman to want to feel the breeze on her face as a person before she becomes a wife? Look at Mary and Bernard: Ellen and Nina and I are trying to give Mary one final taste of life among friends before she becomes Bernard's wife. Women do not simply wait in their parents' homes for a husband to be found, Charles, no matter what your Puritan preachers might recommend. I know you disagree with my views on women's freedoms, but it cannot be denied that some women look forward to enjoying a life that does not immediately include a husband and family. I do not necessarily agree with such women's inclination, but they are not to be ignored. Eliza was obviously well-educated enough to have a healthy curiosity that had been subverted by too early a confinement to the Reverend Haly's household. Left with an unindulged desire for adventure after the Reverend's demise, she was left perfectly susceptible to the false amours of the horrible Major. The tale seems to me more tragic than necessarily moral.

I anxiously await your response as your obedient sister,

Amelia

 

 

Mellie,

Your most recent letter gives me some cause for alarm. Do you truly believe that women should have the freedom to indulge their womanish curiosity? Mellie, dear, women must be protected from the curiosity that will lead them into the arms of rakes. It is over-education of delicate female sensibilities that inspires this `curiosity,' which in turn exposes you weaker creatures to a world from which you must be guarded by the strong morality of your husbands! Do you not recall the Bible, Proverbs, saying "Wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness"? Cotton Mather wrote, "Let every man consider the relation, wherein the Sovereign God has placed him, and let him devise what good he may do, that may render his relatives, the better for him." Even Mr. Smith relates that "every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can." A woman's place is where God has put her: in the home, where she can best contribute to society and her family. Mellie, dearest, indulging women's curiosity can only undermine the great institution of the family, and through that, society. Such is the very reason why women are not made to work outside their domestic world; they are simply unable to manage themselves. Our world requires masculinity to tame it. Would you rather be a part of the filthy politics being exerted by Mr. Andrew Jackson? His actions are despicable, and I can only hope that the common people will not raise him above our Mr. Adams in the next election. Women are designed to be cherished and guarded, they are designed to bear and raise children, to make the home a sanctuary from the dangers of the world! By exposing herself to the world without a strong man to keep her interests in mind, Miss Wharton becomes overwhelmed by the undesirable elements; marriage is the only manner of preventing such a straying from the proper path that a woman should follow, as you, my sister, shall soon be able to appreciate in your own household. I remain,

Charles

 

 

Charles,

I am sorry, my brother, to have roused such fury in your breast. I very nearly felt the fire and brimstone fill my own chest as you proclaimed within your literary pulpit. Do you find yourself confident in following our Father instead of the Puritan fathers in your career choice?

Charles, I too look forward with great longing to being the mistress of my own household, to raising my husband's children and building for them a castle filled with warmth and contentment. Still, I see nothing untoward about experiencing life first, before I become a wife and mother. Look at Mrs. Sedgewick's tale of Hope Leslie, and her other heroines who save people from prison and remain ladies while displaying heroic traits. Education and experience can only improve upon what I shall have to offer my family. I am certain Miss Wharton would only have been enhanced by her outside experiences if only she had not been frustrated by her early confinement to the Rev. Haly. Instead, her spirit longed for a bit of freedom, leaving her quite open to the cruel machinations of Major Sanford. It was he who seduced her woman's heart, if you may recall. Had such a cad not influenced her desperate spirit, surely Miss Wharton would have soon seen the obviously meritorious path towards a happy union with the Reverend Boyer. Such is the truth about Miss Whitman's story, too. The woman was seduced away from a happy life by the rakes existing in what you seem to consider high society. I do believe Mrs. Foster points out quite clearly the detriments of such riff raff in society as the Major. I would hope you do not align yourself with any such men, Charles.

Amelia

 

 

Dear Amelia,

I thank you for pointing out the issue Mrs. Foster clearly takes with Major Sanford. It is true that Sanford was a perfectly unacceptable member of my race; however, the fault for Miss Wharton's condition cannot lie entirely in Sanford's hands. Firstly, Miss Wharton's family was not sufficient to guide her in the virtuous direction towards marriage. A marriage with the Reverend Haly should have been established with utmost speed that Miss Wharton would have learned wifely restraint. However, aside from that point, it was clearly Miss Wharton's weak character that lead to her unfortunate condition. Mrs. Foster makes the point, quite clearly in my opinion, that women belong in marriage, under the protection of moral men chosen by their families. The more freedom allowed to women, the more overwhelmed their simple minds become until their virtue becomes the helpless prey of men such as Sanford. For evidence, simply look at the plight of the native savages in the West. Left to their own devices, they revert to their savage nature; it lies incumbent upon the higher persons to protect the savages form their own nature. In much the same way, women must be protected from their inclinations. As much as you may feel constrained by the concerns of Father and myself, we wish only to protect your woman's virtue for your noble role as wife and mother. "In her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed."

Charles

 

 

Darling Charles,

You are most kind to want to protect me from such a fate as dear Eliza's -- and Elizabeth Whitman. It is true that a woman's most noble calling lies in the realm of her home; yet I still cannot believe that education and certain liberties would do so much to endanger that virtue. Wouldn't you much rather have an intelligent wife to raise your children instead of a witless creature? An independent, intelligent woman's virtue can only be compromised by a foul society -- which is not the fault of that lady. Poor Eliza is simply a victim of a rake, and of being made unable to function within the world into which she is forced. All it seems that she wants is to experience life without being constricted by the ideas of others. I have been lucky in that Father allowed me access to his books and spoke to me quite often as a man, I was not confined to witless womanhood as so many of my sisters are -- and as Eliza was. It is true that this story can be read as a morality play preaching against coquetry; but Charles, can there be no place for such ladies as myself, with a little learning and a desire to know something of the world beyond what is prescribed for me by habit? I suppose these are questions for which I shall be chastised for seeming unladylike. And as horrid as it sounds, I must conclude with the sentiment that if I cannot be unladylike now, then when? As always, I remain your loving, if irreverent sister,

Amelia

 

 

 

 

 For More Information...

For a more complete discussion of the trends in popularity for The Coquette, one can consult the Introduction to the edition of the tale published by the Early American Women Writers Series, of which Cathy N. Davidson is the editor.

An excellent discussion of the shift in women's roles in America is offered by Nancy F. Cott in her book The Bonds of Womanhood: `Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). <Woman's Sphere Illustration>

For a more indepth examination of letters from women of this period that demonstrate this shift, one can refer to Olga Kenyon's book, 800 Years of Women's Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 1992). One letter in particular that previews this shift is Stephanie Jullien's letter to her father from February 20, 1836, which can be found at page 19 in MS. Kenyon's book.

Nina Baym undertakes an interesting study of such female authors in her book Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America 1820-70, 2nd ed. (University of Illinois Press, 1993