Professor Laura Arnold
Contemplating the Coquette
Eliza Wharton has sinned. She has also seduced, deceived, loved, and been had. With The Coquette Hanna Webster Foster uses Eliza as an allegory, the archetype of a woman gone wrong. To a twentieth century reader Eliza's fate seems over-dramatized, pathetic, perhaps even silly. She loved a man but circumstance dissuaded their marriage and forced them to establish a guilt-laden, whirlwind of a tryst that destroyed both of their lives. A twentieth century reader may have championed Sanford's divorce, she may have championed the affair, she may have championed Eliza's acceptance of Boyer's proposal. She may have thrown the book angrily at the floor, disgraced by the picture of ineffectual, trapped, female characters.
We might see similar reactions when placing Foster's novel in an eighteenth century context. But would they be the reactions that Foster anticipated? Were eighteenth century female readers to see The Coquette as an instructional text, or were they supposed to enjoy it without applying it to their own lives? Did she aim to teach her female audience about proper conduct, and to warn about the dangers of the licentious seducer? The book was a best seller; why would this type of text have been so popular?
Writing a journal from the perspective of a fictional eighteenth century reader, a mother whose daughter is the age of Eliza's friends, will allow me to employ reader-response criticism to help answer these questions and to decipher the possible social influences and/or meanings of the novel. Though reader-response criticism varies from critic to critic, it relies largely on the idea that the reader herself is a valid critic, that her critique is influenced by time and place, and that these factors must be taken into account to appreciate her reading of the novel. Ross C. Murfin offers a more complex but still concise explanation of reader-response criticism:
In order to define this "wall," I will be focusing mainly on Reception Theory, a form of reader-response criticism established by Hans Robert Jauss, which focuses on the reader's context and experience. In his book, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, Jauss notes the importance of understanding a novel within its historical context:
I would consider the "wall" societal norms. Thus "reconstructing horizons" involves discovering these norms and incorporating them into an understanding of how a contemporary reader of The Coquette might have read, interpreted, and been influenced by the novel.
Women's journals and diaries written in the eighteenth century often contain entries about reading novels. Reading served as a diversion amidst household chores and child care. Though novel reading was commonplace, many men and women condemned the activity, wary that the sentimental content of novels might guide a woman's conduct. They considered novels and the reading of novels destructive to societal mores and distracting from a woman's daily chores. Cathy Davidson's presentation of eighteenth century readership provides a foundation to understand this reaction. She explains the possibly socially unacceptable influence of the sentimental novel on eighteenth century readers, and presents the desperate situation of women in the society:
Here Davidson touches on two intriguing themes about eighteenth century women's roles in society and women's roles as readers. First, she addresses sentimental novels as a form of education, at a time when a woman's education was founded less in books and more in manners. Secondly, she presents the idea of "controlling" women's sexuality. These ideas seem crucial to establishing a basis for understanding how women readers might have responded to The Coquette. How did the novel both teach and reflect prominent and socially acceptable ideas of romance, courtship, love, and child bearing, in eighteenth century society, and how and why would all of these ideas be linked?
With the following journal I would like to address these questions about eighteenth century society and attempt to find how The Coquette might have answered them, but I would like to add a twist to Fanny's reader-response. How would a woman interpret the novel if she were a Mary Wollstonecraft fanatic? With A Vindication of the Rights of Woman., Wollstonecraft argues adamantly to reform the educational system that teaches women simply that their value lies in their ability to please men. She suggests that women must be provided with an education that enhances their ability to reason. This becomes particularly relevant to The Coquette when coupled with Davidson's idea that novel reading was a form of education. Wollstonecraft also believes that the whole of society needs reform. She notes that men are responsible for providing women with an inferior education, but that both men and women are responsible for perpetuating the myth that pleasing a husband should be the most important goal of a woman's life. Fanny will incorporate much of Wollstonecraft's theory into her journal, but at the same time I would like to make Fanny as realistic as possible. She is an avid reader and a housewife, trapped in a convenient but loveless marriage. Her responses to The Coquette will hinge on her own experience as a product of society. She still romanticizes the notion of marriage, but heartily supports Wollstonecraft's pursuit for equality. She endeavors to argue for equality but remains trapped in a society dominated by the notion of women's inferiority.
June 15, 1798
I have just discovered a copy of The Coquette atop my daughter's night stand. She has been so thoroughly engrossed in it that I decided I, too, must peruse its pages. Several times have I heard the story of Elizabeth Whitman, and several times have I felt a pang of worry for my own young daughter, now so entirely enmeshed in the throes of courtship. Perhaps it is true, I spend too much idle time gossiping about the tragedy of Ms. Whitman, but who can help but reflect on her sad tale? I oft ask myself exactly that, not knowing who to accuse, who to blame. I should hope that this novel will not taint my Leslie's young mind or influence her to do anything more unladylike than her recent refusals to sweep up the house. Lately she has been distracted from the simplest of chores. She wastes the day reading novels, awaiting suitors. So, Ms. Foster, we shall see what you have in store. I shall see what advice you offer my Leslie. Will you give her hope that a man might some day appreciate her for more than her beauty (though her beauty far surpasses that of her friends)? Will you give her hope that all that I endeavor to teach her, every situation in which I have encouraged her to reason, will be appreciated by a man just as much as her beauty? I want Leslie to understand to value herself, value her mind, something I learned after I was married. Something I learned too late --
June 19, 1798
Have been entirely consumed by company, but had an hour or so today to again pick up The Coquette . I have been thinking on Mrs. Lucy Sumner and Mrs. Richman. I can scarcely distinguish between these ladies. I know that Mrs. Sumner has been recently married, and that Mrs. Richman has recently lost a child. These seem to be their most vivid characteristics, and perhaps they should be; modeling themselves on the assumption that they are responsible for the morality and welfare of their husbands, their children, and their households in general, are useful tasks towards which they should be propelled with the utmost energy. We women still must create the most agreeable homespace possible. Nevertheless, I loathe the advice they give to Eliza. They propagate just exactly what Mary Wollstonecraft despises, that Eliza has pleased a man and has therefore accomplished the only goal she should hope for. They would have her marry Boyer simply because he is a pleased man, not because Eliza feels pleased by him. Would I could jump into those pages and explain the truth to them! How could they ask Eliza to settle for Boyer when they know she does not love him? They would have her be a married woman in lieu of an independent woman. They would have her pinned down when she has only begun to live. Wollstonecraft says, and I must believe her, "It is your own conduct, O ye foolish women, which throws an odium on your sex" (44). They perpetuate the idea that marriage is all she is worth when they, fellow women, should support her freedom!
I should check myself; I know what it is to have been married for some twenty plus years, though I remember what it is to be young and assume that everyone understands the sweet bliss of the first years of marriage. However, I also know that Mrs. Richman and Mrs. Sumner encourage Eliza to be married only because they assume that she should be in the same boat as them. They assume that marriage will be the answer, the undeniable salve to heal all wounds. I would argue, shriek at them, "Ladies, do you not remember when you first felt the quick pangs of love? When first you spied your future husbands and you knew that they were to be yours? Would that you had remembered that Eliza felt those same pangs when first she glimpsed Major Sanford! Certainly he was a cad, but you should have told her to be rational, to reason her way through that silly triangle, rather than encouraging her to run headlong into Boyer's arms."
They prodded her to accept the Reverend Boyer's proposal. And yes, he was as fine and worthy a suitor as Eliza might have warranted at her age and station. Yet she did not love him. She esteemed him, she looked upon him favorably, but he did not possess her heart. I would ask them to remember the value of love. The thrill of a new husband will not remain; it fades as the novelty of marriage fades. Wollstonecraft was wise never to marry. I feel she stands in my shoes when she says, "The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on their husband's heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is passed and gone" (110). She is a wise women, knows that love and infatuation are fleeting. One must prepare for this, and feeling the pain of a dying love is doubly hard if one forces oneself to love from the first, as Eliza would have done with Boyer. Perhaps because I have more hindsight than those ladies, perhaps because I have shaken myself free from that sheen of novelty, have glimpsed the truth and can only speculate how my situation might differ had I truly loved my husband from the very day we walked down that aisle. True, I did regard him most highly. He did pursue me with the noblest dignity, befriending my parents and siblings; indeed, he became an inextricable part of my family well before our wedding day! Yet I was expected to marry him, he was planned for me well before we had been properly introduced. I may have even chosen him on my own, yes, I am sure that I would have. Yet Eliza had passion for Major Sanford!
I must admit that I somewhat envied Eliza's vivacity. I hope that when my daughter peruses the words inked with good Mrs. Foster's pen she may understand the compromise involved in passion. I hope that she will be informed against taking up with a no-good cur, but I also hope that she will be informed against settling on marrying a man only because she feels it expected of her. I wish her to understand what I cannot tell her; that love may be foolish, but settling might be even more so. Allowing a man to toy with you, to disrespect you, to value only your beauty, is certainly destructive, but allowing a man who you do not love to con you into marriage may prove equally disastrous as you grow old and long for having loved.
June 21, 1798
This entire morning I have been sewing and cleaning, pondering ceaselessly the character of Mr. Boyer. Though I find his pursuance of Eliza noble and almost charming, I would have recommended to him to cease his familiarities long before she was forced to throw them back. I understand that, in his clerical position, and in his desire for a wife, the older and still charming Eliza would seem to fit his bill. She has all the effects and effusions of a woman who would bedazzle a congregation and fulfill his lonely life. Ah, but Mr. Boyer! You would have been wise to respect the heart, no, even the whims, of that woman more than you did. I do not doubt that you had the utmost of clear and noble intentions, but your desire to force Eliza into a choice was unwise. Did you not see that she was in her social prime, gay and happy and free? But of course, you are a man, and would see practicality the most important aspect of marriage. You would look for a match which the two of you would find advantageous rather than intriguing. And you would assume that you knew the best for both of you. I do not believe I am without reason to accuse you of thinking that your mind was right enough for two. Indeed, you chastised Eliza with reckless abandon when she tried to make amends with you. How inappropriate your conduct, sir, to think you had the mind to correct her! Had you respected her enough to make her your wife, I would hope that you would also respect her enough to trust her decisions.
I try to read this independently of Wollstonecraft, but I find myself continually perusing her words for reference. When she chastises the educational system, demands reform, notes that men are taught to reason while women are taught to please - I see her every word reflected in the character of Reverend Boyer. He seemed a decent suitor, but time will tell. The nerve and the audacity to berate Eliza. . .but I suppose that is the right that his education has given both of them.
Perhaps that is indeed what I see as inherently wrong with our manner of social relations. Our entire manner of going about courtship and marriages hinges entirely on the dominance of the male mentality. They think that they know what is right for us, they think that they know where we stand, or at least that if we stand against them then we are wrong. They care little for our sentiment or concern. In this Mr. Boyer is as guilty as the rest. I do not doubt that he loved Eliza, nor do I doubt that he attempted to give her the advice that he thought was right. When he told her to "Fly from Major Sanford!" and to "preserve [her] virtue unsullied, [her] character unsuspicious" (Foster, 84). he negated her emotions. He implied that his judgment was better than her own.
I do not intend to attack or render his courtship of Eliza trivial. Rather, I think he did her justice by valuing her virtues. This is, without doubt, a triumph over any efforts made by Major Sanford. But his condescension in her final appeal for sympathy is not so easily forgiven. If he had truly cared he might have gone so far as to attempt at understanding her wishes. I cannot go without chiding Eliza, however. She is indeed a coquette, though I can say her only honor is that she has known it all along. She endeavored not to manipulate Boyer, no, but she did toy with his affections. Last week I ran across a poem in a magazine that I find so keenly appropriate that I must include it in today's journal. Written by a woman named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:
June 22, 1798
In rereading my last entry I find that I was perhaps too harsh on Reverend Boyer. Perhaps. This leaves me wondering where I shall begin with Mr. Sanford. I cannot debate his artifice, I cannot challenge that he played Eliza for the fool. But he loved her and this is why I am confused. His letters to Mr. Deighton created his role clearly. He would have had Deighton believe that his intentions towards Eliza never were noble, that he adored his role as the cad. I think he did not.
What is it about men that forces them to perform for one another? I only want to know why Major Sanford insisted on manipulating his position and denying his feelings for this woman whom he loved and who loved him. Is this not exactly what the two of them felt and acted upon clandestinely? Yet he would have her remembered as a seduced woman, a victim of his gallantry. Why did he not propose? Why could he not let the love of a worthy woman outweigh his love for money? Again, Wollstonecraft, because her words echo the notion that sane people exist in the world:
Men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become friends of the fellow-creatures who find amusement in their society (80).
Just in this way did Sanford "sink" Eliza. Perhaps this is why he was unwilling to marry her. He has been taught, as she has been taught, that love is neither non-existent nor fleeting, but rather is inconvenient.
I believe that he began to fool even himself with this performance. At Eliza's end he mourned her and lost his wife. These were small prices to pay in comparison to Eliza's trials. Being a man, he had the privilege to cavort about parties after Eliza's virtue had been sullied. She was doomed. His passions, as Wollstonecraft notes, were
spurs to action [which] open the mind; but they sink into mere appetites, become a personal and momentary gratification when the object is gained, and the satisfied mind rests in enjoyment. The man who had some virtue whilst he was struggling for a crown often becomes a voluptuous tyrant when it graces his brow (114).
I only hope that his performance, his passions, and Eliza's death did drive him mad.
June 25, 1798
I do believe I have had enough of thinking about this novel. I picked it up to skim and became engrossed. Hannah Webster Foster has wrenched my heart, made me review my daughters youthful frailty. Alas, I must wail for the loss of Eliza, and independent spirit in a world that could not hold her. O dear Eliza, would that you could read this from the grave! Alas, poor Eliza, who knew her own heart but asked friends for their opinions. If only she had stayed true to herself! If only she had believed she could! I understand that Sanford was a temptation and Boyer a bore. These are facts I cannot dispute. Eliza knew this all along. Yet she thought Lucy and Mrs. Richman were the wise women who she could trust. They were, they wanted the best for her, they acted as true and concerned friends. Yet they betrayed her by not trusting in her passions. They scarcely could care that she loved Major Sanford when all they wanted for her was a proper marriage. O women! What do we do? We cannot depend on each other, and men teach us not to depend on ourselves. I feel desperate. If our happiness hinges on marriage, perhaps we should choose men like Mr. Boyer. He was secure and stable and trustworthy and cared for Eliza's well being. But where was love to be found in that involvement? Where respect? I can only commend Eliza for following her heart in that respect, but what has she done?
To compromise herself to Major Sanford, for that to be her only option, is but an extension of the same affair. He was undeniably a cad, a man not to be trusted. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu again captures the appropriate muse with the quip called "Smilinda":
I know that with Sanford Eliza followed her heart, but this time unwisely. Love and virtue should come hand in hand. Major Sanford did not know his heart, or rather he did and refused to admit it. Though men such as he may love, they seek to dominate. Perhaps for Major Sanford to admit that he loved would have been to compromise some part of his manhood; he would have had to acknowledge that Eliza indeed harbored a place in his heart. We should learn from Eliza never to trust a man who cannot honestly love, and they will not if they know that they can control without admitting their devotion.
I have completed the book some days hence. I daresay I have learned a thing or two that I shall pass plainly on to my daughter. I hope that she may have extracted some of these ideas from her reading of The Coquette. She must learn to value herself enough to value love. Only in this can she answer with confidence the proper suitor. I want her to understand the value of love, as I, though I am exceedingly fond of my husband, have never done. I do hope that she will also understand the importance of her unsullied virtue. If Eliza teaches her nothing, I hope she learns that an unvirtuous woman is of little value in our society, be she in love or not. Perhaps Wollstonecraft is right again on the one assertion I was willing to contend, that novel reading is an exercise in fantasy, that girls will only look in those pages to excite emotion and thus when they should be reasoning they are unstable (47). Perhaps. And I know that I believe far too much of what I read, poetry, fiction. But I look to it for sentiment, for the excitement my day lacks when I am constantly caring for the house or waiting on friends. But I read Wollstonecraft for hope. I hope that Leslie will take her words to heart as I wish I might have years ago. Women such as Eliza are, of course, the stuff of novels. Yet I want to read Eliza as an almost tragic triumph, a woman who knew her worth and her independence and, though staggering and ill in life, was only defeated in death.
1. Bear, Richard. "Renascence Editions Selected Prose and Poetry of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu." [http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/montagu.html#Introductions]. June 1996.
2. Davidson, Cathy. Revoultion and the Word, The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
3. Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
4. Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
5. Moi, Toril. Sexual Textual Politics. London: Routledge, 1985.
6. Murfin, Ross C. "What is Reader-Response Criticism?" in The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Bedford, 1991.
7. Rabinowitz, Peter J. "Johns Hopkins Guide to LIterary Theory" [http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/entries/reader-esponse_theory_and_criticism.html]. 1997.
8. Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Penguin, 1992.