The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster

I was taught that when you give feedback you shouldcoquette_wharton start with something positive, then have the constructive critic and end with something positive. I will try to use this formula here.

Positive: I didn’t guess the ending. Due to things I will get back to I made some rash judgements and it turned out not to be true. The ending wasn’t badly written and not like ‘everyone suddenly turned into broccoli’ surprise. It was better written than I thought, and it deserves praise for that.

The book is about Eliza Wharton. Webster Foster took inspiration from the life of Elizabeth Withman. It’s an epistolary, the writing is a set of letters written by Eliza Wharton and her friends. Eliza has just been released from an engagement due to her fiancé dying. The book is about Eliza enjoying her new found freedom while managing being courted by two different men the safe and stable Rev. Boyer and the alluring playboy Major Sanford.

Negative: I wasn’t a fan of the writing style. I usually like epistolary works. The use of letters and diary entry is a way to play with how and whom of the writers we should trust. When two people describe the same event differently, whom are correct? Are they both correct, but see things differently? It also gives a touch of realism. But, her writing-style is too stiff and rigid.

hannah_webster_foster
Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy

To me it doesn’t read like real, different people writing it, but an all omnipotent writer. Because of this elements like how much we should trust the writers gets lost. Everything reads like the unbiased truth, even when it later turns out to not be the case. I do understand that things where different at the time when it was written (1797). I understand that emotions as we in the west define them where interpreted and presented differently. Yet I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters other than how they presented themselves to other people. This on its own isn’t a deal breaker. Lady Susan by Jane Austen has the same feel to it, and I love the book because of that. The problem is that Lady Susan (as I read it, I’ve seen that I might have read it a bit differently than other people) relay heavily on the unreliable narrator. I don’t believe anything anyone says in that book, which is why it becomes fun and interesting to read it. The Coquette’s writing doesn’t do this, in my opinion.

 

Positive (again): It’s an interesting story. Portraying different sides of the case and showing how women in that time were doomed if they did and doomed if they didn’t. Eliza is very clear on the fact that she wants to enjoy her freedom within reason, but the society around her isn’t willing to give her that. She is looked upon as a coquette because she doesn’t pick a man almost at once. At the same time she isn’t presented as naive.

But the idea of relinquishing those delightful amusements and flattering attentions, which wealth and equipage bestow, is painful. Why were not the virtues of the one, and the graces and affluence of the other combined? I should then have been happy indeed! But, as the case now stands, I am loath to give up either; being doubtful which will conduce most to my felicity. – Lucy, letter XXVI

She is aware about how the world works and would have married the man whom fit her best. A thought popularised in the 20th century. Marrying for love wasn’t something that you thought of in the late 18th century, especially as a woman. The story presents how horrible this situation is and can be for the woman. I think the idea of the author was to present Eliza in a sympathetic light. To contrast the way the time would have held her up as a person without morals and as an example to scare young girls. The writer does this very well.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to recommend this story, but I think it’s worth the read. For elizabethwhitmangravenothing else, it does seem to give Cold Blood by Truman Capote a run for it’s money as the first factional novel.

The tombstone of Elizabeth Withman, the person Eliza is based on, became a popular turist atraction. The turists started to chip away parts of the tombstones and they they had to put up a replica tombstone.

On the tombstone of Elizabeth Withman:

This humble stone, in memory of ELIZABETH WHITMAN,
Is inscribed by her weeping friends,
To whom she endeared herself
By uncommon tenderness and affection.
Endowed with superior genius and accomplishments,
She was still more distinguished by humility and benevolence.
Let Candour throw a veil over her frailties,
For great was her charity to others.
She lived an example of calm resignation,
And sustained the last painful scene,
Far from every friend.
Her departure was on the 25th of July, A.D. 1788.
In the 37th year of her age;
The tears of strangers watered her grave.
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