Coquette in Hannah Webster Foster's Novel the Essay

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Coquette

In Hannah Webster Foster's novel The Coquette, the protagonist Eliza Wharton leads an unconventional life following the death of her fiance, and her death is ultimately attributed to the evils of the seductive powers of her second suitor, Major Sanford (with some of the guilt resting on her). However, this interpretation of Eliza's life, provided most explicitly by the letters of Julia Granby, actually serves to reinforce the social structures and mores that Eliza seeks to escape from throughout the novel. In particular, by examining Julia's recounting of the manner of Eliza's death (and Julia's recounting of her and Mrs. Wharton's discovery of Eliza's death), one can begin to understand the limitations placed on women in texts, even when represented by other women. Julia's descriptions of both Eliza and Sanford only serve to reinforce generalized notions regarding women while simultaneously failing to remember Eliza as the person she truly was, such that the limits placed on women's expression carry over even beyond death.

Before examining Julia's final letters in the novel more closely, it will be useful to examine previous critical work surrounding the novel, as a means of placing this analysis in context and better describing the literal and metaphorical limitations placed on the representation of women. First, a look at the valuation of women in The Coquette and its historical context will offer a means of understanding Julia's representation of Eliza's death. In her essay "Marriage, Coverture, and the Companionate Ideal in The Coquette and Dorval," Karen Weyler discusses the value of the woman in early American novels, noting "that most [early American] novels equate female value with virtue or, often more specifically, with chastity," but also remarking on the fact that "the novels of early America are likewise concerned with other, more material forms of value" (Weyler 1). This observation has ramifications for the current study, because Julia's recounting of Eliza's last days and death similarly equates Eliza's value with chastity, although a certain 'sympathy' causes Julia to frame Eliza's life as a tragic, ultimately doomed struggle towards chastity, instead of the wholesale abandonment of chastity as a goal or object of value.

The point made by Weyler further explains much of the behavior of the women in the novel towards Eliza's choices; as Weyler remarks, in the historical context of The Coquette, "marriage or widowhood become normative states for women; voluntary singleness [was] not an option," so that "in fiction prior to the 1820s, we are far more likely to see single women who are beyond early adulthood being pressured to marry," just like Eliza's case (Weyler 7). That Eliza has to a large degree chosen the path of voluntary singleness is nonetheless incapable of being represented by Julia, so that the best she can do is offer a relatively confused, melancholy reflection on Eliza's life that does not come close to describing the reality of her situation or the reasons behind it. Before getting into Julia's letters in more detail, however, it will be useful to examine one additional piece of scholarly work on The Coquette, because it will orient the discussion of mourning especially as it relates to the mourning of women in the eighteenth century.

In her essay "The Imperfect Dead: Mourning Women in Eighteenth-Century Oratory and Fiction," Desiree Henderson discusses the 'difficulty' present in mourning the imperfect dead, because as Henderson notes, "funerary discourse tends to assume one thing: the perfection of the dead" (Henderson 487). When this assumption is difficult to maintain in light of the particular deceased's life (as is the case with Eliza), then more often than not one of two things occurs: "in many cases, the imperfect dead undergo a transformation; essentially, their reputations are whitewashed. But, more often than not, the imperfect dead are simply not mourned," because "the traditional form and function of funerary speech does not allow for their commemoration," as "the dead are memorialized for their good deeds, contributions to society, and positive attributes" (Henderson 487). In the case of Eliza, Julia demonstrates this inability to memorialize, because she is caught between the desire to 'whitewash' her friend's life in an attempt to remember her in a socially acceptable way and the utter intractability of Eliza's life (and death) when it comes to conforming to socially acceptable modes of expression and representation. Thus, "the women who outlive the heroine and, eventually, will do the work of mourning," such as Julia Granby and Lucy Sumner, are left the unenviable task of remembering and celebrating their socially unacceptable friend while nonetheless restricting their remembrances to socially acceptable forms of expression (Henderson 497).

Having examined some relevant critical work surrounding the representation of women in text and their relative value, particularly in texts of mourning or funerals, one may now proceed to a more detailed analysis of The Coquette itself, and in particular Julia Granby's last two letters, in which she informs Lucy of Eliza's death and later informs the Whartons of the particulars surrounding Eliza's burial. In her last letter to Lucy, the first mention of Eliza's possibly disdained behavior comes when Julia notes that "my testimony of Eliza's penitence, before her departure, is a source of comfort" to Eliza's mother, who "cherished the idea, that having expiated her offence by sincere repentance and amendment, her deluded child finally made a happy exchange of worlds" (Foster 253). However, immediately after this, Julia is forced to admit that her "testimony of Eliza's penitence" is only useful as an idea, and a fleeting one at that, because "the desperate resolution, which she formed and executed, of becoming a fugitive; of deserting her mother's house and protection, and of wandering and dying among strangers" forces both Eliza's friends and mother to come to terms with the realities of her life despite how much they might want to believe that Eliza renounced all of her previous decisions prior to her death (Foster 253).

Julia cannot bring herself to face these realities, hemmed in as she is by her sense of propriety and the proper means of remembrance, and so she shifts from attempting to whitewash Eliza's life to highlighting the generosity of her behavior just prior to death, noting that the writings left behind by Eliza "are calculated to sooth and comfort the minds of mourning connections" in much the same way that Julia's testimony of Eliza's penitence is meant to sooth Eliza's mother (Foster 254). This is the moment at which Julia ultimately reveals her inability to truly memorialize Eliza, because in lieu of including some of "these valuable testimonies of the affecting sense," Julia inserts an epigram exonerating "her folly" before moving on to a scathing appraisal of Major Sanford, in which she further ignores the unique character of Eliza and instead focuses solely on condemning the "shrine of libertinism" (Foster 254-255). (It is worth pointing out that Julia excuses the lack of Eliza's papers with an ostensible shortage of time, saying that she will "bring Eliza's posthumous papers with [her] when [she] comes back to Boston," but these remain ultimately unseen in the rest of the novel). Even Lucy's response, though begun with a promise that Eliza's "sincere repentance is sufficient to restore her to charity," apparently does not really believe this, since the rest concerns itself once again with lambasting the character of Sanford rather than memorializing Eliza.

If Julia's letter to Lucy informing her of Eliza's death demonstrates the inability of these surviving, relatively socially acceptable women to properly memorialize their dead, unconventional friend in conventionally acceptable ways, then Julia's letter to Eliza's parents regarding her headstone demonstrates this fact in an almost comical starkness, as this inability is literally etched into the stone of Eliza's grave. Julia's final letters are a series of inexpressible events, emotions, and recollections of Eliza, both written and spoken. In this case, she notes that "the minutest circumstances were faithfully related" by those with Eliza prior to her death, but Julia herself is unable to relate these circumstances herself, except to say that "from the state of her mind, I think much comfort may be derived to her afflicted friends" (Foster 263). Once again, Julia is caught between the desire to celebrate and mourn her friend and the socially imposed need to find a woman's value in her embodiment or abandonment of chastity. As if to say that this inability of expression is infinite and unavoidable, Julia's last letter includes the text of Eliza's headstone, with the lines "Let candor through a veil over her frailties, for great was her charity to others" (Foster 264). Even in the final text of remembrance, Eliza's friends cannot bring themselves to ever forget the apparent 'failings' of her character, and so include on her headstone the contradiction between the need to only note the 'perfection' of the dead and the ultimately unavoidable social constructions which limit their ability to properly mourn her. Eliza's friends cannot simply accept her decisions, nor can they simply forget them, despite all references to Eliza's apparent…[continue]

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