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Foster, Hannah Webster

FOSTER, Hannah Webster

Born 10 September 1758, Salisbury, Massachusetts; died 17 April 1840, Montreal, Canada

Wrote under: A Lady of Massachusetts

Daughter of Grant and Hannah Wainwright Webster; married John Foster, 1785

Little is known of either Hannah Webster Foster's childhood or education, but the numerous historical and literary allusions in her books suggest she was well-educated for her time and sex. Foster is best known for her novel The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797). After the publication of her second book, The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils (1798), Foster wrote only short articles for newspapers. Upon her husband's death she moved to Montreal to live with two of her five children, two daughters who also wrote.

The Coquette, which is "founded on fact," was based on the life of Elizabeth Whitman of Hartford, Connecticut, a distant cousin of Foster's husband. It is a seduction novel in epistolary form (obviously much influenced by the novels of Samuel Richardson, such as the epistolary seduction novel, Clarissa Harlowe) with the typical strengths and weaknesses of this genre. Incidents are reported several times by different people, a technique that reveals character through a comparison of points of view. Many of the letters seem natural and spontaneous. Others, however, suffer from excessive length, didactic digressions, and an overemphasis on sentiment and sensibility.

From the novel's beginning Eliza emerges as a strongwilled young woman delighting in a newly found freedom from her parents and a dull fiancé. She is convincingly indecisive about her two new suitors, the admirable Mr. Boyer, a clergyman, and Major Sanford, who, she is warned, is " a second Lovelace" (the seducer in Clarissa). Sanford, too, is a convincing and complex character. Seduction to Sanford is a game; he sees Eliza as a coquette and determines to "avenge [his] sex by retaliating the mischiefs she meditates." He writes: "If she will play with a lion, let her beware the paw, I say." Sanford is confident of his powers, but his pride is hurt by her friends' warnings against him and by her attraction to Boyer. These make him even more determined to win Eliza, which he does eventually, even though he has, in the meantime, married for money.

Justice appropriate to the seduction-novel genre is meted out to Eliza and Sanford, accompanied by lengthy confessions and moral lectures. The lessons are taught by the characters themselves, however, and their contrition seems real enough, a fact which makes The Coquette one of the better American examples of the genre and the book went through 13 editions in its first 40 years. The Boarding School was not so popular. It is dedicated to "the young ladies of America" and demonstrates how a clergy-man's widow, Mrs. Williams, educates young girls to fulfill their future roles as well-bred ladies, wives, and mothers.

Lacking plot, the letters in The Boarding School can only be read as a series of thinly disguised lectures on female education and deportment that repeat the accepted wisdom of 18th-century America. A contemporary critic reproached Foster for having failed to establish at least a model of good letter-writing, since she had said nothing original in the book. The book does, however, contain the warning, implied in The Coquette, against the accepted maxim that "reformed rakes make the best husbands." Foster argues society has been too lenient with seducers and pleads for more tolerance for their victims.

Bibliography:

Akgun, D. A., "Expressions of Oppression or Power?—Reconsidering the Texts of Hannah Webster Forster and Tabitha Gilman Tenny" (thesis, 1996). Bornstein, S., "Masquerading as the Decrees of Fate: The Fate of Society and the Will of Law in The Coquette and The Awakening" (thesis, 1994). Brown, H. R., The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (1940). Groves, S. M., "Machiavels in Petticoats: Feminist Messages in Three Didactic Sentimental Novels: Susanna Rowson's Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, Hannah Foster's The Coquette, and Helena Wells' The Step-mother" (thesis, 1990). Hikel, J., "Educating the 'Republican Daughter,' Early American Novels and Conduct Literature, 1789-1800" (thesis, 1995). Matzke, C. K. B., "The Woman Writes as if the Devil Was in Her: A Rhetorical Approach to Three Early American Novels" (thesis, 1993). Mott, F. L., Golden Multitudes (1947). Osborne, W. S., ed., The Power of Sympathy and The Coquette (1970). Petter, H., The Early American Novel (1971). Stern, J. A., The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (1997). Tassoni, J. P., "A Thousand Conversations: Genre Placement and Social Relations in American Sentimental Narratives" (thesis, 1992). Telfer, T. A., "Writing as a Revolutionary Activity: Five Writers of the American Revolutionary Era" (thesis, 1992).

Reference works:

AA, DAB. NAW. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

AL (Nov. 1932).

—ELAINE K. GINSBERG

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