Fiction: Women and the Novel
Fiction: Women and the Novel
Women Readers. Because they possessed the ability to expand the horizons of their readers, novels achieved great popularity among women, who discovered that fiction gave them access to a sphere beyond that of their own homes and families, exposing them to new experiences and possibilities. More entertaining and easier to read than traditional forms of literature such as philosophy or history, novels served an educational purpose for their readers. The process of reading improved women’s literacy and encouraged them to think for themselves, making them part of an intellectual world that had traditionally excluded them.
Criticism of Novels. Deeply rooted presumptions about female inferiority fed continuing hostility to the novel. Critics charged that novels were dangerous because they encouraged women to follow their passions and emotions, inviting women to immorality and corrupting the minds of weak women ill-equipped to resist the lures of fiction. The author of an 1802 essay, “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity,” declared, “Without the poison instilled [by novels] into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice.”
Women Authors. During the early republican period there were several popular American female novelists, most notably Hannah Webster Foster, Helena Wells, S. S. B. K. Wood, Tabitha Tenney, Judith Sargent Murray, and Susanna Rowson, whose Charlotte. A Tale of Truth (1791) was the first American novel to become a best-seller. The prominence and success of these women, who violated traditional prohibitions against women’s participation in the public arena, is one example of how novels allowed women to depart from their prescribed roles. Yet their books often upheld conventional assumptions about gender roles.
The Coquette. One such novel was Foster’s The Coquette, the only other American novel to become a bestseller before 1800. The daughter of a prosperous merchant and the wife of a clergyman, Foster offered a mixed message in The Coquette, suggesting her own ambivalence about gender roles. Based loosely on a true story, the notorious scandal surrounding Elizabeth Whitman’s seduction and death, The Coquette is the story of Eliza Wharton, a young woman whose defiance of traditional constraints on women similarly leads to her death. Desiring to enjoy freedoms usually denied to an unmarried woman, Eliza refuses a marriage proposal from the respectable but pompous Reverend Boyer. After becoming the mistress of Major Sanford, she dies while giving birth to an illegitimate child. By depicting the disastrous consequences of Eliza’s self-assertion, Foster warned women against following in her footsteps. Yet the novelist also portrayed Eliza sympathetically, implicitly criticizing the injustices of a system that could allow such a tragedy to happen. In general, female novelists of Foster’s time were divided among themselves about the role and status of women. The results of their differences illustrate the ability of the novel to serve as a subversive agent for social change and a conservative support for the status quo.
Emory Elliott, ed., American Writers of the Early Republic, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 37 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985);