The Coquette is an epistolary novel based on the then famous death of Elizabeth Whitman, an elite woman who fell from grace and died giving birth to a still-born illegitimate child. Whitman’s death was publicly blamed on the ‘bad influence of novels on the mind of women’. Foster wrote the story of Eliza Wharton in response to this accusation, outlining the difficult and restricting circumstances of American middle class women at the time.
Eliza Wharton is the daughter of a clergyman, who was recently released from an unfortunate marriage to a clergyman she did not love, because of the death of her betrothed. After his death, Eliza stays with friends for a while and quickly attracts the attention of two men: a proper but slightly boring clergyman called Boyer and a libertine called Sanford. Eliza does not want to bind herself to one man (hence “the coquette”) and in the end Boyer gives up on her because of her flirty ways. Sanford too seems to move on when he marries another woman for her fortune. But, while Sanford is married, he and Eliza carry on an affair. In the end, Eliza, like Elizabeth Whitman, flees from her mother’s home and dies of the complications of childbirth.
What is interesting about this novel is that it can be read and interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, Eliza is a coquette and you are set up to want to tell her to behave and consider her status and let go of her silly flights of romanticism. This is what is scary about the book: Eliza is portrayed in the manner in which women were often portrayed in 18th century novels. I kept thinking: “silly girl”. But when you think about it, why is she silly at all? Because she does not choose the man everyone thinks is right for her? While reading the book I was often annoyed with Eliza, but thinking about it, it may have been a clever style of writing to make the reader think about the restrictions placed on girls at the time (or maybe even now still).
On the other hand, Foster makes the reader feel for Eliza. Towards the end of the novel, you go from thinking “silly girl” to thinking “poor, sad thing” (which in itself need not be a positive statement about women). From a modern point of view, I did not completely understand why she had to leave home, especially since her mother would have wanted to take care of her no matter what, but I guess it is not about what might have happened, but about what Eliza felt she should do, and she felt she had no way out precisely because of the prevailing social conventions.
I think this would be a very interesting novel to discuss in feminist classes, or maybe classes on 18th century novels. However, as an epistolary novel featuring letters of many of the characters, it is sometimes hard to follow. And for a novel of this kind, that was written during this period (“silly girls”, social conventions, romantic developments, social critique), I do feel there are more enjoyable and better ones out there.