The Coquette historical context

"Coquette"- A woman (more or less young), who uses arts to gain the admiration and affection of men, merely for the gratification of vanity or from a desire of conquest, and without any intention of responding to the feelings aroused; a woman who habitually trifles with the affections of men.


After reading the definition of coquette consider the cover art above. How is Eliza Wharton presented in this art? As a flirt or a simple young woman? Which cover best represents Foster’s presentation of the character?

  • Epistolary Novel
  • First published anonymously in 1797
  • Not published in Foster's name until after her death
  • First novel published in America by an American-born woman
  • Based on a true story

Elizabeth Whitman

  • Upper class, well bred woman
  • engaged twice before her death
  • courted by many men
  • Died at Bell Tavern under the name "Mrs. Walker" after giving birth to a still born.
  • People became very interested in who she really was and who the father of child was.

Letter found after Whitman's death:

“Must I die alone? Shall I never see you more? I know that you will come, but you will come too late: This is, I fear, my last ability. Tears fall so, I know not how to write.- Why did you leave me in so much distress? But I will not reproach you: All that was dear I left for you: but do not regret it.- May God forgive in both what was amiss:- When I go from hence, I will leave you some way to find me; if I die, will you come a drop a tear over my grave?”

  • No one knows for sure who her lover was.
  • Called him "Fidelio" in her letters
  • Many thought it was Pierpont Edwards.
  • He was the son of the minister who started the Great Awakening
  • Known for being a womanizer
  • Had other illegitimate children

Elizabeth's Whitman's death became such a sensation that her original head stone was chipped away by those who wanted a souvenir to remember her story by. The following is the inscription on her new headstone:

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.

Hannah W Foster

Early Feminist?

  • Author of The Coquette
  • Cousin of Elizabeth Whitman
  • married to a prominent minister
  • had six children- two daughter's were also authors
  • Wrote political articles for news papers
  • Wrote a book on female education
  • advocated for female education to be reformed and for women to become educated.

Discussion Questions:

  • In The Coquette we see a free spirited young woman who challenges the social constraints placed upon her. She clearly does not have the same ideas about marriage as those around her. In the past Whitman's story was often told as cautionary tale. Foster did not seem to write this novel for that reason. Why do you think she wrote the story in a seemingly less condemning way? Does the text support the idea the Hannah W Foster was an early feminist? Why or why not?
  • We know that the Epistolary form was common in early novel writing. What does the Epistolary form do for this text? What was Foster trying to accomplish by writing the book in this way?


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