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Female Friendship in ‘The Coquette’

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The sentimental novels in the American Literature have long been regarded with great respect as compared to other genres of fiction. One such work is Hannah Webster Forster’s The Coquette which saw an avid reception and became highly famous during the eighteenth century. The Coquette being one of the most widely read works in American Literature is an epistolary, described as a conversation between different women. The conversational form is a self-conscious debate about their roles as fiancés, wives and mothers, as well as their relationships with each other. Critics would notice that the novel projects two compelling arguments: the plot of women corruption and seduction: a parallel plot revolving around the fate of the powerful female circle, bounded by an ideology of “sisterhood” – which makes the story possible in the most concrete way.

This bond of female friendship is responsible to shape Eliza’s thoughts and actions to some extent and helped the plot of novel to grow in a significant manner. The theme of sisterhood remains prominent with Foster’s work; The Coquette and The Boarding School can be quoted for example. Such bond of female love and enmity is evident at various junctures across popular romantic novels, where women come to the rescue of each other, but somewhere down the line happen to scrutinize each other for the prospect they are vying as women. Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice offers a parallel theme of female love and rivalry, where the female characters, though bears enormous love for each other, but are also competent with each other in pursuit of a better match making for themselves.

The way these ladies juggle between different roles in society, show their love for each other, and also never fall shy to step over their own female counterparts for a better prospect would form the crisis of the argument in this paper. Published in an epoch when gender, class, society and race were the most prominent themes, this novel discusses the seduction of a woman named Eliza Wharton and is inspired by a true story of Elizabeth Whiteman. It pictured the fatal seduction of an educated woman of a well to do family who bore an illegitimate baby and died later. Her “fatal seduction” by a misogynistic rake despite the constant efforts of her family and peers is the crisis of this enduring novel.

Cathy Davidson argues that The Coquette is a drama of Eliza’s (female) struggle against constraining definitions of womanhood imposed by patriarchy; the novel subverts social dogma by presenting a conventional moralistic plot from a female point of view, giving “voice to the ‘hidden woman” and dramatizing “her demise both as a personal tragedy and a social failure” (Davidson 112). Apart from the seduction and corruption in the novel it also allowed the women readers to dwell upon the roles of different women in Eliza’s life, who stood by her; encouraged, scolded, criticized, and even protected her in the novel. Her two important works, The Coquette and The Boarding House emphasize the same theme of female inter-connectedness through letters. Frank Shuffelton also notes the importance of Eliza’s dependence on her friends, but he stresses the negative aspects of their involvement in her life (Shuffelton 216)

The Coquette compromises of various letters exchanged between female friends, whereas The Boarding School has parables and lectures shared among the director and recent graduates of a girl’s school. These novels address strictly the space of grown up girls in society who are embracing while stating the relation these women share with each other. These two novels may be seen as a combining force evoking the ideology of sisterhood that affected and is still affecting of young Americans women and ladies in the rest of the world, let it be eighteenth century or the modern era. Schillers and Chambers remarked that both these novels examine the roles of sisters and friends to positively bring out the roles of daughter and an independent women, with their support to each other, in the societal and patriarchal context, both of which were a challenged territory for women in that era (Schiller Chambers 128).

Both these works depict women during the most crucial tenure of their lives; the transition of their lives from daughterhood to motherhood, and presents their journey from the parental authority to husband domination. However The Boarding School is set in the much younger age of a female and depicts the girlhood at the school. The women in The Boarding School are younger those of The Coquette as they have just graduated from school and the memories of school are fresh in their memories, yet they are entering the arena of courtship and marriage, thus finding a new vision.

The women in The Coquette are much more mature than those of The Boarding House and have known the world better than those in the other novel with woman portrayed as virgin and single even at the age of thirty-seven. The male of both these novels not only threatens women libidinal space but also breaches into the arena of their sisterhood. Davidson suggests that these two novels together make up for the “premarital state” in which socialization is deemed as a fruitful activity for women as it provides them an opportunity to find a good partner and also strengthen their bonds (Davidson 113).

The relation of sisterhood has brought a sense of bonding to the American women and yielded them as a challenging force to the male dominant society of the era. Women often shared their private emotions to their friends, mothers and sisters, who understood them better than any other male counterpart and have a sense of warm bonding with them. Through this bond of sisterhood they help each other in the hour of crisis and lend a helping hand in the hour of need as they understand each other more than anyone else. This relation has been celebrated in these two novels to much avail and light has been thrown upon the true bonding of sisterhood. Nancy Cott observes this relationship between women “became a subject of … conversation, reading, reflection and writing” (Cott 160).

Foster allowed her female character to use the bond of sisterhood as shield in order to challenge the misogynist, licentious men of the world, who often saw them as a prey. Both these novels provide women a stage to step into a different world where they can overtake the men and challenge the authority of patriarchy; these two novels let these female characters support each other in the hour of need and tackle the male chauvinism. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen echoes the same idea of female sisterhood, and has almost the same plot of love and marriage, where individual decision of a woman is influenced by other woman of her acquaintance either by counseling or by support.

An eminent critic describes The Boarding School as belonging to a “hybrid” genre: a “largely unexplored bridge between the dry female behavioral models found in the didactic book of advice and the more lively portrayal of female characters in early American fiction” Conduct, or “usable” fiction, combines the powers of the novel and the didactic manual, engaging women emotionally in the cultural work of conforming to gender conventions while offering them a promise of “the good life” (Newton 140). The Boarding School offers a picture of small finishing school, and provides some moral statements to the girls, who are on the verge to pass out of the school, in form of lectures given by Mrs. Williams who is widowed and is a mother of two girls, however the second part is similar to The Coquette, where numerous letters are exchanged between Mrs.

William and the girls, discussing the events of their lives, unknowingly echoing the moral lectures of Mrs. Williams. Describing the moral education given by Mrs. Williams to the girls in The Boarding School, Jay Fliegelman writes that “an older, patriarchal family authority was giving way to a new parental ideal characterized by a more affectionate and equalitarian relationship with children” and also compromises of “new pedagogical ideal of authority … that transformed coercion into conditioning” (Fliegelman 31). As the mothers become more important in the moral education of the children in the new era, The Boarding School lends the same stage to the teacher who acts like a friend and a mother and makes her responsible for the moral education of the girls.

Mrs. Williams behaves towards her children just as she expects them to behave to her. This not only makes the girls to learn the way to love, but also makes them more prone to develop a fruitful relations with other females in the society. This nature of Mrs. Williams in The Boarding School can be described as the way to make the women learn various aspects of matrimony and the bond of true friendship through their relation with females at home.

It has been remarked that the graduates from The Boarding School emphasized friendly criticism, however it has also to be noted that no graduate from the school actually criticize any of their own lots. They do recall the moral preaching of Mrs. Williams; however they only limit their words of criticism to literary works, social customs and practices, and other friends whom they hardly know from the school, and not a share a bond as warm as they shared with their friends from the school. In this manner they become mute to their friends, and do not concern themselves with the lives of their folks from the college, hence alienating themselves from their lives by using their moral sense to criticize other female acquaintances that they’ve just started to know.

On the other hand Eliza in The Coquette belongs to a well to do family, but is attracted towards the charms and vices of city life. She, unlike the characters of The Boarding House, has lots of female friends which are not merely acquaintances in her life. Thus in The Boarding House the female characters opens their heart to their friends by criticizing and talking about the outer world, however The Coquette has a strong sense of female bonding which emphasize the sisterhood in both positive and negative aspects within the circle of female friendship and feminine problems. The Coquette offers changes to other female characters alongside Eliza, as Lucy Freeman and Mrs. Richman, bears and loses a child just like Eliza. Thus this novel offers an overview of female relation, as most of its characters, finds a suitor, loves, marries, bear children and then fall prey to seduction.

The novel inquires the depths of female friendship and offers an insight into the bonds that these ladies share while predicting and distinguishing the ideologies of the bond shared by these ladies. The females are not only limited by the patriarchal discourse of the era, but also by the loyalty to the bond of sisterhood for their female counterparts, which ultimately make them to choose between the one, hence making them fall prey to male chauvinism and patriarchal discourse and posing a threat to the bond that they share. This makes them vulnerable to the society and the discourse of sisterhood, comes under a much challenging test.

If we look into The Coquette we would find that the first letter of Eliza to her friend Lucy Freeman to be full of warm female bond and large dependency of her on her friend as she boldly accepts that she hardly have any regret for the death of her fiancé, and is also quite gay to leave her mother’s house so that she can explore the world at the age of thirty-seven! She admits that she wants to enjoy herself as she is now free of a loveless marriage and also ‘parental authority’: however the warmth of her friend Lucy is not like she has for her, as no reply of her is recorded to Eliza’s letter barring a few mentions. This letter can be juxtaposed with the reply of the first letter made in The Boarding House as it says, “I have received your letter; your moral lecture rather; and be assured, my dear, your monitorial lessons and advice shall be attended to” (Foster 4) emphasizing the bond of sisterhood as in The Coquette.

The frankness of criticism is also noteworthy in the both these texts. In The Coquette Eliza’s friends throws light criticism upon her and ‘frankly’ condemns her actions, by using phrases such as Lucy uses at an instance, “Forgive my plainness, Eliza, it is the task of friendship sometimes to tell disagreeable truths” (Foster 32). Against the mild criticism offered by these female friends, the novel do not allows the female characters to hold anything back from their friends as they try to seek the best possible advice by opening their mind completely to them as Eliza writers, “I must write to you the impulses of my mind; or I must not write at all” (Foster 6). She is not certain of her true sentiments and thinking her replies to be not satisfactory, demands more from her friend, “Pray write me impartially; let me know your real sentiment, for I rely greatly on your opinion” (Foster 69).

She emphasize particularly on “I rely on you greatly” (Foster 69) stressing the importance of a friend in a female’s life. The unfolding of the events in the novel, makes it more understandable for the readers that the dependence and openness is merely one sided, and do not posses such warmth from the opposite side. Eliza provides a deeper insight of her life to her friends, demanding more of their time, but these females, irrespective of the bond of sisterhood, do not lend the same energy as Eliza do, to criticize her, or to provide an insight about their life to her. They hardly disclose any instance of their lives to Eliza, as she does to them and keeps much of it to them.

However they also not seem as interested in the matters of Eliza, as Eliza seems in seeking criticism from them. The emotional dependency of sisterhood do not work at the full level in both these novels: The Boarding School has more violent criticism of the worldly things, rather than the problem of female, whereas The Coquette has Eliza who is not provided with much words of advice by her friends.

The Boarding School graduates have a dependency upon Mrs. Williams unlike Eliza, as these young graduates in the bloom of their youth can look up to her as a motherly figure apart from the teacher adviser; however Eliza needs someone more than often to lend her a piece of advice as she is someone who lacks a father and has no dependence on her mother, is much ahead of her prime at thirty-seven and is in course to enjoy the world. A motherly figure in Mrs. Williams is of prime importance to divulge critical and moral information to the female characters of The Boarding House is not present in The Coquette as Eliza is made to live without her, even in her hour of crisis, when she is delivering in Mrs. Wharton’s parlor.

Eliza’s mother is hardly shown as lending a voice to Eliza’s concerns. She cannot make the decision to marry Boyer and don’t want to rely on Lucy for this either as she can’t find her advice trustworthy after she senses her lack of interest in her. She writes, to Lucy “It is time to lay aside my pen and deliberate what course to take” (Foster 118). Albeit showcasing the bond of sisterhood initially in the novel, Foster had emphasized that the continuity of the bond of sisterhood eventually falls to the patriarchal norms as decision of matrimony and choice of a partner takes over it. Eliza in the later stages of her life is counseled by Sanford, instead of her female friends. She, in her most indecisive state of mind, is shunned by all female friends, and her mind gets into a dreadful state of emotions.

These emotions, especially anger anxiety and irritation are caused only due to the lack of bond of sisterhood that she shares with her friends. Her rebuking her mother is another such expression which is generated out of the inadequate bond of sisterhood or motherhood that she desires. She has no one to make the most important decision of her life, and decides to marry Boyer. This also indicates her rebellion against the norms of sisterhood and choice to be free and independent in decision making. Despite this, the friends share their feelings with one another in both the novels, especially in The Coquette, after she stops conversing with them, but none of them feels the need to talk to her or inquire about her present state; however they want Eliza to write to them, but they fail to initiate the conversation.

They can be seen as talking about her with one another, but do not reciprocate their emotions to her. Julia even writes to Lucy about Eliza that: “These valuable testimonies of the affecting sense, and calm expectation she entertained of her approaching dissilution, are calculated to sooth and comfort the minds of mourning connections. They greatly alleviate the regret occasioned by her absence, at this awful period” (Foster 223). By this she makes it clear that Eliza’s letters are only a way to make her a object to be discussed in the feminine which the female circle use to make judgments.

The story of Eliza and her confessional letters are used as a moral tale, and the female circle which pretends to be her well wishers fails to soothe her in the time of crisis. The friends fail to rescue her from the moral degradation, which they could have done by counseling her when she needed them the most, but they choose they live for themselves rather than interfering in her life.

The same sort of female friendship can be noted in Pride and Prejudice where the female characters too bear same love for each other but decides to leave the bond of sisterhood out of the crucial decision making such as matrimony and love affairs. Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice is a great friend of Elizabeth and discusses all her secrets with her, but when it comes to marriage, she decides to take the decision on her own, also when Elizabeth undergoes trauma to accept Mr. Darcy as her life partner or not, nobody among her five sisters and a friend is truly with her to counsel her. She almost takes the decision on her own, shunning the female circle that compliments her. Driving the idea home, Foster more or less questions the role of the female circle within a woman’s life.

She makes her point clear just as Alexander Pope has done it in his mock-epic poem, The Rape Of The Lock where he depicts women jealousy as the reason behind a woman’s doom. Here also, to certain extent it might be the jealousy of the female side that has allowed the suffering of Eliza to that extent. A female living in a male dominated society always needs a partner to survive in the society, and often literature has shown one lady stepping over other female to achieve a good partner in life. The sisterhood that alienated Eliza here could be accused of selfishness as they overlooked her for their own good. A better reading of Pride and Prejudice would explore the character of Charlotte even better and would show her as preferring Mr. Collins whom Eliza rejects merely as she is growing older and has no choice but to settle down. She jovially tells Elizabeth “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home” (Austen 111).

On the other hand the bond of female love in The Coquette can also be criticized for showing lesser care in the moment of crisis. Here it has to be noted that the love was not there, even initially, as it was only Eliza confessing her problems and daily life to her friends. Neither of her friends took any interest in disclosing their life to Eliza, and none of them addressed to her mistakes at length. All of her female friends, despite sharing a bond with her, were hardly concerned about her relation with any male. Perhaps the reason that can be citied for this is that they were too busy to find one for themselves and saw her as their rival in seeking a partner in the patriarchal society.

If read in comparison both these novels explores the tension of female relation and throws light on the female position and friendship of that era. Both these novels emphasizes on the temptation a young women often faces in the society and offers to serve as a moral tale to tackle the challenges posed in front of them by the chauvinistic society. The novels tells the women, to some extent, to look into the lives of all other female friends and to some extent makes them work for the betterment of each other, just as Mrs. Williams did to those orphan girls in The Boarding School, and unlike Lucy and Julia did to Eliza in The Coquette .

Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse. “The Literature of Conduct, and the Politics of Desire” In the Ideology of Conduct: Essays in Literature and the History of Sexuality. New York: Methuen, 1987. 1-24. Armstrong, Nancy. “Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel” New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977. Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Fliegelman, Jay. Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982. Foster, Hannah Webster. The Boarding House

Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette: The History of Eliza Wharton Hamilton, Kristie: An Assault on the Will: Republican Virtue and the City in Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. Early American Literature 24 (1989): 135-51 Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1980. Mangalam,B.”An Estate of Their Own: An Interrogation of Class and Gender in Pride and Prejudice.” Pride and Prejudice. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2007. Newton, Sarah Emily. “Wise and Foolish Virgins: ‘Usable Fiction’ and the Early American Conduct Tradition.” Early American Literature 25 (1990): 139-67. Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock

Schiller-Chambers, Virginia Lee. Liberty, A Better Husband: Single Women in America: The Generations of 1780-1840. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984. Shuffelton, Frank. “Mrs. Foster’s Coquette and the Decline of the Brotherly Watch” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 16 (1986): 211-24.

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