women writers, ” Ruth Hall is “both a significant literary achievement and a valuable social document.”
FOSTER, HANNAH WEBSTER
Hannah Foster was born in 1758 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, to Grant Webster and Hannah Wainwright Webster. Her education included a time at boarding school after the death of her mother. In 1785, she married the Reverend John Foster and moved to Brighton where he served as a minister. The Fosters had six children, the first of whom died soon after birth. Two of their daughters, Elizabeth Lanesford Cushing and Harriet Vaughan Cheney, went on to some success as writers. Though Foster wrote a second novel, The Boarding School; or Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils (1798), she is best known for her first and superior novel, The Coquette; or The History of Eliza Wharton; A Novel; Founded on Fact (1797). Foster died in 1840 in Montreal.
Foster's novel is loosely based on the story of Elizabeth Whitman, “the daughter of a highly respected minister, the Reverend Elnathan Whitman.” By the time Foster wrote of Whitman's tragic life—seduction, pregnancy, death in a roadside tavern—the story had already been sensationalized in the Salem Mercury. As Davidson notes, because of her violation of socially enforced morals, “Elizabeth Whitman had to become The Fallen Woman.… All that needed to be said about her character was that she had lost it” (ix).
The Coquette follows an epistolary format and, as such, offers the first person accounts of several characters: Eliza Wharton, Lucy Freeman Sumner, Mr. Boyer, Major Sanford, Mrs. Wharton, Mr. Selby, Mrs. Richman, and Julia Granby. Eliza Wharton's voice predominates at the beginning, and Davidson suggests that as she “sinks into physical infirmity and mental instability, ” she “becomes less present in the text.”
When the novel opens, Eliza reports the death of a Mr. Haly, “a man of worth; a man of real and substantial merit” to her friend Lucy Freeman (Foster 5). Eliza was engaged to Mr. Haly but, beyond parental expectation and her admiration