The Coquette

The Coquette

The Coquette Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Hannah Webster Foster

Hannah Webster was born in Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1758. Very little is known about her life, but her father was a wealthy merchant and her mother died in 1762 when Foster was just four years old. She attended boarding school as a child and was well educated. Around 1770, Foster began to write political articles for a Boston newspaper, and she is credited with being the first active and professed feminist in the newly independent America. In 1785, she married Reverend John Foster, a respected preacher, and the couple moved to Brighton, Massachusetts where he took over the service of the local church. They had six children together, and afterward, Foster began to write. She wrote The Coquette in 1797, based on the real-life death of Elizabeth Whitman, an unmarried woman who died after giving birth alone at an inn in Danvers, Massachusetts. The scandalous story of Elizabeth Whitman quickly swept the nation and became a popular cautionary tale about the dangers of immorality. Foster published her book anonymously, signed only “A Lady of Massachusetts,” but it was an instant success. The Coquette continued to be popular for the rest of Foster’s life, and reportedly, only the Bible was more widely read in America during the late eighteenth century. In 1798, Foster published her second book, The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils, a book on female education in early America, but it was nowhere near as popular as The Coquette. Foster’s husband died in 1829, at which time she moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to live with her daughter. Foster died there at the age of 81, a respected writer and advocate for women’s rights.  
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Historical Context of The Coquette

The Coquette was written in 1797, mere decades after America’s independence from Great Britain. The British colonies in America began to revolt against Britain in 1765 with the passing of the Stamp Act, which required all legal documents, calendars, newspapers, and playing cards used in the colonies to be printed on a special stamped paper. The colonists were furious, and they immediately formed the Stamp Act Congress, the first meeting of elected representatives from the colonies, to protest taxation without representation. The American colonies wished to be taxed only by their own elected officials, not by the British Parliament, and resentment over unfair taxation began to spread and escalate. Tension between the colonies and Britain continued to rise, and in 1773, after tea imported from China was unfairly taxed, the colonists again revolted and threw an entire shipment of tea from the East India Company into the Boston Harbor in a protest that has come to be known as the Boston Tea Party. In 1774, the colonists elected their own form of government and were at an all-out war with Britain. By 1776, the Continental Army defeated the British with the help of the French, and on July 2, 1776, King George’s rule of the colonies was deemed tyrannical and the colonies were declared a free and independent nation.  

Other Books Related to The Coquette

Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette is an epistolary novel, which means it is told through a series of letters. The very first epistolary novel, Prison of Love, was written in 1485 by Castilian Spanish writer Diego de San Pedro. This particular form of writing did not reach widespread popularity until 1740, when Englishman Samuel Richardson wrote and published Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Richardson followed up his successful novel with the publication of Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady in 1748, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest British novels of all time. Both Pamela and Clarissa engage issues of virtue and morality, and Foster even references Clarissa in The Coquette. The very first novel ever written and published in America was William Hill Brown’s epistolary novel, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature, in 1789. Like The Coquette, Brown’s novel focuses on sexual passion and seduction. Foster’s novel also centers on women’s rights and autonomy, which is a topic that frequently appears in epistolary works. Other epistolary novels that center on women include Jane Austen’s posthumously published Lady Susan and, more recently, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. 
Key Facts about The Coquette
  • Full Title: The Coquette; or, the History of Eliza Wharton
  • When Written: 1797
  • Where Written: Brighton, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1797
  • Literary Period: Revolutionary/Early American
  • Genre: Fiction, epistolary novel
  • Setting: Connecticut and Massachusetts
  • Climax: When Eliza’s mother, Mrs. Wharton, reads a death notice in a Boston newspaper for a woman matching Eliza’s description and realizes Eliza has died at an inn in Danvers after giving birth to a child, who has also died.
  • Antagonist: Peter Sanford
  • Point of View: first-person (through multiple letters from various people)

Extra Credit for The Coquette

A First Time for Everything. The Coquette was the first novel written and published by an American born woman, and even though it wasn’t published under Foster’s name until 1866, it has been popular and widely read since the day it was published in 1797.

Famous Relatives. Elizabeth Whitman, the real-life inspiration for Foster’s Eliza Wharton, was a distant cousin to Foster’s husband, John.