Female Sexual Agency In The Coquette and Secret History essay

This paper is dedicated to the discussion of two outstanding literary sources of 18th and 19th Centuries American Literature: Secret History by Leonora Sansay and The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster.

There is an interesting point mentioned by Samuels (1996, p. 9) that the issues of political and national identity of 18th and 19th Centuries America somehow became attached to female bodies and sexual and familial accounts and it is reflected by the researched literary sources.

There is a connection between very intimately related issues, and Early American literature often creates links between the reproduction of bodily state and the reproduction of nation  states’ (Samuels, 1996, p. 19)

Samuels (1996, p. 9) also indicates that 19th Century American Literature is characterized by emergent female sexuality.  Those were the times when women’s political participation was fueled by the male hostility and thus it began to form into fully elaborated domestic ideology.  In accordance to the domestic ideology in the US at that time, previous anxiety about women as revolutionary icons transformed into the proposal that marriage prepares the government of the family and brings social order; therefore the process in the social policy was made on domesticity. (Samuels, 1996, p. 9) This process is called historical and political gendering of the nation and it has been reflected in the literature of 19th Century.

The stories that were described by Leonora Sansay and Hannah Webster Foster could take place anywhere, not only in 19th Century America. It has to be pointed out that there is an immediately noticed similarity between these novels: they both are written in the form of women’s letters compilations.

Thesis statement: Both stories deal with the typical upper class female in the context of the middle to late 18th century’s.  The novels are concentrated on the exploration of the realities of women’s lives at that time. But it needs to be mentioned that females in both novels undergo serious transformations that aren’t typical for American society at that time. The heroines face complex situation and suffer from domestic and socio-political pressure.


  1. The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster

The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster is one of the most remarkable examples of sentimental and “handkerchiefly” novels.  It is actually based on the real life story of Elizabeth Whitman who was poet from Connecticut (she has a surname Wharton in the novel). It needs to be pointed out that this The Coquette is built upon the story of the seduction and death of this heroine, who died in childbirth. The most surprising element (and also a provocative one for the 19th century audience) is the compelling narrative of seduction of the Hannah Webster Foster’s heroine, Eliza Wharton.

So, The Coquette is formed by a series of letters, it is a correspondence between Elizabeth Wharton and Elizabeth’s friends and lovers. It’s curious that this story describes the courtship by two men Major Sanford who is known for his charming manners but who is clearly insincere and Reverend Boyer, quite boring man.

Finsethm (2001, p. 125) explains that downfall of the heroine is expected, she is the one to blame as well as the her lover. It was Eliza’s own choice. She was warned by her friends and family about the danger of becoming involved with the man like Major Sanford. Despites these warnings, she falls under Peter Sanfor’s charm because of her foolish willfulness. That’s what Eliza wites to her lover:  I will go even further, and offer you that heart which once you prized; that hand which you once ſolicited. The ſentiments of affection, which you then cultivated, though ſuppreſſed, I flatter myſelf are not wholly obliterated. Suffer me then to rekindle the latent flame; to revive that friendſhip and tenderneſs, which I have ſo fooliſhly neglected. The endeavor of my future life ſhall be to reward your benevolence, and perhaps we may yet be happy together.’ (Webster Foster, 1939, p.150)

Additionally, Finsethm (2001, p. 125) argues that The Coquette is a hint on the gender ideology of a nation whose women could play no sanctioned public role beyond that of the available maiden and have to live the unfulfilling lives in marriages.

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