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A Mob of Lusty Villagers: Operations of Domestic Desires in Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette Elizabeth Dill Among themes ofliberty, virtue, and the construction ofnational identity explored in the literature of the early American republic , there is the difficult and seemingly less glorious fact that the canon suffers from a scandalous shortage ofprudes. Indeed, some of the most popular American texts during the late eighteenth century portray the virginity of their heroines only to highlight its untimely loss. Sensuous women populate the literature of the early nation, wrecking homes and seducing their seducers, and their presence calls for a discussion of what it means to be sexy in the 1790s. For even after decades of critical attention, the connections between the indiscreetwomen ofpost-revolutionary fiction and republican notions ofcommunity and virtue are unresolved. We continue to ask why it is that the earliest American novels concern themselves with pleasurehungry coquettes, seductive half-sisters, lovesick rakes, and the like: not a mob ofangry villagers threatening another bloody revolution, but a mob of lusty villagers, out to sow their wild oats and explore the social limits of desire. Because seduction plots were often used as a genre to examine this phenomenon, we might turn to them to find an answer to our inquiries. But rather than indicating simply the sexual ruin ofa woman seeking liberty outside marriage, seduction in the late eighteenth century engages the social ethics of desire. This EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 15, Number 2,January 2003 256 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION conception ofthe use ofseduction in the early American novel leads to further questions: why must the new nation struggle to come to terms with such unencumbered, sexualized, excessively ??aa/subjects? And where does the seduced woman, as an object and as an agent of desire, fit into our understanding of republican ideologies and the formation ofan American community? In Hannah Webster Foster's great seduction tale, The Coquette; or, The History ofEliza Wharton; A Novel; Founded on Fact (1797), it is the heroine's impulse to delay marriage until, as she says, "I have sowed all my wild oats" that offers some surprising answers to these questions .1 Based on the true story ofan upper-class Bostonian, Elizabeth Whitman, whose fatal seduction earned her national notoriety, the novel offers a fascinating look at the conditions that might lead a young woman to such an end.2 In The Coquette, all the typical elements ofa traditional seduction plot are provided: the ruined girl doomed to an early death, her stillborn babe, the reformed rake Peter Sanford, the righteous, rejected suitor Reverend Boyer, the mother crazed with grief, the friends who warn and then admonish. And yet the novel resists a simple reading. After all, it is ostensibly Eliza's own fault for giving in to temptation. But the interweaving ofEliza's vices and virtues ultimately inspires acceptance from her community. The seduced woman, a figure presumably representing the vice of coquetry, comes instead to represent civic virtue. A definition of the American self thus emerges out of power defined by sociability and desire, as The Coquettedramatizes the strengths and the vulnerabilities of the republic through the trials of a thirty-seven-year-old flirt. The aesthetic arising from resistance to the household as a private space—a resistance that defines coquetry in Foster's novel—understands desire as the source ofan agency operating within domesticity, where attraction creates an ideological climate ofsociability. We need then to consider more carefully the place ofdesire in relation to the republican household. Although The Coquette has attracted stacks of criticism regarding the relationship between liberty and coquetry, nearly all readers ofFoster's work de-emphasize or dismiss altogether Hannah Webster Foster, Tlie Coquette; 01, 'Hie Hisloiy ofEliza Wliaiton;A Novel; Founded on Fact (1797; NewYork: Penguin, 1996), p. 158. References are to this edition. Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). For the story ofElizabeth Whitman and its connection to The Coquette, see pp. 140-50. A MOB OF LUSTY VILLAGERS257 Eliza's physiological attractions as constitutive of her role as a woman ofthe Wharton household to which she returns...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 255-279
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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