- Entangling AlliancesThe Coquette and Allegories of Independence in Transatlantic Context
Early in Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 novel The Coquette, the heroine, Eliza Wharton, writes to her friend Lucy Freeman that she wishes “for no other connection than that of friendship” (6). Eliza’s fiancé has just died, and she here declares that instead of immediately seeking a different partner, she will for the time being remain single. Though her circumstances are quite different from Eliza’s, Louisa Mortimer of the 1781 Irish novel The Triumph of Prudence over Passion sounds remarkably similar when she comments that marriage is not “a state capable of making [her] happier than [she is]” (Authoress 1: 117). By refusing to marry, Eliza and Louisa mark themselves as anomalous in a world where marriage was expected for women and often necessary for both their social reputations and their financial security. More importantly, these characters’ declarations of intent to remain single also mark them as independent, a trait particularly significant in nations that had recently, in the United States’ case, become independent from Britain or, in the case of Ireland, begun the process of seeking some form of independence. By announcing that they do not wish to get married, Eliza Wharton and Louisa Mortimer assert that they are like their home nations. In this sense, both The Coquette and The Triumph of Prudence over Passion participate in the long literary, artistic, and polemical tradition of depicting the nation as a woman. This tradition was never unproblematic; as ideal as independence may have been for nations, it was anomalous for women. While Louisa is able to successfully navigate this anomalousness and ultimately stands as an empowered and empowering representative of the Irish nation, Eliza fails and dies at least in part because there is no space in eighteenth-century American culture for a woman who wishes to remain independent. A comparative analysis of The Coquette’s allegorical project thus shows that Foster uses her [End Page 385] heroine to explore the possibilities available to women who wish to be as independent as the nations for which they are so often symbolically deployed but ultimately concludes that the independent nation cannot be accurately represented in the body of a woman until the material conditions of women’s lives have changed.
For decades, scholars have debated the allegorical project of American seduction novels like The Coquette. For example, in Donna Bontatibus’s formulation, seduction novels are allegorical insofar as “America … was already a fallen woman, not because she was seduced and abandoned by the hope of democracy, but because she expressed filial disobedience in a war for independence” (3).1 However, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon has recently questioned the primacy of such allegorical readings and suggests instead that these stories “evince the difficulty of coming to terms with the new paradigm of affectional marriage trumpeted as desirable in advice literature” (136). For Dillon, it is important to pay attention not only to the novel’s metaphorical engagement with nation formation but also to the ways in which it comments on women’s lived realities. I argue that the two projects are not separate and that Triumph is a useful foil for The Coquette precisely because of how carefully Triumph’s anonymous Authoress has to construct Louisa’s social circumstances for her to serve effectively as an embodiment of her nation. As I show below, Louisa can successfully embody a legislatively independent Ireland only because she is independently wealthy as well as chaste. Eliza, on the other hand, needs to marry for financial security, and while Foster at first uses her to comment on United States neutrality policy in the 1790s, Eliza’s failure and fall ultimately signify the ways in which women without fortunes lack leverage in their marriage negotiations and therefore expose the differences between a woman negotiating the marriage market and a newly militarized nation negotiating international alliances.
Irish literature provides a useful point of comparison for US literature in this period because both countries were at one time part of the British Empire and in fact shared some important political similarities between 1776 and 1798. During these years, both countries were seeking...