WP DAILY PROMPT 6/16/2013:
THE COQUETTE: The History of Eliza Wharton
by Hannah Webster Foster
The Coquette is a short novel, a tragic romance I found on the computer. This eBook has no copyright restrictions.
I always enjoy it when the wordPress daily prompts coincide with my own plans, as did the June 16, 2013, prompt, Bookworm, did: Tell us about the last book you read.
On June 16th I had just finished reading The Coquette: The History of Eliza Wharton, written in 1797 by a minister’s wife.
I chose to read it for several reasons:
- the date it was written coincides with the time frame of my own historical romance novel
- although I married a physicist, I became married to a minister when he changed careers
- much of the romance here following is truth, veritable truth
- this book precedence in interest as well of all American novels, at least throughout New England, and was found, in every cottage within its borders, beside the family Bible, and though pitifully, yet almost as carefully treasured
For this post I opt to review the views of marriage in the late 1700s as presented in The Coquette.
Eliza Wharton a woman with strangely fluctuating moods, as the truly gifted ever are, and of a wild, incomprehensible nature, little understood by those who should have known her best…
This creative woman, who wrote poetry, found herself making a choice between two men, one virtuous, the other a rake. She ultimately chose the rake, with whom she carried on an affair after he married another woman for her money.
Eliza had interest in two men, one virtuous, the other a rake. Although her friends urged her to consider Mr. Boyer, a minister, her passions favored Major Sanford, the rake.
Eliza dared not enter Mr. Boyer’s sphere of life. She recognized that her disposition was not calculated for the task, with its duties which she feared she couldn’t fulfill—the restraint, the confinement—even though Mr. Boyer, as a man, was not disagreeable to her.
Eliza’s mother, who spent her married life with a minister, saw her position as a pastor’s wife differently:
No class of society has domestic enjoyment more at command than clergymen. Their circumstances are generally a decent competency. They are removed alike from the perplexing cares of want and from the distracting parade of wealth. They are respected by all ranks, and partakers of the best company. With regard to its being a dependent situation, what one is not so? Are we not all links in the great chain of society, some more, some less important, but each upheld by others, throughout the confederated whole? In whatever situation we are placed, our greater or less degree of happiness must be derived from ourselves.
But Eliza persisted. If she must marry was there not another who was equally pleasing as a person, but whose profession was more conformable to her taste?
Eliza was clearly not ready for marriage. She recoiled at even thinking of a marital relationship which she believed would not only confine her to the duties of domestic life but would make her happiness and subsistence dependent on a class of people (the minister’s flock) who might not only claim the right to scrutinize every part of her conduct, but would also censure the foibles which she had not the prudence to avoid. In other words, the flock could render her completely miserable.
Eliza couldn’t bear the idea of being confined to marital responsibilities at her young age, and begged Mr. Boyer to defer all solicitation on that subject to some future day…“I do not intend to give my hand to any man at present. I have but lately entered society, and wish, for a while, to enjoy my freedom in the participation of pleasures suited to my age and sex.”
However, Eliza acknowledged that Mr. Boyer’s real merit had imprinted those sentiments of esteem and love in my heart which time can never efface.
I frankly own that my fancy, and a taste for gayety of life, induced me to cherish the idea of a connection with Major Sanford:
Her friends argued that she was an advocate for charity (forgiveness and hope that he would change) for Major Sanford, thinking that herself, being a lady of virtue and refinement, could be capable of making him a good husband. They were concerned that Eliza thought it was possible for him to change into being a valuable member of society.
Her friends tried to convince her of what she already knew, that he is deficient in one of the great essentials of the character; and that is virtue…that his was a professed libertine; by having but too successfully, practised the arts of seduction; by triumphing in the destruction of innocence and the peace of families.
Eliza argued back: perhaps these are old affairs—the effects of juvenile folly—crimes of which he may have repented, and which charity ought to obliterate. But, in fact, her friends told her that they are recent facts—-facts which he dares not deny—facts for which he ought to be banished from all virtuous society…and A man who has been dissolute before marriage will very seldom be faithful afterwards.
Marriage would not change his disposition. It will only be a cloak to conceal his lack of virtuousness.
As for Major Sanford, he admitted he was a rake and that marriage was not part of his plan so long as I can keep out of the noose. Whenever he did submit to being shackled, he said, it must be from a necessity of mending my fortune.
Major Sanford considered Eliza a fine girl. He said that if he were to wound her mind or reputation it would hurt his conscience. However, if he was disposed to marry he believed she would make an excellent wife.
Eliza considered marriage to be an imperfect union of love if friendship weren’t involved.
The paradox was that she also saw marriage as the tomb of friendship.
It appears to me a very selfish state. Why do people in general, as soon as they are married, centre all their cares, their concerns, and pleasures in their own families? Former acquaintances are neglected or forgotten; the tenderest ties between friends are weakened or dissolved; and benevolence itself moves in a very limited sphere.
Her married friend offered a different perspective:
“It is the glory of the marriage state,” she rejoined, “to refine by circumscribing our enjoyments. Here we can repose in safety.
“How natural and how easy the transition from one stage of life to another! Not long since, I was a gay, volatile girl, seeking satisfaction in fashionable circles and amusements; but now I am thoroughly domesticated. All my happiness is centred within the limits of my own walls, and I grudge every moment that calls me from the pleasing scenes of domestic life.
“I must own, however, that conjugal and parental love are the mainsprings of my life.
“True, we cannot always pay that attention to former associates which we may wish; but the little community which we superintend is quite as important an object, and certainly renders us more beneficial to the public. True benevolence, though it may change its objects, is not limited by time or place. Its effects are the same, and, aided by a second self, are rendered more diffusive and salutary.”
Marriage has not alienated nor weakened my regard for my friends. Have you sorrows? I will soothe and alleviate them. Have you cares? I will dispel them. Have you pleasures? I will heighten them. Come, then, let me fold you to my expecting heart…
MARRIAGE FOR MONEY
Major Sanford did marry.
I stood aloof as long as possible; but in vain did I attempt to shun the noose…your old friend metamorphosed into a married man! You stare, and can hardly credit the assertion…Necessity, dire necessity, forced me into this dernier resort.
He didn’t love his wife, but married her because she had money…I must either fly to this resource or give up all my show, equipage, and pleasure, and degenerate into a downright, plodding money catcher for a subsistence. I chose the first; and who would not?
My character Mary was also a poetress of unrecognized giftedness, being on Maine frontier in the last decades of the 1790s and the first decades of the 1800s. My other character, Madame, married for love. Although their situations differed from Eliza’s there were also elements of commonality. It was helpful for me, in my writing, to have read The Coquette.
Even if you are not writing a novel in this time era The Coquette makes for interesting reading. It is a story common to all ages—unrequited love, tragic ending. There are many other contrasting issues of our era and Eliza’s time that make an interesting read.
You can obtain The Coquette free on the Internet.