Sisterhood in a Separate Sphere: Female Friendship in Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette and The Boarding School –Claire C. Pettingill
This article explores the difficult
contradictions in the societal expectations of women in The Coquette
and The Boarding School. Pettingill uses the phrase “useable
fiction” to describe Foster’s two works. She also explores the complex
female connections and bonds formed and relied upon in both.
In The Boarding School, Mrs. Williams’ girls are taught the ways to be gentle and socially acceptable young women. The girls form bonds through these teachings with each other and with Mrs. Williams. A type of sisterhood is formed. They embody all their lessons and have grown accustomed to the close bond between female friends. The problem of “separate spheres” comes into play, however, when the girls are out of the boarding school. In real life, they find it difficult to share with any other females that did not share the same experience with them and continue to rely on their circle from the school. They confide in one another and use what they have learned and the virtues they keep to give each other advice and to criticize the women in the new sphere they inhabit. But The Boarding School is mainly didactic and instructional.
On the other hand, The Coquette
shows what can occur when real life weakens the bonds of “female connectedness”
and a young woman strays from her friends’ advice. In the letters
of The Coquette, Eliza opens all of her thoughts and feelings to her
friends and accepts and begs for their advice and criticism. But as
her friends move beyond the sphere of being young, single women Eliza
finds herself falling behind. Lucy is getting married, Mrs. Richman
becomes a mother, and Eliza, newly freed from an unwanted engagement,
is not ready to settle or give up the friendships she relies on.
In The Boarding School, theory is never really put to the test, whereas Eliza is tested and challenged and torn between her desires and what is expected of her. It is easy to picture the girls from Mrs. Williams’ school writing to one another and discussing the affairs of Eliza and reaffirming their own virtue. This would be to their moral education and Eliza’s tragic demise.
This article also leads one to wonder at what might have happened in Eliza’s case if her circle of girlfriends had not been broken by life and the expectations of wife and motherhood. Would they have been able to “save” Eliza or would she still have come to the same end. But then again, it can’t be ignored that in these scenarios we are only blaming the women who are only a product of their highly controlled environments. Pettingill also notes the strong influence of this ideology of sisterhood on the development of women at the turn of the 18th century and its important “social function”.
One if the interesting things Pettingill observes about The Boarding School is that the circle of sisterhood at the school takes on an importance and ideology that seems even better than real family. This is shown in the way that once the girls have left the school they criticize everyone, strongly identify with their “sisters”, and long for the comforts of Harmony Grove. Also, in The Coquette, Eliza is less and less able to turn to her mother and desperately looks to her female companions. It shows the difficulties of the teachings and expectations of young women on the brink of adulthood to bridge the gap between what they’ve learned and what they are actually faced with.
Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors
Nina Baym (from the book Locating American Studies: The Evolution of Discipline edited by Lucy Maddox)
- The absence of female writer in the American canon.
- Female roles in literary criticism.
- The problem with American literary criticism.
Baym addresses one major question on her article “Melodramas”: Why are there no women in the American literary canon? In order to answer her own question, she clarifies that, “This paper is about literary criticism rather than American Literature (215).” In order for this article to be effective, one must accept that we read through the perspective given to us by literary criticism and theories.
Baym’s first argument is that literary theories are too controlling, so they lead to the exclusion of women from the canon. It is not as if women were not writing during the founding of the United States of America, because there was an excess of female writers during that time. The female writers were numerous enough that Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about them to his publisher. Some of the most notable works have been written by women, such as The Coquette and Uncle Tom’s Cabin; these works are not traditionally included in the canon. Baym asks, why, then, have all of the major novelists in America been men? (If one accepts the canon.)
There are two proposed answers to the former question, suggests Baym. She writes that pure bias is one reason and the other is the idea that female writers have not written works that would be considered “excellent”. Baym pursues the second option by exploring what criticisms and theories determine what makes a work “excellent”. The idea of “excellence” is merely a cultural preference. Theories come from a cultural reality that exists at the time that it is formulated; so, many American literary theories come from the idea that literature is male. The gender of literature as male dominates literary theory, and the way American culture responds to literature.
The American public did not have a system to judge American literature, since it was seeking to break from England politically and culturally. The judgment of literature was based on a scale of the Americanness of the novel, rather than constituted literary excellence. Eventually, the two ideals of Americanness and literary excellence became synonymous. This statement raises the question for Baym and our class, “Can only a handful of American works really be American (219)?” The culture of America is seeking to be defined through literature, but discrepancies between critics lie in what they personally think the American experience is.
Critics, according to Baym, traditionally see the woman as the enemy because they write trifling novels that distract readers from “excellent” novels. The novels that exist in the American tradition follow a certain myth that Baym identifies. The myth focuses on man versus wilderness. The man ventures away from society into the untamed, which is the American experience. Authors saw the American experience as inherently male, but Baym argues that the American experience can pertain to either gender. The main characteristics of the protagonist are not limited to males, because of there larger than life quality. The American protagonist is basically a myth.
Another reason that critics have excluded female writers that Baym cites is that the portrayal of women that is completely inaccurate and highly sexualized. Female characters are especially misidentified in works written by women; for example, if a female author conforms to the American myth, it is highly sexualized by critics. If the female author ignores the American myth, then she is dismissed as a minor among male authors who have succeeded in the myth (the American experience). The female writer is banned from the literary tradition. The author is the authority, and authority is a male attribute in American society, so the female set up to fail.
This site is a little funny considering our subject matter: Feminism is Evil!
Rice explores the different views of authorship in America and the changes these views underwent starting with the Puritans and how the idea of authorship changed over time. Rice first focuses on the effects of Puritanism in New England, especially concerning their tight control of the press, forcing writers who disagreed or went against the Puritans to publish their work abroad. Not only was there an attempt to tightly control what was printed in New England, but faithful Puritans were also encouraged to publicize their personal opinions on matters of the government. Rice argues that the result of the tight censorship of the New England government, and the strong idealism and Puritan political theories that were presented, was that authorship was not individual, but rather representative of the opinions and ideas of a particular group.
The Enlightenment gathered speed and freedom of press became more important globally and Rice focuses on one particular instance in American history that is said to have brought freedom of press to America, the trial of John Peter Zenger. Rice suggests that the Zenger case reveals how people were able to monopolize rhetoric in order to gain their own ends. Therefore, freedom of press and civic criticism actually can present a threat to democracy and participatory politics. As authorship narrows there is more freedom in publishing, but people are also writing for personal gain as well.
Rice moves on to explores the causes and effects of the Federal Copyright Act of 1790. This act sought to protect the work of the author and to allow it to circulate while remaining "his". While many people argued for this right, some, such as Washington Irving, disliked the idea of literary property, which transformed a "public and political activity into one that was private and productive" (7). The rise of the novel is also an important aspect which seems to result from the Copyright Act.
Rice argues that the rise of the novel, beginning with the early seduction novels, rose as a rhetorical effect of the persistence of civic writing. With the rise of the novel, there was also an evasion of claiming authorship of the novels.
Rice claims that the free press established a move from classical republican liberty and the right of the individual to participate in politics to the right of individuals to act out of self-interest and secure property without restraint. In this manner, writing becomes more economic than political. Rice compares himself with Habermas because he follows what he claims to be the gradual replacement of a political understanding of authorship with an economic understanding of authorship in which writing is used for personal interest instead of the interest of a larger group of people.
I want to lay out the section headers because they seem to quietly elaborate on what I cannot, especially knowing that I will likely miss something. I primarily focused on a few sections rather than on the book as a whole. Jefferson’s Pauses Agency and the Invention of Responsibility The Elocutionary Revolution Dialectical Words Soft Compulsion Plagiarism, and Authorship, and Improvement Harmonies: Homer, Fugues, and Chairs The Oratorical Ideal, Racial Politics, and the Natural Theatricality Making of Americans The Figure of Patrick Henry Social Leveling and Stage Freight Private Lives and Public Scrutiny
I want to lay out the section headers because they seem to quietly elaborate on what I cannot, especially knowing that I will likely miss something. I primarily focused on a few sections rather than on the book as a whole.
Jefferson’s Pauses Agency and the Invention of Responsibility
The Elocutionary Revolution Dialectical Words
Soft Compulsion Plagiarism, and Authorship, and Improvement
Harmonies: Homer, Fugues, and Chairs The Oratorical Ideal, Racial Politics, and the Natural Theatricality Making of Americans
The Figure of Patrick Henry
Social Leveling and Stage Freight
Private Lives and Public Scrutiny
In the first few sections of his book, Declaring Independence, Jay Fliegelman exposes Jefferson’s aversion to oration as well as his tendency toward musical and poetic devices in his writing that perhaps enabled him to more comfortably deliver his addresses. The introduction presents terms such as Jefferson’s ‘lost world,’ which, in this case, Fliegelman describes as the “lost world of eighteenth-century theories and practices of rhetoric, the…art of persuasive communication that prescribed the…character of public speaking in England and America” (1). The next phrase he defines is ‘elocutionary revolution’ – the period when “a new language was composed not of words themselves, but of the tones, gestures, and expressive countenance with which a speaker delivered those words” (2). In section one, Jefferson’s Pauses, Fliegelman (hereafter deemed ‘F.’) discusses the particular marks that show up throughout Jefferson’s writings, namely “the Declaration,” as F. refers to it, and his essay “Thoughts on Prosody,” (7). F. claims that these are not pauses for breath or punctuation, but rather “rhythmical pauses of emphatical stress that divide the piece into units comparable to musical bars or poetic lines” (10). On page 11 F. lays out an example of a passage from the Declaration that Jefferson originally intended – single pauses (the / ) indicate one breath of silence while a new line signals two breaths.
in every stage / of these oppressions
we have petitioned for redress / in the most humble terms;
our repeated petitions / have been answered only by repeated injuries.
a prince whose character is thus marked / by every act which may define a tyrant,
is unfit to be the ruler / of a free people who mean to be free.
future ages will scarce believe / that the hardiness of one man
adventured within the short compass / of twelve years to build
a foundation / so broad and undisguised,
By incorporating such pauses Jefferson makes “a crucial link between oratory and music, which…is also distributed by phrase, demi-phrase and measures” (14). F. argues that like playing a musical instrument, oration incorporates the self, “private feelings” as he calls it, while simultaneously insisting on “conformity to the social and musical etiquette of measured regularity and an articulation of the character and conventions of common speech” (15). In this way the process allows for the opportunity of inciting emotions through certain breaks which inevitably emphasized the words around them, giving the listener more time to focus on the words and phrases in degrees rather than absorbing the whole.
The “elocutionary revolution” of the eighteenth century was structured by the movement away from rhetoric as trope. It moved toward a revitalized rhetoric of persuasion in an effort to re-establish the classical qualifications of a rhetoric that moved and influenced men “galvanizing their passions, interests, biases, and temperament” (29). Rhetoric was not meant to “suppress” men’s passions through instruction as Francois Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambray declared (28), but to incite them to action through persuasion and facts. F. describes rhetoric as an appeal to emotions with facts through “natural persuasion,” and being less about “ceremonial” or eloquent and ornamental arguments (29).
In Soft Compulsion F. goes on to emphasize the characteristics of oratory that most efficiently persuaded the population, determining that the senses are more “excited by powerful delivery than by rational thought” (36). He says that:
Increasingly it signified an oratorical ability, not merely to persuade by rational argumentation, but to excite, animate, motivate, and impress. Those verbs must be understood according to the period’s sensationalist view of knowledge as a set of extrapolations from sense events, of action as produced by the power of the single strongest motive, and of the human mind and heart as impressionable instruments whose psychological natures…could best be played upon by sound, looks, and gestures. (36)
Plagiarism, Authorship, and Improvement discusses how Jefferson was accused of plagiarizing everything from congressional minutes to “the so-called Mecklenburg Declaration…written by a group of North Carolinian citizens on May 20, 1975” (164). F. uses this instance to explain how folks now associated “authorship with originality and the novelty of thought,” with individuality rather than with “one’s social nature” (165). Jefferson maintained the “Declaration…as an expression of the American mind” (165). However, if originality did not lay in the “language or ideas” of the Declaration, then certainly it is evident in the manner and character of presentation and the form of composition. “Jefferson, in one particular reader’s view, had succeeded in giving voice to the new oratorical ideal on paper, if not in person, in composition, if not in reading,” signifying the movement into “a new theatrical era in political rhetoric” (187).
As I explained, one or more of the articles can be a book.
Here is an example of the kind of thing I have in mind. Bruce Burgett, “The History of X in Early America” Early American Literature 44:1 (January 2009) pp. 215-225.
Cites Block, Sharon, and Kathleen M. Brown, eds.
“Sexuality in Early America.” Special
issue of The William and Mary Quarterly 60.1 (January
*Block & Brown’s introduction, Sharon Block and Ruth Brown, “Clio in
Search of Eros: Redefining Sexualities in Early America” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 60, No. 1, (Jan., 2003), pp. 5-12. Cites
Morgan, "The Puritans and Sex," New
England Quarterly, 15 (1942), p. 591-607.
*This is a bit of a wrinkle, b/c Burgett cites the whole issue, not a specific article.