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.