The story of Eliza Wharton, as published in The Coquette, paints an incredibly vivid story about what the 18th century looked like for women, courtship and of course, communication. The ways in which the letters in this novel are so romanticized and honest speak to the intimacy that could be retained through this form of media. Additionally, this could allude to the privacy standards held by the post office carrying these letters. Considering the time period’s second-class placement of women in society, it is interesting to ponder what would have happened if the privacy of these letters had been breached. The language Wharton uses seems to fall out of alignment with what women in this era were supposed to do and be, which was passive to men. Wharton asserts herself at the very beginning of the book as a young independent woman that would not rely on a man to make her life notable. She does this in the way she chooses a friendship with Reverend Boyer over an engagement so that she may find true love, not a partnership based on ones prestige in society[1]. The tone Wharton uses with her mother in Letter XX of this novel could be seen as even more revolutionary when paralleled to the former statement. Upon greeting her mother with love and tales of a perplexed heart she turns her pen to write things like “ But his situation in life! I dare not enter it. My disposition is not calculated for that sphere… he is not disagreeable to me but… are there not others?”[2] With that being said, if the letters were breached, there could have been an uproar about Wharton’s seemingly feminist personality and language.

On the other hand, the confidentiality of letters, as seen through such correspondence, shows the reader that letters were the home of the true expression of opinions between those in America. This conclusion is most likely one of the things that has enabled historians’ reliance on letters to understand and paint social history. Due to the fact that newspapers during this time period, especially in Hartford, CT, were majorly used for advertisements, notices of auction sales, shipping news, short clippings from papers in other states, letters from places in the West and from the West India Islands, and extracts from European newspapers  a place to discuss one’s view on these things among ones private news became necessary. The privacy of letters was especially important to women who were not supposed to dabble in public affairs because the public sphere was for men and the private sphere was for women. While The Coquette has not yet specifically delved into any public information that would have otherwise been accessible via newspaper, the idea of being able to privately express ones opinion via manuscript was certainly happening in other letters that were being generated in America.

The intimacy shared between Wharton and her friend Freedman also places emphasis on the dire importance and reliance of letter driven communication during this period. This case study of communication is an example of how long distance correspondence affected societal circles. In Letter XII Wharton confides in Freedman about the proposition of a courtship from Reverend Boyer. Wharton expresses that she will take no action on the proposition until she hears what her friend thinks of the situation.[3] Due to the speed of the Postal Service in America at this point in its development, an answer did not come overnight and with that being said it is interesting to ponder how the time lapse in communication between letters affected people’s daily lives. In Reverend Boyer’s correspondence to Mr. Selby via Letter XVII one can sense his anxiety as he waits for Wharton’s response to his proposal. He calls for human and divine support to win over Wharton’s affection, which is a heavy subject on his mind.[4]

Due to the tone of anxiety it is interesting to ponder what people did circa 1790 when waiting for responses to important letters. Did people go hunting while they waited, did they write more letters? What did people to do pass the anxious time in between the literary responses on these life-changing matters? Were letters as a form of communication, due to their intimacy and physical means of delivery, slowing the actions of society down? Or were they speeding them up? Think of the answer to these questions in terms of the Coquette specifically and then in terms of America as a whole.

In conclusion, this book sheds light on several important components of 1790 communication. The Coquette shows its audience the level of intimacy shared between letters and how incredibly important that was to the way in which peoples lives played out on a daily basis. Letters as a home to true opinion and revolutionary thought can be seen through this text as well. The beginning of this books draws out the notion that letters are the foundation of life for people in the 18th century by the way in which people were able to freely discuss their everyday lives with their loved ones far away. Communication through this medium is the glue of the relationships in Wharton’s life and I believe that she would have met her demise much earlier had society not had such a wide spread form of communication. It is a shame to think that a once seemingly popular form of media is being replaced with things as insincere as snap chat and text messages.

[1] Hannah Foster, The Coquette (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 32.

[2]Hannah Foster, The Coquette, 39.

[3] Hannah Foster, The Coquette, 24.

[4] Hannah Foster, The Coquette, 33.

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2 thoughts on “

  1. Taylor,

    I enjoyed reading your blog and think you hit on some excellent points that relate to the readings we have done in the Starr book. Specifically, the importance of letter writing in New England. You raised an interesting point when you asked if letters were “slowing the actions of society down? Or were they speeding them up?” I don’t think I have a definitive answer for that query. I will say that my responses and feelings would certainly be subject to change with regards to wait times. Something I felt when I sent the letter might not necessarily be there when the response came back, however many weeks later. We don’t think of the impact of letter writing because everything today is instantaneous but you brought up a really good point about the anxiety waiting for a letter response would and I’m sure definitely caused. Excellent, thought-provoking post…well done!

    Like

  2. I love how you point out the content of the letters between Eliza and Lucy Freedman. They both rely on these letters because it is what they have to cling to until they are able to receive their next letter. I also liked how you made point to write about the theme of how the society looked at women and courtship, because Eliza was not part of that norm where women would settle down early and get married unlike Eliza who had the reputation of being the “coquette”.

    Like

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