Reaction to The Coquette

 

“In this situation we continued, till a neighbor (purposely, we since concluded) sent us a Boston paper. Mrs. Wharton took it, and inconscious of its contents, observed that the perusal might divert her, a few moments. She read for some time; when it suddenly dropped to the floor.”[1]

In this passage, Mrs. Wharton was reacting to the death of her daughter Eliza.[2] It was not until this newspaper came into their possession that Julia Granby, and Mrs. Wharton, learned of her fate. This is very telling to me about the nature of communication, as well as the importance of the media, during the 1790s. Despite the fact that Julia and Mrs. Wharton were people close to Eliza, who sought information about her condition, it was not until they came across this newspaper, sent to them by their neighbor, that they found out that she had died.[3] The information was available to the public before it was available to them. It is true that Eliza’s particular situation, the fact that she was trying to avoid her friends and family, may have made it difficult for them to obtain information about her. And yet still, one would have thought they still would have found out about it before their neighbor did. But then again, perhaps this is imposing a modern perspective on the situation.

This is also evidence of the importance of public media at the time in how it could convey this kind of information. In class we have discussed how we cannot hold historical forms of communication to a modern standard, yet the fact that the newspaper ultimately conveyed the news of Eliza’s death to Julia and Mrs. Wharton, before anything else could, spoke not to the media’s limitations, but to its power. Maybe no one sought to personally convey the news of Eliza’s death to the likes of Mrs. Wharton and Julia Granby, but should anyone have tried, the newspaper outstripped them. Again, the fact that Eliza wished to stay away from those who cared about her may have affected the situation, but otherwise, this could indicate that newspapers were a speedy form of communication compared to other mediums of the time. Julia noted in her letter to Lucy that “You have doubtless seen the account, in the public papers, which gave us this melancholy intelligence”.[4] So Julia was well aware that in the time that it would take for Lucy to receive the letter she was writing, she would have already come across the newspaper article that described Eliza’s death.

I am not entirely sure about this, but it may have been the newspaper’s intention to identify Eliza to the people who knew her, as Julia referred to the notice of her death as an advertisement.[5] She wrote that the paper described Eliza as a stranger, and that it detailed “Her delivery of a child; her dejected state of mind” and “the marks upon her linen”.[6] If this was at all common during this period, it showed what a powerful device a public instrument of media could be in people’s personal lives.

A possible question that I have for discussion is, in what ways do you think private, personal means of communications, such as the letters this novel was composed of, were limited in comparison to the communicative power of public media? After all, even though this story was told through letters, the ever so important plot point of Eliza’s death, was conveyed to these characters through a newspaper. In what ways might newspapers have been limited in comparison to letters, or other, more personal, forms of media?

[1] Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette (1797; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 161.

[2] Ibid, 162.

[3] Ibid, 161.

[4]Ibid, 161.

[5] Ibid, 162.

[6] Ibid, 162.

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2 thoughts on “Reaction to The Coquette

  1. I found it surprising that Mrs. Wharton did not know of her daughter’s death until shown the newspaper. I would have thought that even though Eliza was purposefully hiding from her loved ones, someone would have been able to tell Mrs. Wharton of the tragedy, either in person or by letter. I enjoyed the line where you say this “spoke not to the media’s limitations, but to its power”. I found this very interesting because I had thought the opposite. The letters written between the characters seemed like they were being received and responded to fairly quickly.However, as you point out, Julia wrote to Lucy and expected her to have read the newspaper before she received the letter.Originally, I read this part and thought of all the weaknesses of media in this time period, but after reading your post, I see now how much weight and influence the newspaper had during this time.

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  2. You bring up a good point about the power of the media, primarily newspapers at this time. To touch on the specifics in the coquette (Mrs. Wharton and Julia finding out about the death of Eliza), I feel that this may have been rather common at the time. This was a period where there wasn’t a whole lot of social interaction, and the newspapers had the most up to date “breaking” news. We can look at it from our perspective and find it odd or concerning, but in that time there were no phones, televisions or radios, or even large outlets for social interaction like we are used to. Due to this the media had that increased power you had brought up, and whether it was a death, or major event, people in that time could always turn to the newspaper to find them out. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, who knows, but it was definitely an interesting point to bring up.

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