I came upon Hannah Webster Foster, an American novelist writing toward the end of the 18th century, via Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac of September 10, 2014. I subscribe to this daily newsletter, produced by American Public Media, which features a poem and interesting facts about people born on the particular day. An added attraction: you can listen to Garrison Keillor himself read it in his quite wonderful voice.
Hannah Webster Foster, born in 1758, went to a women’s academy, married a minister and bore six children. In 1797, she published an epistolary novel entitled The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton. A Novel: Founded on Fact. Since it was not seemly for a women to identify herself publicly as a writer the book was attributed to “A Lady of Massachusetts.”
Reading novels had become popular among women in the latter part of the eighteenth century—viz. Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Susanna Rowson—and The Coquette was a huge success. But there was another reason for the book’s success: it was the thinly disguised story of one Elizabeth Whitman, the daughter of a prominent minister, who had become pregnant out of wedlock and, abandoned by her lover, died after giving birth to a stillborn child in a tavern. Gossip had it that the father was the son of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards responsible for the “Great Awakening” and noted for the sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Foster knew the story well as Elizabeth Whitman was a distant relative of her husband’s. If you are interested in what titillated women readers of the time you can read the novel yourself as it is available online here.
You can find the Writer’s Almanac of September 10 HERE.