Patron’s Choice: Readers Reading Hannah Foster’s The Coquette

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post from Amanda Stuckey, who visited the collections earlier this year as a Lillian Gary Taylor Fellow in American Literature Mary and David Harrison Institute

In an undated (ca. early 20th-century) letter tucked into the first edition of Hannah Foster’s bestselling novel The Coquette (1797) in the Small Library, reader Robert Taylor questions the judgment of the novel’s heroine. Taylor writes that he perused the story of Eliza Wharton, found it “interesting reading,” and even shed a tear or two when he reached the novel’s final lines consisting of the unfortunate protagonist’s epitaph. Yet, Taylor notes, even as he mingled his tears “with those shed upon the tombstone of the ill-fated Eliza; and observe her age as inscribed therein, I am constrained to contend that she was old enough to know better.”

Even though “the book” seems to have all but disappeared in an age of digital reproduction and online catalogues, as contemporary readers we nonetheless exist in a world saturated with text. So much text to be scrolled, contemplated, “liked,” re-tweeted, or simply ignored, that the line between “seeing” text and “reading” it can become unclear. Yet the act of requesting and opening a book like The Coquette from a library that so values the material and physical presence of words, of texts, reminds us that we are here to read. Only seventeen first editions of The Coquette remain, and like many first editions, UVA’s copy has an aura surrounding it; carefully lifting it out of the box cut to fit its exact dimensions, an eager reader might wonder how many other people like Taylor have lifted the unassuming, dulled brown cover to turn tenderly through the weathered but still-sturdy pages. How many others have read on those very pages the story, over two centuries old, of Eliza Wharton, who struggles on the marriage market during the years after the nation-defining struggle of the American Revolution.

The custom box holding the library's copy of the first edition of The Coquette (Taylor 1797 . F68 C6). Photograph by Molly Schwartzburg

The custom box holding the library’s copy of the first edition of The Coquette (Taylor 1797 . F68 C6). Photograph by Molly Schwartzburg

Eliza, an unmarried woman from Connecticut, finds herself caught between two suitors: the rational, respectable Reverend Boyer and the dashing but reprehensible Major Sanford. Just as Eliza’s friends – and her readers – think she is going to make the “right” decision and accept Boyer’s hand in marriage, he catches her in compromising circumstances (by late eighteenth-century standards, at least) in a secluded garden with Sanford. Boyer rescinds his marriage proposal, and by the end of the novel Eliza finds herself pregnant, close to death, and all but abandoned by Sanford, the seducing rake who never planned to marry her in the first place. The catch to which reader Robert Taylor referred? Eliza was thirty-seven when she became pregnant and subsequently died, seemingly bereft of the innocence, virtue, and education that almost four decades of sound friendship and parental guidance sought to instill in her. Eliza’s fatal carelessness in her choice of suitors seemed, to Taylor at least, befitting of a younger woman, one less familiar with the treacherous wiles of men. Indeed, Eliza Wharton could have been mother of her fictional contemporary Charlotte Temple, whose similar fate of seduction, pregnancy, and death at the ripe age of fifteen was the subject of another bestselling novel of the late eighteenth century. “Old enough to know better,” perhaps, Eliza nonetheless is doomed from the novel’s start. Even Foster’s title, a reference to behavior that eighteenth-century audiences associated with flirtatiousness, promiscuity, and an inability to commit, seems to belie the years Eliza had to walk a straight course.

Whenever I read The Coquette, I find myself frustrate–not with Eliza’s seeming inability to make the “right” decision between two men of completely opposite character, but more so with the fact that even now, ten years after I first read the novel, I still read it with a sense of dread, with the feeling that if she’d just settle down with Boyer, she might have a shot at making it out of the novel alive. The genre of seduction fiction into which The Coquette falls is a supremely predictable one, and Eliza is perhaps its most famous example. Each time I read the novel I ask myself, how can I possibly read this differently? How can I assign new meaning to Eliza’s doomed thirty-seven years? What more can I say about her all-too-certain fate, a fate that even Eliza seems to sense as the novel comes to a close?

With those questions in mind, I pondered each of the novel’s 242 pages, seeking answers and new clarity. It was not until I reached very last page that I sat up a little straighter in my chair, pulled out of my contemplations by three simple characters in ink:

The final two pages of "The Coquette," which include a rendering of the text on Eliza's gravestone.

The final two pages of “The Coquette,” which include a rendering of the text on Eliza’s gravestone. Photograph by Molly Schwartzburg



A detailed image showing where a reader has edited Eliza's age from 37 to 27. Photograph by Molly Schwartzburg

A detailed image showing where a reader has edited Eliza’s age from 37 to 27. Photograph by Molly Schwartzburg

Twenty-seven? One reader felt so convinced that a woman of thirty-seven could not possibly have fallen victim to one man’s practiced, seductive wiles that this reader had to “correct” the official record of Eliza’s age? So convinced that this reader not only altered Eliza’s epitaph but also felt the need to write it again, to underline it, in case we had any doubt that thirty-seven is way too old to be hanging out in gardens with a known libertine.

Whenever I teach an early American work of fiction, one that is likely digitized through my institution’s library or other vast internet repository, I encourage my students to seek out a physical copy of the book, preferably a first or early edition, housed in a nearby archive or in their university’s own special collections. If we’re lucky, the university’s special collections library will have a first edition, and I ask students to first read a digitized or contemporary scholarly edition of the work and to think about the experience of reading in their present moment. Then students venture out to their special collections library to request a first or early edition of the same novel, to gently lift the cover softened by wear, to delicately turn the pulpy yellowed pages, and to imagine what it might have meant to be reading this work in, say, 1797. Afterward, they write up a brief comparison of the two reading experiences, discussing what surprised them or caught their attention in reading the same book two different ways. These assignments repeatedly demonstrate to me the importance of paying attention to the experience of reading, an experience that today can take so many forms that we almost don’t even notice that we’re reading something when we’re reading it. These assignments have taught my students and me that the experience of reading means different thing to different people, and that we bring our own frames of reference to the text each time we read a book. There is a saying attributed to a Greek philosopher that you can’t step into the same river twice, and the archive continually shows my students and me that you can’t always step into the same book twice. It is different each time we read it, and often that difference comes not from the answers we demand from the book but from the way we let the book speak to us.

And, as it turned out, I’d been asking the wrong questions. I needed to start not with “I” the reader, but with a broader sense of readership, of a recognition that this novel, though it has ridden high crests and low troughs of popularity throughout its life, nonetheless has been read for over two hundred years. The solitary figure of the reader – the “I” – shrinks before The Coquette’s well-worn pages in recognition of just how many fingers have turned them. From the copy in Small Special Collections, modified so minimally yet so insistently, I find myself asking questions that start not with “I” but with how. How have people read this novel? How might previous ways of reading this novel change, affect, influence, the way we read –not just this novel but any text, any book, periodical, or blog? These interjections from the past into our present invite us to look at a familiar text differently, and moreover they invite us to consider the act of reading itself. In a world saturated with multimedia text, the physical presence of the book makes us aware that we’re reading.

That’s what these two numbers, three inked characters, did when I finished up the first edition of The Coquette in Small Special Collections. They spoke to me, caught me off guard, even in the final, oh-so-predictable (I thought) words of the novel. They made me envision another person holding that volume, made me wonder about someone so certain that Eliza just had to be twenty-seven, while I had paid at best scant attention to her age. I have other questions for this novel and its reader(s) – why, for example, was it Eliza’s responsibility to “know better?” For that matter, is thirty-seven really old? Why aren’t we talking about how old Sanford is here? But more important, once I turned the final page, was the way in which this volume – with Robert Taylor’s enclosed letter and the marginalia of an unknown reader – generated these questions from a book I had stepped into once again, a book made almost entirely new thanks to the readings of other readers.

Thanks, Amanda, for sharing your reading room “aha” moment with the blog!


Robert Browning as Seen from Special Collections

(Note: This is the first of three posts by students enrolled this past Fall in ENNC 3240: Professor Andrew Stauffer’s course in Victorian Poetry. The three students–Heather Jorgenson, Ann Nicholson, and Eva Alvarado–elected to participate in one of the U.Va. Library’s initial “Libratories.” Originally proposed by the University Library Committee, and coordinated by Chris Ruotolo, Director of Arts and Humanities for the U.Va. Library, a Libratory is a one-credit library lab attached to selected courses each academic term. Participating students work with their professor and a librarian to undertake a course-related research project involving extensive use of library materials. Heather, Ann, and Eva spent considerable time in Special Collections studying books and manuscripts by a Victorian poet of their choosing. Then each prepared a 20-minute class presentation accompanied by a special exhibition of selected Special Collections materials. They have kindly agreed to share their experiences here. In this initial post, Heather Jorgenson discusses her work on Robert Browning.)

Throughout one’s college experience, academic opportunities present themselves and allow for a more creative, enriching, and memorable learning environment. The 2016 Fall semester sparked the first Libratory independent study and provided three students in ENNC 3240 with the opportunity to prepare a twenty-minute presentation on a topic in Victorian Poetry using the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library’s nearly boundless resources and fantastic staff.

The system used to find and request specific works from the library is called Virgo, and it proved instrumental as a catalogue of all available works by Robert Browning—the particular Victorian poet I chose. Special Collections happens to hold over one hundred of Browning’s works, which both lengthened the research process and led me to seek additional assistance from David Whitesell, a curator at the library. My only qualm with Virgo lies in the lack of visual representation—with David’s help I could view all of Browning’s work at the same time to identify any underlying themes and to investigate the hidden gems found in the library.

What I decided to include in my presentation were eighteen volumes dating from 1835 to 1910, showcasing the many forms and levels of craftsmanship present in these separate works. Some of these differences arose from multiple copies of the same book. By comparing and contrasting these copies, my presentation illustrated the unique nature of these older volumes, as well as the close relationship between reader, writer, and bookmaker which seems to have been stronger in the past than it is today.

Original pencil sketch in Robert Browning, Poems (1897), copy 2. Number 119 of 125 copies.

Original pencil sketch in Robert Browning, Poems (1897), copy 2. Number 119 of 125 copies.

I saw many books with personalized details—many of them had inscriptions, while others included letters or sketches. These made each book feel more special and the entire research process more exciting as I knew I would likely find something interesting in almost every one I looked at.

Original pencil sketch in Robert Browning, Poems (1897), copy 2. Number 119 of 125 copies.

Original pencil sketch in Robert Browning, Poems (1897), copy 2. Number 119 of 125 copies.

The library has 2 copies of the 1897 edition of Browning’s Poems. Copy 2 features original pencil sketches, but it also includes a cut and pasted Robert Browning signature, while copy 1 features a leather binding by the Guild of Women Binders with flowers, figures, and words from Browning’s work on the covers. In comparing both copies, I saw a sharp contrast between the amount of attention placed on the outside and the inside, since copy 1 does not include other features in its first few pages and copy 2 has a plain red leather binding with gold accents, in contrast to the detailed leatherwork found in copy 1.

Robert Browning, Poems (1897), copy 1. Number 116 of 125 copies. This copy features a binding by the Guild of Women Binders with fantastic leather-work on the covers.

Robert Browning, Poems (1897), copy 1. Number 116 of 125 copies. This copy features a binding by the Guild of Women Binders with fantastic leather-work on the covers.

I also found books containing letters. In fact, while reading volume 2 of The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, I encountered a facsimile on page 567 of a letter from Elizabeth to Robert Browning with a small note at the end directing the reader to page 443 of volume 1. After seeing this note, my curiosity was piqued and I rushed to look at volume 1, but at that point the library was about to close and I could not request any more items. Having to wait until the following day, I requested the book as soon as I could and opened it to page 443 to find: a printed version of the facsimile letter. I found this to be thought-provoking because, although not the first handwritten letter I had encountered, it was the only inter-volume communication I has seen in my research thus far.

The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1868), volume 1. Pasted-in letter from "Louise" to R. h. Collins.

The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1868), volume 1. Pasted-in letter from “Louise” to R. H. Collins.

This copy reflects an attribute of many of these books in that it was originally given as a gift. Per the presentation letter pasted in the front, “Louise” gifted it as a Christmas present to R.H. Collins in 1868, the year of its publication. I found this particular book fascinating because it also includes detailed inscriptions written by R.H. Collins—we know they were written by her because she wrote her name after the pictured letter and the other writings are in the same handwriting. In the front of the book she quoted several passages, presumably her favorites, with page numbers. Then, in the back of the book, she wrote what appear to be responses to the text. This amazed me because I could see the level of connection she had to this book in her inscriptions and also in the letter which originally went along with the gift.

The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1868), volume 1. Pasted-in letter from "Louise" to R. h. Collins.

The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1868), volume 1. Pasted-in letter from “Louise” to R. H. Collins.

I have seen many amazing books in my research—I have held a first edition of Paracelsus from the McGregor Library, a fully illustrated copy of Pippa Passes, and an original Robert Browning signature—and discovering what makes them unique and powerful has made this experience worthwhile and enjoyable. The process of turning through each and every page can seem grueling at first. However, the more you look the more you will find, and where else can you feel like a detective, a scholar, and a little kid at the toy store all at the same time?

Here is the complete list of featured works from my presentation; I strongly recommend visiting the Special Collections Library and requesting these items, or any others that interest you.

  1. Paracelsus (E 1835 .B76 P3)
  2. Sordello (E 1840 .B76 S6)
  3. Bells and Pomegranates (PR 4202 .M68 1841  copies 1-2)
  4. Christmas Eve and Easter Day (PR 4222 .C49 1850  copies 1-3)
  5. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (PR 4200 1868   1)
  6. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (PR 4202 .T3 1872   1)
  7. Asolando (PR 4222 .A7 1890  copy 1)
  8. The Complete Poetic and Dramatic Works of Robert Browning (PR 4200 1895)
  9. Poems (PR 4202 .G37 1897  copies 1-2)
  10. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (PR 4231 .A3 1899  1-2)
  11. Pippa Passes (PR 4218 .A1 1900)
  12. Browning Year Book (PR 4203 .T8 1909)
  13. Robert Browning’s Complete Works  (PR 4200 1910)

― Heather Jorgenson